The Big Read Blog (Archive)

The Later State

April 26, 2007
Stillwater, Oklahoma

I bring this up because I'm about to blog about one of the better Big Reads I've seen in my travels so far, specifically The Grapes of Wrath in Stillwater, Oklahoma. Unfortunately, I visited Stillwater a couple of weeks ago. In my defense, I had just blogged the day before. Also in my defense, it was late in the week, and anything I filed probably wouldn't post until the following week. But my best defense is that I'm sure I had much better excuses at the time, before I forgot them all. Indefensible.

I can only take refuge in the procrastinator's credo: When life gives you grapes, make Raisinets. So instead of performing my usual next-day, short-term-memory file-dump, I'm getting an early start on my long-term memories by reconstructing Stillwater without recourse to any cribnotes. And those memories consist of...



Yes! I remember fetching up at the Stillwater Library and having the Big Read coordinator there, Linda -- no, Lynda! -- Reynolds, show me their WPA photo exhibit. Right there, tacked onto the panels of a few eye-high, hinged bulletin boards zigzagging through the reference department, was a shot by Dorothea Lange of some Oklahoma family with its entire life piled high onto a precarious jalopy. I thought to myself, that's a photo of the Joads. Intellectually, I've always known that the Joads stood in for at least 300,000 westward migrants, but until I saw that photo they were still, at some level, archetypal fictional characters. Not anymore.

Then that night I discovered that, to some Oklahomans, the Joads are neither tintypes nor archetypes so much as stereotypes, and libelous ones at that. The setting was the movie theater at the OSU Student Union, where the really dedicated university librarian Karen Neurohr had arranged to show the movie version, complete with captions for the hearing-impaired. An ESL teacher had brought her students to the screening, so that hearing and reading the dialogue at the same time might better fix Steinbeck's language in their heads. A couple of bearish, gregarious guys from Libya seemed particularly engrossed.

Anyway, the movie slew the crowd the way it pretty much always does, and afterward the questions came with a large side of gratitude -- until an older woman timorously raised her hand and wondered why Stillwater had to choose ?this? book. Turns out that, in Oklahoma, The Grapes of Wrath is one very complicated masterpiece. Times have changed since the state's congressman Lyle Boren called the novel "a lie, a black, infernal creation of a twisted, distorted mind," but it's still the only representation of Oklahoma most Americans can name, and it's not exactly a Valentine. It's a tribute to human dignity under the most inhumane conditions, and not every Oklahoman wants to be remembered as poor, dirty, and ungrammatical, no matter how dignified.

Group of young men with David Kipen in the middle posing for the camera. Young man in front is holding up a copy of The Grapes of Wrath

Oklahoma State ESL students bask in the afterglow of a helpfully captioned screening of The Grapes of Wrath. Photo by David Kipen

I encouraged the woman a little, parried her a little, and finally I had to admit she had a point. There are times in the book -- such as when Steinbeck has some Joad say "Chrismus," even though spelling it right would sound just the same -- there are times when Steinbeck's respect comes mingled with just a whiff of condescension. It doesn't bother me nearly as much as it still bothers a few Oklahomans, but it's there. Frankly, as a Californian, I'm entitled to a bigger beef with the book than any Oklahoman, since the Californians in it come off more inhumane than anybody. If the Oklahomans appear subhuman, it's only because Californians reduced them to it.

So I did the only thing I could think of. I apologized. Right there in public, on behalf of my unconsulted fellow Californians, I apologized for how we treated the Oklahomans who came to us 70 years ago looking for nothing more than a day's honest work and a night's unrousted sleep. I don't know if my apology helped, but it finally felt less hypocritical than defending a novel I love to a well-intentioned lady who couldn't help reading a completely different book. I'll always owe Stillwater for that overdue lesson in literary relativism. Beats the heck out of owing them a blog post...