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John Steinbeck and the Perfectibility of Man (Louis Owens Essay Prize Winner)
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John Steinbeck and the Perfectibility of Man (Louis Owens Essay Prize Winner)

On October 25th, 1962, John Steinbeck turned on the television set at his Sag Harbor home in order to learn about the most recent political developments. Three days earlier, President Kennedy had informed the world that the Soviet Union was building secret missile bases in Cuba, a mere ninety miles off the coast of Florida. The Cuban Missile Crisis, as it was called, had dominated media outlets for over seventy-two hours. Yet the phrase that issued first from Steinbeck's television set that day was different, and to him, unforeseen: "John Steinbeck has been awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature" (After 261).1 Less than two months later, still beneath the shadow of global fear, Steinbeck delivered his Nobel Prize acceptance speech to the Swedish Academy.

Having long and painstakingly ruminated on a number of topics, Steinbeck chose finally to speak about the great duty of humankind to ensure its perpetuation by seeking "perfection"—a fitting choice given the conspicuous human frailty at the time. Steinbeck warned, "Humanity has been passing through a gray and desolate time of confusion. . . . With [its] 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" (America 172-3). The victory against "weakness and despair"—the battle for human perfection—would be won, Steinbeck maintained, only if humankind, in all of its reaches and occupations, believed in the possibility of perfectibility. Of his own craft, he spoke explicitly: "I hold that a writer who does not [End Page 87] passionately believe in the perfectibility of man has no dedication nor any membership in literature" (173).

For Steinbeck, however, this belief in the human potential for perfection did not imply either that human beings could attain perfection in the span of a lifetime or that society could advance to an ideal state, as Plato proposed in The Republic. Rather, he held that the pursuit of perfection, as an autotelic practice, was the most effective method of assuring the progress both of the individual and of society. His wife, Elaine, remembers his saying, "You believe in the perfectibility of man. Man will never be perfect, but he has to strive for it" (After 271). Essentially, Steinbeck used the rhetoric of perfectibility as a psychological strategy to encourage human beings to strive towards perfection, finding it a more motivating goal than merely to strive for improvement.

Steinbeck believed that the human pursuit of perfection, even if never attained, would effect the best of societal and individual achievement, a theory influenced by Emerson's evocation of the "unattained but attainable self" and reaching even further back to Jonathan Edwards's vision of humankind floating on toward an ever-receding Godhead. His belief does not, however, align with the popular nineteenth-century philosophy of human progress, an optimistic view of evolution that held nature to be the perfecting organism of the human species. The thinkers who propounded this philosophy believed that nature would lead humankind to perfection despite any support or resistance. Throughout his writings, by contrast, Steinbeck sets forth a theory of action, holding in the main that an advanced society can be achieved only through the pervasive faith of its citizens. Many of Steinbeck's novels assert interdependence—humankind as the savior of fellow humankind. Looking closely at an early novel, The Grapes of Wrath, beside a major later novel, The Winter of Our Discontent, we may readily observe this dynamic theory of human perfectibility.

First, however, it would be well to acknowledge a philosophical tension between perfectionism and a holistic concept that Steinbeck cultivated early in his career on a sea-faring expedition with his best friend, marine biologist Ed Ricketts. In his travel journal, Sea of Cortez, Steinbeck explains that a purer understanding of the environment is achieved by what he terms "non-teleological" or "is" thinking—in other words, the suppression of the tendency to impute cause-and-effect rationale to perception.2 Steinbeck and Ricketts observe an...