- Fiction:The 1930s to the 1960s
Scholarly publication on modern fiction remains steady this year, with a number of writers receiving substantial treatment. Especially welcome is the resurgence of interest in John Steinbeck, who is honored with a volume of his war correspondence and a number of individual essays, and Mabel Dodge Luhan, whose suppressed memoirs are finally available to the public. James Agee and Flannery O’Connor receive essay collections, Katherine Anne Porter and William Burroughs volumes of letters, O’Connor and Brion Gysin books of interviews, and James Baldwin a groundbreaking critical study. Harriette Arnow is honored with a special issue of Appalachian Heritage, and Baldwin, Richard Wright, and Ralph Ellison are featured in an essay collection, Hemingway and the Black Renaissance. As always, there is a variety of topics to inspire critical debate, including Marxist views, the cold war, legal issues, biblical and religious themes, eugenics, sexuality, gender, folklore, musical tropes, and cinematic adaptations.
a. John Steinbeck
A substantial addition to Steinbeck scholarship is Steinbeck in Vietnam: Dispatches from the War, ed. Thomas E. Barden (Virginia). A collection of Steinbeck’s war correspondence from Southeast Asia, the volume brings together for the first time his commentaries originally published in Newsday between 3 December 1966 and 20 May 1967. Barden calls attention to this overlooked dimension of Steinbeck’s [End Page 289] oeuvre, generated at the end of his life and career when at the age of 64 he traveled to Vietnam, Thailand, and Laos and reported on the war while his own son was serving in Vietnam. As a tribute to his friend the late Alicia Patterson, the founder and the publisher of Newsday, Steinbeck termed his dispatches “Letters to Alicia.” The essays cover a variety of topics: the helicopter and its mobility; patrol boat activity; terrorist acts and Vietnamese snipers; the many ways to die in Vietnam; Steinbeck’s involvement in both combat and philanthropic missions; the cruelty of the Viet Cong; the continual sound of artillery; the role of China in the Vietnam War; the charitable works that American soldiers do for the Vietnamese populace; “the potential of the Delta”; the beauty of the Vietnamese people and the Vietnamese countryside; and the aspects of the Vietnam War that were considered unique, such as the one-year rotation and the lack of clearly defined fronts and rear. Though Steinbeck writes that “all war is bad,” his tone throughout is supportive of the military effort as he scorns the antiwar protestors and celebrates the U.S. troops. He laments more than once that other “good” writers, authors such as Truman Capote, John Updike, Saul Bellow, Edward Albee, and Arthur Miller, were not traveling to Vietnam and offering their perspectives. As Barden stresses, Steinbeck’s controversial correspondence, as the product of “an American voice readers had known and respected for decades,” is important in that it “offered his fellow Americans personalized accounts from a war that was splitting the country into increasingly angry factions and defying comprehension, much less resolution.” However, the dispatches are more important than just as historical documents, Barden contends; they also have “the spell-casting power of Steinbeck’s great works of fiction.” Barden supplements Steinbeck’s essays with a preface, an afterword, notes on the various essays, and a useful introduction that “provide[s] basic background information and situate[s] the dispatches in the context of Steinbeck’s personal and writing life at the time.” In “Struggle and Survival in Sallisaw: Revisiting John Steinbeck’s Oklahoma” (Agricultural History 86, iii: 33–56) Ryan Hall discusses the difference between Steinbeck’s portrayal of Sallisaw in The Grapes of Wrath and “the historical experience” of that community. While “many aspects of Steinbeck’s work reflected reality,” Hall posits, “the roots of local farmers’ social and economic marginalization ran far deeper than he suggested.” Jonathan H. Ebel, “Re-forming Faith: John Steinbeck, the New Deal, and the Religion of the Wandering Oklahoman” (JR 92: 527–35), observes that Steinbeck’s [End Page 290] writing of The Grapes of Wrath “is inextricably intertwined with the person of Thomas Collins and his bureaucratic reporting,” especially the Pentecostal Georgie Nunn, who worked as a housekeeper...