Wednesday

Feb. 27, 2013

When I have fears that I may cease to be

by John Keats

When I have fears that I may cease to be
    Before my pen has gleaned my teeming brain,
Before high-piled books, in charactery,
    Hold like rich garners the full-ripened grain;
When I behold, upon the night's starred face,
    Huge cloudy symbols of a high romance,
And think that I may never live to trace
    Their shadows, with the magic hand of chance;
And when I feel, fair creature of an hour!
    That I shall never look upon thee more,
Never have relish in the faery power
    Of unreflecting love! — then on the shore
Of the wide world I stand alone, and think
Till love and fame to nothingness do sink.

"When I have fears that I may cease to be" by John Keats, from Selected Poems. © Penguin, 1998. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It's the birthday of novelist John Steinbeck (books by this author) born in Salinas, California (1902). In the 1930s, his most productive decade, he wrote several novels about his native California, including Tortilla Flat (1935), set in Monterey; In Dubious Battle (1936), about fruit-pickers on strike in a California valley; and Of Mice and Men (1937), set on a ranch in Soledad, southeast of Steinbeck's birth town.

Of Mice and Men, the story of farmworker Lenny and his friend George, was a big commercial success, and it was also a highly banned book. In fact, it was among the American Library Association's "most challenged books of the 20th century." In support of the ban, people accused Steinbeck of having an "antibusiness attitude" and said that his "patriotism" was "questionable." One person — in the 1990s — wrote that the book should be banned because Steinbeck took "God's name in vain 15 times" and "[used] Jesus' name lightly."

In the 1940s, Steinbeck worked as a journalist — as a war correspondent. He sent dispatches from all around the Mediterranean and from North Africa during World War II. After the war was over, he started taking trips to the Soviet Union, going to Moscow, Kiev, Stalingrad, and also many out-of-the-way places in the Soviet republic where Western reporters had not traveled. He tried learning Russian but never really attained fluency. He once wrote home about how he proudly tried to order a breakfast of omelet, toast, and coffee, and was served in response a "tomato salad with onions, a dish of pickles, a big slice of watermelon, and two bottles of cream soda."

In 1940, after the publication of The Grapes of Wrath, he won the Pulitzer Prize. He always professed to be leery and afraid of literary awards and their effect on writers. He said that after Faulkner won the Nobel Prize, hearing him talk so loftily about "writing" and "the Artist" made him (Steinbeck) want to "leave the profession."

And then, in 1962, a decade after East of Eden (1952) and shortly after the publication of Travels with Charley (1962), Steinbeck won the Nobel Prize in literature for his "realistic and imaginative writing, combining as it does sympathetic humor and keen social perception." When a reporter at a press conference asked if he thought he deserved it, he said, "Frankly, no."

But he accepted the prize and gave a lofty acceptance speech, in which he said, "A writer who does not passionately believe in the perfectibility of man has no dedication nor any membership in literature."

Afterward, he was worried about the prize's effect upon his future writing. He thought about other major prizewinners and confided to a friend: "For one thing I don't remember anyone doing any work getting it save maybe Shaw. This last book of Faulkner's was written long ago. Hemingway went into a kind of hysterical haze. Red Lewis just collapsed into alcoholism and angers. It has in effect amounted to an epitaph. Maybe I'm being over-optimistic but I wouldn't have accepted it if I hadn't thought I could beat the rap."

As it happens, he was doomed just as he feared — he died six years later, not having published a single novel since winning the prize. The Grapes of Wrath is generally considered his masterpiece. In it, he wrote: "The cars of the migrant people crawled out of the side roads onto the great cross-country highway, and they took the migrant way to the West. ... And because they were lonely and perplexed, because they had all come from a place of sadness and worry and defeat, and because they were all going to a mysterious new place ... a strange thing happened: the twenty families became one family, the children were the children of all. The loss of home became one loss, and the golden time in the West was one dream."

John Steinbeck said: "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."

Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®

 









«

»

  • “Writers end up writing stories—or rather, stories' shadows—and they're grateful if they can, but it is not enough. Nothing the writer can do is ever enough” —Joy Williams
  • “I want to live other lives. I've never quite believed that one chance is all I get. Writing is my way of making other chances.” —Anne Tyler
  • “Writing is a performance, like singing an aria or dancing a jig” —Stephen Greenblatt
  • “All good writing is swimming under water and holding your breath.” —F. Scott Fitzgerald
  • “Good writing is always about things that are important to you, things that are scary to you, things that eat you up.” —John Edgar Wideman
  • “In certain ways writing is a form of prayer.” —Denise Levertov
  • “Writing is a socially acceptable form of schizophrenia.” —E.L. Doctorow
  • “Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” —E.L. Doctorow
  • “Let's face it, writing is hell.” —William Styron
  • “A writer is someone for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.” —Thomas Mann
  • “Writing is 90 percent procrastination: reading magazines, eating cereal out of the box, watching infomercials.” —Paul Rudnick
  • “Writing is a failure. Writing is not only useless, it's spoiled paper.” —Padget Powell
  • “Writing is very hard work and knowing what you're doing the whole time.” —Shelby Foote
  • “I think all writing is a disease. You can't stop it.” —William Carlos Williams
  • “Writing is like getting married. One should never commit oneself until one is amazed at one's luck.” —Iris Murdoch
  • “The less conscious one is of being ‘a writer,’ the better the writing.” —Pico Iyer
  • “Writing is…that oddest of anomalies: an intimate letter to a stranger.” —Pico Iyer
  • “Writing is my dharma.” —Raja Rao
  • “Writing is a combination of intangible creative fantasy and appallingly hard work.” —Anthony Powell
  • “I think writing is, by definition, an optimistic act.” —Michael Cunningham
The Writer's Almanac on Facebook


The Writer's Almanac on Twitter

Subscribe to our daily newsletter for poems, prose and literary history every morning
An interview with Sharon Olds at The Writer's Almanac Bookshelf
Current Faves - Learn more about poets featured frequently on the show
O, What a Luxury

Although he has edited several anthologies of his favorite poems, O, What a Luxury: Verses Lyrical, Vulgar, Pathetic & Profound forges a new path for Garrison Keillor, as a poet of light verse. Purchase O, What a Luxury »