Book Review: Obscene in the Extreme

Rick Wartzman on the burning and banning of John Steinbeck’s <i>The Grapes of Wrath</i>.

Let our journalists help you make sense of the noise: Subscribe to the Mother Jones Daily newsletter and get a recap of news that matters.


When The Grapes of Wrath hit the shelves in 1939, it wasn’t exactly the feel-good book of the year. John Steinbeck’s tale of Depression-era misery was so bleak that critics responded with sanitized novels like Plums of Plenty and Of Human Kindness, in which Dust Bowl refugees get to live the American Dream. Grapes of Gladness, written by an aspiring real estate tycoon, tells of a family of Okies who find their fortune in California, the “Land of Sunshine, Fruit, Flowers, and Marvelous Industrial Development.” These cheery volumes are among the many details unearthed in Rick Wartzman’s engaging look at the long-forgotten campaign to quash a modern classic.

Grapes caused a scandal in California, where the wealthy farmers who’d gotten rich off migrant farmworkers like Steinbeck’s fictional Joads rushed to ban it as indecent and inflammatory. Characters such as an eccentric anti-Grapes crusader who dressed in green and a blind country lawyer who defended the novel on First Amendment grounds sweep in and out of Wartzman’s lively account. And in a stranger-than-fiction twist, the most vocal censors are revealed to be part of the kkk‘s short-lived Golden State branch.

Amid the controversy, Steinbeck emerges as a tireless researcher who based many of the details in Grapes on fact. The iconic scene in which one of the Joad girls breastfeeds a starving man was told to Steinbeck by a real-life hobo who responded to an ad offering $2 for interesting life stories. Critics were quick to dismiss graphic scenes like this—which used words like “tit” and “shitheel”—as dehumanizing to migrants. Not all readers agreed. “We kneed friends like you,” one Okie wrote Steinbeck, praising the gritty realism that came to ensure the book’s long shelf life.

SIX TRUTHS

Reclaiming power from those who abuse it often starts with telling the truth. And in "This Is How Authoritarians Get Defeated," MoJo's Monika Bauerlein unpacks six truths to remember during the homestretch of an election where democracy, truth, and decency are on the line.

Truth #1: The chaos is the point.

Truth #2: Team Reality is bigger than it seems.

Truth #3: Facebook owns this.

Truth #4: When we go to work, we're in the fight.

Truth #5: It's about minority rule.

Truth #6: The only thing that can save us is…us.

Please take a moment to see how all these truths add up, because what happens in the weeks and months ahead will reverberate for at least a generation and we better be prepared.

And if you think journalism like Mother Jones'—that calls it like it is, that will never acquiesce to power, that looks where others don't—can help guide us through this historic, high-stakes moment, and you're able to right now, please help us reach our $350,000 goal by October 31 with a donation today. It's all hands on deck for democracy.

payment methods

SIX TRUTHS

Reclaiming power from those who abuse it often starts with telling the truth. And in "This Is How Authoritarians Get Defeated," MoJo's Monika Bauerlein unpacks six truths to remember during the homestretch of an election where democracy, truth, and decency are on the line.

Truth #1: The chaos is the point.

Truth #2: Team Reality is bigger than it seems.

Truth #3: Facebook owns this.

Truth #4: When we go to work, we're in the fight.

Truth #5: It's about minority rule.

Truth #6: The only thing that can save us is…us.

Please take a moment to see how all these truths add up, because what happens in the weeks and months ahead will reverberate for at least a generation and we better be prepared.

And if you think journalism like Mother Jones'—that calls it like it is, that will never acquiesce to power, that looks where others don't—can help guide us through this historic, high-stakes moment, and you're able to right now, please help us reach our $350,000 goal by October 31 with a donation today. It's all hands on deck for democracy.

payment methods

We Recommend

Latest

Sign up for our free newsletter

Subscribe to the Mother Jones Daily to have our top stories delivered directly to your inbox.

Get our award-winning magazine

Save big on a full year of investigations, ideas, and insights.

Subscribe

Support our journalism

Help Mother Jones' reporters dig deep with a tax-deductible donation.

Donate