John Kenneth Galbraith on John Steinbeck (1986)

Continuing with archival notes from talks, lectures, and readings, the following is my fragmented account of a talk by economist and ambassador John Kenneth Galbraith, long associated with Harvard University, from a John Steinbeck conference at then-University of Lowell (UMass Lowell now) on April 19, 1986. Galbraith, a leading public intellectual and iconic figure in political economy, had written 50 books by this time. A very tall man with gray hair and wide hips, he wore a gray suit and stood slightly bent at the waist. His manner was easy and he smiled a lot. In his early years at Harvard, he taught agricultural economics. The conference in O’Leary Library was organized by Steinbeck scholar Cliff Lewis, who taught American Studies at the university for many years. Bracketed ([ ]) comments are mine.

Web image courtesy of

Web image courtesy of

John Kenneth Galbraith on John Steinbeck

[These opening notes may reflect introductory remarks by Prof. Lewis and not JKG’s comments. My notes are not clear about the source.] JS was involved in politics. He wrote speeches for President Franklin D. Roosevelt. In 1944, he wrote a “manifesto” for domestic and foreign policy in FDR’s administration. JS believed that a person can’t succeed as an individual until establishing family and/or group ties. People are both individual and group animals. Humans contain a uniqueness/sameness paradox. Farmers in Oklahoma and Ukraine are similar. We are members of a national community and global family, both independent and interdependent. A person’s strength comes from responsibility. Individual responsibility/mutual responsibility. It’s important to know people as individual units rather than to define them as nationals of one type.

JKG comments begin here:

“Steinbeck was more than an artist. He was a world citizen.

“He is a large figure in agriculture. The farm worker was the forgotten person until Steinbeck published The Grapes of Wrath. They were Americans, Oklahoma farm workers, WASPs [white Anglo-Saxon Protestants].”

JKG met JS on a holiday on St. John in the Virgin Islands. JS didn’t like talking about his work as a writer. Preferred talking about other things. JS was a controlled but appreciative drinker. He called the time to have a drink at the end of the day, “Milking Time.” JKG calls it, “The Liberal Hour.”

JKG and JS became good friends. JS was “the last of the great letter writers.”

With a large group of artists and intellectuals, JS attended the inauguration of President John F. Kennedy. JS told a reporter that he had been named “Secretary of Morals and Consumer Education.”

JKG read from a letter to him from JS in 1961. [I’m not sure if the following quotes are from the letter or statements by JKG, but I offer them as part of the record of the day. My sense is that these are by JS.] “Without talk there is no thought . . . Our difficulties come from failure to inspect . . . it seems that nothing is so ear to a human as error . . . when we took skyrockets away from children and gave them to generals, we were naive . . . people love their chains and begin to think of them as wings . . . government cannot permit itself the luxury of humor . . .”

JKG talked about his time as Ambassador to India and said JS wanted to be Ambassador to Oz. JS was very well received by the writers’ union in the Soviet Union. JKG said the perfect diplomat stands firm on key points and gives away non-essentials.

JS urged that we “beat swords into typewriters and ballpoint pens.”

John Kenneth Galbraith (web screen shot, PBS)

John Kenneth Galbraith (web screen shot, PBS)