Reading Steinbeck in Vietnam: Dispatches From the War, edited by literary scholar Thomas E. Barden, is a fascinating, and occasionally uncomfortable, experience.
In December, 1965, Nobel laureate John Steinbeck, then 65, accepted an assignment from Harry F. Guggenheim to report on the war in Vietnam for Newsday. A personal friend of Lyndon Johnson, with one son already in Vietnam and another in basic training, Steinbeck was not an unbiased observer–and made no pretense that he was. He arrived in Vietnam a full-fledged supporter of the war. He hated war protestors even more than he hated the Viet Cong. He was fascinated by military hardware. He treated American soldiers as heroes.
The columns were controversial at the time they were published. Read more than forty years later, they are often shocking. 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.
Barden’s editorial touch is light, and clearly defined. His introduction and afterword place the letters clearly in the context of Steinbeck’s career, including his later doubts about the war.
This review previously appeared in Shelf Awareness for Readers.