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John Steinbeck, Quotes, Facts and Oddities


Even while I protest the assembly-line production of our food, our songs, our language, and eventually our souls, I know that it was a rare home that baked good bread in the old days. Mother’s cooking was with rare exceptions poor, that good unpasteurized milk touched only by flies and bits of manure crawled with bacteria, the healthy old-time life was riddled with aches, sudden death from unknown causes, and that sweet local speech I mourn was the child of illiteracy and ignorance. It is the nature of a man as he grows older, a small bridge in time, to protest against change, particularly change for the better.

I’ve seen a look in dogs’ eyes, a quickly vanishing look of amazed contempt, and I am convinced that basically dogs think humans are nuts.

When two people meet, each one is changed by the other so you’ve got two new people.

Maybe everybody in the whole damn world is scared of each other.

The quality of owning freezes you forever in “I,” and cuts you off forever from the “we.”

We value virtue but do not discuss it. The honest bookkeeper, the faithful wife, the earnest scholar get little of our attention compared to the embezzler, the tramp, the cheat.

The techniques of opening conversation are universal. I knew long ago and rediscovered that the best way to attract attention, help, and conversation is to be lost. A man who seeing his mother starving to death on a path kicks her in the stomach to clear the way, will cheerfully devote several hours of his time giving wrong directions to a total stranger who claims to be lost.

No one wants advice — only corroboration.

Remember that the most beautiful things in the world are the most useless; peacocks and lilies for instance.

All war is a symptom of man’s failure as a thinking animal.

A sad soul can kill quicker than a germ.

Socialism never took root in America because the poor see themselves not as an exploited proletariat but as temporarily embarrassed millionaires.

No man really knows about other human beings. The best he can do is to suppose that they are like himself.

If you’re in trouble, or hurt or need — go to the poor people. They’re the only ones that’ll help — the only ones.

Lord, how the day passes! It is like a life, so quickly when we don’t watch it, and so slowly if we do.

My imagination will get me a passport to hell one day.

You’ve seen the sun flatten and take strange shapes just before it sinks in the ocean. Do you have to tell yourself every time that it’s an illusion caused by atmospheric dust and light distorted by the sea, or do you simply enjoy the beauty of it?

After the bare requisites to living and reproducing, man wants most to leave some record of himself, a proof, perhaps, that he has really existed. He leaves his proof on wood, on stone or on the lives of other people. This deep desire exists in everyone, from the boy who writes dirty words in a public toilet to the Buddha who etches his image in the race mind. Life is so unreal. I think that we seriously doubt that we exist and go about trying to prove that we do.

I hate cameras. They are so much more sure than I am about everything.

Maybe– maybe love makes you suspicious and doubting. Is it true that when you love a woman you are never sure– never sure of her because you aren’t sure of yourself?

His ear heard more than what was said to him, and his slow speech had overtones not of thought, but of understanding beyond thought.

Our species is the only creative species, and it has only one creative instrument, the individual mind and spirit of man. Nothing was ever created by two men. There are no good collaborations, whether in music, in art, in poetry, in mathematics, in philosophy. Once the miracle of creation has taken place, the group can build and extend it, but the group never invents anything. The preciousness lies in the lonely mind of a man.

I believe a strong woman may be stronger than a man, particularly if she happens to have love in her heart. I guess a loving woman is indestructible.

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.

And this I believe: that the free, exploring mind of the individual human is the most valuable thing in all 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.

Men do change, and change comes like a little wind that ruffles the curtains at dawn, and it comes like the stealthy perfume of wildflowers hidden in the grass.

Ideas are like rabbits. You get a couple and learn how to handle them, and pretty soon you have a dozen.

Where does discontent start? You are warm enough, but you shiver. You are fed, yet hunger gnaws you. You have been loved, but your yearning wanders in new fields. And to prod all these there’s time, the Bastard Time.

Man, unlike any other thing organic or inorganic in the universe, grows beyond his work, walks up the stairs of his concepts, emerges ahead of his accomplishments.

Sectional football games have the glory and the despair of war, and when a Texas team takes the field against a foreign state, it is an army with banners

This monster of a land, this mightiest of nations, this spawn of the future, turns out to be the macrocosm of microcosm me.

Many a trip continues long after movement in time and space have ceased.

I was born lost and take no pleasure in being found.

Try to understand men. If you understand each other you will be kind to each other. Knowing a man well never leads to hate and almost always leads to love.

Texas is not a state — it’s a state of mind.

There ain’t no sin and there ain’t no virtue. There’s just stuff people do.

It is true that we are weak and sick and ugly and quarrelsome but if that is all we ever were, we would millenniums ago have disappeared from the face of the earth.

What good is the warmth of summer, without the cold of winter to give it sweetness.

The writer must believe that what he is doing is the most important thing in the world. And he must hold to this illusion even when he knows it is not true.

A book is like a man – clever and dull, brave and cowardly, beautiful and ugly. For every flowering thought there will be a page like a wet and mangy mongrel, and for every looping flight a tap on the wing and a reminder that wax cannot hold the feathers firm too near the sun.

And now that you don’t have to be perfect, you can be good.

In utter loneliness a writer tries to explain the inexplicable.

These words dropped into my childish mind as if you should accidentally drop a ring into a deep well. I did not think of them much at the time, but there came a day in my life when the ring was fished up out of the well, good as new.

It has always seemed strange to me…The things we admire in men, kindness and generosity, openness, honesty, understanding and feeling, are the concomitants of failure in our system. And those traits we detest, sharpness, greed, acquisitiveness, meanness, egotism and self-interest, are the traits of success.

All great and precious things are lonely.

Writers are a little below the clowns and a little above the trained seals.

The President must be greater than anyone else, but not better than anyone else. We subject him and his family to close and constant scrutiny and denounce them for things that we ourselves do every day. A Presidential slip of the tongue, a slight error in judgmentsocial, political, or ethicalcan raise a storm of protest. We give the President more work than a man can do, more responsibility than a man should take, more pressure than a man can bear. We abuse him often and rarely praise him. We wear him out, use him up, eat him up. And with all this, Americans have a love for the President that goes beyond loyalty or party nationality; he is ours, and we exercise the right to destroy him.

I wonder how many people I’ve looked at all my life and never seen.

You know how advice is. You only want it if it agrees with what you wanted to do anyway.

Anything that just costs money is cheap.

I saw in their eyes something I was to see over and over in every part of the nation- a burning desire to go, to move, to get under way, anyplace, away from any Here. They spoke quietly of how they wanted to go someday, to move about, free and unanchored, not toward something but away from something. I saw this look and heard this yearning everywhere in every states I visited. Nearly every American hungers to move.

I have never smuggled anything in my life. Why, then, do I feel an uneasy sense of guilt on approaching a customs barrier?

I’ve lived in good climate, and it bores the hell out of me. I like weather rather than climate.

Man is the only kind of varmint sets his own trap, baits it, then steps in it.

There’s more beauty in truth, even if it is dreadful beauty.

A journey is like marriage. The certain way to be wrong is to think you control it.

The profession of book writing makes horse racing seem like a solid, stable business.

Once I traveled about in an old bakery wagon, double-doored rattler with a mattress on the floor, I stopped where people stopped or gathered, I listened and looked and felt, and in the process had a picture of my country the accuracy of which was impaired only by my own shortcomings.

The new American finds his challenge and his love in the traffic-choked streets, skies nested in smog, choking with the acids of industry, the screech of rubber and houses leashed in against one another while the town lets wither a time and die.

Time is the only critic without ambition.

I hold that a writer who does not passionately believe in the perfectibility of man has no dedication nor any membership in literature.

The purpose of fighting is to win. There is no possible victory in defense. The sword is more important than the shield and skill is more important than either. The final weapon is the brain. All else is supplemental.

And the little screaming fact that sounds through all history: repression works only to strengthen and knit the repressed.

Power does not corrupt. Fear corrupts… perhaps the fear of a loss of power.

When I was very young and the urge to be someplace was on me, I was assured by mature people that maturity would cure this itch. When years described me as mature, the remedy prescribed was middle age. In middle age I was assured that greater age would calm my fever and now that I am fifty-eight perhaps senility will do the job. Nothing has worked. In other words, I don’t improve, in further words, once a bum always a bum. I fear the disease is incurable.

To be alive at all is to have scars.

Being at ease with himself put him at ease with the world.

An unbelieved truth can hurt a man much more than a lie. It takes great courage to back truth unacceptable to our times. There’s a punishment for it, and it’s usually crucifixion.

What a frightening thing is the human, a mass of gauges and dials and registers, and we can only read a few and those perhaps not accurately.

When a child first catches adults out — when it first walks into his grave little head that adults do not always have divine intelligence, that their judgments are not always wise, their thinking true, their sentences just — his world falls into panic desolation. The gods are fallen and all safety gone. And there is one sure thing about the fall of gods: they do not fall a little; they crash and shatter or sink deeply into green muck. It is a tedious job to build them up again; they never quite shine. And the child’s world is never quite whole again. It is an aching kind of growing.

Up ahead they’s a thousan’ lives we might live, but when it comes it’ll on’y be one.

People who are most afraid of their dreams convince themselves they don’t dream at all.

It is the nature of man to rise to greatness if greatness is expected of him.

How can you frighten a man whose hunger is not only in his own cramped stomach but in the wretched bellies of his children? You can’t scare him–he has known a fear beyond every other.

It was her habit to build up laughter out of inadequate materials.

But I have a new love for that glittering instrument, the human soul. It is a lovely and unique thing in the universe. It is always attacked and never destroyed – because ‘Thou mayest.’

Sometimes a man wants to be stupid if it lets him do a thing his cleverness forbids.

So in our pride we ordered for breakfast an omelet, toast and coffee and what has just arrived is a tomato salad with onions, a dish of pickles, a big slice of watermelon and two bottles of cream soda.

It’s so much darker when a light goes out than it would have been if it had never shone.

It would be absurd if we did not understand both angels and devils, since we invented them.

When a condition or a problem becomes too great, humans have the protection of not thinking about it. But it goes inward and minces up with a lot of other things already there and what comes out is discontent and uneasiness, guilt and a compulsion to get something–anything–before it is all gone.

A man so painfully in love is capable of self-torture beyond belief.

Don’t worry about losing. If it is right, it happens – The main thing is not to hurry. Nothing good gets away.

There used to be a thing or a commodity we put great store by. It was called the People. Find out where the People have gone. I don’t mean the square-eyed toothpaste-and-hair-dye people or the new-car-or-bust people, or the success-and-coronary people. Maybe they never existed, but if there ever were the People, that’s the commodity the Declaration was talking about, and Mr. Lincoln.

The discipline of the written word punishes both stupidity and dishonesty.

Can you honestly love a dishonest thing?

People like you to be something, preferably what they are.

A journey is a person in itself; no two are alike. And all plans, safeguards, policing, and coercion are fruitless. We find that after years of struggle that we do not take a trip; a trip takes us.

We are lonesome animals. We spend all of our life trying to be less lonesome. One of our ancient methods is to tell a story begging the listener to say-and to feel.

One can find so many pains when the rain is falling.

Give a critic an inch, he’ll write a play.

So many old and lovely things are stored in the world’s attic because we don’t want them around us and we don’t dare throw them out.

Syntax, my lad. It has been restored to the highest place in the republic.

I believe that there is one story in the world, and only one. . . . Humans are caught in their lives, in their thoughts, in their hungers and ambitions, in their avarice and cruelty, and in their kindness and generosity too, in a net of good and evil. . . . There is no other story. A man, after he has brushed off the dust and chips of his life, will have left only the hard, clean questions: Was it good or was it evil? Have I done well or ill?

We spend our time searching for security and hate it when we get it.

To finish is a sadness to a writer – a little death. He puts the last word down and it is done. But it isn’t really done. The story goes on and leaves the writer behind, for no story is ever done.

I am impelled, not to squeak like a grateful and apologetic mouse, but to roar like a lion out of pride in my profession.

It has always been my private conviction that any man who puts his intelligence up against a fish and loses had it coming.

Unless a reviewer has the courage to give you unqualified praise, I say ignore the bastard.

It’s a hard thing to leave any deeply routine life, even if you hate it.

I am happy to report that in the war between reality and romance, reality is not the stronger.

You can only understand people if you feel them in yourself.

Perhaps the less we have, the more we are required to brag.

Do you take pride in your hurt? Does it make you seem large and tragic? …Well, think about it. Maybe you’re playing a part on a great stage with only yourself as audience.

When a man says he does not want to speak of something he usually means he can think of nothing else.

I guess I’m trying to say, Grab anything that goes by. It may not come around again.

I wonder why progress looks so much like destruction.

I have owed you this letter for a very long time-but my fingers have avoided the pencil as though it were an old and poisoned tool.

It is a common experience that a problem difficult at night is resolved in the morning after the committee of sleep has worked on it.

I guess there are never enough books.

A guy needs somebody?to be near him. A guy goes nuts if he ain’t got nobody. Don’t make no difference who the guy is, long’s he’s with you. I tell ya, I tell ya a guy gets too lonely an’ he gets sick.

As happens sometimes, a moment settled and hovered and remained for much more than a moment. And sound stopped and movement stopped for much, much more than a moment.

It seems to me that if you or I must choose between two courses of thought or action, we should remember our dying and try so to live that our death brings no pleasure on the world.

I have always lived violently, drunk hugely, eaten too much or not at all, slept around the clock or missed two nights of sleeping, worked too hard and too long in glory, or slobbed for a time in utter laziness. I’ve lifted, pulled, chopped, climbed, made love with joy and taken my hangovers as a consequence, not as a punishment.


Full Birth Name: John Ernst Steinbeck, Jr.

Born: February 27, 1902

Zodiac Sign: Pisces

Place born: Salinas, California
(about 100 miles south of San Francisco)

Place raised: Salinas, California

Family’s early economic position: lower middle income

Ancestry: German, English, and Irish

Mother: Olive Hamilton, former schoolteacher

Father: John Ernst Steinbeck, Monterey County treasurer

Siblings: Three sisters

Spouse/Partner: Married three times
Carol Henning (1930-1941) John was 28 -39 years old.
Gwyndolyn “Gwyn” Conger (1942-1948) John was 40 – 48 years old.
Children: 2
Thomas “Thom” Myles Steinbeck (born 1944)
John Steinbeck IV (1946-1991)
Elaine Scott, stage manager (1945-1968) Age 43 until his death

Religion: Raised Episcopalian,
As adult: agnostic

Height: 6′ 0″ (1.83 m)Weight: 200 lb (90.7 kg)

Pounds per Inch: 2.77

Kilograms per Centimeter: 2.91

Body Mass Index (BMI): 27.1
(18.5 to 25 is considered healthy)

Habits: lifelong smoking

Date of Death: December 20, 1968

Cause of Death: congestive heart failure – clogged arteries

Days Lived: 24,175

Months Lived: 793


John Steinbeck received the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1940, and the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1962.

John wrote a total of twenty-seven books, six of which were non-fiction.

John was born in Salinas, California, which is 102 miles south of San Francisco, inland from nearby Monterey on the coast. Salinas is an agricultural area. The fields tend to be smaller than in the midwestern US, and the crops are more assorted vegetables than grains.

John probably got his early interest in reading and writing from his mother, a former schoolteacher.

His father was treasurer of Monterey County.

He was raised in the Episcopal church, but later became agnostic.

John Steinbeck had above average mechanical aptitude, and was easily able to fix his own car, camera, typewriter, and so on.

John dropped out of Stanford University, in nearby Palo Alto.

He spent his early summers working on farms and ranches alongside migrant workers, and so was aware of their plight.

At the age of 23, he figured he could make it as a writer, so he went where writers used to go – to New York City.

When that didn’t work out, he and his new wife, Carol Henning, went to Los Angeles, and with friends, started a plaster mannequin factory. That didn’t work out either.

John and Carol back to Monterey, near Salinas, accepting free rent in a house owned by his father, who also provided plenty of free paper, and monetary loans, supporting him in his attempt to become a writer.

This was happening in the middle of the Great Depression. Money was tight all around. At various times, his father’s support was not sufficient. He bought a boat, and nearly lived from the fish and crab he could gather, plus vegetables from his garden. Still falling short, he accepted welfare for a short while, and according to a Wikipedia article, he may have sometimes stolen food from a local produce market.

In 1930 he befriended Ed Ricketts, an early ecologist. Ed was five years older than John Steinbeck. Ed studied biology and eventually opened a small business that sold biological samples to schools and colleges.

Several of Steinbeck’s books have portions that reflect Ed Ricketts’ ecological influence. John and Ed also co-wrote a couple of non-fiction books.

By 1933, John Steinbeck was having minor successes as a writer, and his career was pretty much assured.

In 1943, John Steinbeck became a World War II war correspondent for the New York Herald Tribune and worked with what was to become the CIA (US Central Intelligence Agency). John was embedded with troops fighting Germans on Mediterranean islands more than 50 years before the term “embedded” was invented. At one point he manned a Tommy Gun (a Thompson submachine gun).

Specifically, John was embedded with the Beach Jumpers headed by Lieutenant Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., better known as the Hollywood actor. The Beach Jumpers’ specialty was psychological and tactical diversions. They had worked out a very unusual set of plans to make a dozen small boats, much like PT boats, each manned with just seven sailors, create a sensation that seemed like 70,000 troops were landing. This diversion made the Germans focus their attention on the wrong locations, while the Allies won real battles in undefended territories. These 63-foot plywood boats were equipped with smoke generators, lots of loud time-delay explosives and polytechnics, and 1,000-watt sound systems, which projected fake sounds of warfare. To complete the picture, the boats launched metal-covered weather balloons that gave the same radar picture as a huge air fleet.John documented much of this in is 1958 book, Once There Was a War.

John did not come through World War II without injury. He had been punctured by several bits of shrapnel.

He wrote Cannery Row in 1945. This book was so popular that the location in the book, Ocean View Avenue, in Monterey, California, fictitiously called “Cannery Row,” was actually renamed “Cannery Row.”

When John was 45, Ed Ricketts died at age 50 when his car was struck by a train. Shortly thereafter, John’s wife Gwyn, asked for a divorce. This combination threw John into a year-long deep depression.

One of John’s non-fiction books was A Russian Journal which he wrote in conjunction with photographer Robert Capa. It was about Russia itself, in the time shortly after the communist revolution, and before hardly any Americans had been allowed to visit.

John Steinbeck was known for having a deep, resonant voice. He recorded some of his short stories for Columbia Records.

In 1960, when he was 58 years old, he took a trip across America, along with Charlie, his pet poodle, in a pickup truck with a camper on the back. The book that he wrote was called Travels With Charlie.

Although it would be another eight years before his death, he took the road trip because he thought he was dying, and wanted to see America one more time, according to his son Thom.

On several occasions, John Steinbeck had complained publicly about government harassment. He also had friendships with Communist writers in America, even though he was not a Communist himself. Because of these things, the director of the FBI (US Federal Bureau of Investigation), J. Edgar Hoover, took a disliking to him. Since Steinbeck had done nothing illegal, Hoover could not prosecute him. Instead, he had the U.S. Internal Revenue Service audit John’s taxes every single year, for many years in a row.

While the FBI itself had no dirt on Steinbeck, it didn’t stop them from continuing to search, with whatever harassment that might entail. In 1942, John had to write a letter to the United States Attorney General saying, “Do you suppose you could ask Edgar’s boys to stop stepping on my heels? They think I am an enemy alien. It is getting tiresome.” In response, the FBI claimed that they were not investigating him.

John died in 1968, at the age of 66, with congestive heart failure due to clogged arteries.


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