John Steinbeck’s 1954 Speech to Eastern Europe: The defense of the individual against the collective

If I could claim to have had a teacher which had a great influence on my life as many contemporaries feel is so pertinent, it would be Joseph Campbell—which I’ve talked about before. Campbell was in the time of his life at the center of many intersecting ideals and he acquired that center through a grand adventure that could only have been found pursuing an extremely individual course through his life. One of those adventures found him to be one of the characters in the John Steinbeck novel Cannery Row as the great American novelist chronicled those years in that literary work. Steinbeck and Campbell were friends until Campbell fell in love with Carol Henning, Steinbeck’s wife. The group lived a pre-hippie existence in California as communism was becoming all the rage in America and all these intense experiences became the subject matter of Steinbeck’s novels. In a speech given by Steinbeck over Radio Free Europe in 1954 to the repressed people of Eastern Europe Steinbeck revealed some of his more mature political ideals refined over the years through his art and experiences. It is an eloquent defense of free expression and the power of the individual that represented the culmination of Steinbeck’s life work which is very pertinent to this very day. Instead speaking to the censorship behind the Iron Curtin, as Steinbeck had in the following speech, in the present day, the same censorship is occurring behind the veil of intelligentsia. The goal is the same—just the method of execution has changed. So before elaborating on the life of Steinbeck, Campbell, and our modern times—read that pertinent speech.

“To my friends,

There was a time when I could visit you and you were free to visit me. My books were in your stores and you were free to write to me on any subject. Now your borders are closed with barbed wire and guarded by armed men and fierce dogs, not to keep me out but to keep you in. And now your minds are also imprisoned. You are told that I am a bad writer but you are not permitted to judge for yourselves. You are told we are bad people but you are forbidden to see and to compare. You are treated like untrustworthy animals, subjected to conditioning as cold and ruthless as though you were rats in a laboratory. You cannot travel, you cannot read freely and you cannot work at the profession of your choice. Your writers are the conditioned servants of a regime. All of this is designed to destroy your ability to think.

I beg you to keep alive the integrity of the individual in his ability to judge and compare and create. May your writers write secretly and hold their writing for the time when this grey anesthetic has passed as pass it must. The free world outside your prison still lives. You will join it again and it will welcome you. Everything around you is cynically designed to destroy you as individuals. You must remember and teach your children that they are precious, not as dull cogs in the wheel of party existence, but as units complete and shining in themselves.”

John Ernst Steinbeck, Jr. (February 27, 1902 – December 20, 1968) was an American author of twenty-seven books, including sixteen novels, six non-fiction books, and five collections of short stories. He is widely known for the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Grapes of Wrath (1939), East of Eden (1952) and the novella Of Mice and Men (1937). Steinbeck received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1962 “for his realistic and imaginative writings, combining as they do sympathetic humor and keen social perception”.

Steinbeck graduated from Salinas High School in 1919 and went from there to study English Literature at Stanford University in Palo Alto, leaving, without a degree, in 1925. He traveled to New York City where he took odd jobs while trying to write. When he failed to have his work published, he returned to California and worked in 1928 as a tour guide and caretaker[7] at Lake Tahoe, where he met Carol Henning, his first wife.[3][7][8] The two were married in January 1930 in Los Angeles, where, with friends, he attempted to make money manufacturing plaster mannequins.[7]

When their money ran out six months later, Steinbeck and Carol moved back to Pacific Grove, California, to a cottage owned by his father, on the Monterey Peninsula a few blocks from the border of the city of Monterey, California. The elder Steinbecks gave John free housing, paper for his manuscripts, and from 1928, loans that allowed him to write without looking for work. During this period of the Great Depression, Steinbeck bought a small boat, and later claimed that he was able to live on the fish and crab that he gathered from the sea, as well as fresh vegetables from his garden and local farms. When that didn’t work, he was not above getting welfare, or rarely even stealing food from the local produce market.[7] Whatever food they had, they would share with their friends.[7] Carol became the model for Mary Talbot in Steinbeck’s novel Cannery Row.[7]

Many of Steinbeck’s works are on required reading lists in American high schools. In the United Kingdom, Of Mice and Men is one of the key texts used by the examining body AQA for its English Literature GCSE. A study by the Center for the Learning and Teaching of Literature in the United States found that Of Mice and Men was one of the ten most frequently read books in public high schools.[28]

At the same time, The Grapes of Wrath has been banned by school boards: in August 1939, Kern County Board of Supervisors banned the book from the county’s publicly funded schools and libraries.[14] It was burned in Salinas on two different occasions.[29][30] In 2003, a school board in Mississippi banned it on the grounds of profanity.[31] According to the American Library Association Steinbeck was one of the ten most frequently banned authors from 1990 to 2004, with Of Mice and Men ranking sixth out of 100 such books in the United States.[32][33]

Joseph John Campbell (March 26, 1904 – October 30, 1987) was an American mythologist, writer and lecturer, best known for his work in comparative mythology and comparative religion. His work is vast, covering many aspects of the human experience. His philosophy is often summarized by his phrase: “Follow your bliss.”[1]

Campbell traveled to California for a year (1931–32), continuing his independent studies and becoming close friends with the budding writer John Steinbeck and his wife Carol. On the Monterey Peninsula, Campbell, like Steinbeck, fell under the spell of marine biologist Ed Ricketts (the model for “Doc” in Steinbeck’s novel Cannery Row as well as central characters in several other novels).[8] Campbell lived for a while next door to Ricketts, participated in professional and social activities at his neighbor’s, and accompanied him, along with Xenia and Sasha Kashevaroff, on a 1932 journey to Juneau, Alaska on the Grampus.[9] Like Steinbeck, Campbell began writing a novel centered on Ricketts as hero, but, unlike Steinbeck, he did not complete his book.[10]

Bruce Robison writes that “Campbell would refer to those days as a time when everything in his life was taking shape…. Campbell, the great chronicler of the ‘hero’s journey’ in mythology, recognized patterns that paralleled his own thinking in one of Ricketts’s unpublished philosophical essays. Echoes of Carl Jung, Robinson Jeffers and James Joyce can be found in the work of Steinbeck and Ricketts as well as Campbell.”[11]

To this day many of the people who infect the literary world are the same Marxists, socialist and political Democrats/communists who hung around circles like the one Campbell and Steinbeck had experimented with creating the same kind of stunted philosophic exploration witnessed in Eastern Europe during 1954. Nowhere else in the world were these concepts challenging convention than they were in places like the Monterey Peninsula during the time of Campbell and Steinbeck who would both move on to become some of the most prolific American writers of the 20th Century. Both men later in their life would be described as conservatives or libertarians depending on the source even though they were surrounded by the typical coastal communists so prevalent in artistic and scholastic circles. In the battlefield of ideals—both men would reject collectivism ultimately. Steinbeck’s thoughts on the matter were easy to see in his speech to Radio Free Europe. Campbell would ultimately develop the simple line, “Follow your bliss,” which is an extremely individual proclamation. Campbell would bounce back and forth for the rest of his life between the cause of that “bliss”–the origin of what makes a unique life part of some programmed destination—be it a god, or some unforeseen force—but his declaration was one that supported vehemently the value of an individual in pursuit of their own life.

I see the work of John Steinbeck as some of the pinnacle moments of observation and discovery ever recorded in human history–because of the impact they had on culture thereafter.   His novel, and thus the performance by James Dean in the movie version of East of Eden are some of the most haunting and realistic portrayals of complex human problems ever seen in print. What is vastly important about all these literary works—those of Steinbeck and of Campbell was their sincere dedication to the lives of the individual as the rest of the creative world plunged down the drain of collectivist thought most adequately reflected in the communist push to take over the Democratic Party. Even though modern times has slid treacherously toward socialism—the kind of America that was a product of uniquely individual thinking can be found specifically in Steinbeck’s writing. Those who hated it—those college professors and critics who declared negativity toward Steinbeck were the same type of people spoken to in Eastern Europe—those who desire to destroy the individual in favor of collective salvation. These were aspects of John Steinbeck that were formed during that critical year of 1931 when he and Joseph Campbell were penniless and far from famous—where they worked out a complicated web of the human struggle between collectivism and individualism even when it threatened to destroy things they held precious—namely women. America’s literary future took a drastic turn for the good in these adventures between those two men which would be one of the few pillars left between the America we hope to preserve and the vile intentions of the European collectivists and their desire to spread the dark ignorance of philosophy that John Steinbeck tried to shine through across Eastern Europe in 1954.

This adventure was told in lurid detail in the great book, A Fire in the Mind. Click the link below to read it for yourself. I like the authors—even if they lean too far to the left for me. They are—following their bliss and captured in time the great work of these two men John Steinbeck and Joseph Campbell in their struggle to behold the strength of the individual.

From the Back Cover of the book:

“A marvelous account of the life of a man who fell in love with stories and became our greatest teller of timeless myths. A feast for the mind, the imagination, and the heart.”

–Sam Keen, author of Fire in the Belly

“Joseph Campbell was an amazing, abundant, humane man. This book, by incorporating his journals, letters, and a massive offering of his intellectual sources, helps us understand how, in this half-dead world, such a character comes to be.”

–Robert Bly, poet and author of Iron John: A Book About Men

Joseph Campbell: A Fire in the Mind ignites the soul of the reader with immortal longings. To read it is to swim in a river of old with Joseph Campbell, whose capacity for knowledge was as vast as his passion for living. [It is a] potent telling of the quest of one who brought life to myth and myth to life.”

–Jean Houston, author of The Search for the Beloved

Joseph Campbell forged an approach to the study of myth and legend that made ancient traditions and beliefs immediate, relevant, and universal. His teachings and literary works, including The Masks of God, have shown that beneath the apparent themes of world mythology lie patterns that reveal the ways in which we all may encounter the great mysteries of existence: birth, growth, soul development, and death. Biographers Stephen and Robin Larsen were students and friends of Campbell for more than twenty years. With exclusive access to his personal papers and journals, they weave a rich tapestry of stories and insights that catalogue both his personal and public triumphs.

The authors, STEPHEN LARSEN, Ph.D., is the author of The Shaman’s Doorway and The Mythic Imagination. He is a practicing psychotherapist and Professor Emeritus of Psychology at SUNY (Ulster). Robin Larsen, Ph.D., is an exhibiting artist and art historian. She is editor-in-chief of the tricentennial biography and anthology Emanuel Swedenborg: A Continuing Vision. The Larsens co-direct the Center for Symbolic Studies in New Paltz, New York.

Rich Hoffman