A dangerous book

There’s easy irony in Salinas’ National Steinbeck Center, a first-rate museum dedicated to the city’s most famous son. But John Steinbeck wasn’t too popular in Monterey County while alive. According to the Center’s exhibits, he couldn’t find anyone in Monterey willing to rent him an office to work in when he tried to live there in 1944.

“This isn’t my country anymore,” he wrote. “And it won’t be until I am dead.” Steinbeck’s dead 40 years, and it’s hard to swing a tortilla in Salinas or a sardine in Monterey without smacking something dedicated to him.

It was a lifetime ago, but the ruckus over Steinbeck’s most famous work, The Grapes of Wrath, was something to behold. Though only a few copies were actually burned—no one wanted to draw unseemly comparisons to the contemporary book-burning frenzies of the Nazis—the supervisors down in Kern County instructed the local librarian to remove copies of the books from circulation.

Rick Wartzman, a noted journalist and teacher, and co-author with Mark Arax of The King of California: J.G. Boswell and the Making of a Secret American Empire, has turned his attention to one of California’s worst hard times: the Great Depression, with its Dust Bowl-driven influx of poverty-stricken migrants to the great Valley’s agricultural lands.

Wartzman goes deeper than simply examining the controversy surrounding Steinbeck’s incredibly popular novel. Instead, he uses the timeline of the Kern County ban on the book to frame a story that moves back and forth across the decades of the early 20th century, exploring labor relations, poverty and the rise of agribusiness to form the spine of the Golden State’s economy.

Obscene in the Extreme doesn’t waste a great deal of time with the ostensible reasons for the distaste toward Steinbeck’s novel: cursing, as well as the book’s final scene in which a woman whose infant has just died takes a starving man to her breast. Those complaints, Wartzman makes clear, were not at the root of the strident opposition to Steinbeck’s portrayal of the conditions for laborers in California’s fields.

Instead, he focuses on the issues California has fought over since its founding: land, water and labor. Of particular relevance to this period was the burgeoning labor movement, poised to upend the status quo throughout the state. By describing in detail such events as the failed cotton strike of 1938 and the Sacramento conspiracy trial of 1934, Wartzman makes clear how deeply labor unrest and the growing threat of organization unnerved landowners made wealthy by cheap labor.

But Wartzman does not slight the individual drama even as he pays close attention to historical context. For instance, by focusing on the Kern County ban on The Grapes of Wrath, he can examine the conflict within a single family as the Abel brothers come down on both sides: brother Stanley introduced the resolution banning the book, while brother Ralph, a union leader, led the defense.

There is the quiet, common sense-approach of Kern County librarian Gretchen Knief, who insures that the books will be read by loaning them out to other libraries. Her reasonable attitude is offset by zealots of all kinds, including some (in)famous people: Upton Sinclair, Carey McWilliams, Bill Camp and even Alger Hiss. And there’s Clell Pruett, the migrant worker photographed setting fire to the book while his boss watched.

Pruett hadn’t read the book, but most of the rest of the country did. Steinbeck got the respect he deserved after all; The Grapes of Wrath was chosen for the One Book One Bakersfield program in the Kern County seat in 2002.