September 27, 2002

A Look Back at... “The Grapes of Wrath”

By Cindy Mediavilla
UCLA Department of Information Studies

“In times of national stress, as at present, when the call is for national unity, the screws are turned tighter on freedom of thinking.”

–Stanley J. Kinitz

As the California Council for the Humanities and the California Center for the Book launch their upcoming celebration of “The Grapes of Wrath”, librarians would do well to remember — especially during this most recent period of “national stress” — the role that John Steinbeck’s masterpiece played in the confirmation of the library profession’s dedication to intellectual freedom. Indeed, according to the American Library Association’s (ALA) Intellectual Freedom Manual, it was ALA’s initial response to censorship attempts against “Grapes of Wrath” that ultimately led to the adoption of the first “Library’s Bill of Rights.” Although library historian Louise Robbins debates this, noting that the novel was published three months after the profession’s first discussions of a Library Bill of Rights, she does recognize that the nationwide “rash of bannings” of “Grapes of Wrath” helped spur ALA’s appointment of an intellectual freedom committee in 1939.

Much like today, the political climate of 1939 was particularly tense. War was raging in Europe and even though the White House insisted on a neutral stance, a feeling of inevitable conflict was in the air. The professional literature of the period is filled with references to democracy and the role of the library during such turbulent times. “Librarians should be all for democracy,” California Library Association president Sydney Mitchell admonished in 1938. “In the totalitarian state the librarian becomes merely an agency for propaganda, for the dissemination of such information as the authorities care to pass on.”

Still, censorship of reading materials was very much in evidence in libraries throughout the country. One major target of the censor’s ire was, of course, “The Grapes of Wrath”, which was considered vulgar, immoral, and even “bestial.” The book was not only banned in places like Camden, NJ, but in East St. Louis, where the board of trustees ordered all three of the library’s copies to be burned. Here in California, the most contentious battle against “Grapes of Wrath” took place in Kern County, the heart of the state’s agricultural community.

In a letter dated August 29, 1939, Kern County librarian Gretchen Knief describes in detail how she had returned from vacation the week before to find that the Board of Supervisors had unilaterally passed a resolution banning circulation of the library’s some 50 copies of “The Grapes of Wrath”. Although the Board’s case focused on Steinbeck’s use of objectionable language, much larger political issues were apparently at play. As Wilson Library Bulletin editor Stanley Kunitz later posited, among those who claimed the novel was “obscene [and] too filthy to handle” were “Cali-fornia’s fruit interests whom the book exposes, though nobody ever knew them to get excited before over a few dirty words.” Interestingly, in the heat of the censorship battle, one Supervisor admitted that he hoped the ban — which he had instigated — would bring national attention to “the problem of the migratory workers” and therefore “improve their lot.” As State Librarian Mabel Gillis wisely commented in her response to Gretchen Knief, “I feel that the Board of Supervisors has received not only the kind of publicity it wanted but in addition the kind that is very regrettable.”

Despite protests by both the public and library staff, the ban continued for a year and a half. Ever resilient, Gretchen Knief made the best of an unpleasant situation. Not one to waste perfectly good library resources, she offered Kern County’s copies of “The Grapes of Wrath” to colleagues throughout California. Within three months, the banned copies were temporarily redistributed to libraries in 19 counties.

In January 1941, the Board’s resolution was finally rescinded and “full confidence in our county librarian” restored. According to one local newspaper, staff promptly reshelved the books, which had by then been returned to Kern County after serving readers around the state. A year later, a vindicated Gretchen Knief left California to become Washington State Librarian.

Although the world is a much different place today, librarians continue to fight censorship on many fronts. Most recently, an email campaign led by librarian Ann Sparanese is credited with saving controversial author Michael Moore’s new satirical book Stupid White Men and Other Excuses for the State of the Nation. In an era where the White House spokesperson warns that “all Americans need to watch what they say, watch what they do,” librarians do well to remember the trials of our professional ancestors. For, as intellectual freedom advocate Stanley Kunitz reminds us in his defense of “Grapes of Wrath”, “the most successful democracy, in the long run, will be the best educated one.”

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