John Steinbeck

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It first appeared like a crazy idea. It turned out he had a great idea.
J. Richard Munro
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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.

John Ernst Steinbeck III (February 27, 1902 December 20, 1968) was one of the best-known and most widely read American writers of the 20th century. A winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1962, he is best known for his novella Of Mice and Men (1937) and his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Grapes of Wrath (1939), both of which examine the lives of the working class and migrant workers during the Great Depression.

See also: The Grapes of Wrath, East of Eden, The Winter of Our Discontent

Sourced

  • We are lonesome animals. We spend all our life trying to be less lonesome. One of our ancient methods is to tell a story begging the listener to say — and to feel — ”Yes, that’s the way it is, or at least that’s the way I feel it. You’re not as alone as you thought.”
    • “In Awe of Words,” The Exonian, 75th anniversary edition, Exeter University (1930)
  • The discipline of the written word punishes both stupidity and dishonesty.
    • “In Awe of Words,” The Exonian, 75th anniversary edition, Exeter University
  • What good men most biologists are, the tenors of the scientific world-temperamental, moody, lecherous, loud-laughing, and healthy. Your true biologist will sing you a song as loud and off-key as will a blacksmith, for he knows that morals are too often diagnostic of prostatitis and stomach ulcers. Sometimes he may proliferate a little too much in all directions, but he is as easy to kill as any other organism, and meanwhile he is very good company, and at least he does not confuse a low hormone productivity with moral ethics.
  • One man was so mad at me that he ended his letter: “Beware. You will never get out of this world alive.”
    • “The Mail I’ve Seen” Saturday Review (3 August 1956)
  • Writers are a little below clowns and a little above trained seals.
    • Quote magazine (18 June 1961)
  • The President must be greater than anyone else, but not better than anyone else. We subject him and his family to close and constant scrutiny and denounce them for things that we ourselves do every day. A Presidential slip of the tongue, a slight error in judgment — social, political, or ethical — can raise a storm of protest. We give the President more work than a man can do, more responsibility than a man should take, more pressure than a man can bear. We abuse him often and rarely praise him. We wear him out, use him up, eat him up. And with all this, Americans have a love for the President that goes beyond loyalty or party nationality; he is ours, and we exercise the right to destroy him.
    • America and Americans (1966)
  • In utter loneliness a writer tries to explain the inexplicable.
  • The writer must believe that what he is doing is the most important thing in the world. And he must hold to this illusion even when he knows it is not true.
    • New York Times (2 June 1969)
  • Syntax, my lad. It has been restored to the highest place in the republic.
    • When asked his reaction to John F. Kennedy’s inaugural address
    • Quoted by Atlantic magazine (November 1969)
  • If lowborn men could stand up to those born to rule, religion, government, the whole world would fall to pieces...[Merlin replies]...So it would; so it will...then the pieces will be put together again by such as destroyed it.
    • The Acts of King Arthur and His Noble Knights
  • Unless a reviewer has the courage to give you unqualified praise, I say ignore the bastard.

Of Mice and Men (1937)

  • George:Lord knows you don't need no brains to buck barley.
    ("Buck" here means to work at lifting and throwing the sacks of barley.)
  • Lennie:We could live offa the fatta the lan’.
    Ch. 3, p.57
  • What the hell kind of bed you giving us, anyways. We don’t want no pants rabbits.
    Ch. 2, p.20
  • Well, that glove's fulla vaseline.
    Vaseline? What the hell for?
    Well, I tell ya what - Curley says he's keepin' that hand soft for his wife."
    Ch. 2, p.29
  • George:I never seen no piece of jail bait worse than her. You leave her be.
    Ch.2, p.32
  • His ear heard more than was said to him, and his slow speech had overtones not of thought, but of understanding beyond thought.
    Ch.2, p.35
  • Guy don't need no sense to be a nice fella. Seems to me sometimes it jus' works the other way around. Take a real smart guy and he ain't hardly ever a nice fella.
    Ch.3, p.41
  • Crooks: Books ain’t no good. A guy needs somebody – to be near him. A guy goes nuts if he ain’t got nobody.
    Ch.4, p.72
  • I seen too many guys with land in their head. They never get none under their hand.
    Ch.4, p.75
  • Curleys wife:You watch your place, nigger. I could get you strung up on a tree so easy, it ain't even funny.
    Ch.4, p.80
  • You ain't worth a greased lack pin to ram you into hell.
    Ch.6, p.101

The Grapes of Wrath (1939)

These are just a few samples, for more quotes from this work see: The Grapes of Wrath
  • Man, unlike anything organic or inorganic in the universe, grows beyond his work, walks up the stairs of his concepts, emerges ahead of his accomplishments.
    Ch. 14
  • How can we live without our lives? How will we know it’s us without our past?
  • Prayer never brought in no side-meat. Takes a shoat to bring in pork.

East of Eden (1952)

These are just a few samples, for more quotes from this work see: East of Eden
This I believe: that the free, exploring mind of the individual human is the most valuable thing in the world.
  • Our species is the only creative species, and it has only one creative instrument, the individual mind and spirit of a man. Nothing was ever created by two men. There are no good collaborations, whether in art, in music, in poetry, in mathematics, in philosophy. Once the miracle of creation has taken place, the group can build and extend it, but the group never invents anything. The preciousness lies in the lonely mind of a man.
    And now the forces marshaled around the concept of the group have declared a war of extermination on that preciousness, the mind of man. By disparagement, by starvation, by repressions, forced direction, and the stunning blows of conditioning, the free, roving mind is being pursued, roped, blunted, drugged. It is a sad suicidal course our species seems to have taken.
    And this I believe: that the free, exploring mind of the individual human is the most valuable thing in the world. And this I would fight for: the freedom of the mind to take any direction it wishes, undirected. And this I must fight against: any religion, or government which limits or destroys the individual. This is what I am and what I am about. I can understand why a system built on a pattern must try to destroy the free mind, for it is the one thing which can by inspection destroy such a system. Surely I can understand this, and I hate it and I will fight against it to preserve the one thing that separates us from the uncreative beasts. If the glory can be killed, we are lost.
    Part 1, Ch. 13
  • Maybe that's the reason," Adam said slowly, feeling his way. "Maybe if I had loved him I would have been jealous of him. You were. Maybe-maybe love makes you suspicious and doubting. Is it true that when you love a woman you are never sure-never sure of her because you aren't sure of yourself? I can see it pretty clearly. I can see how you loved him and what it did to you. I did not love him. Maybe he loved me. He tested me and hurt me and punished me and finally he sent me out like a sacrifice, maybe to make up for something. But he did not love you, and so he had faith in you. Maybe — why, maybe it's a kind of reverse.
  • "What freedom men and women could have, were they not constantly tricked and trapped and enslaved and tortured by their sexuality! The only drawback in that freedom is that without it one would not be a human. One would be a monster."
  • It seems to me that if you or I must choose between two courses of thought or action, we should remember our dying and try so to live that our death brings no pleasure on the world.
  • Eventlessness has no posts to drape duration on. From nothing to nothing is no time at all.
  • There are no ugly questions except those clothed in condescension.
  • We all have that heritage, no matter what old land our fathers left. All colors and blends of Americans have somewhat the same tendencies. It's a breed-- selected out by accident. And so we're overbrave and overfearful-- we're kind and cruel as children. We're overfriendly and at the same time frightened of strangers. We boast and are impressed. We're oversentimental and realistic. We are mundane and materialistic-- and do you know of any other nation that acts for ideals? We eat too much. We have no taste, no sense of proportion. We throw our energy about like waste. In the old lands they say of us that we go from barbarism to decadence without an intervening culture. Can it be that our critics have not the key or the language of our culture? That's what we are, Cal-- all of us.
  • Sometimes a kind of glory lights up the mind of a man. It happens to nearly everyone. You can feel it growing or preparing like a fuse burning toward dynamite. It is a feeling in the stomach, a delight of the nerves, of the forearms. The skin tastes the air, and every deep-drawn breath is sweet. Its beginning has the pleasure of a great stretching yawn; it flashes in the brain and the whole world glows outside your eyes. A man may have lived all his life in the gray, and the land and trees of him dark and somber. The events, even the important ones, may have trooped by faceless and pale. And then—the glory—so that a cricket song sweetens the ears, the smell of the earth rises chanting to his nose, and dappling light under a tree blesses his eyes. Then a man pours outward, a torrent of him, and yet he is not diminished…

Sweet Thursday (1954)

  • Men do change, and change comes like a little wind that ruffles the curtains at dawn, and it comes like the stealthy perfume of wildflowers hidden in the grass.
  • Where does discontent start? You are warm enough, but you shiver. You are fed, yet hunger gnaws you. You have been loved, but your yearning wanders in new fields. And to prod all these there’s time, the Bastard Time.

Nobel Prize acceptance speech (1962)

Speech at the Nobel Banquet (10 December 1962) (with links to audio file)
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.

Travels With Charley: In Search of America (1962)

  • A journey is like marriage. The certain way to be wrong is to think you control it.
    • Pt. 1
  • When I was very young and the urge to be someplace was on me, I was assured by mature people that maturity would cure this itch. When years described me as mature, the remedy prescribed was middle age. In middle age I was assured that greater age would calm my fever and now that I am fifty-eight perhaps senility will do the job. Nothing has worked.... In other words, I don’t improve, in further words, once a bum always a bum. I fear the disease is incurable.
    • Pt. 1
  • Four hoarse blasts of a ship’s whistle still raise the hair on my neck and set my feet to tapping.
    • Pt. 1
  • The sound of a jet, an engine warming up, even the clopping of shod hooves on pavement brings on the ancient shudder, the dry mouth and vacant eye, the hot palms and the churn of stomach high up under the rib cage.
    • Pt. 1
  • The techniques of opening conversation are universal. I knew long ago and rediscovered that the best way to attract attention, help, and conversation is to be lost. A man who seeing his mother starving to death on a path kicks her in the stomach to clear the way, will cheerfully devote several hours of his time giving wrong directions to a total stranger who claims to be lost.
    • Pt. 1
  • When the virus of restlessness begins to take possession of a wayward man, and the road away from Here seems broad and straight and sweet, the victim must first find himself a good and sufficient reason for going.
    • Pt. 1
  • And now, our submarines are armed with mass murder, our sill, only defense against mass murder.
    • Pt. 1
  • The mountains of things we throw aware are greater than the things we use. In this, if in no other way, we can see the reckless exuberance of our production and waste seems to be the index.
    • Pt. 1
  • Oh, we can populate the dark with horrors, even we who think ourselves informed and sure, believing nothing we cannot measure or weigh. I know beyond all doubt that the dark things crowding in on me either did not exist or were not dangerous to me, and still I was afraid.
    • Pt. 1
  • The new American finds his challenge and his love in the traffic-choked streets, skies nested in smog, choking with the acids of industry, the screech of rubber and houses leashed in against one another while the townlets wither a time and die. This is not offered in criticism but only as observation. And I am sure that, as all pendulums reverse their swing, so eventually will the swollen cities rupture like dehiscent wombs and disperse their children back to the countryside.
    • Pt. 2
  • Even while I protest the assembly-line production of our food, our songs, our language, and eventually our souls, I know that it was a rare home that baked good bread in the old days. Mother’s cooking was with rare exceptions poor, that good unpasteurized milk touched only by flies and bits of manure crawled with bacteria, the healthy old-time life was riddled with aches, sudden death from unknown causes, and that sweet local speech I mourn was the child of illiteracy and ignorance. It is the nature of a man as he grows older, a small bridge in time, to protest against change, particularly change for the better.
    • Pt. 2
  • I am in love with Montana. For other states I have admiration, respect, recognition, even some affection, but with Montana it is love.
    • Pt. 2
  • I guess this is why I hate governments. It is always the rule, the fine print, carried out by the fine print men. There's nothing to fight, no wall to hammer with frustrated fists.
    • Pt. 2
  • This monster of a land, this mightiest of nations, this spawn of the future, turns out to be the macrocosm of microcosm me.
    • Pt. 3
  • The Mojave is a big desert and a frightening one. It’s as though nature tested a man for endurance and constancy to prove whether he was good enough to get to California.
    • Pt. 3
  • There used to be a thing or a commodity we put great store by. It was called the People. Find out where the People have gone. I don’t mean the square-eyed toothpaste-and-hair-dye people or the new-car-or-bust people, or the success-and-coronary people. Maybe they never existed, but if there ever were the People, that’s the commodity the Declaration was talking about, and Mr. Lincoln.
    • Pt. 3
  • He wasn't involved with a race that could build a thing it had to escape from.
    • Pt. 3
  • I wonder why progress looks so much like destruction.
    • Pt. 3
  • We value virtue but do not discuss it. The honest bookkeeper, the faithful wife, the earnest scholar get little of our attention compared to the embezzler, the tramp, the cheat.
    • Pt. 3
  • Life could not change the sun or water the dessert, so it changed itself.
    • Pt. 3
  • Texas is a state of mind. Texas is an obsession. Above all, Texas is a nation in every sense of the word. And there’s an opening convey of generalities. A Texan outside of Texas is a foreigner.
    • Pt. 4
  • Sectional football games have the glory and the despair of war, and when a Texas team takes the field against a foreign state, it is an army with banners.
    • Pt. 4
  • A question is a trap, and an answer your foot in it.
    • Pt. 4
  • He doesn't belong to a race clever enough to split the atom but not clever enough to live at peace with itself.
    • Pt. 4

Writers at Work (1977)

Fourth Series, ed. George Plimpton
  • A book is like a man — clever and dull, brave and cowardly, beautiful and ugly. For every flowering thought there will be a page like a wet and mangy mongrel, and for every looping flight a tap on the wing and a reminder that wax cannot hold the feathers firm too near the sun.
    • On Publishing
  • Give a critic an inch, he’ll write a play.
    • On Critics
  • Time is the only critic without ambition.
    • On Critics
  • It is true that we are weak and sick and ugly and quarrelsome but if that is all we ever were, we would millenniums ago have disappeared from the face of the earth.
    • On Intent
  • I have owed you this letter for a very long time — but my fingers have avoided the pencil as though it were an old and poisoned tool.
    • Letter to his literary agent, found on his desk after his death in 1968

Unsourced

  • Boileau said that Kings, Gods and Heroes only were fit subjects for literature. The writer can only write about what he admires. Present-day kings aren't very inspiring, the gods are on a vacation and about the only heroes left are the scientists and the poor.
  • Ideas are like rabbits. You get a couple and learn how to handle them, and pretty soon you have a dozen.
  • It is a common experience that a problem difficult at night is resolved in the morning after the committee of sleep has worked on it.
  • No one wants advice, only corroboration.
  • Power does not corrupt. Fear corrupts... perhaps the fear of a loss of power.
  • So in our pride we ordered for breakfast an omelet, toast and coffee and what has just arrived is a tomato salad with onions, a dish of pickles, a big slice of watermelon and two bottles of cream soda.
    • On travelling in the USSR
  • ...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.

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