John Steinbeck's Nobel Prize Acceptance Speech 1962
I thank the Swedish Academy for finding my work worthy
of this highest honor. In my heart there may be doubt that I deserve the
Nobel Award over other men of letters whom I hold in respect or
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 scholarly or personal comment on the nature and direction of
literature. However, I think it would be well at this particular time to
consider the high duties and responsibilities of the makers of
Such is the prestige of the
Nobel Award and of this place where I stand that I am impelled, not to
speak 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 tin-horn
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 physical 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.
Furthermore, 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.
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 part of the writer's responsibility to make sure that they do.
With humanity's long, proud history of standing firm against all of its
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.
Understandably, I have been reading the life of
Alfred Nobel; a solitary man, the books say, a thoughtful man. He
perfected the release of explosive forces capable of creative good or of
destructive evil, but lacking choice, ungoverned by conscience or
saw some of the cruel and bloody misuses of his inventions. He may have
even foreseen the end result of all 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
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.
Less than fifty years after his 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 and 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.
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