November 15, 2016
By Atticus Ignelzi, Ani Nagesha, and Qiong Wu
Searching for the Promised Land…
Who: John Steinbeck
What: The Grapes of Wrath
When: August 1939
Where: Kern County, California
Why: For negatively portraying Kern County
“People give a lot of reasons for wanting to ban books,” claims Judith Krug of the American Library Association, including “politics, religion, sex, even witchcraft. But in the end, there’s really only one thing that would-be censors want to stop…They’re not afraid of the books; they’re afraid of the ideas. And the thing that’s so interesting is that the materials that are challenged and banned are the books that say something about the human condition. And I can’t think of a better example of that than The Grapes of Wrath” (Qtd. in Neary). Despite being labeled as a great American novel, John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath has been criticized, censored, and even burned in many places across the United States of America.
The Grapes of Wrath tracks the journey of the Joad family as they migrate from Oklahoma to California in order to escape the Dust Bowl. The Dust Bowl was a period of intense drought and dust storms that affected over 100 million acres of land, stretching from Texas to North Dakota. The immensity of the dust storms was described by David Worster:
Seven times, from January to March, the visibility there reached zero—all complete blackouts, one of them lasting eleven hours. A single storm might rage for one hour or three and a half days. Most of the winds came from the southwest, but they also came from the west, north, and northeast, and they could slam against windows and walls with 60 miles-per-hour force. (12)
To escape these apocalyptic scenes, millions of families fled to other areas of the country, particularly California. The fictional Joad family in The Grapes of Wrath serves as an example of these migrants who were forced to abandon their homes in search of fertile land and jobs. However, when the migrants reached California, the economic and living conditions were far from the paradise they imagined.
With the massive influx of migrants into California, there were not enough jobs for the new population. This shortage of jobs resulted in low wages and terrible living conditions for the migrant workers. In The Grapes of Wrath, Steinbeck summarizes the situation in California when he writes, “But he says they’s too many folks lookin’ for work right there now. An’ he says the folks that pick the fruit live in dirty ol’ camps an’ don’t hardly get enough to eat. He says wages is low an’ hard to get any” (61). During this time period, most of the agricultural industry in California was concentrated in a small number of large corporate farms. These farms paid meager wages, provided miserable housing, and suppressed any form of worker protest (Teisch 163). Jim Casey, one of the main characters in the novel, works on one of these farms in Kern County, and he goes on strike to protest his wages, a meager two and a half cents per box of peaches (Steinbeck 262-263). This is merely one example in the novel where Steinbeck portrays Kern Country in a negative light. Throughout the novel, Steinbeck blisteringly criticizes the corporate farms, the residents of the county, and the local government authorities. In an interview scholar Rick Wartzman, he explained that what really irritated the people in the county “was the way that Steinbeck painted the big growers of California as being willing—eager, really—to exploit their workers to fatten their own profits.”
When The Grapes of Wrath was published in 1939, the residents of Kern County were immediately enraged by Steinbeck’s portrayal of their county. In August 1939, the residents voted to remove the novel from public libraries and schools. According to Wartzman’s book, Obscene in the Extreme, he addresses the banning of the novel and the public’s condemnation of Steinbeck’s “profanity, lewd, foul and obscene language” (8). One of the giant farm operators in the area, who helped lead a public burning of The Grapes of Wrath, described Steinbeck’s novel as “obscene in the extreme sense of the word” (Wartzman 49). Before the House of Representatives, Congressman Lyle Boren of Oklahoma denounced the book as “a lie, a black, infernal creation of a twisted, distorted mind” (Morsberger 29). People refused to accept the poverty and hopelessness depicted in the novel, and they believed that Steinbeck’s portrayal of the living conditions was unrealistic and over-exaggerated.
The following section of the novel was particularly controversial during this time period:
The works of the roots of the vines, of the trees, must be destroyed to keep up the price, and this is the saddest, bitterest thing of all. Carloads of oranges dumped on the ground. The people came for miles to take the fruit, but this could not be. How would they buy oranges at twenty cents a dozen if they could drive out and pick them up? And men with hoses squirt kerosene on the oranges, and they are angry at the crime, angry at the people who have come to take the fruit. A million people hungry, needing the fruit – and kerosene sprayed over the golden mountains. And the smell of rot fills the country. Burn coffee for fuel in the ships. Burn corn to keep warm, it makes a hot fire. Dump potatoes in the rivers and place guards along the banks to keep the hungry people from fishing them out. Slaughter the pigs and bury them, and let the putrescence drip down into the earth. (238)
The sense of dilemma and desperation exuded from this section of the novel implies the loss of the American Dream by crushing the ideal that anyone can become successful as long as they work hard (Morsberger 29). The public, especially the working class, felt a refutation and disorientation of their ideologies as the novel revealed a dark and ugly side of the American society, where poverty and desperation dominated.
The obscene language and disillusionment of the American Dream were merely two reasons for the censorship of the book. Another underlying cause was the deep political division between the left and right in American society in the late 1930’s (Wartzman). Steinbeck stated, “I am completely partisan on the idea of working people to the end that they may eat what they raise, wear what they weave, use what they produce, and share in the work of their hands and heads” (Qtd. in Morsberger 31). In many of his novels, Steinbeck puts an emphasis on the struggles of the working class and sheds light on the hardship that the lower class endures. Many people worried that this could cause a working class revolution that the late 1930’s America so much feared (Wartzman). Thus, Steinbeck was labeled as the proponent of “socialist propaganda” and as “a Jew acting for Zionist- communist interests in deliberately trying to undermine the economy” (Morsberger 29).
Seeing the potential impact the book could have in stirring a working-class revolution, Bill Camp, the head of the local Associated Farmers in California and an avid opponent of organized labor, campaigned to ban the book in Kern County (Wartzman). Flooded with hate mail and even death threats, Steinbeck wrote to his agent that, “The Associated Farmers are really working up a campaign…I have made powerful enemies with the Grapes. They will not kill me, I think, but they will destroy me if and when they can…The Associated Farmers have begun an hysterical personal attack on me both in the papers and a whispering campaign. I’m a Jew, a pervert, a drunk, a dope fiend” (Morsberger 29). “They knew how to work with tire irons, pick handles and bricks,” Wartzman notes, “things could get really ugly and violent” (Qtd. in Neary).
Despite the massive controversy surrounding The Grapes of Wrath, many people protested the novel’s censorship. Local libraran, Gretchen Knief, at the risk of losing her job, worked quietly to overturn the ban (Wartzman). In a letter to the county supervisors, Knief wrote:
It’s such a vicious and dangerous thing to begin. Besides, banning books is so utterly hopeless and futile. Ideas don’t die because a book is forbidden reading. If Steinbeck has written the truth, that truth will survive. If he is merely being sensational and lascivious, if all the ‘little words’ are really more than fly specks on a large painting, then the book will soon go the way of all other modern novels and be forgotten. (Qtd. in Wartzman 13)
Had Steinbeck written the truth? According to a migrant worker from Kentucky, Peggy Terry, the book’s contents were realistic. She claims, “when I read The Grapes of Wrath, that was like reliving my whole life. I was never so proud of poor people before as I was after I read this book” (Morsberger 30). In 1939, Carey McWilliams wrote the nonfiction account, Factories in the Field, which provided a documentary-like corroboration with The Grapes of Wrath. In the book, Carey wrote, “the whole country was poverty-stricken… The effect of going through California is to make you wish to leave it, if you are poor and want to farm” (24).
Another reason the public began to gain trust in Steinbeck’s portrayal was because First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt claimed repeatedly that she had visited the migrant camps and never found that The Grapes of Wrath exaggerated. Hearing someone in power say that what Steinbeck wrote about was true lead ordinary citizens to believe the same. When the La Follette Senate Committee on Education and Labor examined the conditions among the migrants in 1939 and 1940, it reported the “shocking degree of human misery” among farm workers, the labor oppression, and capitalist exploitation that Steinbeck illustrated in his novel. The Committee also exposed the oppressive tactics used by Associated Farmers who took the law into its own hands: “the most flagrant and violent infringement of civil liberties” through use of blacklisting, espionage, strikebreaking, brutality and “sheer vigilantism,” concluding that “the civil rights of strikers, unions, union organizers, outsiders and many of the agricultural laborers in California to speak, assemble, organize into unions and bargain are repeatedly and flagrantly violated” (Morsberger 30). The Associated Farmers had so much power and control over the laborers that the split society depicted in the novel was not unrealistic. Exposing the huge gaps between the landowners and the laborers, the top and the bottom, the dominated and the exploited, the Associated Farmers became so afraid of the contents of the book that they found it necessary to censor it.
In response to the banning of the novel, the American Library Association created the Library Bill of Rights. The first edition of the bill was adopted on June 19th, 1939 by the ALA Council. The “manual is designed to answer practical questions that confront librarians in applying the principles of intellectual freedom to library service” (Intellectual Freedom Manual). The purpose was for librarians to be able to use the manual to combat the censorship of certain materials. Additionally, librarians can use it to deal with customer complaints and address government officials and legislatures.
There are three parts to the manual. Part I explains what exactly intellectual freedom means. It also explains how the broad spread of intellectual freedom leads to the opposition of book censorship and how censorship can lead to certain issues and challenges within society. Parts II and III, “present the texts and historical development of ALA’s intellectual freedom policies and guidelines and give concrete examples of problems librarians can expect to encounter or should anticipate in formulating policy for their own institutions” (Intellectual Freedom Manual). The bill has been amended seven times since it was created, most recently in 2010. Judith F. Krug, the Director of the Office for Intellectual Freedom, stated the purpose and the difficulties of the Library Bill of Rights when discussing the background of the American Library Association:
Applying the principles and guidelines in this manual cannot ensure that the rights of librarians and users will never be challenged or that difficulties will not arise. But adhering to these principles in every library is absolutely essential if librarians and users are to enjoy the full benefit of freedom of expression under the First Amendment. (Intellectual Freedom Manual
In the manual, it is clearly stated that everyone should be protected under the First Amendment. Censorship is depriving people of this right, and the manual is trying to establish it through this section. It also references the fact that there will be problems and difficulties, like The Grapes of Wrath. But it is essential that these rules be followed to have true freedom of expression.
Censorship is a big problem in America, and The Grapes of Wrath is just one example of this. Censorship is wrong and in reference to book censorship, Rick Wartzman demands that “We need to speak out when we hear of this happening. We can’t take our freedoms for granted.”
“Intellectual Freedom Manual.” American Library Association, 2010, http://www.ala.org/advocacy/intfreedom/iftoolkits/ifmanual/intellectual.
McWilliams, Carey. Factories in the Field. University of California Press, 1939.
Morsberger, Robert E. “Steinbeck and Censorship.” Journal of Interdisciplinary Studies, vol. 16, 2003, pp. 29-35.
Neary, Lynn. “‘Grapes of Wrath’ and the Politics of Book Burning” National Public Radio, 30 Sept. 2008, http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=95190615&from=mobile.
Steinbeck, John. The Grapes of Wrath. Penguin Books, 1976.
Teisch, Jessica. “From the Dust Bowl to California: The Beautiful Fraud.” The Midwest Quarterly, vol. 39, no. 2, 1998, pp. 153-172.
Wartzman, Rick. Obscene in the Extreme: The Burning and Banning of John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath. Public Affairs, 2008.
Worster, Donald. Dust Bowl: The Southern Plains in the 1930’s. Oxford University Press, 2004.
Keywords: The Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck, Kern County, California, censorship, book burning, Dust Bowl, migration, 1930’s