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.
Text by Susan Shillinglaw, former Director of the Center for Steinbeck Studies.
On October 26, 1996, musician Bruce Springsteen received the first Steinbeck Award. Perhaps the phrase “in the souls of the people” speaks for itself. In The Grapes of Wrath, it serves as the ending of the novel's most impassioned chapter:
...and in the eyes of the hungry there is a growing wrath. In the souls of the people the grapes of wrath are filling and growing heavy, growing heavy for the vintage. (End of Chapter 25)
In The Grapes of Wrath the people's suffering is balanced by their resilience. They survive by grit and by commitment to a group, perhaps best exemplified in Rose of Sharon's poignant offering at the end of the novel. This is the spirit that Springsteen's art 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: to help people understand one another. Springsteen's music achieves 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.