Why Was The Grapes of Wrath Banned? - Censorship & Controversy

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  • 0:03 Profanity, Sex, and…
  • 0:48 Banned, Challenged, Burned
  • 2:47 Destination: California!
  • 4:16 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Ivy Roberts

Ivy is a Doctoral student at Virginia Commonwealth University studying media studies and cultural history

In this lesson, we'll explore the various reasons why John Steinbeck's 'The Grapes of Wrath' (1939) was banned, challenged, and burned. We'll learn about the objections that parents, teachers, and businessmen raised against the novel.

Profanity, Sex, and Communism, Oh My!

When it was first published in 1939, John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath ruffled a lot of feathers. Conservatives read its collectivist message as a rejection of American individualism. They called Steinbeck a communist. Business owners and landowners railed against the novel's promotion of labor unionization, fearful of the effect it would have on the workers under their employ. Parents and teachers also derided the novel for its foul language, sexual content, and violence. For folks sensitive to the political, religious, and social implications of literature, there's a lot not to like about this novel. Let's look at some reasons John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath was banned, challenged, and burned across the country.

Banned, Challenged, Burned

The American Library Association (ALA) maintains a list of all the books that have ever been banned, or forcibly removed, from public library systems or school curricula. The ALA also keeps track of books that have been challenged, referring to the process in which community members, teachers, and parents raise formal objections to publicly available reading materials.

In some cases, books have also been burned for political, ideological, or religious reasons. Book burning is infrequent because of its association with extreme political regimes, principally Nazism, that restrict citizens' access to knowledge. American democracy upholds the right of every citizen to the freedom of expression and thought, as stated in the U.S. Bill of Rights. In any case, banning, challenging, and burning books is tantamount to censorship, the suppression of objectionable material. In fact, the criticism lodged against Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath was the main impetus that drove the ALA to implement their own Library Bill of Rights.

In his introduction to the Penguin edition, Robert DeMott writes that criticism of the novel revolves around ''alleged sentimentalism; stereotyped characterizations; heavy-handed symbolism; unconvincing dialogue; episodic, melodramatic plot; misplaced Oklahoma geography; and inaccurate rendering of historical facts…''

Specifically, objections raised against John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath cross the spectrum from foul language and communist implications to religious themes and sexuality. Since its publication in 1939, the novel has been banned in Kern County, California; St Louis, Illinois; Buffalo, New York; Kansas City, Missouri; Kanawha, IA; and Anniston, Alabama. It has been challenged in more places than that both nationally and internationally. The case even went before Congress, where Oklahoma representative Lyle Boren of Oklahoma denounced the novel as ''a lie, a black, infernal creation of a twisted, distorted mind.''

Destination: California!

Of all the places that The Grapes of Wrath caused disruption, it was Kern county, California, that felt the brunt of the pain. Local businessmen in particular felt attacked by Steinbeck's portrayal of working conditions in their county.

If you recall, the novel follows the Joad family's pilgrimage from Oklahoma to California in search of work. When they arrive in Kern County, California, they discover their situation not much improved. Migrants are forced into shanty towns; wages much lower than expected; poor working and living conditions. Well, residents and businessmen of Kern County took that to heart. They rejected Steinbeck's portrayal of the living and working situation in California as inaccurate and slanderous.

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