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Steinbeck in Vietnam: Dispatches from the War

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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 ...

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Steinbeck in Vietnam: Dispatches from the War

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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.

University of Virginia Press

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Editorial Reviews

Huffington Post

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.

Shelf Awareness

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."

Daily Progress

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.

The Salinas Californian

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.

U.S. News Weekly

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.

Rain Taxi

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.

Jay Parini

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.

New York Times

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.

Library Journal
Steinbeck went to Vietnam in late 1966, staying through May 1967 as a correspondent for Newsday. He and his wife—their son John IV was stationed in Vietnam—traveled to major combat areas in South Vietnam, and also into Laos and Thailand. Steinbeck, a friend of President Johnson, supported the war, but by this time opposition was growing. His 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. These dispatches were Steinbeck's last published works; he died in December 1968. Editor Barden (English, Univ. of Toledo) provides a preface, introduction, and afterword but relatively scant annotations or context for the dispatches themselves. However, there are ten pages of notes. VERDICT 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.—Edwin B. Burgess, U.S. Army Combined Arms Research Lib., Fort Leavenworth, KS
Kirkus Reviews
A collection of the pro-war pieces filed from Southeast Asia for Newsday by the Nobel laureate not long before his death. Editor Barden, a Vietnam veteran and professor (English/Univ. of Toledo; editor: Virginia Folk Legends, 1991, etc.), mostly lets Steinbeck speak for himself in this motley collection of columns that the author framed in the form of letters to Alicia Patterson Guggenheim, the deceased editor and publisher of Newsday, whose husband was continuing in her stead. Barden sandwiches Steinbeck's columns between an introduction and afterword and intrudes in the text with only a handful of parenthetical explanations--reminding us, for example, who Lurleen Wallace was. 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 did not just sit in Saigon and bloviate; he went to various sites around the country and flew in helicopters and, in one case, the plane dubbed Puff the Magic Dragon, a night mission that frightened him, prompting him to write of mortality. He also offers some tactical suggestions that seem bizarre and naïve: dropping thousands of transistor radios (with earplugs) via paper parachutes over the countryside so rural people could hear the truth; training Saigon street urchins for espionage. Steinbeck's positions later softened, but not in the pages of Newsday. Sometimes Steinbeckian in texture and bite, but often tone-deaf, tendentious and surpassingly sad.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780813934037
  • Publisher: University of Virginia Press
  • Publication date: 12/25/2012
  • Pages: 224
  • Sales rank: 774,472
  • Product dimensions: 8.80 (w) x 6.00 (h) x 0.80 (d)

Meet the Author

Thomas E. Barden is Professor of English and Dean of the Honors College at the University of Toledo.

University of Virginia Press


John Ernst Steinbeck, Nobel and Pulitzer Prize winner, was born in Salinas, California February 27, 1902. His father, John Steinbeck, served as Monterey County Treasurer for many years. His mother, Olive Hamilton, was a former schoolteacher who developed in him a love of literature. Young Steinbeck came to know the Salinas Valley well, working as a hired hand on nearby ranches in Monterey County. In 1919, he graduated from Salinas High School as president of his class and entered Stanford University majoring in English. Stanford did not claim his undivided attention. During this time he attended only sporadically while working at a variety jobs including on with the Big Sur highway project, and one at Spreckels Sugar Company near Salinas.

Steinbeck left Stanford permanently in 1925 to pursue a career in writing in New York City. He was unsuccessful and returned, disappointed, to California the following year. Though his first novel, Cup of Gold, was published in 1929, it attracted little literary attention. Two subsequent novels, The Pastures of Heaven and To A God Unknown, met the same fate.

After moving to the Monterey Peninsula in 1930, Steinbeck and his new wife, Carol Henning, made their home in Pacific Grove. Here, not far from famed Cannery Row, heart of the California sardine industry, Steinbeck found material he would later use for two more works, Tortilla Flat and Cannery Row.

With Tortilla Flat (1935), Steinbeck's career took a decidedly positive turn, receiving the California Commonwealth Club's Gold Medal. He felt encouraged to continue writing, relying on extensive research and personal observation of the human drama for his stories. In 1937, Of Mice and Men was published. Two years later, the novel was produced on Broadway and made into a movie. In 1940, Steinbeck won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction for Grapes of Wrath, bringing to public attention the plight of dispossessed farmers.

After Steinbeck and Henning divorced in 1942, he married Gwyndolyn Conger. The couple moved to New York City and had two sons, Thomas and two years later, John. During the war years, Steinbeck served as a war correspondent for the New York Herald Tribune. Some of his dispatches reappeared in Once There Was A War. In 1945, Steinbeck published Cannery Row and continued to write prolifically, producing plays, short stories and film scripts. In 1950, he married Elaine Anderson Scott and they remained together until his death.

Steinbeck received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1962 "...for his realistic as well as imaginative writings, distinguished by a sympathetic humor and keen social perception.." In his acceptance speech, Steinbeck summarized what he sought to achieve through his works:

"...Literature is as old as speech. It grew out of human need for it and it has not changed except to become more needed. The skalds, the bards, the writers are not separate and exclusive. From the beginning, their functions, their duties, their responsibilities have been decreed by our species...Further more, the writer is delegated to declare and to celebrate man's proven capacity of greatness of heart and spirit—gallantry in defeat, for courage, compassion and love. In the endless war against weakness and despair, these are the bright rally flags of hope and emulation. I hold that a writer who does not passionately believe in the perfectibility of man has no dedication nor any membership in literature..."

Steinbeck remained a private person, shunning publicity and moving frequently in his search for privacy. He died on December 20, 1968 in New York City, where he and his family made a home. But his final resting place was the valley he had written about with such passion. At his request, his ashes were interred in the Garden of Memories cemetery in Salinas. He is survived by his son, Thomas.

Author biography courtesy of the National Steinbeck Center.

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    1. Also Known As:
      Amnesia Glasscock
      John Ernst Steinbeck, Jr. (full name); Amnesia Glasscock
    1. Date of Birth:
      February 27, 1902
    2. Place of Birth:
      Salinas, California
    1. Date of Death:
      December 20, 1968
    2. Place of Death:
      New York, New York

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