Jonathan Yardley on 'Obscene in the Extreme'

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By Jonathan Yardley
Sunday, September 14, 2008

OBSCENE IN THE EXTREME

The Burning and Banning of John Steinbeck's "The Grapes of Wrath"

By Rick Wartzman

PublicAffairs. 308 pp. $26.95

The most famous of John Steinbeck's many novels, The Grapes of Wrath, appeared in 1939 and, as Rick Wartzman puts it, "not only leapt onto the best-seller list after its publication in April but was also well on its way to becoming seared into the public's imagination forever." Wartzman's prose, in that passage as throughout Obscene in the Extreme, is overheated and cliché-ridden, but the claim he makes is valid. However one may feel about its literary merits or lack of same, The Grapes of Wrath is one of the most influential works of fiction in American history, and to this day -- seven decades after its publication -- it remains among the most popular American novels, with sales of 100,000 copies per year, a figure that most authors of highly praised new fiction (or nonfiction) can only envy.

Its fame derives, of course, from its sympathetic and shocking depiction of the living and working conditions of the Okies, the desperate people who fled the Dust Bowl of Oklahoma and surrounding states during the Depression in hopes of starting new lives in the promised land of California. The issues this raised have long since been resolved, and many descendants of the Okies now live in comfort in a state whose economy is larger than those of all but a handful of the world's countries, but the book continues to move readers. Wartzman rather grandiosely suggests that this is because it "remains the quintessential story of dignity in the face of adversity," but it may also be because high-school and college teachers long ago learned that it arouses students' sympathies and is easier to teach than more complex, demanding novels of indisputable literary value.

Whatever the explanation for the novel's enduring popularity, Wartzman usefully reminds us that it was not universally beloved when it first appeared. Though it sold a remarkable 430,000 copies in 1939 and was made into a hugely successful movie, released in 1940, there were many in California who loathed it, especially in Kern County, in the heart of the San Joaquin Valley agricultural belt. This was a leading destination for the Okie migrants, and though the county's public health policy was regarded as "the most enlightened" in rural California, most of its governmental institutions were under the thumb of the Associated Farmers of California, which represented the biggest growers in the state and was vehemently anti-union.

The Grapes of Wrath, by contrast, is vehemently pro-union. Its heroes are the workers; its villains, the growers. On Aug. 21, 1939, at the regular meeting of the Kern County Board of Supervisors in Bakersfield, a resolution was presented that included several blunt allegations about the novel -- that it "has offended our citizenry by falsely implying that many of our fine people are a low, ignorant, profane and blasphemous type living in a vicious and filthy manner," that it "presents our public officials, law enforcement officers and civil administrators, businessmen, farmers and ordinary citizens as inhumane vigilantes," that it "is filled with profanity, lewd, foul and obscene language unfit for use in American homes" -- and concluded:

"RESOLVED, that we, the BOARD OF SUPERVISORS, in defense of our free enterprise and of people who have been unduly wronged, request that production of the motion picture film, Grapes of Wrath, adapted from the Steinbeck novel, not be completed by Twentieth Century-Fox Film Corporation and request that use and possession and circulation of the novel, Grapes of Wrath, be banned from our library and schools."

Not merely was the resolution approved without discussion by a vote of four to one, but three days later a copy of the book was burned by a compliant farm worker named Clell Pruett at the request of his boss, Bill Camp, who was state treasurer of the Associated Farmers and generally known as "a teetotaler and a prig, once going so far as to admonish his daughter-in-law for wearing a skirt while she whooshed back and forth on a swing, revealing a bit of leg." Camp thought of himself as a benevolent employer for his workers, though it's unclear how benevolent he really was, but he was fanatically anti-union and equally fanatically opposed to The Grapes of Wrath. He urged the Associated Farmers to lobby for a statewide ban of the novel, saying: "We are angry not because we were attacked, but because we were attacked by a book obscene in the extreme sense of the word. Americans have a right to say what they please, but they do not have the right to attack a community in such words that any red-blooded American man would refuse to allow his daughter to read them."

The banning and burning of The Grapes of Wrath took place at a difficult moment in California's history. The land of milk and honey was "a tinderbox," with labor and capital at each other's throats, and liberals and conservatives in fierce opposition to each other. It "was not unheard of," Wartzman writes, "for people to talk about the possible violent overthrow of the government, just as had happened in Russia. But even more common was the idea that change would come not by toppling the president or Congress or the military, but by toppling the established social order. For the big farmers of central California -- old cowboys and Southern cotton men who fancied themselves rugged individualists -- August 1939 was a time when such a prospect seemed terrifyingly real. The migrants were straining local resources and testing the boundaries of what constituted a decent wage and working conditions. Union organizers were again swarming the area, making trouble."

However lamentable and misguided, the Bakersfield resolution was understandable. Many of the big growers may have been bullies, but many of them also were scared. It is hard for us to realize now just how unsettled the country was socially, economically and politically during the 1930s. Radical unionism, as exemplified by the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW, or Wobblies), raised fears of revolution as never before in American history, and not just among the rich and privileged. Though Kern County library waiting lists suggested that many ordinary residents wanted to read The Grapes of Wrath, there was also support for the ban among workers. Gretchen Knief, the county librarian, spoke out firmly and courageously against the ban, as did others in visible positions, but it would be a mistake to assume that the four county supervisors who approved the ban did so without popular support.

Wartzman is right, though, to argue that the principal motive behind the ban was fear: "Fear that a wildly popular novel had shined a light on an inherently iniquitous system. Fear that society might rise up as a result. Fear by a fortunate few that the world they sat atop might soon come unglued." It's not really surprising that when the supervisors reconsidered the ban a week after its passage, they kept it in effect by a vote of two to two. Not until 1941, after the membership of the Board of Supervisors had changed, did it vote to remove the ban and, in so doing, restore a measure of civil liberties to the county's citizens.

All of which is interesting and occasionally revealing, but Wartzman has not made much of it. A former newspaperman who now is director of the Drucker Institute, a think tank at Claremont Graduate University in California, he faced a challenge in deciding to tell the Kern County story at book length, as there's scarcely enough of it to fill a magazine article. He attempted to solve the problem by serving up endless dollops of information about everything from the Wobblies to Carey McWilliams, the liberal journalist who in 1939 was in charge of California's Division of Immigration and Housing, but it never feels like anything more than padding, and none of it is helped by the author's heavy-handed prose. A further difficulty is that Wartzman seems to have little if any literary judgment and fails to subject The Grapes of Wrath to careful scrutiny. No doubt it is an important novel, but whether it is a good one is another matter altogether, and this question Wartzman simply avoids. ·

Jonathan Yardley's e-mail address is yardleyj@washpost.com.


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