Review: John Steinbeck Was Wrong About Oklahoma !

John Steinbeck Was Wrong About Oklahoma !
John Steinbeck Was Wrong About Oklahoma ! by Bob Burke

My rating: 1 of 5 stars

Oklahoma City attorney Bob Burke continues 70+ years of ignorant knee-jerk reaction to John Steinbeck’s masterpiece work of literature. One wonders how Burke could ever win a court case if he prepares his cases like he does the “research” for this short book.

I would like to write a full rebuttal to this ridiculous book, but this isn’t the place for that. Let me just point out that Burke offers only three quotes from Steinbeck’s long novel, each taken out of context and framed to mean something the author did not intend. After that, the book is nothing but a list of Oklahomans who have been successful in their chosen field or made innovations in industry.

Steinbeck never claimed every person in Oklahoma lived, acted, or thought as the Joad family. The story is about that family, not about Burke’s family or the families of his rich friends or the politicians he pals around with. Did F. Scott Fitzgerald claim all New Yorkers were like Tom and Daisy Buchanan? Did Sinclair Lewis claim all Chicagoans were the same as Jurgis Rudkus? Of course not. Burke’s reading of The Grapes of Wrath (if he actually read it) — as well as the comments from former Oklahoma Gov. George Nigh and U.S. Rep. Lyle Boren — only show that they are totally ignorant of what Steinbeck was doing, or of how to write fiction.

Burke claims that Steinbeck called Oklahomans “scum” and then provides a quote from an antagonistic character in the book to support his claim. By that reasoning, Harper Lee is a racist because Bob Ewell called Tom Robinson a “nigger,” right? How about the fact that the Joads persevered despite what Nature and the corrupt, rich landowners of California did to conquer them? How about that Oklahoma spirit Ma Joad exhibited time and time again when she insisted the family help those in need despite the fact they had almost nothing themselves? To a reader who isn’t pandering to politicians and rich friends, it’s easy enough to see that Steinbeck is praising the toughness and generous nature of the Okies.

Burke makes much of the fact that Steinbeck never visited Oklahoma. This is true, he didn’t. There was no need to, however. There were plenty of Oklahomans in California, and Steinbeck spent a great deal of time driving his converted bakery delivery truck from migrant Hoovervilles to federal government camps interviewing people about where they’d come from and what they’d experienced.

Burke claims that Steinbeck says that all the poor, ignorant hick migrant workers were from Oklahoma. Absolutely not true. Steinbeck not only makes mention of Texies and Arkies, but the family the Joads team up with for most of their journey along Rt. 66 is from Kansas, and there is much discussion about how Kansans are different than Oklahomans. Did Burke even read The Grapes of Wrath? It appears more and more doubtful.

Burke relays how the idiot Nigh managed to get the State Legislature to revoke an invitation to have Steinbeck speak in Oklahoma as if censorship and ignorance should be a badge of honor. He praises Boren for condemning the novel on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives, and then declaring the book obscene so that it could not be delivered via U.S. Mail. I’ll take the honest, hard-working, fair-minded Joads over these close-minded, ignorant politicians any day of the week.

In Nigh’s introduction to this ridiculous piece of tripe the former governor and university president tells how a high ranking Chinese businessman said all he knew about Oklahoma in the 1950s was what he’d read in The Grapes of Wrath. Nigh does not go on to say what the man’s impression of Oklahomans was based on that reading. But in an interesting twist, Burke closes his book with a story about how Nigh managed to change the state song to the title song of Rodger and Hammerstein’s musical Oklahoma. Well, those two “New York Jews” as he calls them never visited the state, but I guess that’s okay because Nigh liked the song. But in a further bit of irony, that play/musical/song has probably done more to damage Oklahoma’s image than Steinbeck ever did. I’ve met numerous people from other states who seem to think we still ride to town on horseback in the 21st century and that everyone here lives on a farm.

Finally, Steinbeck’s novel won the Pulitzer Prize. It was written after he did extensive research on the migrant situation for a series of newspaper articles collectively called “The Harvest Gypsies.” His novel was published by one of the world’s leading publishers. Burke’s lame attempt to show off his knowledge of Oklahomans who have excelled (almost all after the Dust Bowl, by the way) or his personal connections was published by a micro press run by the Oklahoma Heritage Association, an organization of which he was a director at the time his book was published.

Finally, Burke’s book does have some vague but interesting facts about famous Oklahomans, even if all his information is totally unsourced. His attempt to blow the state’s horn at the expense of one of America’s greatest authors is just pathetic, inaccurate, and damned embarrassing. If you’re a Steinbeck fan or scholar, the only use you’ll find in this volume is verifying that ignorance is still alive and well in the financial and social elite class of an otherwise very fine state.

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