Editor’s note: The following review was written by University of Oklahoma history professor William W. Savage Jr., author of several books on popular culture, the American West and Oklahoma.
Next April will mark the 70th anniversary of the publication of John Steinbeck’s “The Grapes of Wrath,” and commentaries have begun to appear already.
Those who believe that Steinbeck besmirched the reputation of the Sooner State should enjoy Bob Burke’s “John Steinbeck Was Wrong About Oklahoma!” (Oklahoma Heritage Association, $9.95). Meanwhile, those who believe that Steinbeck was concerned more with the plight of those who departed Depression-era Oklahoma than with what they left behind will prefer Rick Wartzman’s “Obscene in the Extreme: The Burning and Banning of John Steinbeck’s ‘The Grapes of Wrath'” (PublicAffairs, $26.95). Both books offer something for every prejudice.
As commentaries go, Wartzman’s is the better exercise. It contains source notes, a bibliography and an index; Burke’s effort includes none of those features. Wartzman’s book details the August 1939 decision by the Board of Supervisors in Kern County, Calif., to remove the recently published Steinbeck novel from local libraries, and the controversy to which that decision led ” a controversy which, like the novel itself, indicated the extent of the divide between rich and poor in pre-World War II American society. Burke’s book suggests the existence of a seamless social fabric in Oklahoma, where no such divide could be found, either in the Thirties or at any time since.
Burke’s narrative is presented as a “debate” with Steinbeck, who has been dead for 40 years. Burke feels strongly, however, that Steinbeck must even now be called to account for promoting an enduring negative image of Oklahoma and all Oklahomans. One may not ignore the damage done by a dead writer, whose offending novel has, after all, sold millions of copies.
Steinbeck was wrong, apparently, because he did not mention all the splendid achievements of Oklahomans, a large number of which occurred well after publication of “The Grapes of Wrath.” Burke’s narrative, however, is not burdened with much in the way of chronology, so the inconsistencies in its logic are not always perfectly obvious.
If, indeed, Burke has “written or co-written more historical nonfiction books than anyone else in history,” as the back cover of the present volume asserts, then his methodological problems are difficult to explain, much less excuse. Perhaps Steinbeck’s name is misspelled five times in the first two pages of Burke’s text as some form of metaphorical payback, as is the news that the Californian won a “Pulitzer Price.”
In any event, he’s in a hurry and pressed for space, because spiffy pictures of famous Oklahomans compress the text even further.
Burke contends that Steinbeck described Oklahomans as “idealess, shiftless, hick tenant farmers.” His is, therefore, a curious and unusual take on the novel, and one that denies the inherent nobility of the Joads in their efforts to help others as well as themselves in a time of economic displacement and social upheaval.
Wartzman, in contrast, allows that many people view “The Grapes of Wrath” as “the quintessential story of dignity in the face of adversity.” Moreover, Wartzman argues for the modern relevance of the novel because, comparing the Depression with the present, he finds that “the central conundrum of capitalism is not much different that it was in 1939: How can there be so much want amid so much plenty?”
Wartzman’s book provides an appropriate historical context for Steinbeck’s novel; Burke’s book provides rhetoric that someday may help to establish historical context in studies of Oklahoma’s prolonged preoccupation with imagined intimations of inferiority. Burke writes that “Oklahoma’s incredible story is not about places and things, it is about our people.” But the point missed is that “our people” often had to deal with places and things that were inhospitable and unpleasant, a point that Steinbeck made rather emphatically.
A few months after the appearance of “The Grapes of Wrath,” Carey McWilliams, who was head of California’s Division of Immigration and Housing and later became known as a progressive author and editor, published “Factories in the Field,” which presented the hard data that confirmed Steinbeck’s portrayal of the situation facing migrant labor in the Golden State.
Wartzman explains that World War II invigorated California industry and led to the employment of migrants in shipyards and defense factories, providing them with opportunities they might never have had without leaving Oklahoma. And, according to the author, when that happened, the “Okie” designation was en route to oblivion, although resurrected a quarter-century later by almost-Oklahoman Merle Haggard, whose music “highlighted the degree to which those outside the migrant community had also come to romanticize the Okie experience.”
Burke’s book is a hardback opus containing 32 pages, 26 of which comprise his text. Wartzman’s book, on the other hand, at 308 pages with photographs of people who were never famous Oklahomans, offers proof positive that Burke is wrong about Steinbeck. “William W. Savage Jr.