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Garrison Keillor—author, screenwriter, musician, actor and host of one of the nation's most popular live variety radio shows, A Prairie Home Companion—was presented the 2007 John Steinbeck Award at the Marin Veterans' Memorial Auditorium in San Rafael, California on Tuesday, September 25. The award was presented by author Thomas Steinbeck, John Steinbeck's son, on behalf of San José State University's Martha Heasley Cox Center for Steinbeck Studies and the National Steinbeck Center museum in Salinas.
According to Thomas Steinbeck, his father once said, "The basic responsibility of all committed artists must be to remind people of their own inherent and unwavering humanity, and to do so without critical bias. The artist must learn to rely upon and nurture empathy and compassion, and do so with a joyful heart." Thomas Steinbeck went on to say that "Garrison Keillor is our choice for the Steinbeck Award because he more than fulfills these criteria. What John Steinbeck once observed of Samuel Clemens is also true of this year's recipient: 'He is one of America's greatest treasures because he is first and foremost a man of the people, by the people, and for the people.'" On stage, when he gave the award to Keillor, Steinbeck added that his father believed the author's calling was "to remind us of our humanity" and that no one deserved the award more than Keillor.
In 1996 the Center for Steinbeck Studies created the annual Steinbeck Award, calling it "In the Souls of the People." That phrase, from chapter twenty-five of The Grapes of Wrath, captures the writer's enduring legacy as an engaged artist. From the 1930s [End Page 89] on he wrote about "the people," his heart open to the longing, loneliness, despair and triumph of those on the edges. Americans were his people, and his last book, America and Americans (1966) expresses his enduring love for a democratic nation. The award is given to writers and artists whose work captures the spirit of Steinbeck's empathy, commitment to democratic values, and belief in the dignity of the common man. Past recipients of the Steinbeck Award include Bruce Springsteen, Arthur Miller, Jackson Browne, Studs Terkel, Joan Baez, Sean Penn and John Sayles.
Keillor, 65, has hosted A Prairie Home Companion since the show was founded in 1974, and he wrote the screenplay for the recent major motion picture by the same name. He is also the author of more than a dozen books, including Lake Wobegon Days, The Book of Guys, Love Me, Homegrown Democrat , and most recently, Pontoon. Much of Keillor's work consists of stories about ordinary people in an imaginary town he calls Lake Wobegon, Minnesota, Keillor's home state.
"In his narratives," the Los Angeles Times said in a book review, "the things we hope are true about life are confirmed: Those who preach holier-than-thou homilies will fall on their face; the hardworking farmer and his hard-working wife will be rewarded, even if it's only in a smallish sort of way; and the kids of Lake Wobegon will grow up to be, if not what their parents dream of, at least decent human beings. Keillor's Minnesota is a place where money is not needed to buy happiness and a little backbone goes a long way."1
Find more on the award and the Center for Steinbeck Studies at steinbeck.sjsu.edu. For more on the National Steinbeck Center, check www.steinbeck.org.
1. Bernadette Murphy "Daily Book Review" Los Angeles Times, September 4, 2007: http://www.latimes.com/entertainment/la-et-Book4sep04,0,6915823.story?coll=la-headlines-calendar.