A couples weeks ago, Sharon's annual kidnapping (every year she plans a surprise day trip around my birthday) took us up north to Salinas. Steinbeck country. And that was exactly why we went. We had lunch in John Steinbeck's boyhood home. It has been turned in to a place to have lunch, with mostly sandwiches and salads, though they also have an entrée that changes weekly and desserts.
And after lunch we went a couple blocks to the National Steinbeck Center where they have displays covering many of the books that he wrote. Such as The Red Pony, Cannery Row, Of Mice and Men, and Travels with Charley. And of course, The Grapes of Wrath. Probably his most famous book. And one connected to Kern County, since The Joad family ends up in Weedpatch for a time.
Needless to say the good people of Kern County weren't happy with the way they were depicted back when the book came out in the 1939. And his depiction of the conditions those immigrants faced was called exaggeration by many. And in 1939 the Kern County Board of Supervisors voted to ban the book from county libraries and schools.
Despite the efforts of local librarians, the ban lasted for a year and a half. In November of 1939 the library in East St. Louis voted to burn the book on the library steps, but didn't after the news of their intention went national. And the week that this occurred had the biggest sales of the book to date.
Which just goes to show what Gretchen Knief, a Kern County librarian said to the supervisors. “Banning books is hopeless and futile.” And so often leads to even greater dissemination of the ideas in the book.
This was a lesson John Steinbeck learned well. On a CD about The Grapes of Wrath, from the National Endowment for the Arts, Tom Steinbeck, John's oldest son, told an anecdote about his father, having a huge cabinet filled with the books, that he didn't want his sons to read. John would put the key to the cabinet on top of it, all with great show. Then at night his two sons would slip down climb on chairs and each others shoulders, to reach the key and open up the cabinet to get at the forbidden books. Things like Mark Twain and Coleridge. They years later John told Tom, that Tom should have oiled the cabinet hinges so he could have slept better.
But he had forbidden the books he'd most wanted his children to read. And they had. And I guess it turned out OK, since Thomas Steinbeck has had several books of his own published.
You know, that might be a good lesson for me too. As soon as I get a book published I might have to see about getting someone to ban it. That should do wonders for sales.
Click to learn more about the banning of The Grapes of Wrath