The Grapes of Wrath, by John Steinbeck, was first published in 1939 and would achieve both the National Book Award and Pulitzer Prize that same year. When Steinbeck was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1962 the novel was referenced frequently.
Set during the Great Depression, the story centers on the Joad family, poor tenant farmers driven from their Oklahoma home by drought, the Dust Bowl, and economic hardships resulting from the changes in the financial and agricultural industries. The Joads set out for California, along with thousands of other “Okies,” to find jobs, land, dignity, and a future. This fictional tale is based very much on actual events that are a part of history, as many headed to the West Coast after the Dust Bowl.
According to The New York Times it was the best-selling book of 1939 with more than 430,000 copies printed by February 1940. Noted Steinbeck scholar John Timmerman, in summation of the novel’s impact, said, “The Grapes of Wrath may well be the most thoroughly discussed novel- in criticism, reviews, and college classrooms- of 20th century American literature.”
TIME magazine lists it as one of the 100 Best English-language Novels from 1923 to 2005. In 2009 The Daily Telegraph included it as one of the 100 novels everyone should read and in 1998 the Modern Library ranked The Grapes of Wrath tenth on its list of the 100 best English-language novels of the 20th century.
Despite its critical and popular acclaim, upon its release there were very heated outcries against the novel and its author spanning the entire social and political spectrum of the United States. At times the novel literally fuelled the fires of public debate as local communities burned copies in protest.
When Steinbeck was preparing to write the novel, he famously wrote, “I want to put a tag of shame on the greedy bastards who are responsible for this [the Great Depression and its effects]. I’ve done my damnedest to rip a reader’s nerves to rags.”
Not surprising, Grapes of Wrath gathered a huge following among the working class due to Steinbeck’s sympathy to the workers’ movement and his open prose style.
But many Americans were disgusted by how Steinbeck described the poor and accused him of exaggerating the conditions to make a political point; however he argued that this was actually a diluted narrative reflecting the harsh truth of what was actually being witnessed by families in these communities at the time. In fact he had done the opposite, purposely underplaying the conditions that he knew were far worse than the novel describes because he felt that exact descriptions would have gotten in the way of his story.
Many of Steinbeck’s critics attacked his social and political views; but, again, part of its continuing impact stems from its passionate depiction of the plight of the poor and the working class. Bryan Cordyack wrote, “Steinbeck was attacked as a propagandist and a socialist from both the left and the right of the political spectrum. The most fervent of these attacks came from the Associated Farmers of California; they were displeased with the book’s depiction of California farmers’ attitudes and conduct toward the migrants. They denounced the book as a ‘pack of lies’ and labeled it ‘communist propaganda’.”
In this photo (left) from the Kern County (California) Museum, Clell Pruett burns a copy of The Grapes of Wrath as Bill Camp and another leader of the Associated Farmers stand by. At the time this photograph was taken, Pruett had not read the novel. Years later, after he read the book at the behest of Rick Wartzman, the author of Obscene in the Extreme, Pruett declared that he had no regrets about burning it.
One member of the county board of supervisors condemned the book as a “libel and lie.” In August 1939, by a vote of 4 to 1, the board approved a resolution banning The Grapes of Wrath from county libraries and schools.
Wartzman says that what happened in Kern County illustrated the profound divide between the left and right in California in the 1930s.
Bill Camp, head of the local Associated Farmers, a group of big landowners who were avid opponents of organized labor, pushed for the ban. He and his colleagues knew how to get a bill passed in the state Legislature- and they also knew how to be physical.
“They knew how to work with tire irons, pick handles, and bricks,” says Wartzman. “Things could get really ugly and violent.”
Camp wanted to publicize the county’s opposition to The Grapes of Wrath and he was convinced that many migrants were also offended by their depiction in the novel, so he recruited one of his workers, Clell Pruett, to burn the book. At the time the only information Pruett had on the novel and what it contained came from what he had heard on a radio program about it. What he heard made him angry and he readily agreed to take part in what Wartzman describes as a “photo op.”
Meanwhile, local librarian Gretchen Knief was working quietly to get the ban overturned. At the risk of losing her job, she stood up to the county supervisors and wrote a letter asking them to reverse their decision.
In the letter she said, “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.”
The supervisors upheld the ban, and it remained in effect for a year and a half.
The censorship of The Grapes of Wrath would actually be a key factor in the creation of the Library Bill of Rights, the statement that is described by librarians as ensuring that American citizens have the right to access whatever information they wish without question, and the right to utilize that information.
Still, to this day The Grapes of Wrath continues to be burned, banned, and challenged for the reasons stated above, and on claims of containing “vulgar language” and “sexual references.”
In August 1939, 20 public libraries were ordered by the Kansas City Board of Education to remove the book because of “indecency, obscenity, abhorrence of the portrayal of women and for ‘portraying life in such a bestial way.’”
In East St. Louis, Illinois, 5 of 9 library board members voted to have the book burned on the courtyard steps in November of 1939. The vote was later rescinded because of the “national commotion it had aroused” and the books were placed on the “Adults Only” shelf. In the week of this incident the book sold its most copies to date; and a librarian said that the book had the longest waiting list in recent years.
It was actually burned by the East St. Louis, IL Public Library (1939) and barred from the Buffalo, NY Public Library (1939) on the grounds that “vulgar words” were used.
Internationally, it was banned in Ireland in 1953; and was one of the books cited in the 1973 case in which eleven Turkish book publishers went on trial before an Istanbul martial law tribunal on charges of publishing, possessing, and selling books in violation of an order of the Istanbul martial law command.
It would be removed, but later reinstated on a restrictive basis, from two Anniston, Alabama high school libraries in 1982.
It was banned in Kanawha, Iowa in 1980 and in Morris, Manitoba in 1982; and challenged by Vernon-Verona-Sherill, New York, School District in 1980.
It was challenged at the Cummings High School in Burlington, North Carolina in 1986 on religious grounds because a parent alleged that the “book is full of filth. My son is being raised in a Christian home and this book takes the Lord’s name in vain and has all kinds of profanity in it.” Although the parent spoke adamantly to the press, a formal complaint with the school board was never filed. What was the parent’s issue? It contained the phase “God damn.”
It would also be challenged in the Greenville, South Carolina schools in 1991 on the same grounds.
It has also been challenged as required reading for Richford, Vermont High School English students in 1991 due to the book’s language and for the portrayal of a former minister who recounts how he took advantage of a young woman; and in Union City, Tennessee High School classes in 1993.
It has been a staple of American high school and college literature classes across the country due to its historical context and its enduring legacy as one of the truly greatest American novels of all time. A celebrated film version starring Henry Fonda and directed by John Ford was made in 1940.
Knief was quite right in her letter to Kern County officials. Ideas cannot die simply because they are not on a printed page. You can destroy all the pages you like, but you cannot break the determined spirit of freedom. It is a sad testimony that almost 100 years later the truth of her statement goes unrealized by so many.