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  • John Steinbeck Goes to War: The Moon Is Down as Propaganda
  • Stephanie Forster (bio)
John Steinbeck Goes to War: The Moon Is Down as Propaganda, by Donald V. Coers. Tuscaloosa, Alabama: The University of Alabama Press, 2006. 192 pp. Paperback, $28.75.

When John Steinbeck as Propagandist by Donald V. Coers was first published in hardcover, reviewers claimed that it was a "fascinating study," "interesting," and "capably written." Newly published in an affordable paperback edition and bearing the revised title John Steinbeck Goes to War: The Moon Is Down as Propaganda, Coers's book is still the fascinating and interesting study that the first reviewers declared it to be. Through a close examination of its publication history, Coers sets out to prove that The Moon Is Down, while lambasted in the American press, was successful propaganda during the Second World War. Upon its publication in America The Moon Is Down almost immediately became the subject of an intense literary debate in which critics admonished Steinbeck for his humanistic depiction of German soldiers and charged that the novel would have a demoralizing effect on the people of occupied Europe. This, as Coers shows, was far from the truth.

In John Steinbeck Goes to War, Coers demonstrates the success of The Moon Is Down by charting its journey through occupied Europe. He begins, however, by setting the scene in America. Eager to contribute to the war effort and fascinated by the stories of resistance in occupied countries, Steinbeck's goal was to produce a fictional work that would raise the spirits of those who were under Nazi rule. Within days of publication the critics as well as the American public were debating its merits, labeling the novel as either "remarkable fiction" and "great propaganda," or "bad propaganda" and "brilliantly manipulated melodrama." The main contention among the critics was that [End Page 161] Steinbeck was doing a disservice to the war effort by describing the enemy soldiers as intelligent and polite, rather than as ogres or Huns. Both the novel and the play received numerous and mixed reviews, but both were enthusiastically received by the American public. The sour note that the critics sounded, however, greatly pained Steinbeck and while he knew that the novel did serve its purpose in Europe, he was unaware of the extent to which it was used by resistance organizations.

Contrary to the critics' predictions that The Moon Is Down would discourage the refugees in the occupied regions, the record that Coers has created shows that the short novel did serve its intended purpose, which was to inspire confidence throughout Europe, most clearly in Norway where the novel was particularly meaningful because the people believed that the story was about their country. Uncovering previously unknown details in interviews, Coers found that the people of Norway "were gratified that Steinbeck was able to describe exactly how the Norwegians felt about the Nazis and the resistance"(50). The humanization of the enemy was not a point of concern for occupied Norway, and the Nazi leadership itself had attached significant weight to this work of propaganda. Books by authors who were hostile to the Nazis or who were deemed undesirable were removed from the country's libraries, and Steinbeck's novels were among the 3,000 volumes that were later reclaimed. Thousands of copies of a clandestine edition of The Moon Is Down were circulated throughout Norway, few now in existence because of deterioration caused by constant use. The King of Norway's words to Steinbeck upon giving him the Haakon VII cross, a medal to honor his contribution to the resistance, were true—the novel "had bolstered the morale of his entire war-ravaged nation"(30).

Although the resistance movement took longer to gain hold in Denmark, The Moon Is Down played a crucial role there as well. Coers explains that the slow organization of resistance groups in the Netherlands was caused by the suddenness of the German attack and the retention of the existing Danish government. Since the occupiers allowed Denmark to maintain its political integrity, the Danish government acted as a buffer between the Germans and the people. While the majority of the Danish people supported...