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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.