Was John Steinbeck really just a lightweight? Did he win the Nobel Prize in literature in 1962 because he was more lucky than good?
Those are the questions posed by the release this week of the long-sealed deliberations of the Swedish committee that awarded Steinbeck the Nobel Prize for literature in 1962.
After the requisite 50 years locked away in some Stockholm file cabinet, the Nobel committee released documents that show “he was actually chosen as the best of a bad lot,” as the Guardian writes on its website.
"There aren't any obvious candidates for the Nobel prize and the prize committee is in an unenviable situation," committee member Henry Olsson wrote in one of the documents, according to a piece by Swedish journalist Kaj Schueler in Svenska Dagbladet.
Steinbeck, we learn from the Nobel committee’s website, was on a shortlist with the English poet Robert Graves and French dramatist Jean Anouilh.
Graves was rejected, Schueler reveals, because as an English-language poet he couldn’t match up to the great Ezra Pound — and Pound’s record of anti-Semitism and support of fascism would forever disqualify him from winning. No English-language writer whose primary writing form was poetry would win the prize until after Pound’s death in 1972.
Danish novelist Karen Blixen was also a finalist, but she died a few months before the selection committee’s final meeting. Anouilh was likely passed up because a French poet had won the award in 1960 and because the committee was seriously considering Jean-Paul Sartre, who would win the award two years later.
Steinbeck’s nomination in 1962 was his eighth, according to Nobel records. In their correspondence, the Nobel committee decided that his most recent books reflected at least some of the greatness of earlier works such as "The Grapes of Wrath."
Back in 2008, the New York Review of Books reconsidered Steinbeck's oeuvre in light of the publication of his complete works by the Library of America.
“The extraordinary thing about John Steinbeck is how good he can be when so much of the time he’s so bad,” Robert Gottlieb wrote.