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Upon its debut, 'Grapes' fermented wrath

Seventy-five years ago, John Steinbeck’s masterpiece “The Grapes of Wrath” faced criticism from many sides. It survived that crucible of controversy to become one of America’s most revered and studied novels.
by Ken Raymond Modified: May 4, 2014 at 10:42 am •  Published: May 4, 2014
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Brief Life Seen For Steinbeck’s Dust Bowl Book

WASHINGTON, March 12 (1940) — (AP) — One thing led to another Tuesday at a hearing before the projects committee of the national rivers and harbors congress — flood control and irrigation in California to migrant farm families to a chorus of indignation over “Grapes of Wrath.”

Former Representative William J. Driver of Arkansas, presiding, asserted John Steinbeck’s novel about dust bowl refugees “is the greatest accumulation of filth ever published, and it ought to be suppressed.”

As a voice — owner unidentified — shouted that “It’s just a piece of rotten Communistic propaganda,” Roland Currant, secretary of the Central Valleys of California project, joined in with “that book, ‘The Grapes of Wrath,’ is a damnable libel on California, and particularly on the people of Kern county.”

H.H. Buckman, Jacksonville, Fla., suggested “you gentlemen are too exercised about it — that book will have passed from the memory of men within a year.”

After that the committee resumed consideration of water projects.

Today most people know John Steinbeck’s “The Grapes of Wrath” as a defining example of the Great American Novel, a book so rife with lyrical passages, memorable characters and a driving plot that it captivated the nation and earned the 1940 Pulitzer Prize for fiction.

Contemporary readers may not be aware that the book faced widespread condemnation upon its release in April 1939, just over 75 years ago. The best-selling novel was a bitter attack on the power elite as America still wobbled from the Great Depression, but it also enraged ordinary people, many of them Oklahomans. The wealthy and politically connected saw it as a challenge to the status quo or as a call for communism and/or rebellion. Readers in the Great Plains saw themselves depicted as uneducated, coarse, animalistic and needy, while those in California felt as if they were wrongly accused of unfair business practices and prejudice.

Most Oklahomans know at least the bare bones version of the story, which follows an Oklahoma farm family, the Joads, from the Dust Bowl to the promised land of California. Life is no easier on the West Coast, however, and the Joads and similar families find themselves in competition with immigrants from Mexico and China for low-paying migrant laborer jobs. It’s an exodus story, but one fraught with constantly worsening conditions. And it can easily be seen as a criticism of capitalism, particularly the sort that sees a few grow fat while many starve.

At heart, though, fiction is about people. Like him or loathe him, Steinbeck created in the Joads one of the most memorable families in literature, and time seems to have justified his successes and absolved him of most of his mistakes.

He got off to a rocky start, though.

The earliest references to the book in The Oklahoman’s archives don’t have much to say. The first we can find is a simple mention that “The Grapes of Wrath” sat atop the best-sellers list on May 21, 1939. Next came mention in June 1939 that Rhona Q. Aven would review the book in the “cool, air conditioned auditorium” at Halliburton’s department store.

Things soon heated up. In August 1939, the newspaper headlined a story: “Steinbeck Novel Rouses the Wrath of Two States,” adding that Oklahoma and California were presenting a “united front against the enemy” Steinbeck. Folks in Kern County, Calif., were so upset, in fact, that an employee of the local chamber of commerce penned a “direct slap” at Steinbeck’s book, titling it “Plums of Plenty.”

By November, the library board in East St. Louis, Ill., had had enough of Steinbeck. Having decided that the book was “objectionable” and “not fit for anyone’s daughter to read,” library officials burned all three copies in their possession. They weren’t the first. Book burnings had flared up across the country, as early as May in Bakersfield, Calif., where the book also was banned.

At least some of the people burning the book had not read it. Rick Wartzman — author of “Obscene in the Extreme: The Burning and Banning of John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath” — tracked down Clell Pruett, who can be seen in a photograph at the Kern County Museum burning a copy of Steinbeck’s book. Pruett, who hadn’t read it, agreed to give it a try at Wartzman’s request. His assessment didn’t change; he said he had no regrets about burning it.

Wartzman argues that real wealthy farm owners — not unlike the fictional antagonists in Steinbeck’s book — arranged the bans and burnings to distract workers from realizing that the book was about them. Most often people were incensed by Steinbeck’s dialogue, but the ending scene still may be too shocking for network TV.

U.S. Rep. Lyle Boren — father of former governor and current University of Oklahoma President David Boren and grandfather of former U.S. Rep. Dan Boren — was among the book’s most passionate critics.

Speaking before Congress in January 1940, he identified himself as the son of a tenant farmer, “labeled by John Steinbeck as an ‘Okie,’” and blistered the novel as “a damnable lie, a black, infernal creation of a twisted, distorted mind.”

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by Ken Raymond
Book Editor
Ken Raymond is the book editor. He joined The Oklahoman in 1999. He has won dozens of state, regional and national writing awards. Three times he has been named the state's "overall best" writer by the Society of Professional Journalists. In...
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