Brain Pickings

Search results for “John steinbeck”

What It Means to Be a Writer: John Steinbeck’s Nobel Prize Acceptance Speech About Slicing Through Humanity’s Confusion

“A writer who does not passionately believe in the perfectibility of man has no dedication nor any membership in literature.”

“Mankind is challenged, as it has never been challenged before, to prove its maturity and its mastery — not of nature, but of itself. Therein lies our hope and our destiny,” the great marine biologist and author Rachel Carson addressed the next generations as she catalyzed the environmental movement with her courageous exposé of the industry-driven, government-concealed chemical assault on nature.

Six months after Carson delivered her poignant and prescient commencement address, another writer of rare courage and humanistic idealism took another stage to deliver a kindred message that reverberates across the decades with astounding relevance today.

On December 10, 1962, John Steinbeck (February 27, 1902–December 20, 1968) took the podium at the Swedish Academy to receive the Nobel Prize in Literature “for his realistic and imaginative writings, combining as they do sympathetic humour and keen social perception.” Two decades after he contemplated the contradictions of human nature and our grounds for lucid hope, the sixty-year-old Steinbeck proceeded to deliver a stunning, sobering, yet resolutely optimistic acceptance speech, later included in Nobel Writers on Writing (public library) — the collection that gave us Bertrand Russell on the four desires driving all human behavior, Pearl S. Buck on the nature of creativity, and Gabriel García Márquez’s vision of a world in which “no one will be able to decide for others how they die, where love will prove true and happiness be possible.”

John Steinbeck

After some endearing and strangely comforting opening remarks, indicating that even he — one of the world’s most celebrated minds, standing at the podium to receive the Nobel Prize — is bedeviled by impostor syndrome, Steinbeck considers the abiding role of storytelling in human life:

Literature was not promulgated by a pale and emasculated critical priesthood singing their litanies in empty churches — nor is it a game for the cloistered elect, the tin-horn mendicants of low-calorie despair.

Literature is as old as speech. It grew out of human need for it and it has not changed except to become more needed. The skalds, the bards, the writers are not separate and exclusive. From the beginning, their functions, their duties, their responsibilities have been decreed by our species.

In a sentiment Iris Murdoch would echo a decade later in her insistence that throughout history “the artist has tended to be a revolutionary or at least an instrument of change in so far as he has tended to be a sensitive and independent thinker with a job that is a little outside established society,” Steinbeck bows to the lineage of great truth-tellers but raises the artist’s duty to a higher plane of humanism, tasked with more than merely exposing fault:

Humanity has been passing through a gray and desolate time of confusion. My great predecessor, William Faulkner, speaking here, referred to it as a tragedy of universal physical fear, so long sustained that there were no longer problems of the spirit, so that only the human heart in conflict with itself seemed worth writing about. Faulkner, more than most men, was aware of human strength as well as of human weakness. He knew that the understanding and the resolution of fear are a large part of the writer’s reason for being.

This is not new. The ancient commission of the writer has not changed. He is charged with exposing our many grievous faults and failures, with dredging up to the light our dark and dangerous dreams for the purpose of improvement.

Furthermore, the writer is delegated to declare and to celebrate man’s proven capacity for greatness of heart and spirit — for gallantry in defeat, for courage, compassion and love. In the endless war against weakness and despair, these are the bright rally flags of hope and of emulation. I hold that a writer who does not passionately believe in the perfectibility of man has no dedication nor any membership in literature.

Art by Shaun Tan from A Velocity of Being: Letters to a Young Reader.

Having witnessed the devastation of the atomic bomb — a gruesome turning point in our civilization’s balancing act of technological ascent and moral grounding — and speaking at the peak of the Cold War, Steinbeck offers a sentiment that has only swelled with poignancy in the half-century since, as we have continually let our technological capacities run unconsidered, outpacing our ethics:

The present universal fear has been the result of a forward surge in our knowledge and manipulation of certain dangerous factors in the physical world. It is true that other phases of understanding have not yet caught up with this great step, but there is no reason to presume that they cannot or will not draw abreast. Indeed, it is part of the writer’s responsibility to make sure that they do. With humanity’s long, proud history of standing firm against all of its natural enemies, sometimes in the face of almost certain defeat and extinction, we would be cowardly and stupid to leave the field on the eve of our greatest potential victory.

With an eye to the dark backstory of how the Nobel Prize was founded, Steinbeck reflects:

Understandably, I have been reading the life of Alfred Nobel; a solitary man, the books say, a thoughtful man. He perfected the release of explosive forces capable of creative good or of destructive evil, but lacking choice, ungoverned by conscience or judgement.

Nobel saw some of the cruel and bloody misuses of his inventions. He may have even foreseen the end result of all his probing — access to ultimate violence, to final destruction. Some say that he became cynical, but I do not believe this. I think he strove to invent a control — a safety valve. I think he found it finally only in the human mind and the human spirit.

To me, his thinking is clearly indicated in the categories of these awards. They are offered for increased and continuing knowledge of man and of his world — for understanding and communication, which are the functions of literature. And they are offered for demonstrations of the capacity for peace — the culmination of all the others.

Echoing Carson, Steinbeck considers the choice before humanity half a century after Alfred Nobel’s death — a choice that remains the same, though posed with exponentially greater urgency, yet another half a century hence:

The door of nature was unlocked and we were offered the dreadful burden of choice. We have usurped many of the powers we once ascribed to God. Fearful and unprepared, we have assumed lordship over the life and death of the whole world of all living things. The danger and the glory and the choice rest finally in man. The test of his perfectibility is at hand.

Having taken God-like power, we must seek in ourselves for the responsibility and the wisdom we once prayed some deity might have. Man himself has become our greatest hazard and our only hope. So that today, saint John the Apostle may well be paraphrased: In the end is the Word, and the Word is Man, and the Word is with Man.

Couple with the visionary scientist and poet Lewis Thomas, writing another two decades later, on the wonders of possibility of this very choice — a choice that is still before us, and it is not too late for us to make wisely — then revisit Steinbeck on kindness, the discipline of writing, the crucible of creativity, and his timeless advice on falling in love.

BP

The Only Story in the World: John Steinbeck on Kindness, Good and Evil, the Wellspring of Good Writing

“Try to understand men, if you understand each other you will be kind to each other. Knowing a man well never leads to hate and nearly always leads to love.”

“All the goodness and the heroisms will rise up again, then be cut down again and rise up,” John Steinbeck (February 27, 1902–December 20, 1968) wrote as he contemplated good, evil, and the necessary contradiction of human nature at the peak of WWII. “It isn’t that the evil thing wins — it never will — but that it doesn’t die.”

A decade later, and a decade before he won the Nobel Prize in Literature, Steinbeck turned this abiding tug of war between good and evil into a literary inquiry in East of Eden (public library) — the 1952 novel that gave us his beautiful wisdom on creativity and the meaning of life, eventually adapted into the 1955 film of the same title starring James Dean.

John Steinbeck

Steinbeck opens the thirty-fourth chapter with a meditation on the most elemental question through which we experience and measure our lives:

A child may ask, “What is the world’s story about?” And a grown man or woman may wonder, “What way will the world go? How does it end and, while we’re at it, what’s the story about?”

I believe that there is one story in the world, and only one, that has frightened and inspired us, so that we live in a Pearl White serial of continuing thought and wonder. Humans are caught — in their lives, in their thoughts, in their hungers and ambitions, in their avarice and cruelty, and in their kindness and generosity too — in a net of good and evil. I think this is the only story we have and that it occurs on all levels of feeling and intelligence. Virtue and vice were warp and woof of our first consciousness, and they will be the fabric of our last, and this despite any changes we may impose on field and river and mountain, on economy and manners. There is no other story. A man, after he has brushed off the dust and chips of his life, will have left only the hard, clean questions: Was it good or was it evil? Have I done well — or ill?

At the most fundamental level, the triumph of good over evil presupposes an openhearted curiosity about what is other than ourselves and a certain willingness for understanding — the moral choice of fathoming and honoring the reality, experience, and needs of persons and entities existing beyond our own consciousness. Steinbeck, too, saw the centrality of empathic understanding in the choice of goodness. Perhaps unsurprisingly — since he used his private journal as a creative sandbox for his novels — this sentiment originated in a diary entry.

Decades before Annie Dillard contemplated why a generosity of spirit is the animating force of good writing, Steinbeck echoes Hemingway — “As a writer you should not judge. You should understand.” — and reflects in a journal entry from 1938, quoted in Steinbeck Center director Susan Shillinglaw’s introduction to a 1993 Penguin Classics edition of Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men:

In every bit of honest writing in the world… there is a base theme. Try to understand men, if you understand each other you will be kind to each other. Knowing a man well never leads to hate and nearly always leads to love. There are shorter means, many of them. There is writing promoting social change, writing punishing injustice, writing in celebration of heroism, but always that base theme. Try to understand each other.

Complement with Hannah Arendt on our mightiest antidote to evil, James Baldwin on the terror within and the evil without, Mary McCarthy on human nature and how we determine if evil is forgivable, and Fyodor Dostoyevsky on why there are no bad people, then revisit Steinbeck on being vs. becoming, the difficult art of the friend breakup, and his remarkable advice on falling in love in a letter to his teenage son.

BP

John Steinbeck on the Loneliness of Success and His Surprising Source of Self-Salvation

“The loneliness and discouragement… I can’t talk to anyone much about them or even admit having them because I now possess the things that the great majority of people think are the death of loneliness and discouragement.”

As a writer, John Steinbeck (February 27, 1902–December 20, 1968) remains one of the most beloved artists of the past century, whose exceptional work ethic and unrelenting pursuit of the impossible earned him both the Pulitzer Prize and the Nobel Prize. As a person, he was animated by a deep humanity, uncommon integrity, and lucid optimism.

Steinbeck: A Life in Letters (public library) unfolds the record of a rare man who was a Complete Human Being, a living spectrum, who would with equal earnestness give his son timeless advice on falling in love and perform the difficult art of the friend breakup, would visit the carpenter who built his house in the hospital when the man broke his back, would unselfconsciously sign his letters to friends “love, john,” and would write to President Roosevelt: “Please forgive this informality, but frankly, I don’t know anyone else in authority whom I can address informally.”

John Steinbeck

In the fall of 1940, two years after he had first begun to taste the dark side of success, Steinbeck contemplates the private loneliness of public acclaim in a letter to his dear friend and onetime college roommate, Carlton A. Sheffield:

The loneliness and discouragement are by no means a thing that has passed. In fact they seem to crowd in more than ever. Only now I can’t talk to anyone much about them or even admit having them because I now possess the things that the great majority of people think are the death of loneliness and discouragement. Only they aren’t. The last time I saw Chaplin (this don’t repeat please but it is a part of the same thing) it was the night when the little lady [Paulette Goddard] was leaving him for good. And he said, “When I get this picture opened and all the formal things done, can I please go up to your ranch and kick all the servants out and just talk a little bit quietly about how lonely and sad I am? It will be self indulgence but I’d like to do it.” He is a good little man. And he knows so much better than I do the horrors of being a celebrity.

Later that year, he writes to another old college friend from Stanford (after whom Steinbeck named his manuscript-devouring dog):

Dear Toby:

Why is it, do you suppose, that we don’t get together any more? Of course, I know you are carrying some big secret in you that is bigger than you and that you’ve turned inward on your secret. And I suppose I’ve turned inward on something too.

[…]

Sometimes I get so dreadfully homesick I can’t stand it and then realize that it’s not for any home I ever had. And the passionate youthful desire to communicate was the same kind of homesickness. It’s curious and it doesn’t get any better, only one learns not to talk about it. And if everyone is that way, I wonder why they all learn not to talk about it. Their eyes get dull with disgust or pain or tiredness. I haven’t crossed the hump I guess or I wouldn’t be writing this letter.

But I sit upon this beautiful ranch in this comfortable chair with a perfect servant and a beautiful dog and I think I’m more homesick than ever.

Steinbeck found one surprising way of transfiguring this homesick loneliness into nourishing aloneness. Upon approaching his fortieth birthday, he began taking flying lessons near his home in Northern California. In the skies, he shed all the earthly trappings with which success had trapped him. There, he was able to be his barest human self. He captures that transcendent freedom in another letter to Sheffield:

I’m taking flying lessons up at the Palo Alto Airport and I love it. There’s something so god damned remote and beautiful and detached about being way to hell and gone up on a little yellow leaf. It isn’t like the big transports at all because this little thing floats and bobs and yet is very steady and — there’s no sense of power at all but rather a sense of being alone in the best sense of the word, not loneliness at all but just an escape into something delightful. I think you used to get it after you had had a lot of guests and they all went home and the house was finally cleaned up and you could turn on the radio and cook your own kind of stew and read and look up and know god damned well that you were alone. And there’s something about seeing a cumulus cloud way off and going over there to see what it is like.

My first reason for getting a license was that here I am only about a year and a half from forty and I wanted to learn to handle the controls while my reflexes were still malleable. I saw my father try to learn to drive a car when he was sixty five and he never could do it unconsciously. He had to think every time for the gear shift and he had to think about how to get out of a mess. Well, I wanted to get the controls into my unconscious before I got too old. And the moment I began going up I found something much more than that. Some very delicious thing with no name for it yet anyway, but it does seem to be some extension of aesthetics.

Complement the endlessly rewarding Steinbeck: A Life in Letters with the beloved writer on racism and bigotry, the crucible of creativity, and the necessary contradictions of human nature, then revisit Bruce Lee on the only meaningful measure of achievement and Joni Mitchell on freedom, the source of creativity, and the paradox of success.

BP

John Steinbeck on Good and Evil, the Necessary Contradictions of the Human Nature, and Our Grounds for Lucid Hope

“All the goodness and the heroisms will rise up again, then be cut down again and rise up. It isn’t that the evil thing wins — it never will — but that it doesn’t die.”

There are events in our personal lives and our collective history that seem categorically irredeemable, moments in which the grounds for gratefulness and hope have sunk so far below the sea level of sorrow that we have ceased to believe they exist. But we have within us the consecrating capacity to rise above those moments and behold the bigger picture in all of its complexity, complementarity, and temporal sweep, and to find in what we see not illusory consolation but the truest comfort there is: that of perspective.

John Steinbeck (February 27, 1902–December 20, 1968) embodies this difficult, transcendent willingness in an extraordinary letter to his friend Pascal Covici — who would soon become his literary fairy godfather of sorts — penned on the first day of 1941, as World War II was raging and engulfing humanity in unbearable darkness. Found in Steinbeck: A Life in Letters (public library) — which also gave us the beloved writer on the difficult art of the friend breakup, his comical account of a dog-induced “computer crash” decades before computers, and his timeless advice on falling in love — the letter stands as a timeless testament to the consolatory power of rehabilitating nuance, making room for fertile contradiction, and taking a wider perspective.

John Steinbeck

Steinbeck writes on January 1, 1941:

Speaking of the happy new year, I wonder if any year ever had less chance of being happy. It’s as though the whole race were indulging in a kind of species introversion — as though we looked inward on our neuroses. And the thing we see isn’t very pretty… So we go into this happy new year, knowing that our species has learned nothing, can, as a race, learn nothing — that the experience of ten thousand years has made no impression on the instincts of the million years that preceded.

But Steinbeck, who devoted his life to defending the disenfranchised and celebrating the highest potentiality of the human spirit, refuses to succumb to what Rebecca Solnit has so aptly termed the “despair, defeatism, cynicism[,] amnesia and assumptions” to which we reflexively resort in maladaptive self-defense against overwhelming evil. Instead, fifteen centuries after Plato’s brilliant charioteer metaphor for good and evil, Steinbeck quickly adds a perceptive note on the indelible duality of human nature and the cyclical character of the civilizational continuity we call history:

Not that I have lost any hope. All the goodness and the heroisms will rise up again, then be cut down again and rise up. It isn’t that the evil thing wins — it never will — but that it doesn’t die. I don’t know why we should expect it to. It seems fairly obvious that two sides of a mirror are required before one has a mirror, that two forces are necessary in man before he is man. I asked [the influential microbiologist] Paul de Kruif once if he would like to cure all disease and he said yes. Then I suggested that the man he loved and wanted to cure was a product of all his filth and disease and meanness, his hunger and cruelty. Cure those and you would have not man but an entirely new species you wouldn’t recognize and probably wouldn’t like.

Steinbeck’s point is subtle enough to be mistaken for moral relativism, but is in fact quite the opposite — he suggests that our human foibles don’t negate our goodness or our desire for betterment but, rather, provide both the fuel for it and the yardstick by which we measure our moral progress.

He wrests from this inevitable interplay of order and chaos the mortal flaw of the Nazi regime and the grounds for hope toward surviving the atrocity of WWII, which, lest we forget, much of the world feared was unsurvivable in toto:

It is interesting to watch the German efficiency, which, from the logic of the machine is efficient but which (I suspect) from the mechanics of the human species is suicidal. Certainly man thrives best (or has at least) in a state of semi-anarchy. Then he has been strong, inventive, reliant, moving. But cage him with rules, feed him and make him healthy and I think he will die as surely as a caged wolf dies. I should not be surprised to see a cared for, thought for, planned for nation disintegrate, while a ragged, hungry, lustful nation survived. Surely no great all-encompassing plan has ever succeeded.

Mercifully, Steinbeck was right — the Nazis’ grim world domination plan ultimately failed, humanity as a whole survived these unforgivable crimes against it (though we continually fail to sufficiently reflect upon them), and we commenced another revolution around the cycle of construction and destruction, creating great art and writing great literature and making great scientific discoveries, all the while carrying our parallel capacities for good and evil along for the ride, as we are bound to always do.

So when we witness evil punctuate the line of our moral and humanitarian progress, as we periodically do, may we remember, even within the most difficult moments of that periodicity, Steinbeck’s sobering perspective and lucid faith in the human spirit.

Complement this particular fragment of the wholly magnificent Steinbeck: A Life in Letters with Albert Camus on strength of character amid difficulty, Hannah Arendt on how we humanize each other, Joseph Brodsky on the greatest antidote to evil, Toni Morrison on the artist’s task in troubled times, and Rebecca Solnit on our grounds for hope in the dark.

BP

View Full Site

Brain Pickings participates in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn commissions by linking to Amazon. In more human terms, this means that whenever you buy a book on Amazon from a link on here, I receive a small percentage of its price, which goes straight back into my own colossal biblioexpenses. Privacy policy.