Obscene in the Extreme: The Burning and Banning of John Steinbeck's the Grapes of Wrath (Hardcover)

The Burning and Banning of John Steinbeck's the Grapes of Wrath

By Rick Wartzman

PublicAffairs, 9781586483319, 320pp.

Publication Date: September 1, 2008



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, Californiathe Joads newfound homethe 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 Americaa time when, as Steinbeck put it, there seemed to be a revolution . . . going on.

About 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.

Praise For Obscene in the Extreme: The Burning and Banning of John Steinbeck's the Grapes of Wrath

Scott Martelle, Los Angeles Times, August 31, 2008
“In these current times of bubbles and bursts, foreclosed-upon homes and entire industries confronting their own mortality, it’s good to have a fresh history such as this to remind us of what has gone on before, and to assure that the times will indeed change—eventually…. The Central Valleys of the 1930s … for many people have been reduced to emblematic photos… Wartzman puts some life on those images… A skillfully drawn reminder of the human toll of deep poverty, intolerance and the unfettered whims of those who control the purse strings.”

Metro Newspaper, September 24, 2008
“An important and illuminating new book.”

Salinas Californian
, October 4, 2008

“A fast-paced narrative…. Enlightening and well worth reading.”

Columbia Journalism Review, November/December 2008 issue
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…. Unfailingly fair to all, Wartzman brings to life a rich cast, ranging from the radical journalist Carey McWilliams to the farm works chosen by his employers to burn a copy of The Grapes of Wrath on the streets.”

Minneapolis Star-Tribune, November 30, 2008
“With a novelist’s skill and journalist’s acumen, Wartzman uses the incident [of the book ban] as a springboard to explore the context of those turbulent times, the personalities and motivations of those involved and the notion of censorship as a political weapon.”

Boston Globe, December 2, 2008
“Well-researched, readable…. It's a cautionary tale, particularly relevant in light of the vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin, who once allegedly asked the librarian in her own small town of Wasilla, Alaska, whether censorship was all right.”