As any good writer knows, the intended audience shapes the message even before a word touches the paper or emerges on the computer screen. When the entire world is the audience, as John Steinbeck discovered when he won the Nobel Prize in 1962, the writer’s task is particularly challenging.
The Nobel Prize “is a monster in some ways,” Steinbeck wrote shortly after learning he had won the honor for literature. “I have always been afraid of it. Now I must handle it.”
Handle it he did, taking the recognition of his art and reshaping it to share his vision of the writer’s obligations to the world. What remains today is more than a historical document addressing the hair-trigger tension between Cold War super-powers. It is a call to each of us to continue to embrace literature as a reflection of humankind’s threatened condition, what Steinbeck calls “our greatest hazard and our only hope.”
The pages of Steinbeck’s Nobel speech are well marked in my copy of The Portable Steinbeck, and the writer’s words resonate as deeply today as they did when they were delivered before an international audience in Sweden on December 8, 1962. As an occasional speech writer myself, I recommend Steinbeck’s relatively brief comments as a model of form, content, and tone.
Like Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address a century earlier, Steinbeck’s Nobel speech is the creation of an enlightened mind informed by a profoundly moral imagination:
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.
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.
Steinbeck’s literary fingerprint is particularly discernible in his description of Alfred Nobel at the end of his address:
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.
For writers like Alice Munro, this year’s Nobel Prize winner in literature, as well as for simple scribblers like me, there is an instructive back story to Steinbeck’s speech worth remembering in any era. As the biographer Jackson Benson notes in The Adventures of John Steinbeck, Writer, Steinbeck understood that “the English sentence is just as difficult to write as it ever was,” even when the effort is linked to a well-deserved honor for literary merit. Just do your best, Steinbeck would still advise us.
“I wrote the damned speech at least 20 times,” Steinbeck wrote his college friend Carlton Sheffield shortly before leaving with his wife Elaine for Stockholm 51 years ago. “I, being a foreigner in Sweden, tried to make it suave and diplomatic and it was a bunch of crap. Last night I got mad and wrote exactly what I wanted to say. I don’t know whether or not it’s good but at least it’s me.”