Memories of Stockholm: When Steinbeck won the Nobel Prize

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Last fall’s Grapes of Wrath project, carried out in fifteen NH towns with support from New Hampshire Humanities, inspired Russell Bastedo, retired State of New Hampshire Division of Cultural Resources Curator, to share this reflection:

"For the 1962-63 academic year, I was a student at the University of Stockholm’s Institute for English-Speaking Students. In late fall, Stockholm University students were allowed to stand in line for not more than two tickets to the Nobel Prize awards, and to the dinner and ball that followed.

The press paid the most attention to Messrs. Watson and Crick, who shared the Nobel Prize for Medicine for their discovery of DNA. But Swedish students’ primary interest was in John Steinbeck, who was receiving his award for Travels with Charley, a newly-published novel. Travels with Charley was not, and is not now, one of the great works of American literature; Steinbeck knew that, and he was clearly uncomfortable as he received his award and gave his speech. Short and stocky, and with a crew cut, Steinbeck was crammed into a white tie and tails, and sat uncomfortably on the folding metal chair provided for him by Operahallen (the Opera Hall) during the ceremonies. His speech, following the remarks of the Swedish king, were not memorable.

For the students at the University of Stockholm, however, and for the Swedish public as a whole, Steinbeck was the hero of the Nobel Prize Awards of 1962, because of The Grapes of Wrath. The public and the students knew that the Nobel Committee had missed Steinbeck many years before, when The Grapes of Wrath, The Moon is Down, Cannery Row, and other titles had flowed from Steinbeck’s pen as part of a great body of literature spawned by America’s Great Depression. And in Sweden, and in the rest of Europe during the 1930s, there was also a Great Depression. Swedish Television and Swedish Radio had interviewed many of the survivors of Sweden’s Great Depression during the fall of 1962; everyone knew others not interviewed who recalled with painful clarity the mass poverty and mass unemployment that had existed in Sweden during the 1930s.

And so, on the day after the Nobel Awards were presented, history was also made. Steinbeck was invited to deliver remarks to the Stockholm Student Union. The Student Union is a powerful political force in Sweden, and Steinbeck’s reception, in a hall that to my memory held 1,500 students, was dramatic, with the entire hall standing and applauding as the author made his way forward. Clearly overcome, the author began by saying he was glad to meet persons who had read his works, because he was not certain that the Nobel Committee was aware of the body of his literary efforts. Again the audience rose and applauded, and the press in the hall raced to deliver accounts of Steinbeck’s reception to Swedish TV and Swedish radio. 

As a student then, and as an older student now, I treasure memories of these moments."

– Russell Bastedo