Lyle Boren and The Grapes of Wrath (1909-1992)

Powerful and purportedly authentic, John Steinbeck’s renowned novel of Depression-era Oklahoma Dust Bowl victims, The Grapes of Wrath, has been enshrined by the American academic establishment in both its literary and historical canons. Enshrined with it has been a national image of Oklahomans as a backward, uneducated people, in need of deliverance from a heartless capitalistic society by a wiser, beneficent, distant government—apparently, in Steinbeck’s mind, a socialistic one.


Usually ignored by that same class of academicians have been the eloquent defenders of Oklahoma, where Steinbeck had never been when he wrote the book, who have refuted Steinbeck’s portrayal of the state, its people, its country, and their predominant philosophies, often with power and conviction. Legendary historian Angie Debo, for instance, denounced the book as “rooted in nowhere.”


Foremost in their ranks stood Congressman Lyle Boren of Seminole, the youngest (25 years old) person ever elected to the U. S. House of Representatives. He also fathered future Oklahoma Governor, Senator, and University of Oklahoma President David Boren. The following is an excerpt from the elder Boren’s memorable House speech on January 10, 1940.

 

Mr. Speaker, my colleagues, considerable has been said in the cloakrooms, in the press, and in various reviews about a book entitled The Grapes of Wrath. I cannot find it possible to let this dirty, lying, filthy manuscript go heralded before the public without a word of challenge or protest.


I would have my colleagues in Congress who are concerning themselves with the fundamental economic problems of America know that Oklahoma, like other states in the Union, has its economic problems, but that no Oklahoma economic problem has been portrayed in the low and vulgar lines of this publication. As a citizen of Oklahoma, I would have it known that I resent, for the great state of Oklahoma, the implications in that book.


I stand before you today as an example, in my judgment, of the average son of the tenant farmer of America. If I have in any way done more in the sense of personal accomplishment than the average son of the tenant farmer of Oklahoma, it has been a matter of circumstance, and I know of a surety that the heart and brain and character of the average tenant farmer of Oklahoma cannot be surpassed and probably not equaled by any other group in the world. Today I stand before this body as a son of a tenant farmer, labeled by John Steinbeck as an “Okie.” For myself, for my dad and my mother, whose hair is silvery in the service of building the state of Oklahoma, and whose hands are calloused with the toil known by every tenant farmer of Oklahoma, and for every good man and good woman, every fine son and noble daughter of the great, good class of people which this putrid-minded writer labeled as “Okies,” I arise to say to you, my colleagues, and to every honest, fairminded reader in America, that the painting Steinbeck made in his book is a lie, a damnable lie, a black, infernal creation of a twisted, distorted mind. Though I regret that there is a mind in America such as his, let it be a matter of record for all the tenant farmers of America that I have denied this lie for them.


Some have blasphemed the name of Charles Dickens by making comparison between his writing and this. I have no doubt but that Charles Dickens accurately portrayed certain economic conditions in his country and in his time, but this book portrays only John Steinbeck’s unfamiliarity with facts and his complete ignorance of his subject. Let me call to your attention the fact that in the first few pages of his manuscript he had tractors plowing land in the Cookson Hills country where there are not 40 acres practical for tractor cultivation. He had baptisms taking place in the irrigation ditches in country near Sallisaw, Okla., where an irrigation ditch has not run in the history of the world. He took Sallisaw out of the hills of eastern Oklahoma and placed it in the Dust Bowl. His careless disregard for these matters indicated only his complete disregard for the truth. It is certain that he wrote about a country he had never visited and a people with whom he was not acquainted and had never contacted.


I am surprised that any preacher in America could find a word of commendation for a book which brings such malicious vulgarity to the door of the church. Let me ask you, and every man of mind and character in America, if there is one of you who would sanction placing this book in the hands of your young daughter?


Let it be to the eternal credit of the Postal Service of the United States that they have banned its obscenity from the mails.


I have worked in the cotton fields, the broomcorn fields, and the wheat fields in almost every area of the state of Oklahoma, yet there is not one thing in the book which would remind me of the thought, the action, or the conditions of the people and the places I have known….Take the vulgarity out of the book and it would be blank from cover to cover. It is painful to me to further charge that if you take the obscene language out, its author could not sell a copy.


The grapes of wrath that John Steinbeck would gather in a world of truth and right would press for him only the bitter drink of just condemnation and isolation for his unclean mind.


Mr. Speaker, let it be a matter of record that the English language does not hold vituperative contents sufficient for me to pronounce completely the just condemnation of this man and his book. The lies that he has written he cannot recall; the words he has put into the mouth of those people will whisper eternally in his ear and haunt his wretched soul as the degraded creations of his hallucinations in filth and mire.

 

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Oklahomans Vol 2 :

Statehood - 2020s

which can be purchased HERE.


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