The John Steinbeck Award: "In the Souls of the People."
The John Steinbeck Award is given to writers, artists, thinkers, and activists whose work captures Steinbeck’s empathy, commitment to democratic values, and belief in the dignity of people who by circumstance are pushed to the fringes. The phrase “in the souls of the people” comes from Chapter 25 of The Grapes of Wrath. This section of the book, and particularly this phrase, encapsulates the writer’s enduring legacy as an engaged and socially aware artist. Steinbeck wrote with unflinching honesty about people who were pitied and rejected by others. Americans were his people, regardless of their position in society.
The Steinbeck Award is sponsored by the Martha Heasley Cox Center for Steinbeck Studies and Catherine Busalacchi, Executive Director of Student Union, Inc. Ted Cady, the chair of the Center’s award selection committee and Event Director for the Student Union, has organized Award presentations and has brought each of the honorees to appreciate the Award’s meaning and the importance of Steinbeck’s legacy here at San José State.
1996 - Bruce Springsteen
It began with the Boss. On October 26, Bruce Springsteen came to San José State for a concert to benefit the Center for Steinbeck Studies. Normally accompanied by his legendary E Street Band, Springsteen performed solo on the Steinbeck-themed folk album The Ghost of Tom Joad. Before a capacity crowd of 4,600 at the Event Center Arena, Springsteen played an impeccable acoustic set, capped by his sensitive reading of a closing passage from The Grapes of Wrath. At a reception afterward, Springsteen was presented the first John Steinbeck Award by Elaine Steinbeck, the author's widow. Said Elaine Steinbeck, "If my husband were alive, he would have wanted every word Bruce sang tonight included in a prologue of The Grapes of Wrath."
1998 - John Sayles
When approaching John Sayles, the selection committee was unaware that he had directed the iconic videos for the Springsteen classics "I'm on Fire," "Glory Days," and "Born in the USA." To the committee, Sayles was known only as an acclaimed author and the writer-director of independent film classics such as Lone Star, Matewan, and Return of the Secaucus 7. On the afternoon of February 14, Sayles came to campus and regaled students with film clips and stories of filmmaking. Later that evening Sayles appeared at the Town Theater for a premiere of his Spanish language film Men with Guns and accepted the John Steinbeck Award from Dr. Martha Heasley Cox. Of Steinbeck, Sayles said, "What I remember most about him is how he developed a sense of place. And his characters actually worked for a living!"
1999 - Arthur Miller
The author of classics such as The Crucible and Death of a Salesman, Arthur Miller was one of the greatest playwrights of the 20th century. Miller is also the only one of our honorees known to be a close associate of Steinbeck. Willing to depict the dark side of the American Dream, Miller probed complex moral and psychological themes. Steinbeck admired Miller as a writer and as a courageous man and defended Miller's refusal to offer names and cooperate with the witch-hunting House Committee on Un-American Activities. On April 22, after a well-attended reading at Morris Dailey Auditorium, Miller appeared at a reception and was given the John Steinbeck Award by Dr. Susan Shillinglaw. Later, Elaine Steinbeck wrote, "John would be thrilled to have Arty receive this award."
2002 - Jackson Browne
Through masterful albums such as Late for the Sky, The Pretender, and I'm Alive, Jackson Browne has crafted a catalog of some of the most poetic and literate pop songs ever written. And as a social activist and early crusader for environmental causes, Browne has always dared be in the forefront. A highlight of the Steinbeck Centennial (1902-2002) had to be Browne's benefit concert at the Fox Theatre in Redwood City on Steinbeck's birthday, February 27. The previous night, at a dinner at the Capital Club in San José, Browne received the Award and in his acceptance speech talked about his father's great love of Steinbeck's writing. "Now, my father and I may have had our differences," said Browne, "but at least we could agree on Steinbeck."
2002 - Studs Terkel
Raconteur and radio host, author and activist -- Studs Terkel was a national treasure, but probably more important to him, the pride of Chicago. His daily radio show on WFMT in Chicago ran for five decades, during which Terkel interviewed luminaries such as Bertrand Russell, Maya Angelou, Pete Seeger, and Muhammad Ali. But Terkel may be better known for taping off-the-air conversations with ordinary Americans, talk that served as the source of books such as Hard Times, Working, and The Good War. On October 2, at a packed Herbst Theatre in San Francisco, Terkel appeared in conversation with longtime friend Calvin Trillin and received the Steinbeck Award. Trillin reminded the audience that Terkel had written the introduction to the 50th Anniversary Edition of The Grapes of Wrath, a book Terkel called "an anthem in praise of community."
2003 - Joan Baez
With her smooth soprano voice and her steadfast commitment to pacifism and civil rights, Joan Baez was a major figure both in the 60's folk music scene and in the civil rights movement. In those turbulent times, Baez sang and spoke of freedom everywhere from the Royal Albert Hall in London to the back of flatbed trucks in Mississippi to the steps of the Lincoln Memorial at the historic March on Washington. On those steps in 1963, Baez led 500,000 people in singing "We Shall Overcome." On February 26, 2003, Baez received the Steinbeck Award at a reception after a benefit concert at the Fox Theatre in Redwood City. Just a few days prior, Baez had been in San Francisco taking part in an anti-war rally.
2004 - Sean Penn
On September 10 at the Palace of Fine Arts in San Francisco, a capacity crowd heard social activist and actor Sean Penn offer candid answers to his interviewer Peter Coyote, as expected. But the audience could scarcely believe what they saw as the benefit was concluding: Bruce Springsteen, unexpected and unannounced, walking onstage to present the Steinbeck Award. Of the Academy Award-winning actor, Springsteen said, "He risks his coolness with the choices he makes. He never cheats his audience.” Penn thanked Springsteen, calling him "one of the most creative inspirations in my life," and then asked for the audience's indulgence as he read a five-minute passage railing against war. It sounded like vintage Penn, but as Penn revealed, the author was in fact John Steinbeck.
2007 - Garrison Keillor
Actor, author, singer, screenwriter -- Garrison Keillor is all of these. But mostly he will be known for being the discoverer of the Lake Wobegon effect and the creator and host of a decades-long mainstay of radio called A Prairie Home Companion. On September 23 at the Marin Civic Auditorium in San Rafael, before a capacity crowd of 2,000, Keillor received the John Steinbeck Award from the author’s son, Thomas Steinbeck, who said, "Garrison Keillor is one of America's great treasures because he is first and foremost a man of the people, by the people, and for the people." Of the Steinbeck Award, Keillor wrote, "The Pulitzer is named for a publisher; the Nobel for the inventor of dynamite. It's a greater honor to receive an award named for a writer, especially Mr. Steinbeck, the hero of my youth."
2010 - Dolores Huerta
The three themes of legendary civil rights activist Dolores Huerta’s life have been community, community, and community. On September 23, Huerta took part in a panel discussion in Morris Dailey Auditorium with Thomas A. Saenz, president of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, and three members of the activist band Ozomatli. The discussion addressed controversial legislation in Arizona, the delay of the Dream Act, the threat of deportations, and the need for a new Chicano rights movement -- all subjects that would have interested Steinbeck. Fittingly, at the end of the evening, as she received the Steinbeck Award, Huerta led all assembled in a cheer of “¡Viva John Steinbeck!”
2010 - Michael Moore
Arch-conservative Sarah Palin and leftist maverick Michael Moore appeared at separate events in San José on October 14. But only Moore left town with an award. With his fiery comments on Hollywood films and American politics, the Academy Award-winning filmmaker and bestselling author enthralled an overflow audience at Morris Dailey Auditorium. After Moore's Steinbeck event, audience member Steve Wozniak, co-founder of Apple, said, "I think the whole idea around Michael Moore is that the ones that are super-wealthy, the powerful, should not be more important the common people.” For weeks after receiving the Steinbeck Award, Moore could be seen on national television shows wearing a San José State cap.
2012 - Rachel Maddow
On February 25, MSNBC host and Castro Valley native Rachel Maddow spoke about her career in talk radio, her cable television show, and her reputation as “the champion of mind over chatter.” Maddow received her Steinbeck Award from Thom Steinbeck, who said, “My father would have adored Rachel Maddow. Listening to her is like listening to Walter Cronkite. We have that kind of trust in her.” Maddow told the audience she was humbled by the honor. “To me, John Steinbeck was larger than life, and I can’t believe I’m going to be linked to the previous recipients.”
2012 - John Mellencamp
Leave it to the avowed contrarian to make his Steinbeck event his own. Classic rocker and Farm Aid co-founder John Mellencamp would not settle for a mere conversation or just another concert, so he developed a hybrid for his July 30 appearance at the California Theatre in San José. One part conversation (with Bob Santelli of the Grammy Museum) and one part concert (with full-band accompaniment), Mellencamp brought down the house for his sold-out benefit for the Steinbeck Center. After receiving the Award from Dr. Paul Douglass, Mellencamp said of Steinbeck, "His remarkable ability to give voice to the common man and to people on society's margins continues to inspire me. I'm honored to be given an award in his name."
2013 - Ken Burns
It has been said that more Americans get their history from Ken Burns than from any other source. From The National Parks to our national pastime (Baseball), from The Civil War to The Dust Bowl, Burns has told the tales of America’s trials and triumphs. On the evening of December 6 in Morris Dailey Auditorium, Burns discussed his career with KQED radio host Michael Krasny. Then, with three members of the Roosevelt family in the audience, he treated the auditorium to a preview of his new series, The Roosevelts: An Intimate History.
2014 - Khaled Hosseini
To commemorate the 75th anniversary of The Grapes of Wrath, the Steinbeck Award was presented to novelist and San José resident Khaled Hosseini, who has frequently cited Steinbeck’s great novel for its effect on him as a teenage immigrant from Afghanistan. In novels such as The Kite Runner and A Thousand Splendid Suns, Hosseini created powerful portrayals of the disconnected and dispossessed, and in a September 10 conversation with KGO’s Pat Thurston onstage at the New Student Union Ballroom, Hosseini discussed his work as a goodwill ambassador for the United Nations Refugee Agency. Hosseini said, “If Steinbeck were alive, he’d be in his element in Afghanistan. In Syria, in Chad, and in Afghanistan, I suspect you’ll find a large number of Ma Joads.”
2015 - Ruby Bridges
In Travels with Charley, Steinbeck described the travails of a six-year-old black girl chosen to integrate an all-white elementary school in the Deep South of 1960. At the time, he did not know her name. But thanks to the presentation of the Steinbeck Award to this civil rights icon on February 24, 2016, before a capacity crowd in the Student Union Ballroom, the names John Steinbeck and Ruby Bridges are now linked forever. The award presentation by Nicholas Taylor capped an evening featuring an interview of Bridges by KQED's Joshua Johnson in which Bridges called racism an adult disease and asked that we stop using children to spread it. John Steinbeck, Nobel Laureate, couldn't have said it better.