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'Grapes Of Wrath' And The Politics of Book Burning

Sep 30, 2008 (Morning Edition)

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Sept. 29 marks the beginning of the American Library Association's annual "Banned Books Week," a commemoration of all the books that have ever been removed from library shelves and classrooms. Politics, religion, sex, witchcraft — people give a lot of reasons for wanting to ban books, says Judith Krug of the ALA, but most often the bannings are about fear.

"They're not afraid of the book; they're afraid of the ideas," says Krug. "The materials that are challenged and banned say something about the human condition."

John Steinbeck's 1939 classic, The Grapes Of Wrath, which chronicles an Oklahoma family's hapless migration westward, is a perfect example. The book was an immediate best-seller around the country, but it was also banned and burned in a number of places, including Kern County, Calif. — the endpoint of the Joad family's migration.

Though fictional, Steinbeck's novel was firmly rooted in real events: Three years before the book was published a drought in the Dust Bowl states forced hundreds of thousands of migrants to California. Penniless and homeless, many landed in Kern County.

When the book came out, some of the powers that be in the county thought that they had been portrayed unfairly; they felt that Steinbeck hadn't given them credit for the effort they were making to help the migrants. One member of the county board of supervisors denounced 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.

Rick Wartzman, author of the new book Obscene In The Extreme, says what happened in Kern County illustrates the deep divide between left and right in California in the 1930s.

One powerful local player who pushed for the ban was Bill Camp, head of the local Associated Farmers, a group of big landowners who were avid opponents of organized labor. Camp 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. Convinced that many migrants were also offended by their depiction in the novel, he recruited one of his workers, Clell Pruett, to burn the book.

Pruett had never read the novel, but he had heard a radio program about it that made him angry, and so he readily agreed to take part in what Wartzman describes as a "photo op." The photo shows Camp and another leader of the Associated Farmers standing by as Pruett holds the book above a trash can and sets it on fire.

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.

"It's such a vicious and dangerous thing to begin," she wrote. "Besides, banning books is so utterly hopeless and futile. Ideas don't die because a book is forbidden reading."

Knief's argument may have been eloquent, but it didn't work. The supervisors upheld the ban, and it remained in effect for a year and a half.

Still, says Krug, the censorship of The Grapes Of Wrath was a key event in the creation of the Library Bill of Rights, the statement Krug describes as ensuring that "as American citizens we have the right to access whatever information we wish without anyone looking over our shoulders. ... that we have the right to utilize this information once we have acquired it."

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