Once There Was a War

John Steinbeck

Introduced by Janine di Giovanni

The first illustrated edition of Steinbeck’s absorbing dispatches for the New York Herald Tribune.

Published price: US$ 53.95


Once There Was a War

In 1943 John Steinbeck joined the New York Herald Tribune as a war correspondent. He was a celebrated novelist, but a novice reporter, keen to adapt his skills to the task ahead. Attached to a programme in which small units of American soldiers raided Mediterranean beaches, he travelled first to England, where he recorded the experiences of soldiers and civilians, writing from troopships, bomber stations, army bases and from London during the Blitz. In North Africa, he watched the soldiers as they trained for action in Italy, before boarding a Landing Craft Infantry with them and reporting from the battlefield itself.

Production Details

Once There Was a War book

Bound in buckram.

Printed with a photograph of Ground Crews
of the 324th Bomb Squadron, 26 February 1944.

Set in Haarlemmer with Scotch Roman display.

224 pages.

Frontispiece and 12 black & white plates.

Book size: 9" x 6¼".

‘Age can never dull this kind of writing’

This book collects Steinbeck’s dispatches, pieces he described as ‘written under pressure and in tension’ and as ‘real as the wicked witch and the good fairy, as true and tested and edited as any other myth’. They focus not on military strategies, but the actions and reactions of ordinary people. He observes that after the Blitz, the memories of civilians often centred on a single, poignant image: a ‘pale blue evening slipper’ lying among the ruins of a restaurant; a woman selling lavender, her voice rising above the roar of bombs falling. He describes the troops’ homesickness and tiredness, the myths, jokes and lucky charms that sustain them, and the ‘many little things you do when you go out on a mission’, such as stowing a letter under your pillow. He tells of the doctor whose eyes are ‘ringed with red sorrow’ after a night operating on children maimed by bombs and of how the British Army, to the consternation of the Government, adopted the German war song ‘Lili Marlene’. He provides domestic details, such as the vegetable gardens carefully co-tended by British and American soldiers. Later, in Italy, he describes his experience of extended bombardment – the pain before the senses are dulled, the distorted passage of time and sense of unreality, the sudden compulsion to sleep. ‘Men in prolonged battle are not normal men,’ he says.

‘Age can never dull this kind of writing’

This is the first illustrated edition of Once There Was a War, containing photographs that reflect Steinbeck’s human focus. One shows a woman applying her make-up in a bomb-damaged block of flats in London; another American troops resting on the deck of a liner. Born in the United States, Janine di Giovanni is one of Europe’s most respected journalists. The winner of multiple awards, she has reported on nearly every major conflict since the late 1980s. Like Steinbeck, her approach is to reveal the experiences of the individual. In a new preface, she reflects on the compassionate spirit of what Steinbeck called ‘a sad and jocular recording of a little part of a war I saw and do not believe’.


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Review by amstorey on 14th Jul 2015

Text: Illustrations: Binding: Rating: 5/5

"The quality of the book is excellent as you would expect from The Folio Society. "

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