[Chapter 07] Mightier Than the Sword: The Right to Free Expression

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When Kern County librarian Gretchen Knief returned home from her vacation in August 1939, the familiar landscape was attracting national attention. The rich agricultural San Joaquin Valley, where Knief lived, was the setting of John Steinbeck's best-selling novel The Grapes of Wrath:

Cover art for the first edition of The Grapes of WrathCover art for the first edition of The Grapes of WrathThe spring is beautiful in California. Valleys in which the fruit blossoms are fragrant pink and white waters in a shallow sea. Then the first tendrils of the grapes, swelling from the old gnarled vines, cascade down to cover the trunks. The full green hills are round and soft as breasts. And on the level vegetable lands are the mile-long rows of pale green lettuce and the spindly little cauliflowers, the gray-green unearthly artichoke plants.

The Sordid Underbelly of California Agriculture

Though the book had just been published in April, it was already in its seventh printing. At the Kern County Library, six hundred readers had reserved it.

But Steinbeck had also described another facet of California's Central Valley. His story of the hardworking, downtrodden Joads, who lost their Oklahoma land and headed West, hoping to survive by picking fruit on abundant farms, exposed the sordid underbelly of California agriculture. He wrote of the "harvest gypsies" who "swarm the highways…nomadic, poverty-stricken, driven by hunger and the threat of hunger from crop to crop, from harvest to harvest."

This powerful aspect of The Grapes of Wrath resulted in a surprise for librarian Knief. On her desk was an August 21 resolution from the Kern County Board of Supervisors ordering the book removed from the library shelves because "The Grapes of Wrath has offended our citizens by falsely implying that many of our fine people are shallow, ignorant, profane and blasphemous types living in a vicious filthy manner."

The "Fine People" of Kern County

And who exactly were the "fine people" that the Kern County supervisors were trying so hard to protect?

Migrant FamilyMigrant FamilySteinbeck's masterpiece grew out of his research for a series of articles in the San Francisco News about the mass migration of refugees from the Oklahoma Dust Bowl to California. Sensing that news articles would not attract enough attention to the plight of the wretchedly poor in the richest farm-land of America, Steinbeck, a native of the agricultural Salinas Valley, set out to bring the migrants to life through his fiction.

At the end of the Joads' arduous trek to California, they find that jobs are scarce, pay is meager, and the squalid labor camps are crammed with thousands of other unemployed workers, as well as vermin and disease. Tom Joad joins a workers' strike for a living wage, realizing that "Hunger cannot be solved one person at a time, and hunger builds an angry response to exploitation. The great companies did not know that the line between hunger and anger is a thin line."

But the epic novel also is filled with hope and compassion. Not only does Tom take action and convince others to fight for a better life, but his sister Rose of Sharon--in one of the most unforgettable scenes in American literature--provides sustenance to a starving man with the milk from her breast.

It was a different group of "fine people" that the Kern County Board of Supervisors sought to protect by banning Steinbeck--the crew bosses, the labor contractors, and most of all, the large growers who exploited migrant workers for profit. Wofford B. Camp, a prominent rancher and president of Associated Farmers of Kern County, called The Grapes of Wrath "propaganda of the vilest sort." Claiming to defend "our farm workers as well as ourselves when we take action against that book," he lobbied for the ban.

The Associated Farmers

This is how Steinbeck depicted the Associated Farmers in The Grapes of Wrath:

[T]he hostility changed them, welded them, united them--hostility that made the little towns group and arm as though to repel an invader, squads with pick handles, clerks and storekeepers with shotguns, guarding the world against their own people...The local people whipped themselves into a cold cruelty. Then they formed units, squads and armed themselves with clubs, with gas, with guns.

After their success in Kern County, the Associated Farmers launched a campaign to ban the book statewide, urging other counties to keep the novel out of libraries and schools. A photo in Look magazine showed Camp ceremoniously burning a copy of the book.

Anticipating the Censors

Steinbeck had anticipated the censors. He wrote in 1936, "When such a close-knit financial group as the Associated Farmers becomes excited about our ancient liberties and foreign agitators, someone is about to lose something."

Steinbeck was well aware that his writings would be considered inflammatory, but he wanted his book to be read widely. At his wife's suggestion, he had chosen the title from the lyrics of "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" to preempt the red-baiting he knew would greet its publication. He wrote to his editor at Viking, "The fascist crowds will try to sabotage this book because it is revolutionary. They'll try to give it the communist angle. However, the Battle Hymn is American and intensely so…if both words and music are there, the book is keyed into the American scene from the beginning."

"Ideas don't die"

Librarian Knief was dismayed by the ban. She wrote the board of supervisors:

If that book is banned today, what book will be banned tomorrow? And what group will want a book banned the day after that? In the interest of a healthy and vigorous democracy, where everyone can speak his mind freely and without fear, and for the sake of the 600 readers in Kern County who wish to read the book, please rescind today's vote when you meet next Monday.

Noting this was the first instance of censorship in the library's history, Knief added, "[B]anning books is so utterly hopeless and futile. Ideas don't die because a book is forbidden reading. If Steinbeck has written truth, that truth will survive."

Scores of library patrons joined Knief's protest. A broad coalition, from religious leaders to trade unionists, registered opposition, as did the Workers Alliance, an organization of the unemployed.

The Board Votes

On the morning of August 28, hours before the board's debate was scheduled to start, the Bakersfield courthouse was packed. Outside, pickets from the Workers Alliance carried banners urging the board to lift the ban.

When the debate began, members of the Associated Farmers denounced the book as "obscene." One pro-censorship speaker said, "You can't argue with a book like that; it is too filthy for you to go over the various parts and point out the vile propaganda it contains. Americans have a right to say what they please but they do not have the right to attack a community in such works that any red-blooded American man would refuse to allow his daughter to read them."

Opposing the ban, the Reverend Edgar J. Evans said the book was one of the most moving he had ever read and wondered if the censors objected not to the language but "the exposure of a sociological condition."

At the end of the meeting, the motion to rescind the ban lost, 2-2.

Librarian Knief did not give up. She distributed sixty copies of The Grapes of Wrath to other public libraries around the state.

The ban was not lifted until January 27, 1941.

Steinbeck Vindicated

Steinbeck's legacy and that of the Joads have long outlived the shortsighted ban on his novel. Steinbeck was honored with the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1962, and though it was awarded after the publication of his many other books, it is often presumed that the prize was really for The Grapes of Wrath.

See a short video about Steinbeck and The Grapes of Wrath:

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