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Obscene in the Extreme: The Burning and Banning of John Steinbeck's the Grapes of Wrath Hardcover – Bargain Price, September 2, 2008

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Editorial Reviews

From 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.

From School 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
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 320 pages
  • Publisher: PublicAffairs (September 2, 2008)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1586483315
  • ASIN: B0023RT0JK
  • Product Dimensions: 9.4 x 6.4 x 1.4 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.3 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (13 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #2,694,370 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

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Was the "Grapes of Wrath" a nonfiction work disguised as a novel? Apparently, the County Board of Supervisors in Kern County California thought just that. The book, and Steinbeck, irritated them to the point that they decided to ban the work and prohibit its sale from bookstores (not that there were many in Bakersfield then) and distribution of the work from the library system.

Why, however, did the book cause such irritation amongst the county supervisors and why were they in such an immense hurry to get it away from the public? The answers to those questions are the backbone of this wonderful work on a shameful chapter in American history.

The author examines, in totality, the world of the San Joaquin Valley in the late 1930s and how a single novel could turn much of the State of California into a battleground for workers and farmers alike. From the Okies pouring into the Valley by the car load and trying to survive by any means possible to the farmers fighting to keep prices high and labor costs low, the complex story of this war in the Valley is told in a wonderful manner that makes the book extremely readable while documenting history in detail.

I could write about the debates that raged in the Valley (and the state) about communism, socialism, fascism and other "isms", but that would be a spoiler to this wonderful book. In many ways the message in this work of history is as applicable today as it was 80 years ago.

I cannot recommend this book highly enough and think it may be one of the best non fiction works published in 2008. Buy it, explore it and enjoy it. I know the teachers at my local high school are already in a frenzy to read this and they won't be disappointed.
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10 of 11 people found the following review helpful By James Seger on September 21, 2008
Format: Hardcover
Obscene in the Extreme was a natural for me. Steinbeck is my very favorite writer. I remember being shocked the first time I saw that image of farmers burning a copy of The Grapes of Wrath.

Obscene in the Extreme details Kern County's ban on The Grapes of Wrath. A book that was a lightning rod on its' publication. Praised as a masterpiece and banned in some rural locations for the coarse language it contained. Kern County used this same reasoning when banning the book, though it was obvious to all that it was the politics of the book that were the real problem.

The problem I had with the book is that it is either too short or casts too wide a net. Rick Wartzman uses the banning of The Grapes of Wrath to examine state and national politics of the time and it was a valid approach but too many names were thrown at me too quickly in the 280 or so pages the book ran.

The book is worth reading and there is a lot of fascinating details in it. But if you don't already know a bit about the political scene of the late thirties/early forties you may find yourself flailing a bit.
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful By Julie L. Pogue on August 5, 2009
Format: Hardcover
The Depression hit our country swiftly and mercilessly, making for thousands of dramatic stories--many of which would remain unbelievable were it not for the personal testimonies of those who lived through those brutal years. Some of the most heart-wrenching of those tales come from the Dust Bowl, both from those who chose to stay with their farms and those who migrated to California in search of a better life. Steinbeck's brilliant prose in "The Grapes of Wrath" profoundly tapped into the soul of these plucky, proud migrants. This immensely controversial and powerful book shook the political and social beliefs of all who read it at the time, and even shaped the views of those who never dared to crack its cover. With a definite "Communist slant" and shockingly realistic language, "The Grapes of Wrath", written in 1939, exposed the alleged bigotry the "Okies" faced in their quest for work in California, and the fear that simmered just beneath the surface of every agricultural elitist out West: host to the hundreds of thousands of Dust Bowl migrants. As much as things change, political rhetoric remains as pathetically similiar today for the Liberals and the Conservatives as it did in the early-1940's.

Rick Wartzman examines a particularly tumultuous week in Kern County, California's history--August 21 - 28, 1939. Kern County, and its county seat, Bakersfield, were the real-life backdrop in Steinbeck's fiction work "The Grapes of Wrath". And during this historical week, the Kern County Board of Supervisors voted, and re-voted, on the public banning of "The Grapes of Wrath". Wartzman covers this explosive civil rights event with the skill of a master story-teller and historian in "Obscene in the Extreme: The Burning and Banning of John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath".
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Format: Paperback
With so many best sellers out there that are poorly crafted and sloppily researched, I sometimes forget just how good a really good book can be. "Obscene in the Extreme" by Rick Wartzman is such a book. I recommend it without any reservation to anyone who appreciates beautifully wrought English and/or is interested in understanding the perspectives and experiences of other lives in other times (and how these might relate to our own lives in our own times, although the author leaves it to us to make these connections).

Rick Wartzman tells the story of the banning of The Grapes of Wrath, in the California county that Steinbeck's novel depicted most, with such eloquence, artistry, clarity and (from my perspective) compassionate objectivity for all the players involved, it is just a joy to read. He has obviously done extensive and meticulous research, which enables him to flesh out the full emotional tone and context of the people and events he describes, making this book of history read far more engagingly than many novels.

I want to express my gratitude to the author for this wonderful gift to all of us, and to his family, friends and colleagues for supporting him in his endeavors. More! More! Encore!
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