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Obscene in the Extreme: The Burning and…
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Obscene in the Extreme: The Burning and Banning of John Steinbeck's the… (2008)

by Rick Wartzman

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4 stars: Very good.

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Very good

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From the back cover: Few books have caused as big a stir as John Steinbeck's 'Grapes of Wrath'. A month after it was published in April 1939, it stood as the nation's #1 best seller. And by summer in Kern County, California, the Joads' newfound home, the book was burned publicly and banned from local schools and library shelves. Obscene in the Extreme tells the remarkable story behind this fit of censorship.

When agribusiness titan Bill Camp presides over the books' torching in downtown Bakersfield, he declares "We are angry not because we were attacked, but because we were attacked by a book obscene in the extreme sense of the word." Yet [librarian Gretchen] Knief bravely fights back: "If that book is banned today, what will be banned tomorrow?"

The backlash to the publication of GoW --a book praised by FDR and ER and seared into the public's consciousness by the lyrics of Woodie Guthrie and the on screen performance of Henry Fonda--serves as a window into an extraordinary time of upheaval in America. It was a time when, as Steinbeck put it, there seemed to be a revolution going on.

Rick Wartzman beautifully and meticulously brings to life this moment in history, when Nazis were burning books in Europe and Americans were questioning whether capitalism itself was worth preserving. Those who found strength in Steinbeck's work believed, as he did, that California's farming giants were mistreating their migrant laborers. Those who condemned the book believed that society was in danger of disintegrating, thanks to troublemakers like Steinbeck. Obscene in the Extreme highlights just how volatile the world was in 1939, how central California was a tinderbox, and the GoW a match.

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This book covers a one week history, with a brief forward and afterword, in the life of Bakersfield, some of its residents, and GoW. It started out for me as a 10 star book, but the middle bogged down a little bit--but only a little bit--- as it discussed the lives of some of the players involved. An excellent read, particularly as it puts this specific act of censorship in context with Hitler's Germany and bannings that were occurring there. The last paragraph also throws out a bit about rising inequality in the US and hopefully we don't need it again---but with an entire book that does not mention modern US politics, I found that to be unnecessary.

I also did not know previous to this, that Steinbeck's wife suggested the title, which comes from the "Battle Hymn of the Republic" :

"Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord:
He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored;
He hath loosed the fateful lightning of His terrible swift sword:
His truth is marching on."

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Quotes from within, which tell the story better than I can:

"A book is somehow sacred. A dictator can kill and maim people, can sink to any kind of tyranny and only be hated, but when books are burned, the ultimate in tyranny has happened. This we cannot forgive." -- John Steinbeck, from the inside cover.

The thing that worries me is that "it could happen here". If that book is banned today, what will be banned tomorrow? And what group will want a book banned the day after that? It's such a vicious and dangerous thing to begin and may in the end lead to exactly the same thing we see in Europe today-- Gretchen Knief, librarian.

Miller went on to report the actual number of objections to the novel... The grand total--zero--made Abel look like a fibber or a fool. Meanwhile, she couldn't resist toying with her interview subject just a bit more. "Mr Abel, do you think that the Board of Supervisors should act as censors of the books in the county library?" "I certainly do think so, when the books are filthy." "Mr. Abel, are you aware that there are a number of books in the county library written by young American authors, Steinbeck's contemporaries, that might be considered just as obscene as The Grapes of Wrath?" Abel paused, obviously thrown off stride. "II was not aware of it. I'll have to speak to Miss Knief about it. Yes sir, I'll certainly have to speak to Miss Knief."

One day when he was out irrigating, Clell saw a wagon rolling down the highway. From a distance, it looked a little like one of the horse drawn plows he had guided in Missouri. But as it got closer, he saw that it wasn't a horse in the lead. IT was a man hooked up to some kind of harnass, lumbering along, pulling a buggy with his wife and baby on top. "It was the saddest thing I'd ever seen" Clell said.

[Banning books] is driven primarily by one thing: fear. Fear that a wildly popular novel had shined a light on an inherently iniquitous system. Fear that society might rise up as a result. Fear by a fortunate few that the world they sat atop might soon come unglued.

Raymond Henderson, blind lawyer from the ACLU, dove right in, protesting the banning of the novel on the grounds that a library should be an open instituion, not a partisan repository. "We are not concerned with whether GoW is a good or a bad book. But we are concerned with whether a public board can set itself up as a board of censors to decide what the people shall or shall not read. If this sort of thing should be allowed to continue, the Republicans could ban a book written by a Democrat, and Democrats could bar a book by a Republican."

Henderson proceeded to read aloud a section about incest between a man and his daughters. That, he said, "is from another book. It is in our library. Would you like to ban it?" Abel, usually not one at a loss for words, remained quiet. "That passage I just quoted", Henderson said, "is from the Old Testament, Mr. Abel"--the story of Lot in the Book of Genesis.

"These supervisors are not shocked by the language in Steinbeck's book," said Weltha Smithson, a 54 yo grandmother and member of the Workers' Alliance, "They've heard it all their lives. They just don't want the true conditions exposed. Sure, we have had to crowd whole families into one small tent. We didn't want to live that way. We had to. The migrants are proud of John STeinbeck's book. And if the migrants want to cuss, I think they've got a right to cuss. How well we know those words-- 'Starvation wages'".

Mature adults should not need to be shielded against so called 'objectionable' books -- county library manual

What STeinbeck had contested, and would always contest, was any repression of a person's spirit, be it at the hands of the Associated Farmers or Stalin's secret police. "I believe in and will fight for the right of the individual to function as an individual without pressure from any direction" he wrote in 1954. ( )
  PokPok | Oct 10, 2014 |
This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
I read the Advance Copy, so keeping that in mind...

The thought of Steinbeck's "The Grapes of Wrath" ever being burned is unfathomable in the Western world, so learning that it happened in 1939, in California, is worth reading about. A topic that isn't even brought up in school, certainly feels at home here in Rick Wartzman's "Obscene in the Extreme". The style of Wartzman's prose is best suited for history books, which is why I strained at reading this book; it plodded most of the time. Set during the week of the book burning, Wartzmen speeds us back into time at every turn of the page, zipping us through history lessons of California's tumultuous times during the Depression of the 1930s, the states' dealing with the influx of immigrants from Oklahoma, and unionization of the farm workers. We also get tales of the call to fight Communism, brought on mostly by corporate farms and politicians steered by them.

As a class in American history, this book is top-notch. As a literary piece of work, it is poor. And Wartzman's nagging use of the thesaurus, lured my thoughts away from the subject matter. ( )
  jimcripps | May 16, 2010 |
This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
I found this a very good read. Reading about the social aspects that surrounded the controversy made me understand better that it wasn't so much the book that was offensive, it was how people responded to the book. I felt as though the author was stretching the story along at times, but not enough to change my enjoyment of it. ( )
  MedeaMoon | Aug 6, 2009 |
This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
As a fan of The Grapes of Wrath (and also of The Worst Hard Time), I found it interesting to read about the effects of Steinbeck's novel and about the labor class divisions of the time. Wartzman's book was hard to follow at times. I would get caught up in one story (the initial librarian, for example) and want to know more, but Wartzman would move on to another thread. ( )
  tammydotts | Jul 27, 2009 |
This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
I can't say that I enjoyed this. I agree with another reviewer who said that this would have made a good magazine article, but I didn't find it to be particularly suitable as a book-length work. It was very simple -- an interesting topic with relatively uninteresting execution. The concentration on the minutia of county government was very boring. I could almost see this as a serial in a newspaper. Again, it's a great concept, but it was simply not executed in a compelling manner. ( )
  climbingtree | Jul 23, 2009 |
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"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.'" -- Publisher's description.… (more)

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