by Cheryl Davis
The Grapes of Wrath, by John Steinbeck
I chose The Grapes of Wrath as the subject of my post on Banned Books.
This 1939 novel by John Steinbeck details the Dust Bowl farmers’ (Okies) fight for survival during the Depression. This raw and riveting portrayal brought the struggles of migrant farmers to the forefront of the American public and the world.
Son Tom Joad, newly released from prison, comes home to find his family evicted from their farm and packing up to head west to California. On the way there, the family suffers death, hunger, violence, and intolerable living and working conditions; through it all, the matriarch of the family, Ma, provides the glue that keeps this family together.
“She seemed to know, to accept, to welcome her position, the citadel of the family, the strong place that could not be taken” (Steinbeck 95).
I have a personal connection to this novel as well. Like the Joads, my father and his family packed up from Quinton, Oklahoma and headed west to seek a better life in Kern County, California. In the 1990s, with camcorder in hand, my father retraced many of his steps during that journey, leaving me a wonderful treasure of my father’s early days.
Not surprisingly, California farm owners challenged the portrayal of their industry in the book and succeeded in having the book banned from Kern County by order of the Board of Supervisors. Rather than discard the books, when told to comply, Gretchen Knief, county librarian in Kern County, instead made these copies available to county libraries around the state. She also wrote a letter to the supervisors that contained the following:
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 [little] more than fly specks on a large painting, then the book will soon go the way of all other modern novels and be forgotten. ~in Long, “Writer Rick Wartzman looks at the librarian who championed Steinbeck.”
NPR featured a story behind the banning of The Grapes of Wrath, including an excerpt from journalist Rick Wartzman’s book Obscene in the Extreme, which details the story behind the book challenge.
Several copies of The Grapes of Wrath are also available for checkout here at the Evans Library.