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Monday, November 29, 2010

John Steinbeck...American craftsman

Just watched the last part of a John Steinbeck "bio" on the biography channel. Learned about his search for the "soul of America" through his trip with his poodle, Charley, and his discovery that, like the white bread that is good and tasteless, Steinbeck worried about the decline in localisms, especially those found in the local vernacular of the many regions of the U.S.
When he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, and then asked in an public interview, "Do you deserve it?" he responded, "Frankly, no!" His critics called his work sentimental and superficial, and this criticism cut him deeply, so deeply in fact that he never wrote another word of fiction in his life afterward.
A sensitive man, who apparently had a turbulent relationship with his mother, and two divorces prior to meeting and marrying his third wife, Elaine, the producer on the original production of the musical, Oklahoma, Steinbeck's work generated much social criticism and turbulence, although to him, he was merely writing what he observed.
When he was asked to go to Moscow, as part of a cultural exchange, by then President John Kennedy, he was asked there how such a dissident could be such a patriot. His answer dumbfounded the Russians: I wrote about the situation in my country in the 30's and described what I saw truthfully, and I have done that all my life. In your country, you do not wish to really look at the conditions that exist and deal with them in their reality...(a paraphrase).
When President Johnson sought his advice, especially on VietNam, he actually went to the war zone, and pictures of him in green army fatigues in the American press seemed to solidify his "pro-war" stance while what he saw and learned from that told him that the U.S. could not and would not win that war. So his public persona and his heart's convictions were at odds again.
It was his "The Pearl" that struck me, when I read it for the first time. A story, so simple and parabolic, that confounded the reader with images of a scorpion dangling over the head of a very young child. And his capacity to write about the concrete "ground" pictures of his world are so graphic and convincing that critics have said he wrote about "Steinbeck country" in all of his work.
His capacity for compassion was gigantic, as was his own sensitivity especially to criticism. His social conscience drove much of his writing as he described horrific conditions whenever and wherever he found them. A modern Dickens perhaps, although there seems a little more bite and dry dust to his landscapes, integral to the southwest. His poverty and desperation were never merely observations; they came from his own life experiences of his own poverty and desperation.
He believed that one simply had to be conscious of whatever was going on in the world, in order to understand and to grapple with the forces that shaped those dramas.
Steinbeck's ashes are buried with his mother and father in California.
Would that all readers could taste the menu of Steinbeck's mind along with that of Hemingway, so that all males in North America could enter into their own deep and dark corners of their fears, their angers and their imaginations.

Here is the Nobel Prize Speech delivered in Stockholm, December 10, 1962 by John Steinbeck
Read and Feast on its bounty and hope!
I thank the Swedish Academy for finding my work worthy of this highest honor.

In my heart there may be doubt that I deserve the Nobel award over other men of letters whom I hold in respect and reverence - but there is no question of my pleasure and pride in having it for myself.
It is customary for the recipient of this award to offer personal or scholarly comment on the nature and the direction of literature. At this particular time, however, I think it would be well to consider the high duties and the responsibilities of the makers of literature.
Such is the prestige of the Nobel award and of this place where I stand that I am impelled, not to squeak like a grateful and apologetic mouse, but to roar like a lion out of pride in my profession and in the great and good men who have practiced it through the ages.
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.
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 a part of the writer's responsibility to make sure that they do.
With humanity's long proud history of standing firm against 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.
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 judgment.
Nobel saw some of the cruel and bloody misuses of his inventions. He may even have foreseen the end result of 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.
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 test 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.


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