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.

THE TRUTH IS...

what drives Mother Jones' team of 50-plus journalists. The truth is powerful, as evidenced by how hard those with something to hide, or profit to gain, seek to discredit it. The truth, stated boldly and reported meticulously, is what draws so many readers to Mother Jones.

And the truth is, going into the final 4 days of the year we still needed to raise $TK to hit our $350,000 goal and start 2021 on track. It's nerve-wracking, wondering if the big spike we normally see at the end of December is going to be another thing that doesn't go as planned in 2020, or worse, if, now that Donald Trump is set to leave the White House (for longer than a taxpayer-funded golf trip to a property he owns), folks might be pulling back from fighting for the truth and a democracy and think the hard work is done.

It's not, and if you can right now, please consider a year-end donation to support our team's fearless nonprofit journalism so we can close that big fundraising gap and finish the year strong, ready for all that's ahead in 2021. Whether you can give $5 or $500, it all matters in keeping us charging hard, and we'd be grateful.

payment methods

THE TRUTH IS...

what drives Mother Jones' team of 50-plus journalists. The truth is powerful, as evidenced by how hard those with something to hide, or profit to gain, seek to discredit it. The truth, stated boldly and reported meticulously, is what draws so many readers to Mother Jones.

And the truth is, going into the final 4 days of the year we still needed to raise $TK to hit our $350,000 goal and start 2021 on track. It's nerve-wracking, wondering if the big spike we normally see at the end of December is going to be another thing that doesn't go as planned in 2020, or worse, if, now that Donald Trump is set to leave the White House (for longer than a taxpayer-funded golf trip to a property he owns), folks might be pulling back from fighting for the truth and a democracy and think the hard work is done.

It's not, and if you can right now, please consider a year-end donation to support our team's fearless nonprofit journalism so we can close that big fundraising gap and finish the year strong, ready for all that's ahead in 2021. Whether you can give $5 or $500, it all matters in keeping us charging hard, and we'd be grateful.

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