The Big Read Blog (Archive)

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September 16, 2009
Washington, DC

 

Farmer and sons walking in the face of a dust storm. Cimarron County, Oklahoma, April 1936. Photo by Arthur Rothstein, from Library of Congress.

Although the books in The Big Read library are now acknowledged classics, not all of them were published to literary acclaim or widespread public acceptance. For example, Fahrenheit 451 has spent its fair share of time on Banned Book lists, while some have debated if "genre" novels such as The Maltese Falcon and A Wizard of Earthsea can be called "literature." The Grapes of Wrath, which has not only moved generations of readers, but was also a powerful inspiration to writers such as Ray Bradbury, had a particularly stormy arrival on the literary scene. In the interview excerpt below, Dr. Susan Shillinglaw, Scholar-in-Residence at the National Steinbeck Center in Steinbeck's hometown of Salinas, explains some of the animosity that greeted the novel's publication.

[When John Steinbeck] published The Grapes of Wrath, he was really hated in California, hated in Oklahoma, reviled in many places around the country.  He was denounced in Congress by Lyle Boren, who was a congressman from Oklahoma.  So the publicity surrounding The Grapes of Wrath was very controversial. Some of it was praising the book for its literary qualities, and other reviews attacked it for its language and for the vision of California as this very selfish place with a lot of very rich fat cats who hated ordinary people and mistreated the migrants. . . .

Oklahoma thought that the book made everybody in Oklahoma look stupid, as if they were illiterate and spoke a kind of English that no one else would speak.  So the book was very controversial.  And in Salinas, they hated it because . . .most of the wealthy people own land, and the book makes people who own land look very bad.  And so the agricultural interests in Salinas hated the book.  And they hated the language of the book. They hated the fact that there had been a very vicious and violent lettuce strike in Salinas in 1936, just as [Steinbeck] began writing the book.  Right after he finished Of Mice and Men,  as he began  the research for The Grapes of Wrath, one of the worst strikes in the 1930s occurred in Salinas.  It was the lettuce packers? strike, and that was on everyone?s minds.  It was an attempt to break the unions, [to keep] the workers from organizing at all. I think that was on everybody?s mind because The Grapes of Wrath is really suggesting that if people work together, that?s one way for the workers to survive. . . .It was burned because of the language and because it was supposedly a lying book.  "A filthy lying manuscript" is what they said.

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