John Steinbeck’s Prophetic Dream About How the Commercial Media Machine Is Killing Creative Culture
Half a century before Buzzfeed, a nocturnal epiphany about the greatest threat to art.
By Maria Popova
We are in constant dynamic interaction with the thing we call culture — culture is both shaped by our values and shapes what we come to value. I think a great deal about the line between catering and creating, and on which side of it artists, writers, musicians, thinkers, and other culture-crafters must stand — is the responsibility of the cultural enterprise to cater to what people, or “the people,” already crave, or is it to create new, more elevated tastes by insisting on the substantive over the vacant?
No doubt there is a necessary dialogue between catering and creating, but I side wholly with E.B. White, who famously asserted that “writers do not merely reflect and interpret life, they inform and shape life,” and that the role of the writer is “to lift people up, not lower them down.” And yet, half a century after White’s piercing idealism, we’ve found ourselves amid a culture that purveys cat listicles because, the narrative goes, cat listicles are what the people want — a narrative suffused with the insidious implication that cat listicles are all that people are capable or worthy of wanting. Increasingly, our agents of culture are abdicating their responsibility to create more elevated tastes and capitulating to catering.
This discomfiting line of thought reminded me of an extraordinary 1956 letter that John Steinbeck (February 27, 1902–December 20, 1968) — a writer of uncommon integrity, deep resistance to commercialism, and supreme faith in the human spirit — sent to his legendary agent and lifelong friend, Elizabeth Otis. Previously unpublished and found in the 1978 limited-edition treasure Letters to Elizabeth (public library), the missive speaks volumes about what is perhaps the most significant threat to creative culture today.
In late July of 1956, Steinbeck writes:
Do you ever dream of getting letters? I used to a lot but haven’t lately until last night when I had one very clear and sharp. I can even see the stationery. It was from Otis Wiess and it said, “We would like very much to print your book The Short Reign of Peppin IV and think we can do it in two large installments. There are, however, certain changes we would like you to make in order that our readers will be more interested. The pace must be considerably speeded up and many of the historical and literary allusions must be removed since they will only confuse our readers. We should also want you to add three new characters and several episodes which are too long to put in a letter. I should like to meet with you to tell you of the changes we will require. Will you please let me know when this will be convenient?”
It was all perfectly clear. When the clock went off this morning I was busy typing an answer and had got as far as “Dear Otis: I have your letter and am deeply pleased with your interest in my book. I would like to suggest to you that rather than put in new characters and episodes, that you get new readers—” And I woke up thinking this was funny as hell and just laughing at my own cleverness. Isn’t that an odd and perhaps prophetic dream?
How prophetic indeed, and what a perfect addition to the canon of creative titans’ existentially insightful dreams, including Dostoyevsky’s dreamsome discovery of the meaning of life, Margaret Mead’s epiphany about why life is like blue jelly, and Leonard Bernstein’s nocturnal tussle with identity and sexuality.
Complement Letters to Elizabeth with Steinbeck on discipline and self-doubt and his advice on falling in love, then revisit poet Mark Strand’s beautiful ode to dreams and the strange science of dreams and why we have nightmares.
Published October 13, 2015