History IS made of small moments. The big ones matter, too, of course -- the wars, the famines, the epidemics that define eras. But the events that fall outside those tethering moments can tell us just as much, if not more, about a time and a place, as Rick Wartzman makes abundantly clear in his new work exploring a single local political issue facing the Kern County Board of Supervisors in 1939.
The issue was “that damnable book,” John Steinbeck’s “The Grapes of Wrath,” which Kern County’s political and business elite believed had held them and, by extension, California’s entire Central Valley up to national scorn and mockery.
Steinbeck’s book was an indictment. Propelled by an undercurrent of social realism, he novelized the inexorable flow of misery from Oklahoma and other Dust Bowl states to a promised land that had, in fact, run out of promises. Homeless families were living under bridges as farm owners played their hunger into profits, using the surplus labor to ratchet wages down a few more pennies.
In these current times of bubbles and bursts, foreclosed-upon homes and entire industries (newspapers among them) confronting their own mortality, it’s good to have a fresh history such as this to remind us of what has gone on before, and to assure that the times will indeed change -- eventually.
Wartzman, a former Los Angeles Times editor and columnist (full disclosure: I never met or worked with him), spent four years chasing this history, a journey that began with the story of a photograph he stumbled across while researching “The King of California: J.G. Boswell and the Making of a Secret American Empire” (written with Mark Arax).
The photo was of W.B. “Bill” Camp, a legend in Central Valley agriculture, and another man as they watched one of Camp’s farmworkers toss a burning copy of “The Grapes of Wrath” into a small trash can on a Bakersfield sidewalk. Wartzman builds out from that image to tell the story of Gretchen Knief, the county librarian, and the decision by her bosses -- the Kern County Board of Supervisors -- to ban “The Grapes of Wrath.” But it becomes clear early on that Wartzman isn’t going to spend a lot of time on Knief. This, ultimately, is a book about a specific time in a specific swath of California, and it embraces a wide and sometimes confusing array of characters. As a result, the side stories are the most fascinating, such as the ersatz proxy war during a 1938 cotton worker strike between federal New Dealers and state officials.
During that clash, the feds extended cash and food through various programs to striking farmworkers after the State Relief Administration declared, contrary to the obvious, that there was no strike. The farm owners blamed the troubles on outside agitators (an old friend once quipped during a different strike that “one man’s ‘outside agitator’ is another man’s ‘community supporter’ ”). The farm owners also accused the federal government of abetting “paid agents of the Communist Party,” as Camp put it, by giving them basic sustenance. If the feds would just stop feeding the striking workers they’d go away. The Farm Security Administration’s Jonathan Garst replied: “You cannot settle [the strike] by saying that you either starve or you go to work. That is worse than war.”
Then there’s the 1936 “Bum Blockade” in which Los Angeles sent 136 police officers to patrol the state’s borders with Oregon, Nevada and Arizona. Their mission: Keep the bums out; hitchhikers and rail-riders were to be arrested; migrants in cars were to be turned around.
Songwriter Woody Guthrie encountered the blockade and wrote his “Do Re Mi” song about it, with the lines: “California is a Garden of Eden, a paradise to live in or see; but believe it or not, you won’t find it so hot if you ain’t got the do re mi.”
It’s tempting to match those efforts with the current border fence project to keep the impoverished of another era from migrating to find better lives. A bit of apples and oranges, to be sure, since the current project is aimed at keeping out noncitizens. But both illustrate the questionable efficacy of trying to stop a human tide. As in nature, the tide wins eventually.
In the Central Valleys of the 1930s, the tide came in ebbs and flows, and for many people has been reduced to emblematic photos, particularly those of Dorothea Lange, and Hollywood depictions (nothing says “Great Depression” like a close-up of Henry Fonda’s Tom Joad). Wartzman puts some life on those images -- including Florence Thompson, the woman in Lange’s famous “Migrant Mother” photograph, whose family, he reports, “found something embarrassing about the picture.” The reality was that Thompson, though in and out of need during those years, was also a union activist and not as forlorn as the photograph portrayed her.
“Obscene in the Extreme” meanders through such side stories, and it lacks the sense of urgency and drama of, say, “The Worst Hard Time: The Untold Story of Those Who Survived the Great American Dust Bowl,” Timothy Egan’s 2006 National Book Award-winning depiction of the lives of those who stayed behind. But Wartzman does offer a skillfully drawn reminder of the human toll of deep poverty, intolerance and the unfettered whims of those who control the purse strings.
The burning of “The Grapes of Wrath” wasn’t that big of a deal in and of itself. But it was a symbol of the times, exposing the passions and delusions of the era. And for Wartzman, it is an invitation to explore a formative event in the evolution of California and, indeed, of the nation as a whole.