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Remembering Steinbeck When We Really Need Him

The year that is drawing to a close is the centennial of one of the 20th century’s great writers and humanists: John Steinbeck.

Steinbeck was a truly universal writer, whose work is still read and loved all over the world. His special relevance for freethinkers is his understanding that a viable and fulfilling worldview cannot be limited to rationalism; it must also integrate our capacities for imagination and love. Science, art, and love are all expressions of essential humanity. These themes recur in his public and private writings.

The Log from the Sea of Cortez, an account of a 1940 scientific expedition Steinbeck made with his friend Ed Ricketts, is considered by many scholars to the single work that reveals most about Steinbeck’s philosophy. In it, Steinbeck and Ricketts intentionally combine the scientific and philosophical with flights of fancy. In the introduction Steinbeck comments, “[T]he impulse which drives a man to poetry will send another man into the tide pools and force him to try to report what he finds there. It would be good to know the impulse truly, not to be confused by the ‘services to science’ platitudes. . . . ”

Yet it was not his enthusiasm for science or even his artistry that made Steinbeck a major influence on American culture, and earned his writing the Pulitzer and Nobel prizes. It was the compassion that suffused both his life and writings. Steinbeck’s attitude was not one of superior or self-congratulatory pity, but of fellow-feeling: not only for the socially oppressed, but for all humans struggling with the frailty and contradictions of human nature (in other words, all of us). As the Nobel prize committee put it, “[H]is realistic as well as imaginative writings [were] distinguished by a sympathetic humour and a keen social perception.” Steinbeck himself commented in a 1938 journal entry, “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 . . . always that base theme. Try to understand each other.” It is obvious that this insight was the foundation for Steinbeck’s most celebrated works, like the classic Grapes of Wrath. The same is true of lesser known works, some of them being reintroduced to the public by the National Steinbeck Center and the Steinbeck Centennial committee. For example, Steinbeck had listened to the experiences of European refugees before writing The Moon Is Down, a story of resistance that became an underground classic in Nazi-occupied Europe. Asked how he understood so well the problems and reactions of citizens of occupied countries, he answered, “I thought about what I would do.”

Steinbeck’s faith was not in gods but in humanity, not in human perfection, but in human perfectibility. In his Nobel prize acceptance speech, he insisted that, “[T]he writer is charged with exposing our many grievous faults and failures, with dredging up to the light our dark and dangerous [and] 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. . . . ”

Now more than ever, we can draw on Steinbeck’s wisdom for inspiration in battling the forces of fear. If you’re lucky, you’ll have time to explore the websites at the end of this article. For now, as we come to the end of the year, and any time you want to pause and take stock, I leave you with the close of Steinbeck’s 1962 speech. Reflecting on Alfred Nobel’s purpose in establishing the Peace Prize, and the relatively recent discovery of atomic energy, Steinbeck said,

Less than fifty years after his death, 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 or death of the whole world–of all living things.

The danger and the glory and the choice rest finally in man. The rest of his perfectibility is at hand.

Having taken Godlike 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, St. John the apostle may well be paraphrased: In the end is the Word, and the Word is Man–and the Word is with Men.


1962 Nobel Prize Presentation Speech by Anders Osterling

John Steinbeck’s Nobel Prize Acceptance Speech

A Bard for the Powerless” by Lisa Rogers, an essay sponsored by the National Endowment for the Humanities

Photos of Steinbeck Country illustrating passages in Cannery Row (San Jose State University English Dept) provided by Center for Steinbeck Studies at San Jose State University

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