Steinbeck in Vietnam
Dispatches from the War
John Steinbeck. Edited by Thomas E. Barden
Although his career continued for almost three decades after the 1939 publication of The Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck is still most closely associated with his Depression-era works of social struggle. But from Pearl Harbor on, he often wrote passionate accounts of America’s wars based on his own firsthand experience. Vietnam was no exception.
Thomas E. Barden’s Steinbeck in Vietnam offers for the first time a complete collection of the dispatches Steinbeck wrote as a war correspondent for Newsday. Rejected by the military because of his reputation as a subversive, and reticent to document the war officially for the Johnson administration, Steinbeck saw in Newsday a unique opportunity to put his skills to use. Between December 1966 and May 1967, the sixty-four-year-old Steinbeck toured the major combat areas of South Vietnam and traveled to the north of Thailand and into Laos, documenting his experiences in a series of columns titled Letters to Alicia, in reference to Newsday publisher Harry F. Guggenheim’s deceased wife. His columns were controversial, coming at a time when opposition to the conflict was growing and even ardent supporters were beginning to question its course. As he dared to go into the field, rode in helicopter gunships, and even fired artillery pieces, many detractors called him a warmonger and worse. Readers today might be surprised that the celebrated author would risk his literary reputation to document such a divisive war, particularly at the end of his career.
Drawing on four primary-source archives—the Steinbeck collection at Princeton, the Papers of Harry F. Guggenheim at the Library of Congress, the Pierpont Morgan Library’s Steinbeck holdings, and the archives of Newsday—Barden’s collection brings together the last published writings of this American author of enduring national and international stature. In addition to offering a definitive edition of these essays, Barden includes extensive notes as well as an introduction that provides background on the essays themselves, the military situation, the social context of the 1960s, and Steinbeck’s personal and political attitudes at the time.
These dispatches are really the last work that Steinbeck published, and they are intensely interesting pieces of writing. Their vividness alone makes them worth reading. The letters are impressionistic, and they often contain excellent reportage, showing readers what the war looked like from the ground. They remind us once again that Steinbeck’s gift was essentially journalistic.
[O]pinions that viscerally reflect the deep political chasm that the war created in America. Steinbeck’s writing is vividly descriptive, evoking place and circumstance.... [His] ability to capture the day-to-day conduct of the war and its destructive force is sometimes shockingly immediate.
[Steinbeck's] dispatches reflect his initial excitement over the weaponry (e.g., the AC-47 gunship, known as Puff the Magic Dragon) and the heroic American soldiers standing against communism, but he gradually came to see the mismatch between the American narrative and the reality that most Vietnamese just wanted the war to end. By the time he left Asia, readers can sense disillusion and a feeling that the soldiers were in an unwinnable situation.... This personal look at a contentious moment in American history will supplement Vietnam War collections and reward any student who wishes to better understand the times.
Between December 1966 and May 1967, Steinbeck filed pieces that sought to support the U.S. effort in Vietnam, to lionize the soldiers whom he met (and with whom he occasionally ducked incoming rounds), to expose the dimensions of Viet Cong and North Vietnamese violence against civilians, to chide the liberal media for ingesting without question the enemy’s propaganda and to urge other writers (he names Updike, Williams, Bellow, Albee and Miller) to travel to Vietnam to see the war firsthand.... Steinbeck’s positions later softened, but not in the pages of Newsday.
Though John Steinbeck is best known for chronicling the woes of the Great Depression, his raw, journalistic accounts of later human tragedies are written with the same poignancy as The Grapes of Wrath and Of Mice and Men. In Steinbeck in Vietnam, we are offered glimpses of the author's last works.
Reading Steinbeck in Vietnam is a fascinating, occasionally uncomfortable experience.... Written with the force that characterizes all of Steinbeck's work, his Vietnam dispatches are a mixture of vitriolic attacks on war protestors, lyrical descriptions of the countryside, paeans to the American soldier and moments of stunning insight. What makes the columns more than a historical curiosity is Steinbeck's effort to understand the war on its own terms. That internal struggle, publicly shared in the pages of Newsday, is as powerful an evocation of the Vietnam experience as Tim O'Brien's The Things They Carried.
Literary scholar Thomas E. Barden's editorial touch is light and clearly defined. His introduction and afterword place the letters in the context of Steinbeck's career, including his later doubts about the war.
Steinbeck in Vietnam contains some vivid descriptions of the fierceness of American firepower, the hazards of night combat and the beauty of the Vietnamese countryside. It also reflects the scorn that many 'hawks' and 'doves' had for one another, with Steinbeck critical of the anti-war protesters as stupid and cowardly.... Steinbeck spent a good deal of time in the field, and wrote about the bravery of helicopter pilots in the air and of the multiple dangers -- not just hostile gunfire, but also snakes, malaria and tripwire explosives -- faced by infantry on the ground. Barden notes, however, that Steinbeck was escorted by high-ranking officers everywhere he went and mainly saw what they wanted him to see.... Steinbeck came home to Sag Harbor and died of heart failure a year later, but not before reversing himself almost completely. While he did no more public writing about Vietnam (or anything else), he is known to have spent his last months privately questioning both the execution and legitimacy of the war."
From December 1966 to May 1967, the Nobel Prize-winning author, with weapon in hand and pens and notepads stuffed in fatigue pockets, had slogged through the combat zones of South Vietnam. His closing words, filed from Tokyo on May 20, 1967, constitute one of the finest tributes ever made to the Americans who fought in the controversial conflict.... Steinbeck's extraordinary gifts as a writer and genius for observation give readers a profoundly accurate picture of the war during his time in country.
Unless some undiscovered manuscript is uncovered, this will probably be the final book of Salinas native son John Steinbeck's work to be published.... If you collect John Steinbeck's writing or pride yourself on having read all of the author's work, you'll have to get this book.
Decades after he penned the enduring literary classics Of Mice and Men and The Grapes of Wrath, 64-year-old John Steinbeck traveled to Vietnam in December 1966 to write about the war raging there. Steinbeck spent five months among the troops and sent back dozens of dispatches, which were published as a series of letters in Newsday and haven’t been fully reprinted until now. In the new book Steinbeck in Vietnam: Dispatches From the War, scholar Thomas Barden collects all of the author’s accounts, which constitute hislast published writings before his death in 1968. While Steinbeck publicly expressed his support for the war and was criticized for it, his private feelings were more conflicted, says Barden, a dean and professor of English at the University of Toledo in Ohio.
Barden (English, Univ. of Toledo) makes available in one book the last writings of the novelist John Steinbeck, who traveled to Vietnam and wrote columns about the war for Newsday, the Long Island newspaper. The editor provides a smart introduction and a well-argued afterword. He credibly maintains that Steinbeck evolved from hawk to dove during the time he spent in-country starting in December 1966.... Highly recommended.
Thomas E. Barden is Professor of English and Dean of the Honors College at the University of Toledo.
Barden provides an illuminating introduction and afterward to a gut-wrenching chronicle by Steinbeck about America's experience there.... Steinbeck in Vietnam captures the confusion and pain of that time in deeply emotional and personal prose. It also shows Steinbeck at his most conflicted. His Nobel-worthy work often questioned how the American knight errant had lost track of the enemy and the cause. In these pages he tells a large part of that story.
Steinbeck was a vocal supporter of the Vietnam War despite serious misgivings that he kept quiet, as is made clear in a comprehensive new collection of his reporting on the conflict, 'Steinbeck in Vietnam: Dispatches From the War' edited by Thomas E. Barden.
If you collect John Steinbeck's writing or pride yourself on having read all of the author's work, you'll have to get this book. Not only are these dispatches quite readable, they also give an interesting insignt into the war as Steinbeck saw and experienced it.