Today is the birthday (1902) of John Ernst Steinbeck Jr, considered to be one of the giants of US literature. During his writing career, he wrote 33 books (with one book coauthored with Edward Ricketts), including 16 novels, 6 non-fiction books, and 2 collections of short stories. He is widely known for the comic novels Tortilla Flat (1935) and Cannery Row (1945), the multi-generation epic East of Eden (1952), and the novellas The Red Pony (1933) and Of Mice and Men (1937). The Pulitzer Prize-winning The Grapes of Wrath (1939) is considered Steinbeck’s masterpiece. Most of Steinbeck’s work is set in central California, particularly in the Salinas Valley and the California Coast Ranges region. His works frequently explore the themes of fate and injustice, especially as applied to downtrodden or everyday protagonists.
In 1962, Steinbeck won the Nobel Prize for literature for his “realistic and imaginative writing, combining as it does sympathetic humor and keen social perception.” The selection was heavily criticized, and described as “one of the Academy’s biggest mistakes” in one Swedish newspaper. The reaction of US literary critics was also harsh. The New York Times asked why the Nobel committee gave the award to an author whose “limited talent is, in his best books, watered down by tenth-rate philosophising”, noting that “[T]he international character of the award and the weight attached to it raise questions about the mechanics of selection and how close the Nobel committee is to the main currents of American writing. … [W]e think it interesting that the laurel was not awarded to a writer … whose significance, influence and sheer body of work had already made a more profound impression on the literature of our age.” Steinbeck, when asked on the day of the announcement if he deserved the Nobel, replied: “Frankly, no.” In his acceptance speech later in the year in Stockholm, he said:
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 believe in the perfectibility of man has no dedication nor any membership in literature.
Fifty years later, in 2012, the Nobel Prize opened its archives and it was revealed that Steinbeck was a “compromise choice” among a shortlist consisting of Steinbeck, British authors Robert Graves and Lawrence Durrell, French dramatist Jean Anouilh and Danish author Karen Blixen. The declassified documents showed that he was chosen as the best of a bad lot. “There aren’t any obvious candidates for the Nobel prize and the prize committee is in an unenviable situation,” wrote committee member Henry Olsson. Although the committee believed Steinbeck’s best work was behind him by 1962, committee member Anders Österling believed the release of his novel The Winter of Our Discontent showed that “after some signs of slowing down in recent years, [Steinbeck has] regained his position as a social truth-teller [and is an] authentic realist fully equal to his predecessors Sinclair Lewis and Ernest Hemingway.”
Although modest about his own talent as a writer, Steinbeck talked openly of his own admiration of certain writers. In 1953, he wrote that he considered cartoonist Al Capp, creator of the satirical Li’l Abner, “possibly the best writer in the world today.” At his own first Nobel Prize press conference he was asked his favorite authors and works and replied: “Hemingway’s short stories and nearly everything Faulkner wrote.”
Rather than dribble on about Steinbeck’s oeuvre I’ll give some salient quotes of his – drifting into his thoughts on food followed by one of his recipes:
I wonder how many people I’ve looked at all my life and never seen.
Maybe ever’body in the whole damn world is scared of each other.
All great and precious things are lonely.
And now that you don’t have to be perfect, you can be good
There ain’t no sin and there ain’t no virtue. There’s just stuff people do.
It’s so much darker when a light goes out than it would have been if it had never shone.”
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 idea, religion, or government which limits or destroys the individual. This is what I am and what I am about.
All war is a symptom of man’s failure as a thinking animal.”
Ideas are like rabbits. You get a couple and learn how to handle them, and pretty soon you have a dozen.
I was born lost and take no pleasure in being found.
Steinbeck enjoyed entertaining and cooking, and often made poignant remarks about food:
But of all, the hot soup machine is the triumph. Choose among ten—pea, chicken noodle, beef and veg., insert coin. A rumbling hum comes from the giant and a sign lights up that reads “Heating”. After a minute a red light flashes on and off until you open a little door and remove the paper cup of boiling hot soup. It is life at a peak of some kind of civilization.”
The restaurant accommodations, great scallops of counters with simulated leather stools, are as spotless as and not unlike the lavatories. Everything that can be captured and held down is sealed in clear plastic. The food is oven-fresh, spotless and tasteless; untouched by human hands. I remember with an ache certain dishes in France and Italy touched by innumerable human hands.
I ordered bratwurst and sauerkraut and distinctly saw the cook unwrap a sausage from a cellophane slip cover and drop it into boiling water. The beer came in a can. The bratwurst was terrible and the kraut an insulting watery mess.
Let’s take food as we have found it. It is more than possible that in the cities we have passed through, traffic-harried, there are good and distinguished restaurants with menus of delight. But in the eating places along the roads the food has been clean, tasteless, colorless, and of a complete sameness. It is almost as though the customers had no interest in what they ate as long as it had no character to embarrass them.
Can I then say that the America I saw has put cleanliness first, at the expense of taste?
If this people has so atrophied its taste buds as to find tasteless food not only acceptable but desirable, what of the emotional life of the nation? We’ve listened to local radio across the country. And apart from a few reportings of football games, the mental fare has been as generalized, as packaged, and as undistinguished as the food.
Here, then, is Steinbeck’s own recipe for cole slaw (slightly edited):
John Steinbeck’s Old-Fashioned Slaw
1 medium head of cabbage
1 small onion
1 large green pepper
18 pimento stuffed green olives, sliced
1 tbsp-celery seed
½ cup sugar
½ cup salad oil
½ cup cider vinegar
1 tsp salt
1 tsp prepared mustard
Shred or chop the cabbage, onion and green pepper. Sprinkle the green olives and celery seed over vegetables and mix well.
In a small saucepan combine and bring to a boil the sugar, oil, vinegar, salt and mustard. Pour the hot liquid over the vegetables. Mix well, cover, and refrigerate 24 hours before serving.