Rick Wartzman is the director of the Drucker Institute at Claremont Graduate University and an Irvine Senior Fellow at the New America Foundation. He’s also the author of the new book “Obscene in the Extreme: The Burning and Banning of John Steinbeck’s ‘Grapes of Wrath.’”
Tell me about your book.
I use the burning and banning of “The Grapes of Wrath” in Kern County and Bakersfield, where the Joads settled in the novel, as a window into the class politics of 1930s America. You can really see this deep divide between far Left and far Right by how each side either embraced or was repulsed by the story. The reason that Steinbeck’s book was such a lightning rod was because it really was a radical book in its day. It doesn’t quite call for revolution, but it comes pretty close. Steinbeck, outside of “The Grapes of Wrath,” talked about how it was inevitable that capitalism would come to an end and be replaced by some form of socialism.
On Aug 21, 1939, the county Board of Supervisors met and voted by a count of four to one to ban “The Grapes of Wrath” from schools and libraries. Later that week, the book was burned publicly. It was a pretty modest little book burning, one copy dropped into a flaming pail. But what was significant was that it was a farm worker who burned the book, at the behest of his boss, a giant grower named Bill Camp.
That one of the Okies burned the book was significant because The Associated Farmers, this big growers group of which Bill Camp was a leader, they were really bent on showing that it wasn’t just agribusiness interests, the establishment that so hated “The Grapes of Wrath.” It was the migrants themselves, who didn’t like the way they were portrayed. A lot of migrants felt that Steinbeck portrayed them with great empathy and showed them to have incredible courage and dignity in the face of adversity. Others really took offense. They thought Steinbeck made them out to be uncouth and unsophisticated, that they looked like hayseeds, drinking and fighting and cursing.
Your book seems to have come out at an opportune time.
I sort of got lucky, though it’s hard to say anybody’s lucky these days, with the financial crisis. It’s totally happenstance. I got onto the story doing my first book, which I wrote with Mark Arax. I had seen a photograph of Bill Camp presiding over this book burning. Bill Camp is a minor character in “The King of California.” It’s obviously the kind of image that stays with you. I was at a book reading in Bakersfield about five years ago. A friend of mine down there, a woman named Leigh McCarthy, she’s a poet, she and I were talking and the photograph came up. She started telling me the story, and I started wondering “is there another book here?”
You try to show the side of the growers.
My politics, it’s fair to say, are probably far to the Left of where Bill Camp stood. But I did try to understand what the world looked like to Bill Camp and others in his shoes. Was there genuine fear that the nation may turn to a form of socialism and a way of life that these people believed in was unraveling right before their eyes? Absolutely.
Tell me about some of the parallels you see with today.
It would be easy to overstate how many parallels there are. Only a fool would suggest we’re in near as bad of shape as things were back in 1939. Unemployment was over 17 percent nationally. Income levels were really not better than they’d been in 1929 at the start of the Great Depression.
But the central question that Steinbeck raised, how we could have so much want in the midst of so much plenty, still resonates. Income inequality in this country, which is particularly wide here in California, is wider now than anytime since 1928. There’s some studies that suggest that up to a third of households in this country can barely make ends meet. Some 40 million people haven’t got enough food to eat. People are being tossed out of their homes. I haven’t seen this level of people feeling uneasy in a long, long time.
Do you see parallels with the current group of farm workers, starting with Cesar Chavez?
Chavez was certainly influenced by those events in the 30s. There was a strike leader named Pat Chambers who helped lead the farm workers’ struggle in the 30s. As an old man, Chambers made his way to Delano or wherever Chavez was at the time. He kind of wandered into UFW headquarters. They asked who he was and he said “Pat Chambers.” The person recognized the name, Chavez came out, and it was a real embrace of this guy. Chavez paid a lot of respect to those who came before him.
One of the funniest parts of your presentation was about Sarah Palin and a book she tried to get out of the library.
“Daddy’s Roommate.” Censorship remains an issue. There’s some 2,000 books challenged every year in this country, according to the American Library Association. You look at the titles attempting to get out, they’re classics. Steinbeck still makes the list. “Of Mice and Men” is perennially attacked. My sense is that if it’s not explicitly a religious issue, it’s on some sort of moral grounds or profanity grounds.