Quotations by Steinbeck, John


I have come to believe that a great teacher is a great artist and that there are as few as there are any other great artists. It might even be the greatest of the arts since the medium is the human mind and spirit.

John Steinbeck (1902-1968) American writer
“…like captured fireflies” (1955)
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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 judgment — social, political, or ethical — can 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.

John Steinbeck (1902-1968) American writer
“America and Americans” (1966)
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Time is the only critic without ambition.

John Steinbeck (1902-1968) American writer
“On Critics,” Writers at Work, Fourth Series [ed. G. Plimpton] (1977)
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We are lonesome animals. We spend all 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 — ”Yes, that’s the way it is, or at least that’s the way I feel it. You’re not as alone as you thought.”

John Steinbeck (1902-1968) American writer
“In Awe of Words,” The Exonian, 75th anniversary edition, Exeter University (1930)
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We are lonesome animals. We spend all 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 — “Yes, that’s the way it is, or at least that’s the way I feel it. You’re not as alone as you thought.”

John Steinbeck (1902-1968) American writer
(Attributed)

Quoted in George Plimpton (ed.) Writers at Work, Fourth Series (1981).
Added on 21-Oct-13 | Last updated 21-Oct-13
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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. And while men admire the quality of the first they love the produce of the second.

John Steinbeck (1902-1968) American writer
Cannery Row (1945)
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It would be absurd if we did not understand both angels and devils, since we invented them.

John Steinbeck (1902-1968) American writer
East of Eden (1952)
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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.

John Steinbeck (1902-1968) American writer
East of Eden (1952)
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To a monster the norm must seem monstrous, since everyone is normal to himself.

John Steinbeck (1902-1968) American writer
East of Eden (1952)
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We have only one story. All novels, all poetry, are built on the never-ending contest in ourselves of good and evil. And it occurs to me that evil must constantly respawn, while good, while virtue, is immortal. Vice has always a new fresh young face, while virtue is venerable as nothing else in the world is.

John Steinbeck (1902-1968) American writer
East of Eden (1952)
Added on 12-Nov-09 | Last updated 12-Nov-09
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Every man has a retirement picture in which he does those things he never had time to do — makes journeys, reads the neglected books he always pretended to have read.

John Steinbeck (1902-1968) American writer
East of Eden (1952)
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It takes great courage to back truth unacceptable to our times. There’s punishment for it, and it’s usually crucifixion.

John Steinbeck (1902-1968) American writer
East of Eden (1952)
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With a few exceptions people don’t want money. They want luxury and they want love and they want admiration.

John Steinbeck (1902-1968) American writer
East of Eden (1952)
Added on 14-Jan-10 | Last updated 14-Jan-10
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I am incomparably, incredibly, overwhelmingly glad to be home. I’ve never been so goddam lonesome in my life.

John Steinbeck (1902-1968) American writer
East of Eden (1952)
Added on 28-Jan-10 | Last updated 28-Jan-10
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Can you think that whatever made us — would stop trying?

John Steinbeck (1902-1968) American writer
East of Eden (1952)
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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 religion, or government which limits or destroys the individual. This is what I am and what I am about.

John Steinbeck (1902-1968) American writer
East of Eden, Part 1, ch. 13 (1952)
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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.

John Steinbeck (1902-1968) American writer
New York Times (2 Jun 1969)
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The profession of book-writing makes horse-racing seem like a solid, stable business.

John Steinbeck (1902-1968) American writer
The Acts of King Arthur and His Noble Knights, Preface (1976)

Steinbeck often used this phrase; it's first quoted in Newsweek (24 Dec 1962)

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How can we live without our lives? How will we know it’s us without our past?

John Steinbeck (1902-1968) American writer
The Grapes of Wrath (1939)
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PA JOAD: We sure are takin’ a beatin’.
MA JOAD: I know. That’s what makes us tough. Rich fellas come up an’ th’ die an’ their kids ain’t no good, and they die out, but we keep a-comin’. We’re the people that live. They can’t wipe us out. They can’t lick us. We’ll go on forever, Pa, ’cause we’re the people.

John Steinbeck (1902-1968) American writer
The Grapes of Wrath (film) [Nunnally Johnson, screenwriter] (1940)
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It don’t take no nerve to do somepin when there ain’t nothin’ else you can do.

John Steinbeck (1902-1968) American writer
The Grapes of Wrath [Tom] (1939)
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A fella ain’t got a soul of his own, but on’y a piece of a big one.

John Steinbeck (1902-1968) American writer
The Grapes of Wrath, ch 28 (1939)
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For 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. This you may say of man — when theories change and crash, when schools, philosophies, when narrow dark alleys of thought, national, religious, economic, grow and disintegrate, man reaches, stumbles forward, painfully, mistakenly sometimes. Having stepped forward, he may slip back, but only half a step, never the full step back. This you may say and know it and know it. This you may know when the bombs plummet out of the black planes on the market place, when prisoners are stuck like pigs, when the crushed bodies drain filthily in the dust. You may know it in this way. If the step were not being taken, if the stumbling-forward ache were not alive, the bombs would not fall, the throats would not be cut. Fear the time when the bombs stop falling while the bombers live — for every bomb is proof that the spirit has not died. And fear the time when the strikes stop while the great owners live — for every little beaten strike is proof that the step is being taken. And this you can know — fear the time when Manself will not suffer and die for a concept, for this one quality is the foundation of Manself, and this one quality is man, distinctive in the universe.

John Steinbeck (1902-1968) American writer
The Grapes of Wrath, ch. 14 (1939)
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And the great owners, who must lose their land in an upheaval, the great owners with access to history, with eyes to read history and to know the great fact: when property accumulates in too few hands it is taken away. And that companion fact: when a majority of the people are hungry and cold they will take by force what they need. And the little screaming fact that sounds through all history: repression works only to strengthen and knit the repressed. The great owners ignored the three cries of history. The land fell into fewer hands, the number of dispossessed increased, and every effort of the great owners was directed at repression.

John Steinbeck (1902-1968) American writer
The Grapes of Wrath, ch. 19 (1939)

Full text.
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A red is any son-of-a-bitch who wants thirty cents when we’re payin’ twenty-five.

John Steinbeck (1902-1968) American writer
The Grapes of Wrath, ch. 22 (1939)
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There is a crime here that goes beyond denunciation. There is a sorrow here that weeping cannot symbolize. There is a failure here that topples all our success. The fertile earth, the straight tree rows, the sturdy trunks, and the ripe fruit. And children dying of pellagra must die because a profit cannot be taken from an orange. And coroners must fill in the certificate — died of malnutrition — because the food must rot, must be forced to rot.

In the eyes of the people there is the failure; and in the eyes of the hungry there is a growing wrath. In the souls of the people the grapes of wrath are filling and growing heavy, growing heavy for the vintage.

John Steinbeck (1902-1968) American writer
The Grapes of Wrath, ch. 25 (1939)
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Ever’thing we do — seems to me is aimed right at goin’ on. Seems that way to me. Even gettin’ hungry — even bein’ sick; some die, but the rest is tougher. Jus’ try to live the day, jus’ the day. … Jus’ live the day. Don’t worry yaself.

John Steinbeck (1902-1968) American writer
The Grapes of Wrath, ch. 28 [Ma Joad] (1939)
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Well, by God, I’m hungry. … My guts is yellin’ bloody murder.

John Steinbeck (1902-1968) American writer
The Grapes of Wrath, ch. 9 (1939)
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An answer is invariably the parent of a great family of new questions.

John Steinbeck (1902-1968) American writer
The Log from the Sea of Cortez, ch. 16, March 25 (1951)
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No man really knows about other human beings. The best he can do is suppose that they are like himself.

John Steinbeck (1902-1968) American writer
The Winter of Our Discontent, ch. 3 (1961)
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To be alive at all is to have scars.

John Steinbeck (1902-1968) American writer
The Winter of Our Discontent, Part I, ch. 6 (1961)
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No one wants advice — only corroboration.

John Steinbeck (1902-1968) American writer
The Winter of Our Discontent, Part I, ch. 6 (1961)
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All men are moral. Only their neighbors are not.

John Steinbeck (1902-1968) American writer
The Winter of Our Discontent, Part II, ch. 11 (1961)
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A journey is like marriage. The certain way to be wrong is to think you control it.

John Steinbeck (1902-1968) American writer
Travels With Charley: In Search of America, Part 1 (1962)
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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.

John Steinbeck (1902-1968) American writer
Travels with Charley: In Search of America, Part 1 (1962)
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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.

John Steinbeck (1902-1968) American writer
Travels With Charley: In Search of America, Part 2 (1962)
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I guess this is why I hate governments. It is always the rule, the fine print, carried out by the fine print men. There’s nothing to fight, no wall to hammer with frustrated fists.

John Steinbeck (1902-1968) American writer
Travels With Charley: In Search of America, Part 2 (1962)
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We, or at least I, can have no conception of human life and human thought in a hundred years or fifty years. Perhaps my greatest wisdom is the knowledge that I do not know. The sad ones are those who waste their energy in trying to hold it back, for they can only feel bitterness in loss and no joy in gain.

John Steinbeck (1902-1968) American writer
Travels With Charley: In Search of America, Part 2 (1962)
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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.

John Steinbeck (1902-1968) American writer
Travels With Charley: In Search of America, Part 3 (1962)
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Oh, we can populate the dark with horrors, even we who think ourselves informed and sure, believing nothing we cannot measure or weigh. I knew beyond all doubt that the dark things crowding in on me either did not exist or were not dangerous to me, and still I was afraid.

John Steinbeck (1902-1968) American writer
Travels With Charley: In Search of America, Pt. 1 (1962)
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When I face the desolate impossibility of writing 500 pages, a sick sense of failure falls on me, and I know I can never do it. Then gradually, I write one page and then another. One day’s work is all that I can permit myself to contemplate.

John Steinbeck (1902-1968) American writer
Travels With Charley (1962)
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If Carmel’s founders should return, they could not afford to live there, but it wouldn’t go that far. They would be instantly picked up as suspicious characters and deported over the city line.

John Steinbeck (1902-1968) American writer
Travels With Charley (1962)
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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. But it is true that we have exchanged corpulence for starvation, and either one will kill us.

John Steinbeck (1902-1968) American writer
Travels with Charley (1962)
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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.

John Steinbeck (1902-1968) American writer
Writers at Work, Fourth Series, “On Publishing” [ed. G. Plimpton] (1977)
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In my heart there may be doubt that I deserve the Nobel award over other men of letters whom I hold in respect and reverence — but there is no question of my pleasure and pride in having it for myself.

Steinbeck - Nobel prize - wist_info

John Steinbeck (1902-1968) American writer
Nobel prize acceptance speech (10 Dec 1962)
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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.

John Steinbeck (1902-1968) American writer
Speech, accepting the Nobel Prize (10 Dec 1962)

Full text.

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