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Obscene In The Extreme

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Overview

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 ...
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Overview

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."
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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly

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. (Sept.)

Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
Library Journal

On August 21, 1939, the Kern County (CA) Board of Supervisors voted to ban The Grapes of Wrath from its schools and libraries to the chagrin of librarian Gretchen Knief. Wartzman (The King of California: J.G. Boswell and the Making of a Secret American Empire ) uses the ban of Steinbeck's best-selling novel as a springboard to discuss the forces that led to it-forces that had more to do with politics than morality. He uses the censorship case as an opportunity to shine a wider light on the political and economic climate of south central California in the wake of the 1930s dust bowl migration, exploring the larger issues that divided radicals and reactionaries, labor and management, social reformers and anticommunists. Detailed portraits of the local businessmen, politicians, and labor leaders caught up in the struggle enliven the text. Recommended for research libraries, especially those with strong collections in labor history and American studies.-William Gargan, Brooklyn Coll. Lib., CUNY

Kirkus Reviews
Steinbeck's now-classic populist epic did not please everyone in 1939. In the San Joaquin Valley, blisteringly depicted in The Grapes of Wrath as callously hostile to the Joad family and other Dust Bowl refugees, public officials voted on Aug. 21 to remove the bestselling book from the county library system; three days later, three incensed farmers publicly burned a copy. Wartzman (co-author: The King of California: J. G. Boswell and the Making of a Secret Empire, 2003) examines many facets of the difficulties the novel encountered and occasioned. He introduces us to a doughty librarian, some angry Kern County supervisors (plus one more liberal and one waffler), growers, farm workers, lawyers, civil libertarians, journalists, filmmakers, musicians, prudes and assorted wackos. Popping up continually is Steinbeck himself, who said little in public about the contretemps; the writer was suffering creative exhaustion in the aftermath of completing his massive book. Wartzman places the controversy in broad context. We see the effects of the Great Depression, the looming threat of World War II and the fear that communism pervaded labor unions and was corrupting the working class. The narrative follows the broad chronology of the events, but within each chapter the author casts a wide cultural and historical net. We get a bit of the history of California, of the San Joaquin Valley and of the efforts to organize farm workers. We learn about Steinbeck's previous work, his preparations to write the novel, the making of John Ford's 1940 film and the rescinding of the Kern County library ban in 1941. Wartzman sprinkles relevant quotations from Grapes throughout. Generously illustrated andbriskly written-a valuable guide to an explosive aspect of the free-speech issue. Agent: Kris Dahl/ICM
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781458759528
  • Publisher: ReadHowYouWant, LLC
  • Publication date: 10/19/2010
  • Pages: 560
  • Product dimensions: 7.00 (w) x 10.00 (h) x 1.14 (d)

Meet the Author

Rick Wartzman is 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.

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Table of Contents

Ch. 1 Dark Days 1

Ch. 2 Monday 41

Ch. 3 Tuesday 69

Ch. 4 Wednesday 109

Ch. 5 Thursday 149

Ch. 6 Friday, Saturday, Sunday 181

Ch. 7 Some Day 211

Acknowledgments 231

Notes 233

Bibliography 285

Index 293

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