The Moon is Down - Critical Reception

Setting | Character Summaries| Plot Synopsis | Critical Reception
Cultural References | Key Terms and Concepts


When The Moon Is Down appeared in 1942, it ignited some of the most incendiary discourse among prominent literary critics that year. They attacked and defended Steinbeck’s short propaganda novel for months following its publication. On the offensive was Clifton Fadiman, writing for The New Yorker. In “Two Ways to Win the War,” which appeared on 7 March 1942, Fadiman attacks the novel for both its form and content. He recognizes the dramatic quality of the story: “Mr. Steinbeck’s book is not a narrative at all but a play equipped with a few casual disguises.” Fadiman’s observation is correct, though he probably knew that the play was already in production. Steinbeck first wrote the story as a play, and then adapted it into a short novel. Like Of Mice and Men, Moon is a play-novelette, a hybrid form which Steinbeck invented. The novel’s major fault, for Fadiman, is its message. He posits that Moon is “based on the notion that in the end good will triumph because it is good and evil will fail because it is evil.” While Steinbeck does write about good and evil in his fiction, The Moon Is Down is more about democracy trumping totalitarianism, and Steinbeck, of course, believes democracy is good and totalitarianism bad. Wrapping up his review, Fadiman makes his opinion most explicit when he writes that “spiritual patriotism is not only not enough but may even impede the war effort, because it fills us with a specious satisfaction, it makes our victory seem ‘inevitable,’ it seduces us to rest on the oars of our own moral principle.” For Fadiman, war literature needed to stir up feelings of collective rage against the Axis powers. That Steinbeck’s story treated the invaders as complex individuals and as eventual victims of their own ideology was dangerous, according to Fadiman, because its message told Americans they were in the moral right, and, therefore, would eventually win the war, which had the potential to weaken their will to fight.

Steinbeck’s most important defender was probably John Chamberlain, who wrote the “Books of the Times” column for The New York Times. On 9 May 1942, a few months after the book’s publication, as New York literati were preparing to gather and discuss the war in the coming week, Chamberlain published an article in the form of an address to Fadiman. Unlike Fadiman, Chamberlain did not see the necessity of anger-rousing propaganda. He writes, “The great, simple truth is this: We’re all tired of having Hitler make a shambles of our days. . . . We want what Europe wanted in 1815: a period without coups, putsches, blitzes. And we know we can’t have such a period until the war is won.” Portrayals of one dimensional Nazi-monsters were unnecessary. People would fight on until they had peace and freedom, and this is essentially what Steinbeck illustrates in Moon. While Fadiman, who had recently written the preface to a new edition of War and Peace, had doused the effectiveness of Steinbeck’s book for its all-too-human depiction of Nazis, he praised Tolstoy for the universal treatment of people and place in War and Peace. Chamberlain simultaneously lauds the preface and uses it to dismantle Fadiman’s attack on Moon: Of Fadiman’s preface, Chamberlain writes, “His remarks about the constants of both geography and human nature, which always rise above the surface to re-establish themselves as the determining motives of history, should be pondered. . . .” Fadiman, along with other critics, such as James Thurber, found fault in Steinbeck’s complex psychological treatment of the invaders. Chamberlain concludes, “In rapping Steinbeck over the knuckles for treating the Germans in the ranks as human beings who have been led astray by the Berlin popinjay, Mr. Fadiman is setting up a double standard for criticism.” Chamberlain lacks the blood thirst that other critics thought necessary in propagandistic literature, for he perceives that Steinbeck figured humans were basically the same everywhere. And on that assumption, Steinbeck wages his bet that democracy will beat totalitarian governments because people essentially want to be free and to live their lives in peace. Chamberlain acknowledges that Steinbeck’s book is on “a different level of art” than Tolstoy’s War and Peace, but he attributes Tolstoyian ideals to Moon. He explains, “Some of Steinbeck’s Germans have moments when they doubt the Fuehrer’s wisdom, some of them get homesick, some of them get sick of bloodshed, some of them get bored. They are all human, all too human for the Fuehrer’s fee-fe-fo-fum-grind-his-bones purposes, just as Tolstoy would have made them seem.” Steinbeck’s invader-fascists are depicted not as monsters but as humans, which makes them seem more true to life, but the critics of Moon wanted monsters – they wanted a people to hate. If Steinbeck had followed that sentiment, The Moon Is Down would probably not hold up quite so well.

For the liberal magazine The New Republic, James Thurber wrote one of the most ruthless reviews of The Moon Is Down. His article from 16 March 1942 generally agrees with Fadiman’s assessment about the novel’s weakness in form (it read more like a play) and overall message. However, where Fadiman suggested Moon was too lightweight for propaganda, Thurber indicts Steinbeck on this count: “Maybe a title like ‘Guts in the Mud’ would have produced a more convincing reality. Anyway, this little book needs more guts and less moon.” That Thurber desires an angry, bloody story could not be more obvious. He concludes his review, “I keep wondering what the people of Poland would make of it all.” Donald Coers, in his extensive study of The Moon Is Down’s significance and influence during World War II, responds:

When James Thurber, perhaps the most strident detractor of The Moon Is Down, wondered what the people of Poland would make of the novel, he was implying that Poles – or by extension, any Europeans experiencing the indignities and brutalities of the Nazi New Order – would shake their heads in disbelief at Steinbeck’s ignorance of the realities of German occupation. . . . Steinbeck, of course, had been right on target. By avoiding propagandistic rant in depicting his “German” soldiers, he, like Vercors, was revealing not only shrewd psychological perception but also a respect for the sophistication of his European audience (131).

It was not until after the war that it became clear how realistic Steinbeck’s portrayal of the occupied town and its invaders had been, but American critics could only speculate on the accuracy and effectiveness of Moon, and their opinions varied so greatly that arguments played out in the periodicals long after the book’s first appearance. As late as 24 January 1943, theChicago Tribune reported, “It was a distinct shock to some circles in New York when the Book of the Month Club announced the results of balloting on the best fiction and non-fiction of 1942 by critics and reviewers of America.” Over 201 critics had voted The Moon Is Down as the best fiction of 1942. Almost a year after its publication, the book was still creating controversy.

In “My Short Novels,” Steinbeck took the opportunity to address the critical reaction to The Moons Is Down:

The war came on, and I wrote The Moon Is Down as a kind of celebration of the durability of democracy. I couldn’t conceive that the book would be denounced. I had written of Germans as men, not supermen, and this was considered a very weak attitude to take. I couldn’t make much sense of this, and it seems absurd now that we know the Germans were men, and thus fallible, even defeatable. It was said that I didn’t know anything about war, and this was perfectly true, though how Park Avenue commandos found me out I can’t conceive (17).

This response reflects Steinbeck’s humor as he pokes fun at the New York critics, but it also reveals his sensitivity and shock at their criticism of his novel, a work that affirmed democracy. It must have baffled him that as World War II waged on, critics battled it out over The Moon Is Down.


Setting | Character Summaries| Plot Synopsis | Critical Reception
Cultural References | Key Terms and Concepts