Grapes of Wrath

Steinbeck, John. Autograph manuscript of The Grapes of Wrath. No date. 165 pp

In a 1936 postcard to his friend Wilbur Needham, John Steinbeck described his classic novel Grapes of Wrath, set during the Great Depression, as "probably lousy." Since the book's publication in 1939, many censors have agreed with Steinbeck's assessment--but likely for different reasons. One of the most frequently challenged books in American history, Grapes of Wrath has been accused of "indecency" and "obscenity." It has been attacked for being "ungodly," for presenting women badly, and for portraying life "bestially." Emotions have run so high that on November 15, 1939, five out of nine library board members in East St. Louis, Illnois, voted to burn copies of the book on the library steps, a vote that was later rescinded. The book has been challenged all over America--in North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Vermont, Iowa, New York, Alabama, and California.

Steinbeck photo

Photograph of John Steinbeck, inscribed to Marshall Bear. No date.

Published before the Civil War, Stowe's epic indictment of slavery, Uncle Tom's Cabin, fed the northern Abolitionist cause and spurred many debates about slaveholding and American society as a whole. It threatened an American way of life and subsequently was suppressed. When it was first published in 1852, Uncle Tom's Cabin was condemned throughout the South. Instances of public burnings were reported; University of Virginia students may even have burned copies on the Lawn.

Steinbeck postcard

Autograph postcard, signed, from John Steinbeck to Wilbur Needham. 6 August 1936.

From the Clifton Waller Barrett of American Literature.

In later years, African Americans have objected to the book, labeling it "racist" and "a caricature of reality." These objections to the portrayal of African Americans have also been leveled against The Adventures of Huckleberry Finnand To Kill a Mockingbird.

Like Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin, Mark Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn has a long history of censorship. The book, a coming-of-age story about a young boy who runs away, accompanied by a slave, has caught the notice of the censors for a variety of reasons. When first published in 1884, the work was attacked as "irreverent," exhibiting "a very low grade of morality." To these criticisms, Twain responded: "That will sell 25,000 copies for us for sure." The 1885 salesman's dummy of Huckleberry Finn contained a naughty picture, and the plate was suppressed. In later years, Twain's use of the term "nigger" has been found offensive, and the novel has been challenged repeatedly throughout the 1990s.

Uncle Tom's Cabin

Stowe, Harriet Beecher. Uncle Tom's Cabin, or, Life among the Lowly. Vol. 1. Boston: Jewett, 1852.

From the Clifton Waller Barrett Library of American Literature.

Should objectionable passages be used as a point of discussion for young readers or should children always be protected from reading racial slurs?


Uncle Tom's Cabin [jigsaw puzzle]. No date.

From the Paul Mellon Bequest




Salesman's dummy

Twain, Mark. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (Tom Sawyer's Comrade). 2 vols. New York: Webster, 1885. Salesman's dummy.

From the Clifton Waller Barrett Library of American Literature