Johnny Propaganda

The other day, I finished The Girl who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest, finishing all that I’ll probably ever read about Lisbeth Salander and Mikael Blomkvist.  I thought of giving a review of the two sequels, but I figure I can sum it up with “They aren’t as good as the first one, but still worth reading.”

I have been on a string of popular novels and have been feeling a little guilty about it.  I feel like I need to throw in a biography, a history or something literary every now and again so I can still convince myself I’m an intellectual.  Most people who I’ve ever discussed writing with knows what I think about John Steinbeck.

For those of you who don’t: He’s the perfect writer.  His writing is poignent and elegant while still being readable and accessible by anyone who happens to pick up one of his books.  He could fit pages of description into a perfectly worded sentence.  His stories are simple, yet tap deeply into the human experience.  As a writer, he makes me want to slit my wrists.

Another one of my favorite things in TV, film or literature, is a good story that involves the gratuitous killing of Nazis.  This love is a gift I inherited from my father during my formative years, as he sat in his lazy-boy with a Coors in one hand and a cigarette in the other, watching John Wayne blow those “Kraut bastards” all to hell.

So, of course, when I saw that Steinbeck had written a book about a WWII bomber team, my interest was piqued.  I was immediately slapped that bastard on my Kindle, thrilled that I was could satisfy my literary needs and my blood lust at the same time.

I wasn’t two sentences into the introduction before I realized that this wasn’t what I’d hoped it would be.  In fact, it wasn’t fiction at all.  It was just a propaganda piece that the Army and Hollywood has paid Steinbeck $250,000 to write.  Because it was Steinbeck, I went ahead and swallowed down the bile that was creeping up my throat and went ahead and read it.

Here’s the gist:  in 1942, we were just entering the war.  Pearl Harbor had just happened a few months before and we were still 2 years from the D-Day invasion.  The US didn’t have much of an airforce to speak of.  They were building planes like mad and desperately needed young men to climb into them to either get blown up or blow stuff up in return.  They wanted Steinbeck to write about how awesome being on a bomber team is to help convince people to sign up.

It’s strange that they would offer this to Steinbeck.  Surely, he was one of the most famous writers of the time, but none of his writing had indicated that he was any kind of hawk.  If anything, the tone of his previous works, during the depression, would paint him more as a commie pacifist.  But for whatever reason, they offered, he accepted and wrote Bombs Away.

If it was written by anyone else, it would likely be impossible to swallow.  In fact it’s just a couple hundred pages that talk about how great and honorable it is to be on a bomber team and how amazing you have to be to do it.  Because it’s Steinbeck, it just surpasses readable.

Hemingway, is quoted as saying he’d “rather cut off three fingers off his throwing hand,” than write a book like Bombs Away, which is also surprising, since so many of his books deal with, and borderline glorify war.  I would think he’d be the perfect candidate for this kind of assignment.

In fact both writers were very present during WW2.  Steinbeck worked as a war correspondent the entire war, going home with shrapnel wounds and some PTSD.  Hemingway was in Europe from June to December 1944 and was present at the D-Day invasion and the liberation of Paris.  He even got into trouble for “playing infantry captain to a group of Resistance people that he gathered because a correspondent is not supposed to lead troops, even if he does it well.”

Hemingway had been to WWI, the Spanish Civil War and WW2.  Steinbeck spent his pre WW2 life writing about the plight of the common man, but yet Ernest was disgusted at J.S.’s writing of this book for the US Army.  Maybe he just couldn’t abide a shill.

I too, don’t think much of shills; corporate, government or otherwise and it is not like Steinbeck needed the money.  In fact, as I read about this, Steinbeck’s credit rating was in serious danger of getting downgraded from AAA.  To think of one of my personal heros shilling for the US military was as heartbreaking as if I discovered my father was a pimp and crack dealer….although, my dad would look pretty fucking awesome in a pimp outfit and a gold tooth or two.

And then upon further readin’, I found out that Steinbeck was a ardent supporter of the Vietnam War and even went there to write about it.

A few things saved my opinion of him (so he can rest easy in his grave…).

A: it was a different time.  I know I would have been in full support of WW2.  It was the first time we’d been attacked by a foreign force on our homeland since the war of 1812 and I’m sure I would have been one of those people faking my birth certificate to join up at 15 (though I’m not sure why I’m 15 at the beginning of WW2 in this fantasy).

B: Steinbeck’s entire fee of $250,000 (the equivalent of $3,500,000 in today’s money) was donated to charity.

The guy obviously had very strong feelings about the war and was doing what he thought of as “his part” in the war effort.  In a way, it fits right in with the commie tendencies that pop up in his works…everyone pulling together for a common good.  The fact that the area of the war effort that he helped recruit for – being part of a bomber crew – was, percentage wise, the most dangerous assignment in WW2, he couldn’t have known when he wrote Bombs Away.  Although…a B17 is like a giant target crawling slowly across the sky, so you think he could have guessed….

Published in: on August 14, 2011 at 5:13 am  Comments (2)  
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