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.”
“Take the vulgarity out of this book,” he went on to say, “and it would be blank from cover to cover. It is painful to me to further charge that if you take the obscene language out, its author could not sell a copy.”
(Interestingly enough, the elder Boren’s views on the book weren’t shared by his son. According to the Oklahoma Historical Society, David Boren “quietly disagreed,” writing in personal correspondence that Steinbeck presented the Joads “as tenacious, heroic, and in many respects triumphant.”)
‘How could anyone be ashamed?’
Steinbeck’s novel, like much great art, challenged comfortable notions, even on some of the most basic levels. He single-handedly turned “Okie,” which preexisted his book, into a pejorative term. But he also romanticized Route 66 in a way that endures today, and dubbed it the Mother Road.
“I think at the time it was a very apropos moniker to hang on that little two-lane road,” said Michael Wallis, author of “Route 66: The Mother Road.”
“It was, as Steinbeck called it, a road of flight, the funnel from misery and torment to what was perceived as the land of milk and honey. There was a certain mode of nurturing. That aura of a Mother Road has continued.”
Wallis, himself a past Pulitzer nominee, is a storyteller and Steinbeck scholar. He considers “The Grapes of Wrath” to be “a testament to the strength and inner core of the basic Oklahoman.”
“There is no more admirable character in American literature than (matriach) Ma Joad,” he said. “She just totally symbolizes that rock. Talk about the Mother Road. She was the rock in the middle of that Mother Road. And those soliloquies of Tom Joad when he leaves the fields at the end of the book and Ma Joad doesn’t know where she’ll ever see him again — he tells her exactly where she’ll see him: in the eyes of the hungry children and in the faces of the men who are being unjustly treated.”
Sharon K. Vaughn, a political science professor at Oklahoma City Community College, uses the book in one of her classes to teach about poverty.
“What Steinbeck does is not only explore material deprivation but also the emotional toll that poverty takes on one,” she said in an email. “He connects the reader with the powerless feeling of having little, if any, control over one’s life.
“Steinbeck drives home the point there are countless reasons that one may end up in poverty, and some of these are not in (the) individual’s control. Surely, the Dust Bowl and the Great Depression were two such events where hardworking, responsible individuals found themselves without the means to provide for their families. Rather than dividing the poor up between the deserving poor and the undeserving poor, Steinbeck went deeper to explore that poverty may be the result of many things.”
On a personal level, she said, “I have always been a little bit prouder to be a native Oklahoman because surely Steinbeck captured our tenacious and stubborn spirits to survive in a land that can be hostile and unpredictable.”
Ray McCullar, a history professor at OCCC, echoed both Wallis and Vaughn.
“The soliloquy of Tom Joad at the end when he is saying goodbye to his mother must be one of the most touching scenes in all of literature,” he said. “How could anyone be ashamed of these wonderful, honest, hard-working people who only wanted a way to make a living for themselves and their families?”
Then and now
The 1940 answer makes at least some sense. The language was rough for its time. Those who read it may have been offended, as well, by a sense that the book was a religious allegory gone vulgarly wrong. Some rejected it for financial or political reasons.
Make no mistake, though: The book sold. It was the top-selling book of 1939; within a year of publication, it had sold well over 400,000 copies. Despite all the criticism, it was an immediate darling of the bookish set. It won the Pulitzer and the National Book Award. It was one of the main reasons Steinbeck was awarded the 1962 Nobel Prize for Literature.
It sold and sold, and it’s kept selling ever since. High school and college students study it. Other works allude to it. People make reference to it every day, intentionally or otherwise; it resonated in the wake of the 2008 financial collapse.
Steinbeck’s defining novel was not forgotten. Relatively free now of the scandal that haunted it at its inception, the book shines a light, albeit an imperfect one, on the poor and voiceless and the inequity of the tenant farmer system. It’s a novel driven by outrage to a realm of rare sublimity. That the world continues to split into oppressors and oppressed makes the book relevant to every generation. It is ubiquitous, somehow, to the Oklahoma experience.
Seventy-five years on, it’s time to read “The Grapes of Wrath” again or for the very first time. Maybe you’ll love it. Maybe you’ll hate it. You owe it to yourself to find out.
Contributing: Linda Lynn,
News Research Editor