John Steinbeck

Biographile’s This Week in History remembers events of the past, and the icons that set them in motion. If you're stirred by the words below, read more inspiring author quotes.

On February 27, 1902 -- this week in history -- cherished American writer John Steinbeck was born. He was raised in Salinas, California, the pastoral keystone to Monterey County and a place Steinbeck would later revisit in some of his greatest works, including the Pulitzer Prize-winning Grapes of Wrath (1939), and his personal favorite East of Eden (1952). Steinbeck attended Stanford University, then tried scraping a living in New York City as a writer, only to be pulled back by the gravitational splendor of California, where he lived out his formative years during the Great Depression.

The Steinbeck family attended Episcopal Church, but John would eventually claim agnosticism. He rooted the primacy of "god" in nature itself, exploring this sentiment in one of his earliest works To a God Unknown (1933). A purer, more grounded author has never been known, for Steinbeck truly embodied the love thy neighbor ethos with which he was raised, and his notion of natural laws seeped into every aspect of his writing. Though often noted for his bleak narratives, nearly all of Steinbeck's work shines with a hope and a will, an eternal optimism unbent by the evils of the world.

If you've ever felt moved by a stretch of farmland, or stirred by a southwesterly breeze, or awakened by the subtle spirits of nature, you've probably been inspired by John Steinbeck's prose. That is, if you've read him. If you haven't, here are nine mindful and humanizing quotes from the master of the literary grange below. They're inspirational and heartfelt, proving that with Steinbeck in your hands, you'll always enjoy reaping what you read.

1. In every bit of honest writing in the world … there is a base theme. 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 nearly always leads to love. There are shorter means, many of them. There is writing promoting social change, writing punishing injustice, writing in celebration of heroism, but always that base theme. Try to understand each other. (Journal entry, 1938, quoted in the Introduction to a 1994 edition of Of Mice and Men by Susan Shillinglaw, p. vii)

2. Ideas are like rabbits. You get a couple and learn how to handle them, and pretty soon you have a dozen. (Interview with Robert van Gelder, April 1947, as quoted in John Steinbeck : A Biography, 1994, by Jay Parini)

3. The profession of book-writing makes horse-racing seem like a solid, stable business. (The Acts of King Arthur and His Noble Knights, 1976, but a statement he is first quoted as having made in Newsweek, 24 December 1962)

4. 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. (New York Times, 2 June 1969)

5. Man, unlike anything organic or inorganic in the universe, grows beyond his work, walks up the stairs of his concepts, emerges ahead of his accomplishments. (Grapes of Wrath, 1939)

6. 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. I can understand why a system built on a pattern must try to destroy the free mind, for it is the one thing which can by inspection destroy such a system. Surely I can understand this, and I hate it and I will fight against it to preserve the one thing that separates us from the uncreative beasts. If the glory can be killed, we are lost. (East of Eden, 1952)

7. There are no ugly questions except those clothed in condescension. (East of Eden, 1952)

8. To be alive at all is to have scars. (The Winter of Our Discontent, 1961)

9. A journey is like marriage. The certain way to be wrong is to think you control it. (Travels With Charley: In Search of America, 1962)