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Arts

September 19, 2013

John Steinbeck’s “The Grapes of Wrath” endures 60 years of “banning”

grapes

Kern County, California was the setting for John Steinbeck’s classic, The Grapes of Wrath, written in 1939.  Kern County was also the site of the book’s first banning.

Considered a modern classic today, the book garnered objections for its  profanity—especially goddamn and the like—and sexual references, complaints that continued through the 1990′s.  It is a work with international banning appeal: the book was barred in Ireland in the 50′s and a group of booksellers in Turkey were taken to court for “spreading propaganda” in 1973.

For it he won the annual National Book Award and Pulitzer Prize for novels and it was cited prominently when he won the Nobel Prize in 1962.

Set during the Great Depression, the novel focuses on the Joads, a poor family of tenant farmers driven from their Oklahoma home by drought, economic hardship, and changes in the agricultural industry forcing tenant farmers out of work brought about by the New Deal era Agricultural Adjustment Act. Due to their nearly hopeless situation, and in part because they were trapped in the Dust Bowl, the Joads set out for California. Along with thousands of other “Okies”, they sought jobs, land, dignity, and a future.

When preparing to write the novel, Steinbeck wrote: “I want to put a tag of shame on the greedy bastards who are responsible for this [the Great Depression and its effects].” He famously said, “I’ve done my damndest to rip a reader’s nerves to rags,” and this work won a large following among the working class due to Steinbeck’s sympathy to the workers’ movement and his accessible prose style.

The Grapes of Wrath is frequently read in American high school and college literature classes due to its historical context and enduring legacy. A celebrated Hollywood film version, starring Henry Fonda and directed by John Ford, was made in 1940.

Steinbeck scholar John Timmerman sums up the book’s impact: “The Grapes of Wrath may well be the most thoroughly discussed novel – in criticism, reviews, and college classrooms – of 20th century American literature.” The Grapes of Wrath is referred to as a Great American Novel.

At the time of publication, Steinbeck’s novel “was a phenomenon on the scale of a national event. It was publicly banned and burned by citizens, it was debated on national talk radio; but above all, it was read.” According to The New York Times it was the best-selling book of 1939 and 430,000 copies had been printed by February 1940. In that month it won the National Book Award, favorite fiction book of 1939, voted by members of the American Booksellers Association. Soon it won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.

Part of its impact stemmed from its passionate depiction of the plight of the poor, and in fact, many of Steinbeck’s contemporaries attacked his social and political views. Bryan Cordyack writes, “Steinbeck was attacked as a propagandist and a socialist from both the left and the right of the political spectrum. The most fervent of these attacks came from the Associated Farmers of California; they were displeased with the book’s depiction of California farmers’ attitudes and conduct toward the migrants. They denounced the book as a ‘pack of lies’ and labeled it ‘communist propaganda’. Some accused Steinbeck of exaggerating camp conditions to make a political point. Steinbeck had visited the camps well before publication of the novel and argued their inhumane nature destroyed the settlers’ spirit.

In 1962, the Nobel Prize committee cited Grapes of Wrath as a “great work” and as one of the committee’s main reasons for granting Steinbeck the Nobel Prize for Literature. Time magazine included the novel in its “TIME 100 Best English-language Novels from 1923 to 2005″. In 2009,The Daily Telegraph also included the novel in its “100 novels everyone should read”. In 1998, the Modern Library ranked The Grapes of Wrath tenth on its list of the 100 best English-language novels of the 20th century.



About the Author

Christine Anne Piesyk
Christine Anne Piesyk brings over 40 years of experience to the pages of Business Clarksville; she has edited news, opinion, politics, business, arts/leisure, food, lifestyle, education and travel pages in both daily and weekly newspapers. Now retired, she words as an editorial consultant, and remains an editorial consultant to Business & Heritage Clarksville. " At 18, she began working with film and theatre critic Sam Hoffman, and at 27 launched The Entertainment Review as a radio medium with Jesse Garon. As a film/arts critic, she co-produced the Review for 25 years in both print and radio. The number of films she has, seen, studied or reviewed number in the thousands. "Lifelong education and a career in media have afforded me extraordinary opportunities," Piesyk said. She holds undergraduate and graduate degrees in individualized studies from Goddard College.




 
 

 
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One Comment


  1. […] best work. The novel was published in 1939 to great acclaim, both critically and commercially; it “was a phenomenon on the scale of a national event. It was publicly banned and burned by citiz… It was also the New York Times’ bestselling book of 1939, and won both a Pulitzer Prize and […]



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