Friday, September 27, 2013

Steinbeck in Vietnam

Dr. David Livingston, new president of Lourdes University, with head of Lifelong Learning's Laura Megeath (upper left);  Dr..Thomas Barden (lower left); some photos that accompanied his talk, 'Steinbeck in Vietnam." 
The ever-popular Lifelong Learning program at Lourdes University in Sylvania had a fascinating program on writer John Steinbeck last week.  Seniors ages 50 and up filled the auditorium, each of us bringing our own distinct memories of the well-known author.

John Steinbeck's Grapes of Wrath (1939), which won a Pulitzer prize, was required reading when most of us were in high school. The story of a dirt poor sharecropping family who migrated from the Oklahoma "dust bowl" to California during the 1930s Great Depression opened up a whole new world. Steinbeck, a New Deal Democrat to the core, looked like a genius, and wrote fantastic works such as Of Mice and Men, East of Eden, Cannery Row, and The Moon is Down (many made into  movies).  He eventually won a Nobel Prize in Literature in 1962.   This is the Steinbeck we all knew; the writer I knew. 

The Steinbeck I did not know, and I think most of the audience didn't either, was a macho man, like Hemingway; from Salinas, California, a kind of Jack London adventurer;  a close friend of Lyndon B. Johnson, both men large, bold and earthy; and a hawk on the Vietnam War. 

This is the man that professor Thomas Barden, retired from UT and now adjunct professor at Lourdes, spoke about in "Steinbeck in Vietnam."  Barden signed copies of his recent book of the same title after his talk. 

We were honored to be greeted by the new president of Lourdes, Dr. David Livingston, who spoke about the importance of life-long learning and intellectual journeys. It's always nice to hear positive things about the liberal arts, and this audience perfectly understood this. As far as we could see, this new president was off to a great start!

So Steinbeck, friend of Lyndon Johnson, went to Vietnam to report on the war for Newsday, then owned by his friend Harry Guggenheim. The "Dispatches from Vietnam, 1966 and 1967" supported the war effort, the Domino theory, the belief we could "win."  Friends and fans back home were shocked, and so were the American people, who came to despise the war. That's why those letters from Vietnam, an embarrassment to his family and those protecting his image, didn't make the light of day again until recently, after much difficult research.  Steinbeck's two sons, who were soldiers in  Vietnam, ended up less enthusiastic about the war than their father. Barden said that one son confronted Steinbeck senior--in Vietnam--arguing 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."  Walter Cronkite said the same thing, Barden recalled, and Americans knew it.

Steinbeck didn't live much longer when he returned to America, but Barden thinks he began to have his doubts about America's involvement in Vietnam.  Steinbeck died in 1968, worn out, maybe disillusioned, just before the My Lai massacre, the quintessential symbol of that long losing war.  Vietnam took the lives, spirit and souls of more than 58,000 young men and women, their average age 19, children really. Another 200,000 returned home deeply wounded physically and psychologically.  My friend Teddy Wilson remembered how badly the young soldiers were treated when they returned home, adding insult to injury.  It brought tears to her eyes.

"Kind of disappointing," I said to Teddy after the lecture, referring to Steinbeck the Vietnam hawk. "No, it's just the way it is," she responded.  "He was human, complicated, like all of us. Steinbeck's writings will live on."  I nodded.  Perhaps had Steinbeck lived he would have grasped the tragedy of the whole senseless war, and written another Grapes of Wrath to pay homage to our soldiers' sacrifices against the odds. 
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