The Art of the Public Grovel: Sexual Sin and Public Confession in America

By Susan Wise Bauer

Princeton University Press

352 pages, $26.95

We are living, writes Susan Wise Bauer, in an Age of Public Confession, now at least forty years in duration. Confession, she makes clear, differs from apology. Apology is easy (“I am sorry”), but confession is hard (“I am sorry because I did wrong”)— and Bauer is interested only in confessions involving predatory sexual transgression. With the exception of radio evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson, the fallen in The Art of the Public Grovel are men. Bauer scarcely distinguishes between political and religious sinners, seeing them all as moral leaders called to abase themselves before their followers. Some can pull it off and continue their public lives; some cannot.

The list is a depressing commentary on the character of leadership in the recent era, rife as it is with egotists and even frauds. It runs from Ted Kennedy at Chappaquiddick through the televangelists Jim Bakker and Jimmy Swaggart to Bill Clinton and Cardinal Bernard Law (who sinned by coddling the sinful among his priests). Poor Jimmy Carter gets dragged along for his ill-considered remark to Playboy about lust in his heart. And time ran out before Bauer could get to, for example, Senator Larry Craig and former presidential candidate John Edwards.

Bauer sees religious confessions as partly political, and political confessions as partly religious. “In Bill Clinton’s America,” she writes, “the intersection of Protestant practice, therapeutic technique, and talk-show ethics was complete.” She also discusses at length the differing developments of Protestant (public) and Roman Catholic (private) confessional traditions. This divergence made it all but impossible for Cardinal Law and Ted Kennedy to manage a successful public confession, while Bill Clinton, accustomed to the public acknowledgment of sin, said what needed to be said and moved on.

Bauer notes in passing a critical element in all of these dramas—the news media, which were often not only the whistleblowers but the enforcers, deciding whether a given confession had made the grade. The Boston Globe held Cardinal Law’s feet to the fire. Jim Bakker, as Bauer notes, came to regard the Charlotte Observer as his chief antagonist, and his fatal lapse lay in confessing to the Observer rather than to his own congregation. Not that the media verdict always carried the day. Much of the press called on Bill Clinton to resign after the release of his grand-jury testimony in the Lewinsky case; he stayed on and outlasted the scandal.

As a bonus, Bauer appends the texts of statements by six confessors. Connoisseurs of venial sin will want to compare and contrast.

Obscene in the Extreme: The Burning and Banning Of John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath
By Rick Wartzman
Public Affairs
308 pages, $26.95
Rick Wartzman’s Obscene in the Extreme is much more than a conventional book-banning saga. It richly chronicles one of the epic tales of the 1930s, the struggle between left and right, hired hands and big farmers, migrant Okies and natives, in the towns and fields of California.

In the spring of 1939, John Steinbeck published The Grapes of Wrath, his novel about the fictional Joad family’s trek from Oklahoma to California—specifically to the labor camps and squatter settlements of Kern County at the southern end of the San Joaquin Valley. The book became an instant best-seller, and went on to win the Pulitzer Prize the next year.

In Kern County, however, which was dominated by the powerful Associated Farmers, Steinbeck’s novel was hardly welcome. On August 21, 1939, the county board of supervisors adopted a resolution removing the book from the public library and the schools. The book’s “obscenity” was the pretext, although little of Steinbeck’s language could be described in such terms. Not surprisingly, the resolution devoted one meager paragraph to alleged obscenity—and three much longer paragraphs to the novel’s purported libels on Kern County inhabitants.

Wartzman uses this comparatively tiny incident to reconstruct a California now far in the past. Politically, the state was torn between left and right, with communism and quasi-fascism at either extreme. Unfailingly fair to all, Wartzman brings to life a rich cast, ranging from the radical journalist Carey McWilliams to the farm worker (whom the author was able to interview many years after the fact) chosen by his employers to burn a copy of The Grapes of Wrath on the street. If there was a hero of sorts, it was county librarian Gretchen Knief, who publicly opposed the ban but was forbidden to speak at a meeting that failed to repeal it.

In the end, Kern County’s establishment was overmatched. It could not stop people from reading the book. And although the county resolution implored Twentieth Century-Fox to desist from adapting the novel, the film was made and became a classic. Perhaps the only satisfaction that came to Kern County was that the Okies themselves, far from remaining a proletariat, climbed the ladder to become respectable middle-class Republicans.

James Boylan is CJR’s founding editor.