Lyle Boren's Speech
Congressman Lyle Boren was a well-known figure in Oklahoma politics. He was deeply dissatisfied with The Grapes of Wrath because he felt the novel misconstrued the lives and personalities of tenant farmers. Steinbeck’s portrayal of the Joad family offended Boren, who came from a family of farmers. Boren also took issue with the term “Okie,” which referred not only to Oklahomans but also to other migrants from the Dust Bowl. He criticized the vulgarity of Steinbeck’s language, too. In January of 1940, Boren gave a speech on The Grapes of Wrath, condemning the novel for many reasons:
Today I stand before you as the son of a tenant farmer, labeled by John Steinbeck as an “Okie.” For myself, 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…which this putrid-minded writer labeled as “Okies,” I arise to say to you, my colleagues, and to every honest, square-minded reader in America, that the painting Steinbeck made in this book is a lie, a damnable lie, a black, infernal creation of a twisted distorted mind…Some have said this book exposes a condition and a character of people, but the truth is this book exposes nothing but the total depravity, vulgarity, and degraded mentality of the author... Take the vulgarity out of this 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.
Boren was not the only politician to have strong feelings toward The Grapes of Wrath. After Boren made his remarks to Congress, Bob Barker, Texas’s Secretary of State, sent him a letter showing appreciation for Boren’s speech. Secretary Barker expressed not only his antipathy for The Grapes of Wrath but also for Steinbeck as a writer and a person. Barker shared a letter that he had penned to a former governor:
…A creature like the author of The Grape of Wrath should be compelled to take his people and with him live in just such surroundings as he has made [The] Grapes of Wrath as being true for the rest of his miserable existence…If we are to have any more writers of the John Steinbeck type, let us hope that they will be brought into this world deaf, dumb, blind, paralyzed and without a mind.
Twelve-year-old Gwendolyn Carpenter, a resident of Ada, Oklahoma, also expressed her frustration, writing:
I think that people who travel in Oklahoma will find that the condition portrayed in this book doesn’t exist, and having been in California I think the moral conditions of Oklahoma are 100% above the moral conditions of those of the state of California. Having visited California, I find that the majority of the people known nothing what-so-ever about Oklahoma and the people of the great Mid-Western States.
C.W. Manar, a resident of McAlester in the real estate business, expressed a different take on the novel:
…It sounds big for a man to state that he is the son of a tenant farmer and be a member of Congress, but I wish to call your attention to the fact that Congress does not have enough room for every son of [a] tenant farmer to have a seat there…I came to this country the son of a homestead farmer in Mississippi and helped take this Country away from the Indians…I have dealt with the tenant farmer in Oklahoma for 30 years and know of my personal knowledge that “The Grapes of Wrath” does not picture anything any worse than what some of the people of this State is going through and has gone through, if you think it does or has, come down and I will show you…If we can get a few more “Grapes of Wrath” before the public and let them know how the majority live, then Oklahoma would not have over 60% of her families living on a rented farm.
Commenting on Manar’s letter, Boren said that he agreed with Steinbeck’s depiction of Oklahoma’s economic crisis, but not with the moral bankruptcy of the novel’s characters.
Barker, Bob. “Letter to Lyle Boren.” 23 January 1940. Lyle Boren Papers. Carl Albert Center, University of Oklahoma, Norman.
Boren, Lyle. “The Grapes of Wrath.” 10 January 1940. Lyle Boren Papers. Carl Albert Center, University of Oklahoma, Norman.
Carpenter, Gwendolyn. “Letter to Lyle Boren.” 24 January 1940. Lyle Boren Papers. Carl Albert Center, University of Oklahoma, Norman.
Manar, C.W. “Letter to Lyle Boren.” 12 March 1940. Lyle Boren Papers. Carl Albert Center, University of Oklahoma, Norman.