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Once There Was a War (Penguin Classics) Paperback – August 28, 2007

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Editorial Reviews


"If you have forgotten what the war was like, Steinbeck will refresh your memory. Age can never dull this kind of writing."
-Chicago Tribune

About the Author

John Steinbeck, born in Salinas, California, in 1902, grew up in a fertile agricultural valley, about twenty-five miles from the Pacific Coast. Both the valley and the coast would serve as settings for some of his best fiction. In 1919 he went to Stanford University, where he intermittently enrolled in literature and writing courses until he left in 1925 without taking a degree. During the next five years he supported himself as a laborer and journalist in New York City, all the time working on his first novel, Cup of Gold (1929).
After marriage and a move to Pacific Grove, he published two California books, The Pastures of Heaven (1932) and To a God Unknown (1933), and worked on short stories later collected in The Long Valley (1938). Popular success and financial security came only with Tortilla Flat (1935), stories about Monterey’s paisanos. A ceaseless experimenter throughout his career, Steinbeck changed courses regularly. Three powerful novels of the late 1930s focused on the California laboring class: In Dubious Battle (1936), Of Mice and Men (1937), and the book considered by many his finest, The Grapes of Wrath (1939). The Grapes of Wrath won both the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize in 1939.
Early in the 1940s, Steinbeck became a filmmaker with The Forgotten Village (1941) and a serious student of marine biology with Sea of Cortez (1941). He devoted his services to the war, writing Bombs Away (1942) and the controversial play-novelette The Moon is Down (1942).Cannery Row (1945), The Wayward Bus (1948), another experimental drama, Burning Bright(1950), and The Log from the Sea of Cortez (1951) preceded publication of the monumental East of Eden (1952), an ambitious saga of the Salinas Valley and his own family’s history.
The last decades of his life were spent in New York City and Sag Harbor with his third wife, with whom he traveled widely. Later books include Sweet Thursday (1954), The Short Reign of Pippin IV: A Fabrication (1957), Once There Was a War (1958), The Winter of Our Discontent (1961),Travels with Charley in Search of America (1962), America and Americans (1966), and the posthumously published Journal of a Novel: The East of Eden Letters (1969), Viva Zapata!(1975), The Acts of King Arthur and His Noble Knights (1976), and Working Days: The Journals of The Grapes of Wrath (1989).
Steinbeck received the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1962, and, in 1964, he was presented with the United States Medal of Freedom by President Lyndon B. Johnson. Steinbeck died in New York in 1968. Today, more than thirty years after his death, he remains one of America's greatest writers and cultural figures. 

Product Details

  • Series: Penguin Classics
  • Paperback: 208 pages
  • Publisher: Penguin Classics; Revised edition (August 28, 2007)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0143104799
  • ISBN-13: 978-0143104797
  • Product Dimensions: 5 x 0.6 x 7.7 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 4.8 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (37 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #312,122 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

John Steinbeck (1902-1968), winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature, achieved popular success in 1935 when he published Tortilla Flat. He went on to write more than twenty-five novels, including The Grapes of Wrath and Of Mice and Men.

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Paperback
I've never been a huge Steinbeck follower - I've read a few of his works but I'm probably not as well-versed as I should be. That, however, will change after having recently read Once There Was A War.
This compilation of reports from England, North Africa and Italy in 1943 provides excellent descriptions of what life was really like during the war. There are very few recounts of battles and strategy. But there are stories of the people that were involved in the war - the souls behind the uniforms. Steinbeck does an excellent job showing that the war wasn't just made up of nameless soldiers - it was made up of people, each with personalities, each scared, each struggling to deal with life in such hostile conditions.
Aside from the historical value, these posts are amazingly well written. I have to admit I was reasonably surprised by the quality of writing. Steinbeck is an accomplished author, and on that I think everyone can agree, but to be able to put pieces like this together in London during the Blitz, in the deserts of North Africa or on a troop ship heading into the European theater is amazing to me.
Bottom line: I've got a new respect for John Steinbeck and an added appreciation and understanding of WWII. For both of those, I am grateful for having read this book.
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Format: Paperback
No author has a better eye and ear for details than John Steinbeck, and no author can record those details with more simple flowing eloquence.
Such is the case with the columns that were composed while Mr. Steinbeck was a war correspondent in the European Theatre of operations during World War Two.
The columns are not blow-by-blow accounts of great battles. They aren't closely focused on the physical and emotional plight of the soldier, as were the columns of Ernie Pyle.
Instead, they capture the auras and subtleties of both big and little events. "What it's like" is the best description of these slices of war life, nobody puts you there better, nobody captures the mood of a place more vividly.
What it's like to be one of thousands of soldiers stretch across the deck or house in the bowels of a troop carrier, destination unknown? What's it like to sit through an air raid during the blitz?
Or, a few columns take a lighter approach. In one, he salutes the incredible durability and dedication of Bob Hope and his USO shows. Another details the American soldier's skill in growing vegetable gardens. Another muses about the popularity of the German song "Lillie Marlene" among both Nazi and Allied troops.
And some columns delve into deeper territory, such as his theory as to why so few men who have been in battle talk about it.
Steinbeck did not spend a great deal of time as a war correspondent. The columns were cabled back to the states between June and December, 1943.
But each one is a little jewel of journalism. What else would you expect from America's finest writer?
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Format: Paperback
Many books that claim to tell of the human side of WWII rapidly descend into farce...and make you wonder if the author knew there was a war on. Others give the impression that they were written by some allied Propaganda Office (as they sometimes were). A handfull manage to deal with the day to day trials and absurdity without losing sight of the conflict that was raging over the globe. Ernie Pyle was justly celebrated for this, Bill Mauldin's "Willie and Joe" cartoons captured it well (as did his prose in UP FRONT), Thomas R. St. George handled the Pacific War in C/O POSTMASTER and PROCEED WITHOUT DELAY, and Roger Hall did a bang-up job of de-mystifying the OSS in YOU"RE STEPPING ON MY CLOAK AND DAGGER. Steinbeck has nothing to be ashamed of in this company. ONCE THERE WAS A WAR is an account, not of WWII but of what it was like to be IN WWII. His essays are well written (as one might expect) and penetrating. Anyone interested in the history of the second World War would do well to read this book, if only as a footnote to works of grander scope.
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Format: Paperback
This book is a collection of dispatches that John Stienbeck wrote as a war correspondent in England, Africa and Italy. Concise, tightly written and clear, the author, in as few words possible is able to place the reader at the scene. The reader can taste it, smell it, touch it, hear it, and more importantly, know what it is to be there. Feel the fear and the awful reality of war through John Stienbeck's powerful prose.
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I prefer short bursts of Steinbeck to his self-conscious "major: novels. I also think that his nonfiction is better than much of his fiction. His dispatches from England, Algiera, Italy, and PT-boats in the Mediterranean are often insightful, and frequently funny, especially the essay on souvenirs and the in the finale, a multi-part account of tricking a garrison into surrendering.
Steinbeck was very clear that he did not capture the essence of battle. Indeed, he wrote very clearly about the self-protective amnesia that descends after traumatic experiences (198-200).
What should have been the most important part of the book collecting his 1942-43 reporting, the introduction, seems to have been skipped by some readers. "We were all a part of the War Effort," Steinbeck recalled in 1958. "We went along with it, and not only that, we abetted it. Gradually it became a part of all of us that the truth about anything was automatically secret and that to trifle with it was to interfere with the War Effort. By this I don't mean that the correspondents were liars. They were not. In the pieces in this book everything set down happened. It is in the things not mentioned that the truth lies" Whether he was fully aware that he was producing propaganda when he filed the dispatches (which were censored as well as self-censored), Steinbeck was candid: "We edited ourselves much more than we were edited. We felt responsible to what was called the home front. There was a general feeling that unless the home front was carefully protected from the whole account of what war was like, it might panic. Also we felt we had to protect the armed services from criticism, or they might retire to their tents to sulk like Achilles. . . .
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