Steinbeck’s now-classic populist epic did not please everyone in 1939.
In the San Joaquin Valley, blisteringly depicted in The Grapes of Wrath as callously hostile to the Joad family and other Dust Bowl refugees, public officials voted on Aug. 21 to remove the bestselling book from the county library system; three days later, three incensed farmers publicly burned a copy. Wartzman (co-author: The King of California: J. G. Boswell and the Making of a Secret Empire, 2003) examines many facets of the difficulties the novel encountered and occasioned. He introduces us to a doughty librarian, some angry Kern County supervisors (plus one more liberal and one waffler), growers, farm workers, lawyers, civil libertarians, journalists, filmmakers, musicians, prudes and assorted wackos. Popping up continually is Steinbeck himself, who said little in public about the contretemps; the writer was suffering creative exhaustion in the aftermath of completing his massive book. Wartzman places the controversy in broad context. We see the effects of the Great Depression, the looming threat of World War II and the fear that communism pervaded labor unions and was corrupting the working class. The narrative follows the broad chronology of the events, but within each chapter the author casts a wide cultural and historical net. We get a bit of the history of California, of the San Joaquin Valley and of the efforts to organize farm workers. We learn about Steinbeck’s previous work, his preparations to write the novel, the making of John Ford’s 1940 film and the rescinding of the Kern County library ban in 1941. Wartzman sprinkles relevant quotations from Grapes throughout.
Generously illustrated and briskly written—a valuable guide to an explosive aspect of the free-speech issue.