STEVE INKSEEP, host:
Here's something that J.K. Rowling, Mark Twain, Maya Angelou and Philip Pullman have in common - they've all written some of the books that community members try most often to remove from public libraries and schools. That's according to the American Library Association which this week marks it's annual "Banned Books Week." One novel that survived early censorship to become a classic is John Steinbeck's "The Grapes of Wrath." NPR's Lynn Neary has the story.
LYNN NEARY: People give a lot of reasons for wanting to ban books, says Judith Krug of the American Library Association - politics, religion, sex, even witchcraft. But in the end, Krug says, there's really only one thing that would-be censors want to stop.
Mr. JUDITH KRUG (Secretary and Executive Director, American Library Association): They're not afraid of the books; they're afraid of the ideas. And the thing that's so interesting is that the materials that are challenged and banned are the books that say something about the human condition. And I can't think of a better example of that than "The Grapes of Wrath."
NEARY: When "The Grapes of Wrath" was published in 1939, it was banned or burned in a number of cities. But nowhere was opposition to the book so close to the bone as in Kern County, California, where John Steinbeck's fictional Joad family landed after their escape from the dust bowl. Rick Wartzman is the author of a new book, "Obscence in the Extreme," which is the story of the banning of "The Grapes of Wrath" in Kern County.
Mr. RICK WARTZMAN (Author, Obscene in the Extreme): It's a window into the class politics of the '30s - this deep divide between far left and far right.
NEARY: Steinbeck's novel was firmly rooted in real events. Three years before the book was published, President Franklin Roosevelt gave this speech after touring nine states that had been devastated by drought.
Former President FRANKLIN D. ROOSEVELT (United States): No cracked earth, no blistering sun, no burning wind, no grasshoppers are a permanent match for the indomitable American farmers and stockmen, and their wives and children who have carried on through desperate days and inspire us with their self-reliance, their tenacity, and their courage.
NEARY: But even if the hour's optimism could not hold back the tide of humanity that poured out of the dust bowl states desperate for work. This young migrant story recorded for the Library of Congress was typical of those who made their way west.
Unidentified Man: Then we'd come on over in California in '38. And at that time, came quite a flood here in California.
NEARY: Many of the hundreds of thousands of people who came to California looking for work landed in Kern County - penniless and homeless, they took jobs picking crops when they could. It was their story that John Steinbeck fictionalized in "The Grapes of Wrath." The book was an instant bestseller. But Rick Wartzman says some people from Kern County resented the way they were depicted in the novel.
Mr. WARTZMAN: The powers that be thought they were really doing right by these people in a lot of ways. They had a pretty good public health care system, for instance, and they thought that Steinbeck really portrayed them unfairly. One of the members of the board of supervisors called "The Grapes of Wrath" a libel and a lie.
NEARY: In August 1939 by a vote of four to one, the Kern County board of supervisors approved a resolution banning "The Grapes of Wrath" from county libraries and schools. Wartzman says one powerful local player who pushed the ban was Bill Camp, head of the local Associated Farmers, a group of big landowners who were avid opponents of organized labor.
Mr. WARTZMAN: And that's what they were really afraid of. They really did not want to be unionized. They didn't want their fields to be organized in any way.
NEARY: And they did have influence with the county supervisors?
Mr. WARTZMAN: Oh, absolutely. Bill Camp was an extremely influential guy in Kern County. And these were really rough guys. I mean, if you go back and look at the record through the '30s, they had tremendous political influence in Sacramento. They knew how to work a bill but they also knew how to work with tire irons and pick handles and you know bricks, and things could get really ugly and violent.
NEARY: There was no mistaking which side "The Grapes of Wrath" was on. This scene from the film version of the book vividly illustrates the hostility between the workers and the wealthy farmers who hired them and also controlled the local police.
Mr. PAUL GUILFOYLE (as Floyd): I asked to see his license. He ain't allowed by law to contract men without a license.
Unidentified Man #1: Hey, Joe. Agitator, have you seen this guy before?
Unidentified Man #1: Seems like I have. Seems like I've seen him hangin' around that used car lot that was busted into. Yep, that's the fella! Get in this car.
Mr. GUILFOYLE: Got nothing on him.
Unidentified Man #1: Open your trap again and you'll go to.
NEARY: In Kern County, Bill Camp was convinced that many of the migrants themselves were offended by "The Grapes of Wrath." So Camp recruited one of his workers, Clell Pruett, to burn the book. Pruett never read the novel, but heard a radio program about it which made him angry. So he readily agreed to take part in what Wartzman describes as a "photo op."
Mr. WARTZMAN: There's a picture of Bill Camp kind of presiding over this book burning as Clell Pruett drops a copy of "The Grapes of Wrath" into a pale with the flames shooting out of it. This is not a big you know Nazi-style public square, hundreds of books being burned. But the significance is that Clell Pruett, not one of the big growers, actually burned the book.
NEARY: While Camp was working to publicize the events in Kern County, the local librarian, Gretchen Knief was working quietly to get the ban overturned. At the risk of losing her job, Knief stood up to the county supervisors. Her letter asking them to reverse their decision is a remarkable and eloquent argument against all efforts to ban books. Here, Wartzman reads an excerpt.
Mr. WARTZMAN: If that book is banned today, what will be banned tomorrow? And what group would want a book banned the day after that? It's such a vicious and dangerous thing to begin. And may in the end lead to exactly the same thing we see in Europe today. Besides, banning books is so utterly hopeless and futile. Ideas don't die because a book is forbidden reading.
NEARY: Gretchen Knief's argument didn't work. The supervisors upheld the ban and it remained in effect for a year and a half. But says Judith Krug, the censorship of "The Grapes of Wrath" was a key event in the creation of the Library Bill of Rights.
Ms. KRUG: It says in effect that as American citizens, we have the right to access whatever information we wish without anyone looking over our shoulders, that we have the right to utilize this information once we have acquired it.
NEARY: Most of the people involved in the banning of "The Grapes of Wrath" are no longer alive. But Rick Wartzman did track down Clell Pruett who has since died. Pruett finally read the book at Wartzman's behest and afterwards told Wartzman he had no regrets about burning it. Lynn Neary, NPR News, Washington.
INSKEEP: And you can read an excerpt from Rick Wartzman's book "Obscene in the Extreme" and see the infamous photo of Clell Pruett setting fire to "The Grapes of Wrath" on our website, npr.org. It's Morning Edition from NPR News. Renee Montagne is back with us tomorrow. I'm Steve Inskeep.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio.