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Uneven collection of character-driven Steinbeck nonfiction,
This review is from: America and Americans and Selected Nonfiction (Hardcover)
John Steinbeck (1902-68) wrote newspaper columns for two years during the 1950s in addition to reporting on the 1956 presidential nominating conventions and stints as a war correspondent during World War II and the Vietnam War. He also wrote some articles for magazines and the ruminations on America for a book of photographs that was his last book (and which fills about a quarter of this collection).
Always he wrote about his impressions, primarily of people. The best pieces in this collection are not accounts of foreign wars but of people in distinct places. Like Steinbeck's life, the book begins with Salinas, California, continues through San Francisco and New York City to Sag Harbor on Long Island, where Steinbeck lived in the 1950s and 60s. In the "Journalist Abroad" section there are strong pieces on people in Positano and Ireland. And there is a section on friends (all male, of course) including a long memoir of his idol and naturalist mentor, Ed Ricketts, and short but very illuminating memoirs of the popular WWII correspondent Ernie Pyle and the photographer Robert Capa (who accompanied Steinbeck on his Russian visit), plus concise tributes to Adlai Stevenson as an orator and to Henry Fonda as an actor.
The section "On writing" is regrettably short, and the selections of WWII colums from _Once There Was a War_ (a book which is in print) are mystifyingly missing the best ones, which Steinbeck wrote during the invasion of Italy. The Vietnam reports are unconvincing propaganda from what he presented as a war against Mao. (Brezhnev, perhaps, but not Mao!)
Many of the pieces are entertaining in the mock heroic Steinbeck manner of _Tortilla Flat_ and _Travels with Charley_ and some are moving. The text "America and Americans" had little impact. It certainly has not supplanted Tocqueville's analysis of democracy in America, but is not without interest. As generally for Steinbeck in fiction or nonfiction, the description of particular individuals is more interesting than the generalizations.
The editors provide useful introductions to the sections, but must think that Steinbeck's ideas and craft of the 1960s was the same as those of the 1930s. It is difficult but not impossible to find out when a particular piece was published but this vital information is not included in either the table of contents or with the title of the pieces.