William Faulkner, 1949:
Almost every year since 1901, the Swedish Academy has apportioned one fifth of the interest from the fortune bequeathed by dynamite inventor Alfred Nobel to honor, as Nobel said in his will, “the person who shall have produced in the field of literature the most outstanding work in an ideal direction.”
Many of the greatest writers of the past 112 years have received the Nobel Prize in Literature, but there have been some glaring omissions right from the start. When Leo Tolstoy was passed over in 1901 (the prize went to the French poet Sully Prudhomme) he was so offended he refused later nominations. The list of great writers who were alive after 1901 but never received the prize is jaw-dropping. In addition to Tolstoy, it includes James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, Mark Twain, Joseph Conrad, Anton Chekhov, Marcel Proust, Henry James, Henrik Ibsen, Émile Zola, Robert Frost, W.H. Auden, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Jorge Luis Borges and Vladimir Nabokov.
But the Nobel committee has honored many worthy writers, and today we’ve gathered together seven speeches by seven laureates. Our choice was restricted by the limitations of what is available online in English. We have focused on the short speeches traditionally given on December 10 of every year at the Nobel banquet in Stockholm. With the exception of short excerpts from Bertrand Russell’s lecture, we have passed over the longer Nobel lectures (which typically run about 40 minutes) presented to the Swedish Academy on a different day than the banquet.
We begin above with one of the most often-quoted Nobel speeches: William Faulkner’s eloquent acceptance of the 1949 prize. There was actually no prize in literature given in 1949, but the committee decided to award that year’s medal 12 months later to Faulkner, citing his “powerful and artistically unique contribution to the modern American novel.” Faulkner gave his speech on December 10, 1950, in the same ceremony with Bertrand Russell. Unfortunately the audio cuts off just before the finish. To follow along and read the missing ending, click here to open the full text in a new window. Faulkner stumbles a few times during his delivery. You can listen to his smoother 1954 reading of a polished version of the speech here.
Bertrand Russell, 1950:
The British logician and philosopher Bertrand Russell was one of several prize-winners in literature who were primarily known for their work in other fields. (The short list includes statesman Winston Churchill and philosopher Henri Bergson.) In addition to his ground-breaking contributions to mathematics and analytic philosophy, Russell wrote many books for the general reader. In 1950 the Nobel committee cited his “varied and significant writings in which he champions humanitarian ideals and freedom of thought.” Above are two short audio clips from Russell’s December 11, 1950 Nobel lecture, “What Desires are Politically Important?” You can click here to open the full text in a new window.
Ernest Hemingway, 1954:
The American writer Ernest Hemingway was awarded the 1954 prize “for his mastery of the art of narrative, most recently demonstrated in The Old Man and the Sea, and for the influence that he has exerted on contemporary style.” Hemingway was not feeling well enough in December of 1954 to travel to Stockholm, so he asked John C. Cabot, United States Ambassador to Sweden, to deliver the speech for him. Fortunately we do have this recording from sometime that month of Hemingway reading his speech at a radio station in Havana, Cuba. You can click here to open the full text in a new window.
John Steinbeck, 1962:
The American writer John Steinbeck, author of The Grapes of Wrath and Of Mice and Men, was awarded the Nobel in 1962 “for his realistic and imaginative writings, combining as they do sympathetic humor and keen social perception.” To read along as you watch Steinbeck give his speech, click here to open the text in a new window.
V.S. Naipaul, 2001:
Jumping ahead from 1962 all the way to 2001, we have video of the speech given by the Trinidadian-British writer V.S. Naipaul, author of such books as In a Free State and A Bend in the River. Naipaul was cited by the Nobel committee “for having united perceptive narrative and incorruptible scrutiny in works that compel us to see the presence of suppressed histories.” You can click here to open a text of Naipaul’s banquet speech in a new window.
Orhan Pamuk, 2006:
The Turkish writer Orhan Pamuk, author of such books as The Museum of Innocence and Snow, received the prize in 2006. The Nobel committee praised the Istanbul-based writer, “who in the quest for the melancholic soul of his native city has discovered new symbols for the clash and interlacing of cultures.” To read Pamuk’s banquet speech, click here to open the text in a new window.
Mario Vargas Llosa, 2010:
The prolific Peruvian-Spanish writer Mario Vargas Llosa, author of such novels as Conversation in the Cathedral and Death in the Andes, was cited by the Nobel committee in 2010 “for his cartography of structures of power and his trenchant images of the individual’s resistance, revolt, and defeat.” To read along with Vargas Llosa as he speaks, click here to open the text in a new window.