Sunday, September 07, 2008

Pg. 99: Rick Wartzman's "Obscene in the Extreme"

The current feature at the Page 99 Test: Rick Wartzman's Obscene in the Extreme: The Burning and Banning of John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath.

About the book, from the publisher:
Few books have caused as big a stir as John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, when it was published in April 1939. By May, it was the nation’s number one bestseller, but in Kern County, California-the Joads’ newfound home-the book was burned publicly and banned from library shelves. Obscene in the Extreme tells the remarkable story behind this fit of censorship. When W. B. “Bill” Camp, a giant cotton and potato grower, presided over its burning in downtown Bakersfield, he declared: “We are angry, not because we were attacked but because we were attacked by a book obscene in the extreme sense of the word.” But Gretchen Knief, the Kern County librarian, bravely fought back. “If that book is banned today, what book will be banned tomorrow?” Obscene in the Extreme serves as a window into an extraordinary time of upheaval in America-a time when, as Steinbeck put it, there seemed to be “a revolution ... going on.”
Among the early praise for the book:
"During May of 1939, as the Nazis were burning books throughout Germany, the people of Bakersfield Calif., did exactly the same thing with John Steinbeck's new bestseller, The Grapes of Wrath. As Wartzman (The King of California) shows in this intriguing account, the banning of Steinbeck's masterpiece throughout California's Kern County was orchestrated by rich local growers: men who were busy exploiting scores of Joad families, the very men Steinbeck exposed in his novel. As a pretext, the growers cited, among other things, Steinbeck's use of "foul" language ("bastard," "bitch") and vivid scenes such as Rose of Sharon, having lost her baby, offering her milk-filled breast to a starving man. One lone librarian, Gretchen Knief, led the charge against the censors, but the book-by then a Pulitzer Prize winner-remained banned a year later. While all this was happening, Steinbeck was suffering the strains of his collapsing first marriage. In telling this unique tale, Wartzman artfully weaves the personal and the political in a book that readers will find engaging on more than one level."
--Publishers Weekly

"Generously illustrated and briskly written-a valuable guide to an explosive aspect of the free-speech issue."

"[A] skillfully drawn reminder of the human toll of deep poverty, intolerance and the unfettered whims of those who control the purse strings."
--Los Angeles Times
Read more about Obscene in the Extreme at the publisher's website.

Rick Wartzman is the Director of The Drucker Institute at Claremont Graduate University and an Irvine senior fellow at the New America Foundation. He spent two decades as a reporter and editor at The Wall Street Journal and the Los Angeles Times. He is co-author, with Mark Arax, of the award-winning bestseller The King of California: J.G. Boswell and the Making of a Secret American Empire.

The Page 99 Test: Obscene in the Extreme.

--Marshal Zeringue