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

~by Rick Wartzman

When I was offered an advance reading copy of Obscene in the Extreme to review, I gladly accepted. Book banning, and the politics behind book banning is of great interest to me. So, in honor of Banned Books Week, I not only read banned books, but read a book about banning books.

I read The Grapes of Wrath back in high school for an American history class. Unfortunately, it was towards the end of the year, so we didn't spend as much time on it as we probably should have. I don't' remember much about the book or discussions beyond a basic understanding of the novel and a few choice scenes (including the probably most infamous last one). I definitely don't recall the pervasive vulgar language and promiscuity in the book, but it is certainly there. I have a vague recollection that I liked the novel.

Obscene in the Extreme, though interesting, is not exactly about what it says it's about. With the subtitle of "The Burning and Banning of John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath" I really expected it to be about, well, the burning and banning of The Grapes of Wrath. In reality, while the controversy over Steinbeck's novel serves as a focal and jumping off point, the book is really more about the surrounding labor and Californian county politics.

The book definitely helped me better place The Grapes of Wrath in historical context and to understand its impact and significance. While this historical context is important, the book seemed to spend too much time providing mini-biographies on anyone and everyone even remotely connected to the controversy over the novel in California. I would have rather seen more examination of the book itself, Steinbeck, and the controversy as these were the sections that most interested me. California wasn't the only place Steinbeck's novel caused a stir, a fact that is only briefly mentioned and could have been further expanded upon.

Obscene in the Extreme is well researched eve if it is written in a more journalistic rather than scholarly fashion. As with most books written in this style, notes are not indicated directly in the text but are included as endnotes, divided by chapter and page number. A very nice bibliography of works consulted by the author is also included. While easy to read, strict attention to who is who must be paid to avoid becoming disoriented by the dizzying number of players in the drama. Ultimately, the book was approachable and informative, even if not what I had anticipated.

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