Rebecca Solnit: Two Meanings of Lost and The value of exploration for children

 

 

I have a long history of things disappearing in my life. My favorite hot-wheels truck disappeared from my possession when I was in kindergarten. It was a devastating day. In high school, my precious brown wallet was found unexpectedly in the river far away from my house by an old bearded man who mistook my wallet for a fish. He found it six months after I lost it. The money was all gone, but my driver’s license was still in it. Shirts, socks, trophies from early childhood’s competitions, coloring books, shoes, postcards that I acquired from friends who travelled overseas, photographs, have disappeared from my life. A few of them miraculously have reappeared, years later, damaged and musty.

Losing things and getting lost, these are the things that are more commonly avoided than aspired to by people. Through her nine galvanizing essays from a book titled A Field Guide to Getting Lost (Public Library), Rebecca Solnit, one of our most lyrical writers, pens descriptively and meditatively stories of facing the unknown and finding oneself by losing oneself. This book looks like a self-help book but it does not offer explicit and practical steps to navigate oneself in the face of uncertainty. Instead, this book demands its readers to ask themselves critically about what it means to be far away from their “home” and figure out the way back.

In the first essay titled “Open Door,” Solnit contemplates the difference between losing things and getting lost. 

“Lost has two disparate meanings. Losing things is about the familiar falling away, getting lost is about the unfamiliar appearing. There are objects and people that disappear from your sight or knowledge or possession; you lose a bracelet, a friend, the key. You still know where you are. Everything is familiar except that there is one item less, one missing element. Or you get lost, in which case the world has become larger than your knowledge of it.”

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A New Mapp of the World by Samuel Thornton. 1702. Via: (NYPL Digital Collections)

 

Both of these notions, Solnit argues, getting lost and losing things, have a common denominator–a loss sense of control.

She writes:

“Either way, there is a loss sense of control. Imagine yourself streaming through time shedding gloves, umbrellas, wrenches, books, friends, homes, names. This is what the view looks like if you take a rear-facing seat on the train. Looking forward you constantly acquire moments of arrival, moments of realization, moments of discovery. The wind blows your hair back and you are greeted by what you have never seen before. The material falls away in on rushing experience. It peels off like skin from a molting snake. Of course to forget the past is to lose the sense of loss, that is also memory of an absent richness and a set of clues to navigate the present by; the art is not one of forgetting but letting go. And when everything else is gone, you can be rich in loss.”

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The Dancing Shoes by Margaret Evans Prince. 1921. Via: (NYPL Digital Collections)

 

Another favorite passage from this book, Solnit draws a connection between childhood roaming and self-reliance. She argues that parents’ excessive fear of letting their children to explore a neighborhood limits the children’s capacity to exercise their self-reliance muscle, which in fact can be a beneficial trait for them when they grow up.

“A recent article about the return of wildlife to suburbia described snow-covered yards in which the footprints of animals are abundant and those of children are entirely absent. As far as the animals are concerned, the suburbs are an abandoned landscape, and so they roam with confidence. Children seldom roam, even in the safest places. Because of their parents’ fear of the monstrous things that might happen (and do happen, but rarely), the wonderful things that happen as a matter of course are stripped away from them. For me, childhood roaming was what developed self-reliance, a sense of direction and adventure, imagination, a will to explore, to be able to get a little lost and then figure out the way back. I wonder what will come of placing this generation under house arrest.”

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Financial District Map of New York City.  Aero view of financial district above map. 1921. Via: (NYPL Digital Collections)

 

Albert Einstein on the danger of Specialization and the value of Liberal Arts Education

 

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Albert Einstein with wife Elsa; State, War, and Navy building in background. Washington, D.C. Harris & Ewing Collection. Via (LOC)

 

Liberal arts education has become one of those overused terms like happiness and success that has slowly lost its intentional meaning. A liberal arts degree is often blamed for its impracticality and its bleak future for the graduates. Common conversations  mention that liberal arts degrees, such as English and philosophy, prepare their students for nothing but to be a coffee barista at Starbucks. Our culture of specialization, a culture that was heavily molded by the rise of industrialization in the 19th century, is obsessed with practicality and tends to shun everything that does not give us profitable, immediate, and countable results. Of course, it is hard to understand the reasons why people would spend four years of their own lives studying 19th century literature of Virginia Wolf or the history of ancient stoicism. The outcomes of learning those topics are hard to measure in any ways. This is not the failing of the choice that one engages, but it is the failing of our culture that does not recognize the deeper value of liberal arts education.

Albert Einstein expressed his disillusionment of the culture of specialization and the forgotten value of liberal arts education through a meaningful essay titled “Education for Independent Thoughts,” which was published in the New York Times on October 5th, 1952.  Later in 1954, this essay along with his other essays and speeches on Jewish people, the meaning of life, Germany, contribution to science, government, education, politics, and freedom were meticulously gathered into a book called Ideas and Opinions (Public Library).

Einstein began his essay by offering his reflective thoughts on the danger of specialization:

“It is not enough to teach man a specialty. Through it he may become a kind of useful machine but not a harmoniously developed personality. It is essential that the student acquire an understanding of and a lively feeling for values. He must acquire a vivid sense of the beautiful and of the morally good. Otherwise he–with his specialized knowledge–more closely resembles a well-trained dog than a harmoniously developed person.”

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Albert Einstein, Washington, D.C. Harris & Ewing Collection. Via (LOC)

 

I like this notion of “a well-trained dog” that he coined. It is a harsh concept, but it illustrates precisely the characteristics of people who are afraid to explore outside of their own specialty bubbles. Then the question becomes: what one can do to be less like a “well-trained dog” and more like a “harmoniously developed person”? Einstein wrote:

“He must learn to understand the motives of human beings, their illusions, and their sufferings in order to acquire a proper relationship to individual fellow-men and to the community.”

In the second paragraph, he went on talking about the forgotten value of the humanities as a discipline. Our modern culture despises the humanities because they are impractical and being perceived as an abstract discipline.

“These precious things are conveyed to the younger generation through personal contact with those who teach, not–or at least in the main–through textbooks. It is this that primarily constitutes and preserves culture. This is what I have in mind when I recommend the “humanities” as important, not just dry specialized knowledge in the fields of history and philosophy.”

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Jewish-Palestine Participation- Einstein, Albert-At Podium. Via (NYPL Digital Collections)

Specialization does make everything more efficient and faster. It has given us some world-changing innovations from science, technology, to medical, and so on. However, behind its special perks, it blinds us to see any other existing ideas other than our own. It limits the way we think when solving a problem because we are only trained to see it form our own point of view. For Einstein, this is a very dangerous model of thinking to be massively glorified. He wrote:

“Overemphasis on the competitive system and premature specialization on the ground of immediate usefulness kill the spirit on which all cultural life depends, specialized knowledge included.”

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Jewish-Palestine Participation-Einstein, Albert-With Grover Whalen at podium. Via (NYPL Digital Collections).

 

Besides believing that humans must “learn to understand the motives of human beings, their illusions, and their sufferings in order to acquire a proper relationship to individual fellow-men and to the community,” Einstein wholeheartedly believed that the selectivity of information, both in terms of the topics chosen and the amounts of topics being chose were the crucial factors that could mold one into a well-developed person. He also argued that overburdening one’s mind with too much useless information would achieve him or her nothing but superficiality. In the last couple of sentences, he wrote:

“It is also vital to a valuable education that independent critical thinking be developed in the young human being, a development that is greatly jeopardized by overburdening him with too much and with too varied subjects. Overburdening necessarily leads to superficiality. Teaching should be such that what is offered is perceived as a valuable gift and not as a hard duty.”

This sentence that Einstein wrote from the previous excerpt, “. . .a development that is greatly jeopardized by overburdening him with too much and with too varied subjects.” raised another critical question for me: how much is too much subjects? Is not the whole notion of liberal arts education teaching us to learn from a lot of disciplines ranging from history, literature, sociology, biology, and so on? I sensed a contradiction in what he said about the value of liberal arts education. At the beginning of the essay, he was championing the idea of studying humanities, but later towards the end of the essay, he made a case that though a liberal arts education gives us a permission to be exposed by those multiple disciplines, we need to be very cautious when it comes to deciding what discipline that we choose to learn from. 

So much what Einstein wrote reminded me of the convocation speech that David Foster Wallace delivered in Kenyon College, three years prior to the heartbreaking news of his suicide. In it, he talked about many things– those that we always know they are true but we often forget to practice: compassion and kindness, the trap of prestige, and the value of liberal arts education. This topic about the value of liberal arts education spoke to me dearly. In it he wisely said:

“. . .Twenty years after my own graduation, I have come gradually to understand that the liberal arts cliché about teaching you how to think is actually shorthand for a much deeper, more serious idea: learning how to think really means learning how to exercise some control over how and what you think. It means being conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to and to choose how you construct meaning from experience. Because if you cannot exercise this kind of choice in adult life, you will be totally hosed. Think of the old cliché about ‘the mind being an excellent servant but a terrible master.’ . . .”

If you are curious about the rest of David Foster Wallace’s remarkable speech about the value of liberal arts education, here is the recording of his speech on SoundCloud:

 

 

 

A Forgotten 1932 Book on Education and Recreation

 

I have something against the popular culture of “work/play” balance. When I was a freshmen in college, a friend of mine who was a senior, sat me down and told me that the key of happiness in college is the clear separation of work and play time. “Your work should not be your play and when you play, it has to be free from the attachment of work.” Baffled by what he said, I nodded and only said yes.

I am only in my early twenties and might be too young to know what that concept actually entails. However, across the years, the people that have been the source of my inspirations do not subscribe into that notion of “work/life” balance. I have observed from the corner of my eyes the way they manufacture their lives. One common denominator that is pronounced from their lives is the union of their work and play. One is barely standing an inch away from the other. Their work and play are indistinguishable–becoming the same entity under the same being.

Long time ago from the years of 1930 and 1931, Lawrence Pearsall Jacks (1860 – 1955), an English educator and a philosopher, travelled to sixty cities in the United States to give a public lecture under the sponsorship of National Recreation Association to address some issues regarding education and recreation–the two topics that had become separated.  Jacks stood in public aiming at uniting the concept of recreation and education. He wanted to make the recreations of the people more educational than before and give education some of the interest and the joy that belong to recreation. His insights on the topic of education and recreation, despite the passage of time, still sound profoundly true for me. Later in 1932, a book from his lectures that he had given a year earlier was published by Harper & Brothers titled Education Through Recreation (Public Library)

On his first essay in the book, Jacks expressed his strong conviction on what he believed as the art of living:

“The art of living is one and indivisible. It is not a composite art made up by adding the art of play to the art of work, or the art of leisure to the art of labor, or the art of recreation to the art of education. When life is divided into these or any other compartments it can never become an art, but at best a medley or at worst a mess. It becomes an art when work and play, labor and leisure, mind and body, education and recreation, are governed by a single vision of excellence and a continuous passion for achieving it. “

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Costumi Della Provincia (Napoli). 1850 – 1859. Via (Jerome Robbins Dance Division of The New York Public Library)

 

The art of living according to him is accomplished by people who believe that there is no distinction between their work and their play, their labor and leisure, their mind and body, education and their recreation. Their lives are led by the conviction that there is no separation in whatever endeavors they are doing. When people do separate in what they believe as work and play, or education and recreation, or try to compartmentalize their lives into different kinds of small entities, Jacks argued that they are frankly dividing themselves.

He wrote:

“Man the worker and man the player are not two men, but one. Not two halfs of one man, either, but one man viewed in different aspects; so that if you train him for his work by one method and his play by another, you will find that you are not training him at all, but dividing him against himself. So mishandled, he is certain to miss the art of living and find himself in a world of confusion where his duties and his pleasures are in conflict. His leisure occupations will not reinforce his labor occupations, but will disturb them, and his recreation, far from promoting his education, will blot it out.”

Then he went on offering an example of a violinist as the true embodiment when play has become work or when work has become play.

He wrote:

“What is work, and what is play? When you listen to a master performing great music on the violin, or watch a Pavlova visibly enacting the music of the human body, arts acquired by years of the sternest discipline, is it work, or is it play that you are witnessing? It is both. Work and play have joined hands labor and leisure have combined their natures. Art and industry have become one. The highest kind of work and the highest kind of play are indistinguishable one from the other. They are two names for the same thing. . .”

 

Words matter. They reveal what we want to know about ourselves and our relationships with others. The words that we have for education and recreation, unfortunately, are not in synergy, making them hard to merge. Jacks argued that education, once this word is being uttered, people will remember their stern teachers, standardized examinations, expensive textbooks that they have kept unopened from the day one. Mostly, their memories are filled with the boredom of long meandering lectures. On the other hand, the word recreation ignites people’s consciousness of summer being away from school when they are void of school work or when the bell rings, signaling the end of the class. He believed that to be able to savor the fruit of education and recreation, people should not segregate the meaning of the two word, rather believing that those two words live inseparably.

He wrote:

“I shall contend that to understand the meaning of education and of recreation we must see the two in union and not in separation. The education which is not also recreation is a maimed, incomplete, half-done thing. The recreation which is not also education has no re-creative value.

Then he said:

“Recreation we shall then see is not an escape from the toil of education into the emptiness of a vacation, but a vitalizing element in the process of education itself.”

When we do not put recreation into one compartment and education into another, embracing them wholly, we do not have to worry about what to do with the excess of leisure time that we have.

He wrote:

“In the life of a rightly educated man there is no such vacuum. By combining his education with his recreation we fill up all possible vacuums in advance, and so save nature the trouble of “abhorring” them.

 

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Kleno Dance captured by Claire Holt. Via (Jerome Robbins Dance Division of The New York Public Library)

 

Speaking of leisure time, Jacks drew a point in which the kind of labor that one chooses to do can have an effect on the leisure that one chooses to engage at the end. Moreover, how one uses his leisure time can determine his efficiency as a worker.

He wrote:

“On the one hand, the efficiency of the worker is obviously affected by the way he spends his leisure time. If the director of a company is a haunter of night clubs, or a Monte Carlo gambler, let the shareholders look out for themselves. If the artisan spends his week-end in a debauch, or in attempting some athletic feat beyond his strength, you will know of it on Monday morning.

On the other hand, the kind of work he does will have its influence on the kind of pleasure he seeks when work is done. If he leaves off in a state of exhaustion or boredom or nervous irritation, he will naturally seek his recreation in the form of ready-made pleasures and external excitement, and be especially susceptible, as psychologists well know, to that form of entertainment in which sex flavor is uppermost.”

Later in the book, he offered a practical advice for people who want to make use of their leisure time effectively:

“The more of your leisure you can spend in creative activity, in skillful and beautiful exertion, the more you will enjoy it and the more good it will do you. In that way your recreation will become your education.”     

                      

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Education Through Recreation.

     

 

Behind The Grapes of Wrath—Steinbeck’s Forgotten Journal on Discipline and Persistence

 

 

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J. Steinbeck, sitting on a chair. Stackpole, Peter, (1930-1960) From New York Public Library

 

            Long before the world was shocked by the intensity and the truthfulness of The Grapes of Wrath, little did everyone know, John Steinbeck (February 27, 1902–December 20, 1968) did not initially set out to write this novel. The process of writing this novel was long; it was unglamorous, demanding, arduous, and so far from the public notion of writing a novel. Steinbeck did not sit in a café in a gloomy day while sipping a cup of warm cappuccino and waiting for inspiration to strike. The Grapes of Wrath was a final product of his wholehearted and tireless immersion in the deplorable migrant conditions in California from 1936 to 1939. It was three years of moral and emotional battle for him.

                He was commissioned by The San Francisco News, a bay area daily paper, to write a seven-part series of newspaper articles from October 5 to 12, 1936, titled The Harvest Gypsies. His articles were full of alarming facts about migrants’ lives (illness, incapacitation, death). A year later in late 1937, he attempted to write as he called a “rather long novel” called The Oklahomans, to capture the characters of the migrants that he believed would change the shape of California. However, in late January 1938, not even six months since he started writing it, he stopped working on the novel. The reason behind it was somewhat vague, but the misery of migrants’ condition in Visalia and Nipomo pushed Steinbeck to ditch his writing and be involved in helping them. As he wrote in a letter to his agent, Elizabeth Otis, “I’ve tied into the thing from the first and I must get down there and see it (…)” He continued to write about his vivid investigation of migrants’ lives from February to May 1938 that later became “L’Affaire Lettuceberg. After he finished the first draft of the book, which was a little over seventy thousand words, he destroyed it. The book, as he said in a letter to his main literary agent, Elizabeth Otis, could have sold probably 30,000 copies but the nature of the book was not feeding his artistic integrity—making people understand each other. This book was, as he said, “a vicious book and a mean book”, and he aimed to start hatred through this book. He wrote to Otis, “My father would have called it a smart-aleck book. It was full of tricks to make people ridiculous. If I can’t do better I have slipped badly (…) It is sloppily written because I never cared about it. I had got smart and cocky you see (…) A book must be a life that lives all of itself and this one doesn’t do that.”

The final part of his writing development eventually produced The Grapes of Wrath. From late May 1938 through winter of 1939, Steinbeck embarked on one of the most rigorous writing activities that he’d ever done. As he was tirelessly working on his novel every day, he kept a daily journal (Public Library) as he said, “to map the actual working days hours” of his novel. His journal had been helpful for him to keep him grounded and remind him of his purpose to create this novel. Right before he started writing, which was usually around 11:00 am every day, he would always write in his journal about his agonizing self-doubt, fear, hopes, dreams, the progress of his craft, and his complexities as both a novelist and human being. The journal itself, though he never intended to publish and only wrote it for himself and a future use for his two sons (Thomas Steinbeck and John Steinbeck IV), is in fact a work of art. It’s a glimpse at how a person was stubbornly bringing forth into the world what he believed were “truth, meaning, and beauty”.

 

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Lettuce workers. California 1937. Lange, Dorothea. From The New York Public Library

 

Habit, for Steinbeck, was an indispensable ingredient for writing, more than either willpower or inspiration. He did not wait for any inspiration to strike and managed to do the best he could despite all the distractions. Not only The Grapes of Wrath, but all the books under his belt and the way he oriented himself in the world as one of America’s greatest writers was because of the discipline that he had crafted every single day, tirelessly. In the process of finishing The Grapes of Wrath, in June 13th, 1938, he wrote:

          “Now a new week starts and unpropitiously for me. Last night up to Rays’ and drank a great deal of champagne. I pulled my punches pretty well but I am not in the dead sober state I could wish. However, I will try to go to work (…) All sorts of things might happen in the course of this book but I must not be weak. This must be done. The failure of will even for one day has a devastating effect on the whole, far more important than just the loss of time and wordage. The whole physical basis of the novel is discipline of the writer, of his material, of the language. And sadly enough, if any of the discipline is gone, all of it suffers (…)”

In August 4th, 1938, he persisted to finish what’s in front of him even though he was missing the drive to work:

“But I’ve got to go on and think of nothing but this book. I’m behind now and I want not to lose any more time, and I simply must go on. It’s good to work even if the absolute drive isn’t in you. Here goes.”

 

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Migratory field worker’s home on the edge of a pea field. The family lived here through the winter. Imperial Valley, California. Lange, Dorothea. 1937. From The New York Public Library.

 

He was worried if he ever managed to finish his novel. Written in August 16, 1938 at 10:45 a.m.:

“My many weaknesses are beginning to show their heads. I simply must get this thing out of my system. I’m not a writer. I’ve been fooling myself and other people. I wish I were. This success will ruin me as sure as hell. It probably won’t last, and that will be all right. I’ll try to go on with work now. Just a stint every day does it. I keep forgetting.”

Though he was very focused on finishing the draft of The Grapes by cutting both internal (self-doubt) and external (uninvited guests) distractions, what I thought was interesting about him was he was still paying attention to what was happening in the world, especially about the escalation of Nazism. Writing in September 12, 1938:

        “Things get no more peaceful. Today Hitler is to make his war or peace speech. That may toss the world into a mess. Apparently the whole world is jittery about it. All armies mobilized. It might be a shambles by tomorrow. And it might be recede for a while. Can’t tell (…)”

 

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Destitute pea pickers in California. Mother of seven children. Age thirty-two. Nipomo, California. Lange, Dorothea. 1936. From The New York Public Library.

 

A year later, on April 14th,1939, The Grapes of Wrath eventually was published. As his masterful “The Grapes of Wrath” catapulted him under an immense spotlight along with bringing fame and financial success to his life, the demands to give public lectures from clubs all over the country increased significantly. However, Steinbeck flatly refused any invitations and chose to be close with the source of his happiness—writing. In July 1939, he said to an Associated Press interviewer:

“Why do they think a writer, just because he can write, will make a good after-dinner speaker, or club committeeman, or even a public speaker? I’m no public speaker and I don’t want to be. I’m not even a finished writer yet, I haven’t learned my craft.”

Steinbeck still kept the journal after the wild success of his novel, but at this time the tone of his entries was radically different. There was no obsessive urgency to finish the novel. In other words, his pace was less frantic and calmer than the entries when he still composed The Grapes of Wrath. The entries varied in length, frequency, and details but he still pondered with the things that he pondered when he composed the Grapes: self-doubt, the reflection of being a human being and being a novelist, and his wife.

Entry 101, dated October 16, 1939, almost a year after he finished the first draft of the Grapes and six months after the Grapes was published, he reflected in his journal about the immense pleasure of success that he received from the book. He wrote:

“In the first place the Grapes got really out of hand, became a public hysteria and I became a public domain. I’ve fought that consistently but I don’t know how successfully. Second, we are rich as riches go. We have money enough to keep us for many years. We have this pleasant ranch which is everything one could desire. It lacks only the ocean to be perfect. We have comfort and beauty around us and these things I never expected. Couldn’t possibly have expected (…)”

On the same entry after he reminded himself about the victory of the book sales, he expressed his fear of losing a creative force—a vital force that had made Steinbeck persist through bad days of writing and propel into public consciousness. This is also a force that a lot of creative people try to preserve and maintain.

“Now I am battered with uncertainties. The part of my life that made the Grapes is over. I have one little job to do for the government, and then I can be born again. Must be. I have to go to new sources and find new roots. I have written simply for simple stories, but now the conception and the execution become difficult and not simple. And I don’t know what the conception is (…) I do not know whether there is anything left of me. I know that some of my forces are gone.”

A year later, in one particular entry dated July 29th, 1940, he once again found himself contemplating the notion of habit as a more transformative recipe than willpower or inspiration to finish a manuscript. The notion of habit, showing up day in and day out regardless of any other obstacles is something I believe, the thing that sets apart the master and the ordinary. His habit was slowly built upon his deep sincere purpose of the work and his exceeding stubbornness to bring forth his novel within his body. He wrote:

“The trouble with being too casual about a manuscript is that you don’t do it. In writing, habit seems to be a much stronger force than either willpower or inspiration. Consequently, there must be some little quality of fierceness until the habit pattern of a certain number of words is established. There is no possibility, in me at least, of saying, “I’ll do it if I like it.” One never feels like awaking day after day. In fact, given the smallest excuse, one will not work at all. The rest is nonsense. Perhaps there are people who can work that way, but I cannot. I must get my words down every day whether they are any good or not. And I am a little afraid that they are not much good. However, down they go. The forced work is sometimes better than the easy, but there is no rule about it. Sometimes they come out better than at other times that is all one can say (…)”

 

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Migrants’ camp, California. 1935. Lange, Dorothea. From The New York Public Library

 

In 1940, he earned the Pulitzer Prize for his The Grapes of Wrath, and later in 1962 he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature for, as the Swedish Academy said, “his realistic as well as imaginative writings, distinguished by a sympathetic humor and a keen social perception.” The Grapes of Wrath has been translated into nearly every language on earth and has sold more than 14 million copies in the past half century.