“ Is it as nice in America as it is here?”
In 1943, John Steinbeck was serving as a war correspondent in England, and on the 6th August wired a piece from London to the New York Herald Tribune called ‘Chewing Gum’, which starts:
“ At the port the stevedores are old men. The average age is fifty-two, and these men handle the cargo from America. Their pace does not seem fast, but the cargo gets unloaded and away. The only men on the docks anywhere near military age who are not in uniform are the Irish from the neutral Free State, who are not subject to Army call. They stay pretty much to themselves; for while they may approve of their neutrality, it is not pleasant to be a war neutral in a country at war. They feel outsiders.”
(Of course, in 1943, Steinbeck couldn’t have known that over 20,000 young Irishmen had already volunteered to fight with the British Army against Hitler. After the war many of those Irish survivors chose to live in England because Eamon de Valera’s government had effectively disenfranchised them.)
Back to the chewing gum.
Continuing to describe the rest of the stevedores (‘dockers’ in the UK), Steinbeck is in his element — as if back in Cannery Row — especially when describing a thin, elderly Welshman, with a high-pitched voice, who seems to command the workers, and all their activities. Nothing happens unless he says so, boyo.
Steinbeck writes in his ever detailed, yet slightly off-hand fashion, as if to make light of things which, in effect, highlights the danger and difficulty of a nation under siege, not least when a group of scruffy kids turn up to greet a detachment of US soldiers disembarking from a troop ship. One of the kids starts talking to one of the soldiers:
“ Is it as nice in America as it is here?” the boy asks.
“ No — its just about the same as here,” the soldier says. “ It’s bigger, but just about the same.”
“ I guess you really have no goom?”
“ No, not a piece.”
“ Is there much goom in America?”
“ Oh, yes, lots of it.”
The little boy sighs deeply. “ I’ll go there sometime,” he says gravely.
The boy, of course, is referring to chewing gum, which reminds me of my older sister who (at the same time as Steinbeck’s dispatch), with two friends, used to hang around my father’s bakery waiting for US soldiers to turn up to collect their washing from my mother, and buy sticky buns from my father. My sister and her friends would smile sweetly and ask:
“ Got any gum, chum?”
Thomas Fensch (Editor) — Conversations with John Steinbeck (University Press of Mississippi, Jackson & London, 1988); John Steinbeck — Journal of a Novel: The East of Eden Letters (Viking Press & Penguin Books, New York & London, 1969–1990); Jay Parini — John Steinbeck: A Biography (Heinemann, London, 1994); Jackson J. Benson — The True Adventures of John Steinbeck, Writer (Penguin Books, New York & London, 1984–1990); John Steinbeck — Once There Was a War (Viking Press, New York, 1958 & Penguin Books, New York & London, 1977); John Steinbeck: America and Americans ( Edited by Susan Shillinglaw & Jackson J. Benson, Penguin Books, New York & London, 2003); John Steinbeck: A Life in Letters (Edited by Elaine Steinbeck & Robert Wallsten, Viking Press, New York, 1975, Penguin Books, USA & London, 1976, Penguin Classics, London, 2001); John Steinbeck: Travels with Charley (The Viking Press, New York, 1962 & Penguin Books, New York & London, 1980, 1997, & in Penguin Classics, 2000); The Fiction of John Steinbeck (The Viking & Penguin Books); John Steinbeck: A Russian Journal, with Photos by Robert Capa ( The Viking Press, New York, 1948 & Penguin Classic, New York & London, 1999 & 2000); John Steinbeck: Bombs Away: The Story of a Bomber Team (The Viking Press, New York, 1943 & Paragon House, New York, 1990); Carlos Baker: Ernest Hemingway — A Life Story (Wm. Collins Sons, London, 1969); Arthur Miller: Timebends — An Autobiography (Methuen, London, 1999);