Happy Birthday, John Steinbeck

John Steinbeck was born 108 years ago today in Salinas, California, the “Salad Bowl of the World.” His family lived in a Victorian house that still stands on one of Salinas’s main streets. It is a restaurant now. And down the street just a couple of blocks sits the National Steinbeck Center, at the head of Main Street, which anchors the Oldtown district of the city. Freight trains crawl along in the near distance, running along the tracks above the underpass that the city’s many visitors use to get to Route 101. Route 101 that connects San Francisco to Los Angeles, running past green fields devoted to crops; some of them traditional, like lettuce, garlic, artichokes and others marking evolutions in America’s gustatory superabundance: maché, nuts, grape vines for wine.

The city of Salinas is not a nonpareil of a resort like nearby Carmel. It is not ocean-kissed like its near neighbors of Monterey and Pacific Grove. There are other towns like Salinas that seem down at the mouth, even embittered. But if Salinas does not have the wallet-and purse-opening allure of a place that draws people solely for its beauty, it does exude an air of optimism, of something beyond mere grappling with survival. Its Oldtown looks much more alive than it did when my brother and I passed through it a decade ago on a trip north. “Could Salinas evolve into an internationally-recognized literary-historic destination, appearing regularly in national press and travel literature, sought after by tourists and the employees of new businesses as a unique place to visit?” the city website asks. Salinas has become the epicenter for Steinbeck fans. And Steinbeck fans, especially in this part of the world, are legion.

Nearly every native or long-term Californian who picks up A Journey Through Literary America, takes a test drive by reading the piece on Steinbeck. In a piece called “Why Ready John Steinbeck, Dr. Susan Shillinglaw wrote: “Steinbeck wanted his prose to recapture a child’s vision ‘of colors more clear than they are to adults, of tastes more sharp…I want to put down the way afternoon felt and of the feeling about a bird that sang in a tree in the evening.’” In hundreds upon hundreds of pages of prose, amateur naturalist John Steinbeck captured California through his close observance and vivid description of the flora and fauna. Amateur sociologist and philosopher Steinbeck captured its people. California is a massive state—as large as and more economically mighty than many nations (though it is currently gasping for air). The odds stand firmly against one artist being able to wrap his brain around it. But by dint of perseverance, inexhaustible curiosity, willingness to travel, and a unique combination of gifts, Steinbeck succeeded in doing just that.

For a fairly recent Newsweek article about conditions in the agricultural area around the Weedpatch camp (the model for the migrant camp that the Joads reached in The Grapes of Wrath) click here.

And below, selections from Steinbeck’s 1962 Nobel Prize acceptance speech, presented to him with these words: “Thanks to your instinct for what is genuinely American you stand out as a true representative of American life.”

Trivia Note: Alfred Nobel made his fortune through the patenting and sale of better and better explosives. Perhaps Steinbeck is the only Nobel Prize-winning author who was experienced in the use of dynamite.

From the speech:

“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 tinhorn 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.

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 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.”


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