World War II: The Novelist as Journalist and Propagandist

John Steinbeck and Jack Wagner in London

Steinbeck pictured alongside his childhood friend, Jack Wagner, in London during World War II. 1943.

Steinbeck with captured Nazi flag.

Steinbeck with a captured Nazi flag

While working on The Log of the Sea of Cortez with his close friend, Ed Ricketts, Steinbeck became increasingly concerned with rising tensions in Europe. After exchanging letters with President Roosevelt, Steinbeck was asked to meet with the president’s administration to discuss means of combating Nazi propaganda (Parini 300-01). Eventually, the York Herald Tribune hired Steinbeck as a war correspondent reporting on the events of World War II. In his pieces on the war, Steinbeck emphasized the real lives of American soldiers rather than relaying the brutal details of battles to his audience back in the United States. Steinbeck’s biographer, Jay Parini, captured this writing style: “A sense of suppressed emotion gives this wartime journalism its power and dignity; one constantly thinks that Steinbeck will spill into sentimentality, but he rarely does” (Parini 333). Steinbeck was not immune to the emotion and trauma of the war, though. Upon his return home, Steinbeck's wife, sister, and friends all reported that he had come back a different man; it was evident that Steinbeck has experienced psychological trauma from the events he witnessed while acting as a war correspondent.

Steinbeck’s time as a journalist was significant, in part, because it shaped his writing as a whole. His time as a propagandist and journalist spilled into his novels, too. For example, The Moon is Down, published in 1942, served as propaganda. It is the story of a town occupied by Nazi invaders and the ensuing resistance of the town’s citizens to their invaders. This novel was met with heavy criticism, as many critics believed the novel inappropriately humanized Nazis (Parini 318-23).

At the same time, Steinbeck’s prewar experience as a novelist informed his journalistic style. It helped him personalize the men who marched and slept in trenches rather than weighing down the narrative of war with more bleak and bloody accounts of faceless battles won and lives lost. Later, Steinbeck wrote about the importance of journalism: “What can I say about journalism? It has the greatest virtue and the greatest evil. It is the first thing the dictator controls. It is the mother literature and the perpetrator of crap. In many cases it is the only history we have...Honesty has a way of creeping in even when it was not intended” (Howarth 71). 

World War II: The Novelist as Journalist and Propagandist