Why Steinbeck Almost Didn’t Win the Nobel Prize

Despite the author’s celebrated body of work, a reluctant Nobel committee thought Steinbeck undeserving of the Prize.

John Steinbeck

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After the release of The Winter of Our Discontent in 1961, it occurred to the Swedish Academy that — after a drought of important fiction — perhaps John Steinbeck might still have a glorious summer ahead of him as a major candidate for the Nobel Prize in Literature. Steinbeck was announced as the Nobel laureate in 1962 — on this day — after what was later discovered to be an unenviable contention: The Swedish Academy didn’t consider any of its literature candidates worthy of the prize.

This inside knowledge wasn’t available at the time, of course. The Academy keeps its records of candidates and discussion private for 50 years. In 2012, the documents from 1962 were made public, and they revealed that Steinbeck was actually chosen out of necessity for a winner rather than enthusiastic acclaim from the committee. The Swedish Academy announced, on October 25, 1962, that it was awarding the prize to Steinbeck “for his realistic and imaginative writings, combining as they do sympathetic humour and keen social perception.” But, according to Svenska Dagbladet, committee member Henry Olssen had written of the choices, “There aren’t any obvious candidates for the Nobel Prize, and the prize committee is in an unenviable situation.” British authors Lawrence Durrell and Robert Graves were among the other candidates.

Despite accusations that Steinbeck’s work amounts to “tenth-rate philosophizing,” his novels and essays are still read widely in American classrooms. Sprawling novels such as The Grapes of Wrath and East of Eden and shorter studies of humanity like Of Mice and Men occupy the American consciousness with authentic tropes of our past.

Though Steinbeck never wrote fiction for The Saturday Evening Post, his last published piece, a 1966 essay called “America and the Americans,” was a cultural indictment as well as a unique celebration of the American people that appeared in the pages of the Post. The editor’s foreword to the piece warned: “The Grapes of Wrath roused a storm of controversy because of its strongly proletarian sympathies,” but the essay that followed was less in Steinbeck’s leftist tradition than it was in his tradition of “keen social perception.”

Steinbeck’s essay reads, even in 2017, as an apt analysis of America’s issues with affluence, racial tensions, and a new search for meaning. “America and the Americans” delivers Steinbeck’s ability to dissect family and culture across generations to diagnose 20th — and maybe 21st — century problems. “Even in our so-called virtues we are intemperate,” he writes, “…We are able to believe that our Government is weak, stupid, overbearing, dishonest, and inefficient, and at the same time we are deeply convinced that it is the best Government in the world, and we would like to impose it upon everyone else.”

His critique of uniquely American attitudes and paradoxes seems to support the Academy’s reasons for awarding him the highest honor in literature, even if the Swedish committee was initially apprehensive at their choice.

Steinbeck delivered an acceptance speech for his award in 1962, giving his take on “the nature and direction of literature” and offering his signature view of humanity’s needs and threats. He died in 1968, two years after “America and the Americans.”

Ironically, after leaving the world with a scathing critique of consumerism and excess, his heirs continue to wage multimillion-dollar lawsuits against one another to profit from his estate. Of course, endless litigation is as American now as migrant farming was during the Great Depression. Steinbeck’s legacy was one of a historian as well as an admonisher, out to save us from ourselves: “Could it be that below the level of thought, our people sense the danger of the swarming, crowding invasion of America by Americans?”

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