Bruce Springsteen Receives the 1996 Steinbeck Award

Pete Seeger, left, and Bruce Springsteen, performing together at a Woody Guthrie tribute concert at Severance Hall in Cleveland, in 1996. The two recorded Springsteen's song "The Ghost of Tom Joad" and also "Hobo's Lullaby," which Seeger recorded in the past. Photo by Roger Mastroianni.

Perhaps the phrase, “in the souls of the people,” speaks for itself. In the context of The Grapes of Wrath, it is the most impassioned chapter in the novel. In California, Steinbeck writes, migrants are starving, and this is “a crime that goes beyond denunciation . . . a sorrow that weeping cannot symbolize . . . a failure that topples all our success . . . and in the eyes of the people there is failure . . . in the souls of the people the grapes of wrath are filling . . .” This passage most explicitly conveys the scope of the people's suffering, the meaning of the title. 

In The Grapes of Wrath, however, that sorrow, a sorrow that informs so many of Bruce Springsteen's songs, is balanced by “the souls of the people” that survive through grit, through commitment to a group, through Rose of Sharon's poignant offering at the end of the novel.   And this is the spirit that Springsteen's, Sayle's and Miller's art, like Steinbeck's, repeatedly evokes. Another passage summarizes Steinbeck's artistic vision: 

In every bit of honest writing in the world . . . there is a base theme. Try to understand men, if you understand each other you will be kind to each other. Knowing a man well never leads to hate and nearly always leads to love. There are shorter means, many of them. There is writing promoting social change, writing punishing injustice, writing in celebration of heroism, but always that base theme. Try to understand each other (from The Long Valley Ledger). 

For Steinbeck, this was the end of all artistic endeavors. Springsteen's music, Sayles's passionate commitment to independent film, and Miller's plays achieve the same. 

The bust of John Steinbeck presented to each recipient represents the spirit of co-operation that this award inspires. A SJSU sculpture student, Rosemary Abel, copied the bust of John Steinbeck that is on Cannery Row, a bust created by Steinbeck's first wife's sister-in-law, Carol Crow. Elaine Steinbeck gave permission to present the award in her husband's name; the artist granted permission to create a model, the City of Monterey generously assisted in production; the SJSU Foundry produced a series of bronze busts.