Thomas and Gail Steinbeck with Jackson Browne when he received the Steinbeck Award in February 2002, the centennial year of Steinbeck's birth.
The annual "John Steinbeck Award: 'in the souls of the people'" was first given in 1996 to Bruce Springsteen. The award is given to writers, artists, thinkers, and activists whose work captures the spirit of 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, captures the writer's enduring legacy as an engaged artist. From the 1930s, Steinbeck consistently wrote with unflinching honesty about the people who were pitied and rejected by others. Americans were his people, regardless of their position in society, and his last book, America and Americans (1966) expresses his enduring love for a democratic nation:
From our beginning, in hindsight at least, our social direction is clear. We have moved to become one people out of many. At intervals, men or groups, through fear of people or the desire to use them, have tried to change our direction, to arrest our growth, or to stampede the Americans. This will happen again and again. The impulses which for a time enforced the Alien and Sedition Laws, which have used fear and illicit emotion to interfere with and put a stop to our continuing revolution, will rise again, and they will serve us in the future as they have in the past to clarify and to strengthen our process. We have failed sometimes, taken wrong paths, paused for renewal, filled our bellies and licked our wounds; but we have never slipped back-never.