Steinbeck’s last battle: UT prof’s book chronicles writer’s Vietnam reports

April 12, 2012 | News, UToday
By Cynthia Nowak

Late in 1966, American novelist John Steinbeck — 64 years old, Nobel laureate, chronicler of underdogs in lauded works that included The Grapes of Wrath and Of Mice and Men — went to Vietnam as a correspondent. As a journalist, he probably couldn’t have chosen a more propitious time: The Vietnam War was entering the national consciousness. Within a year, the number of American troops in Vietnam would approach 500,000, with U.S. casualties topping 15,000. (Nearly 110,000 would be wounded.)

Dr. Tom Barden and his new book, “Steinbeck in Vietnam"

Steinbeck’s public support for the conflict was less well-timed. Anti-war rallies were spreading across America; the first march on the Pentagon was just around the corner in 1967, the same year that Vietnam Veterans Against the War was formed. The erstwhile subversive was labeled a warmonger; his reports helped fuel an already incendiary era.

The flare was a brief one; by 1968, Steinbeck was dead, and his accounts of the war went into archival limbo, lost to the general public.

Until now. Dr. Tom Barden’s Steinbeck in Vietnam (University of Virginia, 2012) offers for the first time a complete collection of the dispatches Steinbeck wrote as a war correspondent for Newsday magazine.

Barden, dean of the UT Honors College and a longtime Steinbeck scholar, drew on 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. His introduction and extensive notes for the book give the social, political and personal backstories.

“Steinbeck always wanted to be where the action was,” Barden said. “Even The Grapes of Wrath was based on journalistic fieldwork he did, spending time with and talking to the Okies in California. In World War II, he lived in Army Air Corps barracks with a crew of airmen and published an account of their training and missions titled Bombs Away. In the 1950s, he went to the Soviet Union for the U.S. State Department and filed a series of essays.

“So his going to Vietnam as a reporter wasn’t atypical for him. But as his wife told it, the real draw was that his two sons were there.”

Steinbeck’s sons, John IV and Thom, already had served long enough in the military to lose their initially rosy view of the war by the time their father arrived in Vietnam, Barden noted. It would become a divisive element in their relationship when the elder Steinbeck — who would lose his own enthusiasm for the war — did not go public with his doubts.

Within a month of his arrival, however, Steinbeck admitted, “This war in Vietnam is very confusing not only to old war watchers but to people at home who read and try to understand … This war is not like any we have ever been involved in.”

Despite his age, Steinbeck was determined to execute his mission as a reporter. “One goal he had was to challenge his fellow writers and counter the growing consensus that the war was going badly,” Barden said. “A theme he hit on often was ‘at least I’m here seeing it for myself,’ even though General [William] Westmoreland was his tour guide.”

As a Vietnam veteran, Barden, whose service began in 1970, knows firsthand the conflict’s trajectory after Steinbeck’s departure: “I can sympathize with his desire to have the war be noble and winnable, but by my time there, that was clearly not ‘the way it was,’ as Walter Cronkite used to say. Everyone I talked to when I arrived agreed that the mission was to wind the thing down with as few casualties as possible and get out.”

Already garnering critical praise, Steinbeck in Vietnam both covers a crucial chapter of American history and completes the published Steinbeck canon.

“I wouldn’t argue that [the dispatches] are comparable to The Grapes of Wrath, or even Travels With Charley, but they are Steinbeck’s last works and even though they were written on the fly in hotel rooms and were little more than field notes with offhand political opinions thrown in, many of them still work in a literary sense,” Barden said.

“They have the spell-casting power of Steinbeck’s great works of fiction. They have his trademark immediacy and passion.”

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