What It Means to Be a Writer: John Steinbeck’s Nobel Prize Acceptance Speech About Slicing Through Humanity’s Confusion
By Maria Popova
“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.”
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.
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.
Published April 29, 2019