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'Steinbeck In Vietnam': A Great Writer's Last Reports

The last piece of published writing from one of America's greatest writers was a series of letters he sent back from the front lines of war at the age of 64.

John Steinbeck's reports shocked readers and family so much that they've never been reprinted — until now.

Steinbeck won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1962 for a life's work writing about those who had been roughed up by history — most notably his Depression-era novels, Of Mice And Men and The Grapes of Wrath. Four years later, Steinbeck left for Vietnam to cover the war firsthand.

His dispatches appeared in Newsday in 1966 and 1967 and are now collected in a volume called Steinbeck in Vietnam: Dispatches from the War.

University of Toledo professor Thomas E. Barden curated the collection. He tells Weekend Edition Saturday host Scott Simon that Steinbeck's public support for the Vietnam War was too much for fans to accept — a reaction so overwhelming that the letters were kept out of public view for years.

"People worried about his reputation, saying maybe we should just never speak of these again. A lot of people on the left felt that it was a deep betrayal," Barden says. "That attitude sort of went on for a long time — including within his family. I think his widow really didn't want them out."

At first, Steinbeck had been dubious about working for Newsday, which was owned by his friend Harry Guggenheim, Barden says.

"But then the war in Vietnam heated up, and one of Steinbeck's sons was in it, and his other son was going to it, and then suddenly he wanted to be there," Barden says. "So he made this arrangement with Guggenheim that he would go on behalf of Newsday."

Steinbeck had another high-profile friend — President Lyndon B. Johnson — who also wanted him to report on what was happening in Vietnam, but Steinbeck was adamant that he wasn't going there on Johnson's behalf; he was his own man and not involved with the government. His reports, however, did seem to support the war.

"If you read the dispatches, it's as if he truly believes it as much as Lyndon Johnson did — Domino Theory, the winnability," Barden says. Even Steinbeck's own son confronted him — in Vietnam — to argue that the war was wrong — "that all the troops were stoned, that the body count wasn't accurate, that it was a mess and we ought to get out. So they went at it right there from when they met in the hotel in Saigon."

But Steinbeck did have doubts about American involvement — he just didn't publicize them.

"In private letters, which he was writing at the same time, he was sort of indicating, this is kind of a mess," Barden says.

All these years later, Barden doesn't share worries of tarnishing Steinbeck's reputation by reprinting the Newsday letters.

"He's going to be around forever. High school students still love him. And I see a sense of completeness. I just want ... everything this man wrote should be on the shelf. And now it is."

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

The last piece of writing done by one of America's greatest writers was a series of letters he sent back from the front lines of war, at the age of 64. John Steinbeck, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature for a life's work in which he wrote about many of those people who had been roughed up by history - including "Of Mice And Men" and "The Grapes of Wrath" - went to South Vietnam and covered the war there firsthand, sending his impressions back home in a series of letters that appeared in Newsday. Those dispatches have now been collected and published as a book for the first time - "Steinbeck in Vietnam: Dispatches From The War."

The volume is edited by Thomas E. Barden, a professor at the University of Toledo. He joins us from the studios of WDET in Detroit. Thanks so much for being with us.

THOMAS E. BARDEN: Pleasure to be here.

SIMON: How did these dispatches come about?

BARDEN: Well, they were part of the relationship of Harry Guggenheim, the owner of Newsday, and John Steinbeck. And they cooked up this notion that he should write for Newsday. And Steinbeck was sort of not so sure about all that. But then the war in Vietnam heated up. And one of Steinbeck's sons was in it, and his other son was going to it. And then suddenly, he wanted to be there. So he made this arrangement with Guggenheim that he would go on behalf of Newsday.

SIMON: Didn't Lyndon Johnson also ask him to take a look at it?

BARDEN: Yes. Yes. And that's a fascinating part of this story because he and Lyndon Johnson were friends as well. But Steinbeck kept saying to everyone who asked, I'm not going as Johnson's man. I want to go on my own.

SIMON: Yeah. What were his views on the war in Vietnam before he went, as contrasted to when he was there and then, when he came back?

BARDEN: You know, all along that time frame, he sort of had two views. And he had some doubts, but as soon as he took this on, he never mentioned them. If you read the dispatches - as if he truly believes it as much as Lyndon Johnson did, the winnability, But in private letters, which he was writing at the same time, he was sort of indicating, you know, this is kind of a mess. He sort of knew that you can't occupy someone else's country, but he bought into the whole notion that communism had to be stopped.

SIMON: Let me get you to read a section which I found - firstly, it reminds us what a wonderful observer and writer Steinbeck could be. And then I think it introduced some complexity of viewpoint. I guess he's in northern Thailand, where communist troops had been active. And he talks about going through there with troops.

BARDEN: (Reading) One day we passed through three villages where the communists had been at work. No one has to tell you. You know. The children run and hide. Only a few young men stand around, sullenly staring at the ground. They will not reply to a greeting. The women and old people peer from the semi-darkness of the stilted houses. And then you know that in the brush nearby, there are men with guns watching every move.

(Reading) And when we move on, if any villager has given us aid or comfort, even to the extent of ordinary courtesy, that villager will be punished viciously, maybe killed.

(Reading) Does this seem melodramatic? It isn't. It happens every day. The agents of liberation do not change, their currency never varies. Promises of a better life in the future. But for the present, absolute obedience with the alternatives of torture and death not only of the rebel, but his children and relatives.

(Reading) I wonder how brave we would be if everyone we love and revered were held as surety for our conformance by an enemy to whom pity is a weakness and forgiveness, a completely foreign conception. How brave would we be? The thought makes us hesitant about giving advice before we offer protection.

SIMON: That's a complicated view.

BARDEN: Yeah. Yeah. And it got more nuanced as he went along. It really - you can just see it, from the first one to the last.

SIMON: John Steinbeck would die just a couple of years after these columns appeared, at the age of 66. What does having them available now, reading them, do to amplify our memory of him, and our appreciation of him as a literary craftsman?

BARDEN: These are not uniformly great - you know, of the order of "Grapes of Wrath," or something. But they are John Steinbeck, and they are that writing that's idiosyncratic. To me, the shame was just that it - lots of things conspired to make them not available for 40 years now. And I'm just glad they're back.

SIMON: Yeah. What were the things?

BARDEN: Well, people worried about his reputation; saying, maybe we should just never speak of these again. You know, a lot of people on the left felt there was a deep betrayal. And that attitude sort of went on for a long time, including within his family. I think his widow really didn't want them out.

SIMON: And how do you feel about that? Does this necessarily diminish his reputation?

BARDEN: I think his reputation has been - sort of proven itself. I just want - everything this man wrote should be on the shelf. And now, it is.

SIMON: Thomas Barden; he's edited the new book "Steinbeck in Vietnam: Dispatches from the War, " from the University of Virginia Press.

Thanks so much, sir.

BARDEN: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SIMON: You're listening to WEEKEND EDITION, from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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