See John Steinbeck Deliver His Apocalyptic Nobel Prize Speech (1962)

John Stein­beck had the lit­er­ary voice of an Amer­i­can preach­er. Not a New Eng­land Calvin­ist, all cold rea­son­ing, nor a South­ern Pen­te­costal, all fiery feel­ing, but a Cal­i­for­nia cousin, the many gen­er­a­tions trav­el­ing west­ward hav­ing pro­duced in him both hunger and vision, so that grandios­i­ty is his nat­ur­al idiom, rest­less, unful­filled desire his nat­ur­al tone. His themes, cer­tain­ly Bib­li­cal; his char­ac­ters, salt of the earth trades­men, nomads, the lame and the halt. But his syn­tax always spoke of vast­ness, of a God-like uni­verse emp­tied of all gods. And so, when Stein­beck won the Nobel Prize in 1962, his speech rang of a human­ist ser­mon carved on stone tablets. (Above, as he reads, it’s hard not to see him as Vin­cent Price, a look he acquired in his final years.)

At times, I must admit, it’s not great. Or, rather, it’s a strange, uneven speech. Where Stein­beck the nov­el­ist is in full com­mand of his bom­bast, Stein­beck the speech­writer sounds at times like he pieced things togeth­er in his hotel room the night before with only his Gideon as a ref­er­ence. Ah, but Stein­beck at 4 in the morn­ing exceeds what most of us could do at any­time if asked to speak on such a sub­ject as “the nature and direc­tion of lit­er­a­ture,” which he says is cus­tom­ary for one in his posi­tion. Stein­beck decides to change the task and instead dis­cuss no less than “the high duties and respon­si­bil­i­ties of the mak­ers of lit­er­a­ture.” Per­haps a more man­age­able top­ic. He speaks of the writer’s mis­sion not as a priest­craft of words, but as a guardian­ship of some­thing even old­er, “as old as speech.” He invokes “the skalds, the bards, the writ­ers,” but of the priests who came lat­er, he has no kind words:

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.

The crit­ic in me winces, but the read­er in me thrills. After a few clunk­ers in his open­ing (some­thing about a mouse and a lion), he has turned on the judg­ment, and it’s good. This is the Stein­beck we love, who makes us look through a god’s eye view tele­scope, then turns it around and shows us the oth­er end. Then it’s gone, the scale, the enor­mi­ty, the fan­tas­tic moral­i­ty play. He gets a lit­tle vague on Faulkn­er, men­tions some read­ing he’d just done on Alfred Nobel. And as you begin to sus­pect he’s going to tell us about his sum­mer vaca­tion, he erupts into a glo­ri­ous finale of ground­shak­ing fire­works wor­thy of com­par­i­son to the Nobel invention’s most fear­some cold war prog­e­ny.

Less than fifty years after [Nobel’s] 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.

I think St. John  would be proud of the vehi­cle, if not at all the tenor. But unlike John Stein­beck, he nev­er saw the war that gave us Auschwitz and Hiroshi­ma. Read the full text of Steinbeck’s speech at the Nobel Prize site here.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

“Noth­ing Good Gets Away”: John Stein­beck Offers Love Advice in a Let­ter to His Son (1958)

William Faulkn­er Reads His Nobel Prize Speech

On His 100th Birth­day, Hear Albert Camus Deliv­er His Nobel Prize Accep­tance Speech (1957)

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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