BOOKS/Ryder Miller

Steinbeck Felt Wrath for ‘Grapes’

With the newest American recession not quite over, and new Populist rumblings underway, the late novelist John Steinbeck (1902-1968), who chronicled The Great Depression, is relevant to a wide audience again. Steinbeck did a fine job in telling the story of the under privileged in our society providing hope to the underclass by telling their stories.

Rick Wartzman in Obscene in the Extreme: The Burning and Banning of John Steinbeck’s ‘The Grapes of Wrath’ (PublicAffairs, 2008) does a fine job at chronicling the public reception to Steinbeck’s Pulitzer Prize-wining classic The Grapes of Wrath (1939). He sets the context in which the classic was written with a wide cast of characters being chronicled in fascinating detail in his well told account.

In the tradition of the muckrakers, Steinbeck shook things up in California by telling the story of the Okies who fled the Dust Bowl to pursue the California Dream in the Golden State. Steinbeck was also a debunker of that dream, and was eventually forced to leave the state.

Steinbeck with The Grapes of Wrath drew the ire and consternation of California by threatening agri-business there. He let people know about the plight of the Okies and other migrant farmers which California could not support in the vast numbers that arrived there following the ecological disaster of the Dust Bowl. Immigrants, and even migrants from the United States, are not always, and cannot always be, welcome in the Golden State which does not always have the required resources for newcomers. There is also no codified means to share the wealth.

The California Dream could never accommodate everyone, something the American majority needed know. Though more a Proletarian writer than a Populist, Steinbeck did send out the message of economic unrest in the Golden State, an American story of national concern. He had some problems with the newcomers to California, in his early books one could find his resentment of them; however, The Grapes of Wrath alterted the country to their plight.

“Obscene in the Extreme” was the charge laid against Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath and copies were burned and banned in Kern County and other parts of the country. Steinbeck alerted the reader that government and agribusiness did not always treat the Dust Bowl migrants fairly or with dignity.

Wartzman does not spend a lot of time on Steinbeck’s life, covering a lot of historical ground by covering the Labor Movement and California history instead, but the book does exceed in showing the rationale behind Steinbeck’s classic.

Steinbeck also bothered the Okies. He tried to help by telling their story, but his depiction of them was reflective of the times. Some would argue that the depictions were even, at times, sordid. Steinbeck sought to help, he won the Pulitzer Prize for doing so, but he also brought some of his prejudices to the work. 

Obscene in the Extreme will be relevant to the would-be novelist or political actor who seeks, like Steinbeck and the muckrackers (the obvious modern day example being filmmaker Michael Moore), to shake things up for the “little man” or just the average American who has not gotten his slice of the pie. The story is always pertinent, especially since some have called The Grapes of Wrath the most controversial book in American literary history.

The book does provide a justification for the general majority reader, who may find themselves needing the ghost of Tom Joad to help them strive for something better. Wartzman points out that Steinbeck late in life realized that we were all in this problem (then The Depression) together.

Ryder W. Miller is the co-author of San Francisco: A Natural History (Arcadia). He has had papers accepted at the Steinbeck Centennial Conference and the Steinbeck and Contemporaries Conference. He lives in California.

From The Progressive Populist, March 15, 2010

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