War Is Swell
Steinbeck Fest examines author's writings on WWII.
Thursday, August 5, 1999
It is Steinbeck''s manipulation of art, propaganda and truth in his fiction and non-fiction writings on World War II that forms the basis for "Once There Was A War: Steinbeck and WWII"--the focus of the 19th annual Steinbeck Festival Aug. 5-8, presented for the first time by the National Steinbeck Center.
In the aftermath of the relentless air campaign against the Serbians, as well as the recent mythologizing of WWII in such Hollywood films as Saving Private Ryan and The Thin Red Line, this year''s Steinbeck Fest promises to provide a timely and insightful examination of the relationship between war and our national character.
"I hope Steinbeck fans feel good about the conference," says Museum Director Patricia Leach. "The resurgence in interest in WWII is amazing to me, and I''m hoping that because this is the first time we''re doing the festival here at the center, people less inclined to know about Steinbeck will get something out of it."
The centerpiece of this year''s Steinbeck Fest is the photography show "Bombs Away: Training For War, Steinbeck and Swope Join Forces." The show is an exhibition of former Life magazine photographer John Swope''s masterful images from the 1942 book Bombs Away, a collaborative work between Steinbeck and Swope that chronicles the lives of a U.S. Air Force bomber crew and the training procedures they underwent at a time when the military was less than fully prepared to enter the war.
At first inspection, Swope''s photographs come across as a rather straightforward documentation of the bomber crews and their training, but a deeper examination reveals a much greater cumulative impact, both in the nostalgia evoked by the elegantly printed images, and by Swope''s deceptively sophisticated and modernist sense of light, space, shadow and form.
One of the highlights of the photo exhibit, which has been beautifully curated by Leach and the photographer''s son Mark Swope, is a series of unpublished, never-before-seen images of Steinbeck taken during the documentation for the book.
"He always had a strong eye and looked for bold contrasts," says Mark Swope of his father''s work. "He had a very adaptive style to the subject matter and what it contained, and I think the exhibit is very important for its instructional value as well as presenting a not very well documented point in military history."
Among the featured lectures during the four-day fest is a presentation on Bombs Away by Leach and Swope, a comparison between the WWII reporting styles of Steinbeck and famed war correspondent Ernie Pyle, Steinbeck''s use of propaganda in writing Bombs Away, as well as lectures and discussions on Steinbeck''s The Moon is Down and other war-related writings.
For Lt. Col. Rodney Rice, an Air Force English instructor who will lecture Friday on Steinbeck''s use of propaganda in Bombs Away, there is a definite correlation between Steinbeck''s novels and his WWII reporting and work in Bombs Away.
From Rice''s perspective, Bombs Away was not a complete literary anomaly, and there are certain similarities between that work and novels like Grapes of Wrath, particularly in the use of the journey motif, the relationship between the individual and group, and Steinbeck''s exploration of deep-rooted American ideals and the common man.
"Bombs Away was a deliberate effort to control a response, a deliberate effort to preach on behalf of the common man, to get people interested in the war and to do something about a known evil," explains Rice. "Although some of the same philosophical ideas run through Grapes of Wrath, the aesthetic picture transcends what propaganda is in that book. It''s a different purpose altogether.
"Artistically Steinbeck didn''t think Bombs Away was very good, but I don''t think he tried to produce a literary work of art," adds Rice. "He was sincere and believed in the ideas behind what he wrote, but he had to resort to different propaganda tactics like hyperbole and repetition so he could control and manipulate the audience in presenting certain democratic ideals."
In bringing such a unique and illuminating perspective to a lesser-known and less appreciated aspect of Steinbeck''s literary career, the National Steinbeck Center continues to provide new and invaluable insight into Steinbeck, and to demonstrate that there is no end to an artist''s search for truth and understanding.
As Steinbeck himself once noted, "Art is indeed long--longer than life so that no man has ever come to an ending of it and all artistic lines end with an open quote."
Bombs Away will remain on display at the National Steinbeck Center through 8/31. For complete schedule of this week''s Steinbeck Festival events, see calendar this page.