A month after The Grapes of Wrath was published in April 1939 it stood as the No. 1 best seller in the United States and sold 429,000 copies in a year. "But the book brought controversy as well as success. Detractors accused the author of everything from harboring communist sympathies to exaggeration of the conditions in migrant camps." (See NPR's Present at the Creation.) California growers felt that Steinbeck had not accurately portrayed their efforts to help the migrant workers and denounced the book as "a damnable lie, a black infernal creation of a twisted, distorted mind." In Kern County, California, where part of the novel was set, the board of supervisors voted on August 21, 1939 to ban the book from the county's libraries and schools. A copy of the book was burned in Bakersfield, the county seat.
Author Rick Wartzman explores and analyzes these events in his book, Obscene in the Extreme: The Burning and Banning of John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath. In his review of the book, Cornell Professor of American Studies, Glenn C. Altschuler writes:
Wartzman's vivid account brings to life the cast of characters in the censorship controversy. Petitioning to rescind the ban introduced by Supervisor Stanley Abel, the "gruff, stubborn, thick-necked" Ku Klux Klan member, were his brothers, Lindley and Ralph, both of them members of the American Civil Liberties Union. Joining them was Kern County librarian Gretchen Kneif...[who] reminded board members that "Ideas don't die because a book is forbidden reading." She then offered up her inventory of 48 copies of The Grapes of Wrath to libraries throughout the state.
Despite California's relatively generous relief policies and the national exposure that Steinbeck brought to the situation, the plight of the "Okies" continued until the nation's economy recovered during World War II.
The Grapes of Wrath remained banned in Kern County until January 1941.