You may know the name John Steinbeck, as you were probably asked to read one or more of his novels as a student either in high school or college. As a former teacher of literature, I have read and on many occasions taught one or more of his many books, like “Of Mice and Men,” “Grapes of Wrath,” “East of Eden,” or “The Pearl.” I have read and taught them with great pleasure, as he is a master storyteller and a writer who possessed a deep sensitivity toward human suffering and the struggle to find meaning in this world.
Recently, I happened across a Facebook post with a dramatic photograph of John Steinbeck taken inside a helicopter in Vietnam during the war. It included an excerpt from a letter he had written to his wife, Alice, about his awe for helicopter pilots and their athletic, instinctive skills in flying those machines.
“I wish I could tell you about these pilots,” it reads in part. “They make me sick with envy. They ride their vehicles the way a man controls a fine, well-trained quarter horse.”
He talks about their athleticism, their almost balletic control of the machines as if they were extensions of their own bodies, and about how they mastered them, like musicians mastering complex pieces of music. He ended the letter apologizing to his wife for waxing eloquent about them so but said that he just had to get it out of himself or burst. That got me to thinking, and I YouTubed “Videos of John Steinbeck in Vietnam.” This is one of the videos that came up.
The video is of a radio interview of the author of a book by the same title, written by Professor Thomas E. Barton. It is a compilation of letters and articles that Steinbeck wrote while in Vietnam as a writer for Newsday Magazine. It is short enough to hold your attention and gives some great insights into Steinbeck’s being in Vietnam in the first place.
I discovered that one of his sons was already in Vietnam serving with the U.S. military, and another was soon to be going there. That was one of the reasons that compelled him to go there. The other was that Newsday Magazine had asked him to go there and write articles for the magazine.
Like most people, Steinbeck’s feelings about the war were complicated. He was a friend of President Lyndon Johnson, and in many ways shared Johnson’s view that the war was winnable and necessary to stop the spread of communism at the time. When he was finally there, he still believed it was winnable but saw clearly that it was a mess. This comes out in the video.
One of the strongest moments is when Professor Barton reads from one of the letters about going through a village in an area where the North Vietnamese had a strong influence. It is very telling. One of the comments made is that (and I paraphrase here) revolutionaries always promise a bright and happy future, but in the present, they demand absolute submission under threat of punishment or death. This is a very clear and accurate insight of such types. It has been seen all too often in history.
John Steinbeck was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature in 1962 for his “realistic and imaginative writing” about the human condition, “combining as they do sympathetic humour and keen social perception.”
In his acceptance speech, he says, “Humanity has been passing through a gray and desolate time of confusion… The writer is delegated to declare and to celebrate man’s proven capacity for greatness of heart and spirit—for 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 of emulation.”
I had not known about Steinbeck’s experiences in Vietnam. This book by Professor Barton looks to be a very interesting read about the war and the men who fought it. These letters come from the pen of one of America’s greatest writers of the 20th century, a writer who had a deep and sensitive understanding of the capacity for courage that human beings are capable of in the face of seemingly overwhelming odds, both internal and external, and of man’s innate nobility, that, while it is sometimes defeated, it as often rises from the ashes of suffering to carry on with equally deep and abiding dignity.Whizzco