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Read John Steinbeck’s odd (and possibly rude) response to winning a Critics’ Circle award.

Emily Temple

April 29, 2021, 11:54am

In 1938, Of Mice and Men, a play adapted from Paul Walker lookalike John Steinbeck’s original 1937 novel and directed by George Kaufman, won the New York Drama Critics’ Circle award for Best Play. Steinbeck responded to the news of the award with a telegram, which read like this, as printed in Steinbeck: A Life in Letters:

GENTLEMEN: I HAVE ALWAYS CONSIDERED CRITICS AS AUTHORS NATURAL ENEMIES NOW I FEEL VERY MILLENIAL [sic] BUT A LITTLE TIMID TO BE LYING DOWN WITH THE LION THIS DISTURBANCE OF THE NATURAL BALANCE MIGHT CAUSE A PLAGUE OF PLAYWRIGHTS I AM HIGHLY HONORED BY YOUR GOOD OPINION BUT MY EGOTISTICAL GRATIFICATION IS RUINED BY A SNEAKING SUSPICION THAT GEORGE KAUFMAN AND THE CAST DESERVE THEM MORE THAN I. I DO HOWEVER TAKE THE RESPONSIBILITY OF THANKING YOU.

JOHN STEINBECK

A little chaotic, to be fair. Definitely odd. Rude? Hard to say with certainty. But the reaction to this note, it seems, was not positive. Shortly thereafter, he wrote a letter to his agent, Elizabeth Otis, in which he complained, “There seem to be so many places for me to put my foot even when I try not to walk about very much.”

What was the matter with that telegram I sent to the Critics’ Circle? Annie Laurie [the film agent] seemed ashamed of it. I thought it was all right. Carol thought it was all right. Maybe it got mixed up in the sending. It wasn’t abject but I didn’t think a group of men as eminent as that would care for an abject one. I guess I just haven’t any social sense.  . . . I have the letter from George Jean Nathan [President of the Critics’ Circle] but will not answer until the plaque comes. Now what in the world will I do with a plaque? Melt it down perhaps and buy a pair of shoes for someone.

Once the plaque was in hand, however, Steinbeck wrote a very cordial note to George Jean Nathan. “It is a very handsome thing,” he wrote.

I thank the Circle again. I like to think there is a perfect line of conduct for every situation. I’ve never met any situation like this before. But I do remember a speech of appreciation made by a rider at a dinner where he had received a pair of silver spurs for a championship in ear notching and castrating calves. Cheered to his feet, the winner stood up blushing violently and made the following speech— “Aw shit, boys— Jesus Christ— why— goddam it— oh! the hell with it,” and sat down to tremendous applause. You will find that this brief speech has in it every element of greatness in composition — beginning, middle, end, self-deprecation, a soaring quality in the middle and it ends not on a cynical or defeatist note but rather in a realization that nothing he could say could adequately convey his feeling.

It is a beautiful plaque, and I am very proud to have it.

Sincerely,

John Steinbeck

What can I say? Brilliant.

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