Against the Banning of The Grapes of Wrath

Continuing the English III roll. . .

We read The Grapes of Wrath and then debated its banning in Kern County as if were were contemporaries. I played Gretchen Knief, the head librarian of Kern County and this was my opening speech in the debate:

I am Gretchen Knief, chief librarian of Kern County, and I come before you today to ask that the ban placed on John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath last Monday be lifted.

Let me start by asking you, all of you, what drives you to ban this book? We can think of no other reason than fear. Fear that John Steinbeck speaks the truth. Fear that your children will read the truth and condemn their parents. Fear that they will be exposed to the darker side of life and become corrupt. Fear that it is more than a book, it is a revolution. And so because of your fear, you decide that you have the right to cancel the prerogative of freedom of speech awarded to every citizen of this country. You say that The Grapes of Wrath destroys the “American Dream”? Well what is it that you are doing, then?

If Steinbeck has written the truth, that truth will survive. If he is merely being sensational and lascivious, if all the ‘little words’ are really little more than fly specks on a large painting, then the book will soon go the way of all other modern novels and be forgotten. It is not fear of the book, but fear of the ideas which it contains that drives you to ban the book. And what good will that do? The ideas are not confined to the pages, they will survive whether the book is banned and burned or no.

Many of you are parents, concerned for your children’s well-being. You want to protect them from the language contained in The Grapes of Wrath, you want to protect them from its lewdness. But do you also want to protect them from its messages of hope? Its suggestion that each of us has a moral responsibility to his fellows? Its linguistic beauty? Are all these things to be thrown away simply because Tom Joad calls Casy a “damn fool”? Because he reckons a one-eyed man is “full a crap”? Because a married couple make love on the back of a truck going to California? You, as parents, have a responsibility to your children. Not to shelter them, but to help them grow, facilitate their understanding. There can be no hurt gained from a discussion with your child on any one of these subjects. The only way exposure to language or lewdness can harm a child is when it comes unguided and unexplained. So allow your children to read these things, to discover them, to ask you questions, and most important, to make their own judgements. They can only grow.

Of course, we are not arguing that every child should read The Grapes of Wrath. It is a complex novel, many-layered and intense, requiring levels of comprehension prepubescent children rarely possess. And by the time children reach the stage of young adulthood, do their parents’ fears really have any basis? They are finding these things out on their own as it is and it could only be better for them to do it with their parents’ guidance. Really, The Grapes of Wrath and similar sources are probably the best ways for your children to make their ways into the real world and shed the innocence of childhood.

The responsibility is on you to help your children understand. Banning the book will do no good, merely harm. Already the waiting list at Kern County’s central library is 600 names long and I promise you it will continue to grow as long as this ban stands. Children will read it in secluded corners, thrust it under the bedcovers as you enter their rooms.

They are not hiding the book; they are hiding the ideas.

We should all know perfectly well by now what happens when authorities decide which ideas are good, which bad. Look around the world. We live in a time swamped by “isms”: Communism, Fascism, Socialism. And what do we in America think of those “isms”? What do we label them in our heads? “Other” and “over there.” It’s nothing to do with us, those few Germans rallying around a Fascist leader. That Italian? He makes the trains run on time, what’s that to do with us? Our nation prides itself on being free of the doctrines that define these isms.  They are our antithesis. We are a republic, a free society, we have the rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, to freedom of assembly, and free speech. We are not like them, those over in Europe forbidding publication and circulation of books, locking men up for what they believe, burning the words of those with whom they don’t agree. But look at yourselves. You’re no different at all. If you were any different, we wouldn’t be here today. It doesn’t matter whether this book is fact or whether it is fiction, whether it is biased, or historically accurate, or any of it. We are entitled to read it because we are American. Because we are a society free from oppression. But ban this book and we lose that fundamental principal which makes us American. Ban this book and we are no different from the Fascists burning books in Berlin today.

And how do we expect our children—the future of our county—to understand what our world, what our nation, faces, if we do not present them with these ideas and let them see for themselves. We must trust them, trust our children to form their own opinions. We cannot shelter them forever. Some day they will have to go out into the real world and realize the truth. It is our duty to prepare them for that.

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