Based on a totally unscientific survey – meaning I asked a class of 25 for a show of hands – I learned that The Grapes of Wrath is not assigned as broadly as I assumed. I didn't think it was possible to go to high school in the United States without reading it (or at least being assigned to read it). It turns out that in my non-random sample of 25, no more than three or four had read it previously. Don't worry, I'm fixing that. For this small group, anyway.

What exactly were they assigned, I asked? According to the Center for Learning and Teaching Literature, the ten most assigned books do not include The Grapes. The list also omits some of the other more socially- or politically-oriented classics like 1984, Brave New World, The Jungle, and a bunch of other things that I assumed were read commonly. What is well represented is relatively inoffensive fare (Romeo & Juliet, To Kill a Mockingbird, Hamlet, etc.) These are of course excellent choices. They are somewhat light on heavier social and political themes, though.

States and school districts vary widely in how they choose required readings. And for all I know, The Grapes of Wrath could be somewhere in the top 20-30 assigned books and therefore still pretty popular. Groups like school boards tend toward the least offensive choices when making decisions; it's a product of committee thinking. Perhaps the novel just isn't as worthy and popular as I thought. I could just be biased or delusional. Is is difficult, however, to imagine that the exclusion of a book about how our economy systematically generates and thrives on a new form of serfdom is a complete coincidence.

I suppose it wouldn't do to have the kids learn that if you can create a large enough class of desperately poor people and 10,000 show up for 100 job openings, you can get people to work for peanuts. Or that it's necessary to denigrate the underclass by calling them dirty, shiftless, thieving degenerates in order to maintain social power. Or that any man who wants thirty cents when they're paying twenty-five is a goddamn Red. No, that won't do at all.

Admittedly I don't know anything about the process of choosing curricular materials at the K-12 level. Our homework – and this includes me – is to research and determine how reading lists are chosen in our local school district. It's something well worth weighing in on if possible.

54 thoughts on “RED AGITATORS”

  • For all of my rabid devotion to Shakespeare, the lists you linked to are disturbing to me. Thank God HUCKLEBERRY FINN is up there, for a variety of essential reasons ("black people are human beings," "the white power structure is mostly there to enable the worst forms of human behavior," etc.), but, call me jingoistic, but I'd like there to be more American literature in American high schools. Not because American Lit is "better" than that of any other culture (it isn't), but because, I dunno, literature is often best when it awakens the imagination to the relevancy of the relevant.

    Yeah, students should read everything that's on that list. And a whole hell of a lot that isn't. But Steinbeck, Wright, Chopin–though none of these are among my favorite authors, all of them speak to the relevance of the existence of people who are not served well by the American vision of society–and who goddamned well should be. (I frequently tell my students that if they want to understand why and how intractably fucked up race-relations are in the U.S., they can learn all they need to know by reading two books: ABSALOM, ABSALOM and INVISIBLE MAN. Some might add THE COLOR PURPLE, but I consider Alice Walker highly overrated. She's no Charlotte Perkins Gilman, that's for sure. But I digress.)

    My sense of how the texts are "chosen" is pretty simple: They're not. The Canon has been in place for over 100 years, and while titles are grudgingly added to it from time to time, it's not going to budge on the Standards because the parents approve of Shakespeare and Hawthorne, and the schools have already cut sweetheart deals with the publishers, and the teachers are either too old, too tired, or too overwhelmed by an insane workload to lobby for change against a tide of know-nothings on the bureaucratic or parental level.

    So, yeah–you look at those lists, and you realize that Harper Lee is, in many cases, the most recent of those authors, and you realize that nobody has revisited those lists in forever. (I suspect that if books *are* selected, they are chosen on the basis of "available movie versions," so that the kids will at least be able to watch the plot, if not fathom the language thereof.)

    Great, now I'm depressed. Hello, Jack Daniels, whatcha got to show me tonight?

  • A lot of high schools split their curriculum between British and American lit. So you've got competing classics, so to speak.

    I made it through high school without reading Steinbeck. Read _Of Mice And Men_ in college though.

    I wouldn't worry as much about _Grapes_ though. Kids will not relate to dirt-poor farmers these days.

    "Why don't they just move to the city and get office jobs?"

    Now _1984_, if a high school English teacher can't raise some awareness about 2013 with that book they should be fired.

  • The good news is that Grapes of Wrath is on the Common Core reading list. (it's a long document, but gives a good overview of the book list from k-12)

    Of course, the Common Core is also emphasizing informational text over literature–because we need to train kids to follow directions, and not to think. So, that's a possible downside.

  • My son is a HS senior currently taking AP Lit and Comp. During the year, they will read 5 books. The first was to come from one of the "Best" lists–MLA, American Library Association, etc. I suggested that he read Catch 22 (#7 on MLA's Board List). Grapes of Wrath is #10. Missed it by that much.

    They just read One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest.

    But if you want your head to explode, here's the ten top books on the MLA's Reader's List:

    1. ATLAS SHRUGGED by Ayn Rand
    2. THE FOUNTAINHEAD by Ayn Rand
    3. BATTLEFIELD EARTH by L. Ron Hubbard
    4. THE LORD OF THE RINGS by J.R.R. Tolkien
    5. TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD by Harper Lee
    6. 1984 by George Orwell
    7. ANTHEM by Ayn Rand
    8. WE THE LIVING by Ayn Rand
    9. MISSION EARTH by L. Ron Hubbard
    10. FEAR by L. Ron Hubbard

    Nice the way 1984 got sandwiched in between 4 by Ayn Rand and 3 by L. Ron Hubbard.

  • What is well represented is relatively inoffensive fare (Romeo & Juliet, To Kill a Mockingbird, Hamlet, etc.) These are of course excellent choices. They are somewhat light on heavier social and political themes, though.

    I think that's being unfair to To Kill A Mockingbird. Bias against black people in the US judicial system is still highly relevant. But I'll agree it doesn't have anything much to say about economic injustice.

  • @Rosies Dad: I hope that was an instance of poll-fixing by fans of Ayn Rand and L Ron Hubbard. The MLA may have been unwise enough to base the "Reader's List" on an open Internet poll.

  • Undesirable Element says:

    7th Grade English teacher. I have some experience in these matters.

    True, books are very hard to get into and out of the curriculum. The Call of the Wild is currently the only book in the 7th Grade English curriculum in my district. I'd love to add something else (or offer another option), but that would require the purchase of at least 135 copies of whatever book I'd want to teach.

    Additionally, variety is strongly emphasized. "Of Mice and Men" and "Travels with Charley," two other Steinbeck classics, are already in our curriculum. (Although TWC could be dropped and I wouldn't really shed a tear.) VERY few authors get more than a book or two in a curriculum (with the exception of Shakespeare and maybe Hemingway). Sadly, I think OMAM is chosen over TGOW simply because it's shorter. It allows for more variety in reading. Personally, I prefer teaching depth to breadth, but I rarely get to make the big decisions.

    Thirdly, there's not a big push to add MORE books by old dead white males to a curriculum. I include myself in that group. I love me some Grapes of Wrath, but I'd be even more interested in showing that quality literature can come from persons of color, women, gay people, indiginous peoples, etc. High school literature curricula are far too whitewashed for my liking.

  • My kids are in high school and they have/will read Grapes. They're in the AP track, as are over half of the kids in English. I don't think they teach it in regular English. They do teach Fahrenheit 451 and Mockinbird. Both of which could be seen as controversial…….50 years ago. If you look at most high school reading lists you would swear that they haven't written any books in, well, those fifty years. That's my biggest beef with the books, they're so out of date, the same stuff I read. My son had to read Catcher in the Rye as a summer project, he hated it, and when I was talking to him about it it was clear that he really couldn't relate to it, couldn't understand Caulfield at all. But to be honest, they don't read them anyway. They Spark Note everything.

  • I read Steinbeck in the 1970s, and I had Lord of the Flies every. stinkin' year from 6th through 12th grade. My son, who just graduated high school last year, had a choice of 1984 *or* Animal Farm and a choice of Shakespeare selections. The MLA's reader list is quite frankly terrifying.

  • @Talisker: I'm sure it was. I have no idea why they would even post that list because most of the top 10 is a joke, especially when compared with the Board list.

  • I agree with Dryden about the staid, dated quality of the lists. (And why Of Mice and Men all over the place? Of slightly more recent authors I might urge consideration of

    "China Men" and/or "The Woman Warrior" by Maxine Hong Kingston
    "Lost in the City," interlinked short stories by Edward P. Jones

    It didn't occur to me that these choices would also add a "multicultural" touch, but they would. I'd have to vet them to be sure they were age-appropriate, etc. but these three were certainly well-written, American, both memorable and consciousness-raising.

    I'm sure there are more, but these off the top of my head.

  • AP World Literature in a Catholic high school in 2002-03 had us reading this, such as I can remember 10 years later, in no particular order:

    1. All Quiet on the Western Front
    2. Invisible Man
    3. Moby Dick
    4. Hamlet
    5. Oedipus Rex
    6. Huck Finn
    7. Fahrenheit 451 (my teacher's first name was also Guy)
    8. Crime and Punishment
    9. Heart of Darkness
    10. Native Son

    In other classes throughout middle and high school, we read Lord of the Flies and Night (both of those in religion class, actually), Animal Farm, Of Mice and Men, The Giver, The Outsiders, Flowers for Algernon, To Kill A Mockingbird, The Little Prince, The Pearl, and The Stranger. I actually ended up reading Fountainhead my junior year for some kind of MLA contest, thinking "oh this will be an interesting book about architects!"

    You might think it's a good idea to make high school students read this many books. And a lot of them I did read! But really what having them read ten sizeable novels on a schedule does is introduces them to Spark Notes and skimming. I think I actually read every word of four of the novels in my numbered list (I did actually read all the ones in the previous paragraph, but I'm somewhat strange). In retrospect, though, I'm glad we had some actually politically interesting books.

  • The MLA list just freaked me out completely. I hope to God it was formed by open Internet poll, and that got bombed by assholes and Scientologists voting for Rand and Hubbard. Because, otherwise, dear God. What a mess.

  • If it's any consolation, back in the early-mid 70's, we didn't have to read "Grapes of Wrath," either – though we did see the great movie in class.
    The only Steinbeck that we read, was "The Red Pony."
    And, at the time, my HS was rated in the top 5 in NY State.

    I had a GREAT HS teacher for 2 years in Honors English – Mr. Kennedy (who was as gay, as gay could be – but I loved him, as did most students. He wore the most outrageous ties – and in the 70's, outrageous ties were the norm, so he had to go a ways to stand out). He was just so enthusiastic about literature – AND grammar – that his enthusiasm rubbed off on us.

    We did read a lot of Orwell and Shakespeare.
    And also, in my senior year, "Jude the Obscure," by Thomas Hardy. Any book where a woman throws a pig's dick at a guy, gets a HS boys attention. And if you can develop empathy for that poor dead male pig and his detached pizzler, I think it's a lasting life's-lesson for teenage boys.
    I remember one student who didn't understand what was thrown at Jude, and this teacher, Mr. Navor, an older gentleman (probably in his late 60's to early-mid 70's) who was retiring at the end of the year, tried to come up with some synonym for "pizzler" that wouldn't get him in trouble, but the dim student didn't understand any of the ones he tried, until the frustrated old teacher practically screamed "DICK! PENIS!! DICK! DICK!! DICK!!! Now do you get it?!?!?!"
    I still crack up at that, just thinking about it!

    Most of the great works of literature that I've read, I read on my own, and weren't assigned to me in HS or College.
    I've also read a lot of crap.
    If you go to a library or bookstore, you quickly discover that, while there are a lot of "writers" making a living at writing books, there a very few "authors."

    And I didn't need anyone telling me how awful Ayn Rand's books were, AND, her writing style was – I never had a shirt as stiff as her writing, no matter how much extra-starch I asked the dry cleaners for.
    I read "The Fountainhead" and 'Atlas Shrugged" the summer after I finished college, because a lot of people were talking about those books at the beginning of the Reagan Era.
    I knew big trouble was brewing, and wanted to read what the people I loathed, admired. I knew that big trouble was brewing without Rand, but she was the extra layer of feces, on the coming shit sandwich, I felt.

    Rand's writing is criminal.
    The plots are childish, and to call her characters two-dimensional, is an insult to characters in cheap paperback romance novels, the world over.

    It says something when you decide to re-read some of Dostoevsky's novels, to cheer yourself up.

  • Quickly weighing in to say that that horrible list is NOT FROM THE MLA. The MLA is the Modern Language Association, which is the professional organization for college and university teachers and researchers of English and the foreign and classical languages. The list above is the on-line reader-chosen list of the top 100 novels for Modern Library, a prestigious publishing house that has published a large number of classics. As someone suggested, this was an infamous case of an on-line poll reflecting not a democratic sampling, but rather, the opinions of those who could shout and scream the loudest. Shockingly, that was the right wing, and in this case, a minute population so disproportionately represented on the internet that they often convince themselves that they are a majority of the world: science fiction-loving, Ayn Rand-fanatic libertarians. It will shock, shock you to learn that as you continue to scroll down that list, Robert Heinlein fills much of the rest of it. Yes, the Randians got together in advance and organized to rig the vote, so it's merely a monument to their own craziness, and doesn't reflect anything about the average reader.

    I'll just say that this is yet another reason why the contemporary corporate approach to higher education is so misguided—students are NOT consumers, and changing requirements and syllabi to suit their "market-driven" whims is insanely irresponsible. If you give the people what they want, it will always, always turn out to be beer and not education. If you ask the people what they want, some supernerd will pause 2112 long enough to code a program to register 40 billion votes for Ayn Rand, and that's what we'll be stuck reading for a generation.

  • Schools usually pick reading lists based on name recognition and ease of material. For example back in my day we read Steinbeck and Shakespeare. Two household names. Easy enough themes in MacBeth and Grapes of Wrath. No complex characters. Also to Kill a Mockingbird because of the theme "racism is bad" and the teacher got to show the movie afterwards.

    Maybe we should do away with reading lists in high school altogether? Or assign things that will be useful in college, like Thucydides.

  • Just to put your minds at ease a bit, that reader-voted top-100 list with 7 out of the 10 spots given to Ayn Rand and L Ron Hubbard was compiled not by the Modern Language Association (MLA) but by "Modern Library," a Random House imprint.

    (It's also from 1998, not that 15 years means much for canon shifts.)

  • guttedleafsfan says:

    Not to pile on the misery, but the Ayn Rand |Institute offers thousands of free Rand books to cash-strapped schools every year. And the schools take them, and they become assigned reading.

  • I was assigned The Grapes of Wrath in the summer between 10th and 11th grade (along with Walden, The Fucking Scarlet Fucking Letter, Moby Dick, Huck Finn, and some other shit).

    I loved it, because, until that point, NO ONE HAD EVER TOLD ME ABOUT THAT CHAPTER IN AMERICAN HISTORY. Holy shit–this huge internal displacement due to human effects, environmental factors, and good old-fashioned fuck-the-poor capitalism, and no teacher had ever bothered mentioning it before?

    That's fucked up.

  • I had to read Grapes in high school for AP English. It all went sailing right over my head except for that one point when I noticed the Springsteen line.

    It wasn't until after I'd spent a couple of years working in construction that I re-read it and the understanding crashed over me like a tidal wave.

    High school may not be the appropriate avenue for some books. Life experience and the ability to relate are somewhat important.

    Let's start a congressional reading list.

  • My senior year we read Anna Karenina, Madame Bovary, and the Count of Monte Cristo (still one of my favorite books). It was obviously geared toward World Lit. Junior year was American; we read Main Street, Of Mice and Men, The Great Gatsby, The Sun Also Rises, and lots of short stories, including a good deal of Flannery O'Connor, whom I still love. I'm fairly sure there were others in there too, but I can't recall them.

    I still just do not get The Great Gatsby. I read it in high school and read it again as an adult and have never understood its popularity.

    I didn't read Grapes of Wrath or The Jungle until college.

  • Jon Says – A congressional reading list. Hmm…

    So many to choose from. Machiavelli's The Prince perhaps. "A book more discussed than read.", is how I've heard it described. I've read it only recently. No, he doesn't say the end justifies the means.

    An interesting book I'm trying to get my daughter and 10th grade grand-daughter to read is, "Alif the Unseen". Interesting insights into Islam.

    So many to choose from…

  • I wouldn't be surprised to learn that "if we have kids read a book that's even remotely challenging, parents will start screaming at the school board to ban it" is one of the top concerns when it comes to determining the assigned reading.

    I mean, just in the last few days, there's been a swarm of news stories about a county in North Carolina that decided to ban Ralph Ellison's "Invisible Man" from its schools after one parent complained. One of the school board members even "didn’t find any literary value" in the novel.

    These are the people deciding what students have to read. No wonder they wind up hating books.

  • Relate the fate of Paris in Romeo and Juliet to the concept of collateral damage on both a small and large sacle in contemporary life.

  • I always felt I was ahead of my class back in high school when it came to reading. Most of those kids back then were probably still reading goosebumps books and the like. At the time we were given a list of books to read, I recall noticing Ender's Game being on the list, of which I was half-way through reading right at that moment.

    My dad has an impressive library and had always encouraged me to read some good books he loved and still loves. However, I wasn't quite a "classic" reader, and Wrath is one I cannot say I ever did read or even know what is about,t o this day.

    Mockingbird is, as far as I can recall, one of my favorite books for how it opened my eyes to another culture beyond my (very) white Utah surroundings, and Where the Red Fern Grows may be the only other "classic" that I would call a classic that I can honestly say with a straight face I have read and enjoyed.

    Earlier, someone mentioned a horrible looking reading list comprised of mostly Ayn Rand books sprinkled with some Hubbard and 1984. I admit I haven't read Rand's books yet (and don't intend to ever start), Hubbard's I think are fairly decent books. His Battlefield Earth is one of my (if not my current) favorite books. You have to, of course, ignore his blatant hate for psychology, as well as in the Mission Earth book shown on that list too. But I prefer just to believe that Hubbard just wanted to show a world so utterly corrupt that it's really an alternate universe from our own, and not really what he envisions our world really is.

  • K-12 reading curricula aren't formulated, they are inherited. My mom took the same courses 20 years before I did and had me read them before they were assigned, along with others from her own list, every single year. We even had the same instructor for one of those courses (God rest you, Mr. Colburn) and we had great conversations (thanks, Mum).

    Because I was an AP student, I also got Grapes of Wrath, Crime and Punishment, Billy Budd, Merchant of Venice, Iphigenia at Aulis, the Scarlet Letter, LOTS of poetry, excerpts from modern short fiction (Winesburg Ohio, Dorothy Parker, and the like) and two lit electives. I chose early Brit Lit through Chaucer (and can still recite the first ten lines of the Prologue in Middle English) and Sci Fi (which included a Dune concept art contest for David Lynch's upcoming movie, which I should have added to my guilty pleasures list. It's a bona fide stinkburger.)

    But six years of French got me Baudelaire, Voltaire, Camus, Sartre, Beckett, Le Petit Nicolas, and a blown mind. Thank you, Montana School District #5.

  • theLastMenshevik says:

    In my AP Lit class we read The Grapes of Wrath. It was apparently a hard fight for my teacher to include it on the reading list, as I am from rural, small town, conservative america. My teacher ended up asking us to buy our own copies and she bought ten old paper backs herself so we could read the book; the school refused to buy them for us.

    Also for Shane, I am incredibly surprised you read Main Street. Most people dont even know who Sinclair Lewis is, much less have read him. I read Main Street on my own and it helped me realize how much I hated my home town. Described the petty bullshit and reflexive conservatism almost perfectly.

  • I recently became aware that in some areas, conservatives have been pushing to remove To Kill a Mockingbird from public school reading lists. I found out about this after a conservative friend of mine suggested I read Atlas Shrugged. I told him I had read it and his response was "Oh. I bet your favorite book is TKaM".

    For the life of me, I couldn't figure out why conservatives would associate TKaM with liberalism the same way liberals associate Atlas Shrugged with conservatism. So I Googled. In doing so, I came across conservative org's that were pushing to remove TKaM from public school reading lists. Wow. So my guess is, in highly conservative regions, it's not among books assigned. And of TKaM isn't read there, I'm pretty sure GoW isn't either.

    And as to GoW, I'm glad I didn't read it in high school. I wouldn't have appreciated it for what it is. But once I read it as an undergrad, I was stunned, both in the picture it painted and the fact that like Jude stated above, I was largely unaware of that saga of American history. It wasn't taught in high school and Ken Burns hadn't made his PBS documentary yet.

  • I voluntarily read voraciously back in my school days, which was one of the things that made my life both more tolerable and more tortured, since being seen reading on your own was considered weird in my school. Mostly hard science fiction, with the obligatory-among-nerds Tolkien as well as a few of the "classics" like 1984 and Catcher In the Rye.

    The only book I can remember being forced to read was Dickens' Great Expectations, which I found to be boring as hell and tremendously wordy. I actually suggested during a class discussion that he must have been paid by the word, which the teacher laughed about and said was true and that the book was originally serialized in a magazine. Subsequent "research" on the internet suggests that might not have been the case, at least the paid by the word part.

  • Never read two of the big sociopolitical novels-1984 and Grapes-in high school. We read The Awakening and Tess of the fucking D'Urbervilles though. The latter was especially useless. Had to come to Grapes on my own as an adult

  • Does anyone like The Scarlet Letter? Had to read it at 15 and I still think it's the worst, most boring book I ever read (and I say this as someone who liked Melville at that age too-not that he's anything less than excellent but often considered boring at that age).

  • This is one of the most powerful short works Steinbeck ever wrote about the Great Depression. It should be required reading:

    Starvation Under the Orange Trees
    By John Steinbeck

    “Starvation Under the Orange Trees” was originally published in the Monterey Trader, April 15, 1938. In that year the Simon J. Lubin Society published it in pamphlet form as the eight chapter of Their Blood is Strong.

    The Spring is rich and green in California this year. In the fields the wild grass is ten inches high, and in the orchards and vineyards the grass is deep and nearly ready to be plowed under to enrich the soil. Already the flowers are starting to bloom. Very shortly one of the oil companies will be broadcasting the locations of the wild-flower masses. It is a beautiful spring.

    There has been no war in California, no plague, no bombing of open towns and roads, no shelling of cities. It is a beautiful year. And thousands of families are starving in California. In the county seats the coroners are filling in “malnutrition” in the spaces left for “causes of death.” For some reason, a coroner shrinks from writing “starvation” when a thin child is dead in a tent.

    For it’s in the tents you see along the roads and in the shacks built from dump heap material that the hunger is, and it isn’t malnutrition. It is starvation. Malnutrition means you go without certain food essentials and take a long time to die, but starvation means no food at all. The green grass spreading right into the tent doorways and the orange trees are loaded. In the cotton fields, a few wisps of the old crop cling to the black stems. But the people who picked the cotton, and cut the peaches and apricots, who crawled all day in the rows of lettuce and beans are hungry. The men who harvested the crops of California, the women and girls who stood all day and half the night in the canneries, are starving.

    It was so two years ago in Nipomo, it is so now, it will continue to be so until the rich produce of California can be grown and harvested on some other basis than that of stupidity and greed.

    What is to be done about it? The Federal Government is trying to feed and give direct relief, but it is difficult to do quickly for there are forms to fill out, questions to ask, for fear someone who isn’t actually starving may get something. The state relief organizations are trying to send those who haven’t been in the state for a year back to the states they came from. The Associated Farmers, which presumes to speak for the farms of California and which is made up of such earth stained toilers as chain banks, public utilities, railroad companies and those huge corporations called land companies, this financial organization in the face of the crisis is conducting Americanism meetings and bawling about reds and foreign agitators. It has been invariably true in the past that when such a close knit financial group as the Associated Farmers becomes excited about our ancient liberties and foreign agitators, some one is about to lose something.

    A wage cut has invariably followed such a campaign of pure Americanism. And of course any resentment of such a wage cut is set down as the work of foreign agitators. Anyway that is the Associated Farmers contribution to the hunger of the men and women who harvest their crops.

    The small farmers, who do not belong to the Associated Farmers and cannot make the use of the slop chest, are helpless to do anything about it. The little store keepers at cross roads and in small towns have carried the accounts of the working people until they are near to bankruptcy.

    And there are one thousand families in Tulare County, and two thousand families in Kings, fifteen hundred families in Kern, and so on. The families average three persons, by the way. With the exception of a little pea picking, there isn’t going to be any work for nearly three months.

    There is sickness in the tents, pneumonia and measles, tuberculosis. Measles in a tent, with no way to protect the eyes, means a child with weakened eyes for life. And there are varied diseases attributable to hunger, rickets and the beginning of pellagra.

    The nurses in the county, and there aren’t one-tenth enough of them, are working their heads off, doing a magnificent job and they can only begin to do the work. The corps includes nurses assigned by the federal and state public health services, school nurses and county health nurses, and a few nurses furnished by the Council of Women for Home Missions, a national church organization. I’ve seen them, red-eyed, weary from far too many hours, and seeming to make no impression in the illness about them.

    It may be of interest to reiterate the reasons why these people are in the state and the reason they must go hungry. They are here because we need them. Before the white American migrants were here, it was the custom in California to import great numbers of Mexicans, Filipinos, Japanese, to keep them segregated, to herd them about like animals, and, if there were any complaints, to deport or to imprison the leaders. This system of labor was a dream of heaven to such employers as those who now fear foreign agitators so much.

    But then the dust and the tractors began displacing the sharecroppers of Oklahoma, Texas, Kansas and Arkansas. Families who had lived for many years on the little “cropper lands” were dispossessed because the land was in the hands of the banks and finance companies, and because these owners found that one man with a tractor could do the work of ten sharecropper families.

    Faced with the question of starving or moving, these dispossessed families came west. To a certain extent they were actuated by advertisements and hand bills distributed by labor contractors from California. It is to the advantage of the corporate farmer to have too much labor, for then wages can be cut. Then people who are hungry will fight each other for a job rather than the employer for a living wage.

    It is possible to make money for food and gasoline for at least nine months of the year if you are quick on the get away, if your wife and children work in the fields. But then the dead three months strikes, and what can you do then? The migrant cannot save anything. It takes everything he can make to feed his family and buy gasoline to go to the next job. If you don’t believe this, go out in the cotton fields next year. Work all day and see if you have made thirty-five cents. A good picker makes more, of course, but you can’t.

    The method of concentrating labor for one of the great crops is this. Handbills are distributed, advertisements are printed. You’ve seen them. Cotton pickers wanted in Bakersfield or Fresno or Imperial Valley. Then all the available migrants rush to the scene. They arrive with no money and little food. The reserve has been spent getting there.

    If wages happen to drop a little, they must take them any way. The moment the crop is picked, the locals begin to try to get rid of the people who have harvested their crops. They want to run them out, move them on.

    The county hospitals are closed to them. They are not eligible to relief. You must be eligible to eat. That particular locality is through with them until another crop comes in.

    It will be remembered that two years ago some so-called agitators were tarred and feathered. The population of migrants left the locality just as the hops were ripe. Then the howling of the locals was terrible to hear. They even tried to get the army and the CCC ordered to pick their crops.

    About the fifteenth of January the dead time sets in. There is no work. First the gasoline gives out. And without gasoline a man cannot go to a job even if he could get one. Then the food goes. And then in the rains, with insufficient food, the children develop colds because the ground in the tents is wet.

    I talked to a man last week who lost two children in ten days with pneumonia. His face was hard and fierce and he didn’t talk much.

    I talked to a girl with a baby and offered her a cigaret. She took two puffs and vomited in the street. She was ashamed. She shouldn’t have tried to smoke, she said, for she hadn’t eaten for two days.

    I heard a man whimpering that the baby was sucking but nothing came out of the breast. I heard a man explain very shyly that his little girl couldn’t go to school because she was too weak to walk to school and besides the school lunches of the other children made her unhappy.

    I heard a man tell in a monotone how he couldn’t get a doctor while his oldest boy died of pneumonia but that a doctor came right away after it was dead. It is easy to get a doctor to look at a corpse, not so easy to get one for a live person. It is easy to get a body buried. A truck comes right out and takes it away. The state is much more interested in how you die than in how you live. The man who was telling about it had just found that out. He didn’t want to believe it.

    Next year the hunger will come again and the year after that and so on until we come out of this coma and realize that our agriculture for all its great produce is a failure.

    If you buy a farm horse and only feed him when you work him, the horse will die. No one complains of the necessity of feeding the horse when he is not working. But we complain about feeding the men and women who work our lands. Is it possible that this state is so stupid, so vicious and so greedy that it cannot feed and clothe the men and women who help to make it the richest area in the world? Must the hunger become anger and the anger fury before anything will be done? Monterey Trader, April 15, 1938

  • I'm de-lurking to confess that I did read The Grapes of Wrath in high school… and it went right over my head. I remember complaining to my teacher about how dumb it was to write an entire chapter about a turtle crossing a road. He just looked at me and shook his head.

    I forgot all about it until maybe ten years (and three jobs and a degree and a bankruptcy and a shit-ton of inescapable student loan debt) later. Someone mentioned the book in passing, and I remembered that turtle. Now I get it.

    I really should read that book again…

  • This is reminding me of a conversation I had with an unhinged parent when I was a community newspaper editor:

    "I want to complain about a book the school is making my son read."

    (Trying to suppress a sigh) "What book is that, ma'am?"

    "Well, I don't remember the name, but it's got 'Animal' in the title."

    (Confused) "Is it a textbook?"

    "No, it's a novel or something. But it's all about animal rights. It's told by this pig, and he goes on and on about how humans are oppressing animals and exploiting them. Why should the school make us feel guilty just because we eat meat? Are we supposed to become vegetarians or something?"

    (More confused) "Told by a pig, did you say?"

    "Yes. He's called Colonel, or something like that."

    (The light dawns) "You mean Major? Are you by any chance talking about 'Animal Farm,' by George Orwell?"

    "Yes, that's it. Do you know it?"

    "Yes. It's a spoof on Communism."

    (Now she's confused) "A what?"

    "A spoof on Communism. It's an allegory. The characters and events in that book correspond to characters and events in the Russian Revolution."

    (Long pause) "They do? Really?"

    "Yes. Ma'am, did you read the whole book or just the first chapter?"

    "Well, just the first chapter, but–"

    "Read the whole thing. It'll soon become clear what I'm talking about."

    I never heard back from her. Either she got my point, or the prospect of reading a whole, entire book was just too much for her.

  • Coming from the library perspective: my impression is that while required reading lists can be static, they are also a reflection of local interest in what constitutes "good" literature. Local interest does not denote consensus, however, and many book challenges are launched against books on required reading lists. Required reading can vary from course to course within a school or school district (e.g., honors English will have different titles than basic English class).

    Anyway, while some titles on high school required reading lists persist decade after decade, you only have to look at reports on book challenges to see some variation can and does exist. Interestingly, both GoW and TKaM continue to be challenged based on allegations of inappropriate content. As recently as 2009, TKaM made ALA's top ten list for that year, clocking in at #4 – beating both The Catcher in the Rye and the Twilight Series!

    More on GoW, TKaM, and challenged classics:

  • I grew up lower middle class household devoid of books.

    Luckily, I lived in a city with a branch library system–our branch was no more than four blocks from our house. I was able to to read through most of the aforementioned works before I was in high school–in a perfectly random way. I'd read about an author and go find his or her books and read most of what they had on the shelves.

    Say what you like about Andrew Carnagie–his libraries were awesome–I wonder if they are used anymore?

    And yes, the Scarlet Frigging Letter still sucks.

  • We didn't read TGOW in high school, though our teacher did screen the film. We read some Shakespeare, The Crucible, Ethan Frome just to torture us, and the one book that's really stuck with me over the years is one that I cannot for the life of me remember the title, but was about a bunch of boys sent to a 'juvie camp' who cooperate to free a buffalo from a canned hunt.

    I thought it was by S.E. Hinton, but nit's not on the list of her books…

  • Davis X. Machina says:

    Does anyone like The Scarlet Letter? Had to read it at 15 and I still think it's the worst, most boring book I ever read…

    It is meaningless to call a book 'boring'. The only real thing you can say is "I was bored when I read this book." The boredom is an attribute of the reader, and not the work.

    And no, I don't like The Scarlet Letter particularly….

  • Thanks for the needlessly pedantic point. I think it was obvious by virtue of the fact that it was clearly my opinion, but ok.

  • guttedleafsfan says:

    I don't know, I think some books are boring – not the ones mentioned here, but quite a lot which even get well reviewed, are just boring however worthy, although they do resonate with some readers. But the collective subjectivity of readers decides that they are boring and do not read them.

  • guttedleafsfan says:

    Glendon Swarthout wrote that? I am probably the only person in the world who read his novel "Where the Boys Are " ( I was 11 and it was great!)

    Liked the movie too when I was old enough to see it.

  • Our 'required' reading list did include The Grapes of Wrath. In fact, it was like three or so pages of book titles and we had to choose a certain amount. Quite a few of us chose The Grapes of Wrath; others didn't. When you have hundreds to pick from that happens. This may be the case with at least some of the students, I know that isn't an uncommon practice.

  • Death Panel Truck says:

    My 12th grade English class was assigned "One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich." Apparently he'd been assigning this book for several years, for as he was passing them out he said with a sigh, "And no, kiddies. This is not "One Day in the Life of Ivan Dumbsonofabitch."

  • My kids all did high school within the last ten years.

    I think that Grapes is not much assigned any more simply because it's _long_. Most of the readers in my kids' classes could and would not sustain attention for a book that long, and would not even pretend to.
    In the face of this, the teachers just assign shorter literature.

  • I'm puzzled by people who consider the Scarlet Letter boring. It speaks to me of the power of telling and living the truth vs the powerlessness and malignancy of living a lie, and about relationships between men and women that are still true in the 21st century, when we imagine that we left all that inequality of power behind.

    While the Grapes of Wrath is often a banned book (and Banned Book week is this week), it is often banned for its treatment of religion, in which Steinbeck's characters reject a monotheistic-type God and conventional morality.

    But in this time of economic transition, it's hard not to feel one with the Okies. I identify a lot with Muley Graves, a guy who is hanging onto his property as a secretive tresspasser, unwanted by the "real" owners, a big eastern bank. It's symbolic of the relationship between me and my job.

  • The Scarlet Letter is like The Crucible for me — the idea is better than the read. The characters all seem like the authors' tools to moralize, and agreeing with the messages doesn't make the experience more engaging. As much as I loved Brave New World and Animal Farm and all, they're practically The Pilgrim's Progress.

    My happiest memory of The Scarlet Letter (aside from the last line — "On a field, sable, the letter A, gules") was my friend Kim's paper, "My Scarlet Letter of Courage", on why she would rather be Hester Prynne than speak in public. Humor drives home lessons better than dry allegory alone. Make 'em laugh and you can make 'em cry.

  • We read "Ethan Frome" in high school. Guh. It was painful. We did get "Othello", with students assigned to parts and reading aloud from our seats. The teacher claimed that, since it was a play, it was meant to be heard, rather than read silently. I got to be Iago. That was much more pleasant than Frome. "Filth! Thou liest!" Most of my reading of the canon took place at home, as I grew up in a book-friendly home. My dad made weekly visits to the public library – not the neighborhood one, the big one downtown – and we kids were usually along to get our own lit fix. I read Moby Dick when I was so young I thought it was about whaling.

  • A lot of people hate on "Ethan Frome," but I never quite got that. It's not what I call entertainment, but there's a constant sexual tension in the book that I found engaging.

    Reading Henry James, OTOH, is like sawing wood. With a rusty saw. Outdoors in freezing weather.

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