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Forbidden fruit


Opponents of The Grapes of Wrath torch it in the streets.
  • Opponents of The Grapes of Wrath torch it in the streets.

In 1995, according to the New York Times, Sarah Palin then a Wasilla, Alaska, city councilwoman "told colleagues that she had noticed the book Daddy's Roommate on the [library] shelves and that it did not belong there." Laura Chase, Palin's former campaign manager, had read the book, designed to help kids understand homosexuality, found it inoffensive and suggested Palin read it.

"Sarah said she didn't need to read that stuff," Chase said to the Times. "It was disturbing that someone would be willing to remove a book from the library and she didn't even read it."

According to Rick Wartzman, the Los Angeles author of Obscene in the Extreme: The Burning and Banning of John Steinbeck's 'The Grapes of Wrath,' that's pretty common.

"I'm not a censorship expert per se, but my sense of the subject and having looked into it, certainly some, for my research is that's not untypical that a lot of people who go after books are people who have never even read them," he says.

In many cases, people are simply against the idea they think is portrayed in a piece. In his book, however, which details the seven days surrounding the 1939 banning of The Grapes of Wrath in Kern County, Calif., Wartzman quotes Gretchen Knief, the county librarian who fought the ban, as saying, "Ideas don't die because a book is forbidden reading."

In fact, Wartzman says, censorship may actually bring more attention to a book, inspiring people to rush out to get it. Now, as for Grapes of Wrath, the ban and subsequent burning, spurred by one member of the county board of supervisors calling its portrayal of the county a "libel and lie," likely did have an effect. There was only one bookstore in Kern County, and the people who wanted to read the story didn't have the money to buy many, if any, books.

Rick Wartzman will speak as part of All Pikes Peak Reads.
  • Rick Wartzman will speak as part of All Pikes Peak Reads.

Which, in many ways, reaches to the heart of Wartzman's tale.

"This is a book where the background is arguably even more important than the narrative spine itself," Wartzman says. "The story of the censorship ... there's obviously a drama that plays out over the course of the week. ... But in the end, that's a fairly straightforward story. What really makes this a book to me is, this tussle provides such a perfect window into the class politics of the '30s. Steinbeck's novel was such a lightning rod on the left and right. It was just the perfect way to capture an era."

In the '30s, he adds, people really did fear the demise of capitalism. And while the U.S. today is in bad financial straits, Wartzman believes the similarities to the Depression are overdrawn. Just looking at basic economic indicators, unemployment hit a high of 25 percent in 1933; today we're at 6.1 percent.

Back then, "misery was more ubiquitous," Wartzman says.

But the 43-year-old does admit there are a few striking parallels: the gulf between the rich and the poor is the highest today since 1928. And while we might be "recalibrating and rebalancing things in a different way then people were considering in the '30s," Wartzman says, "we are trying to recalibrate."

So it's easy to say that Obscene in the Extreme is relevant to today's world, if not necessarily the most uplifting read.

Wartzman laughs.

"It's not exactly escapist."

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