In 1939, many Kern County residents resented "The Grapes of Wrath," even to the point of banning -- and burning -- the book. Today Kern County is celebrating it. The irony of that reversal isn't lost on Rick Wartzman.
"That's a polite word for it," Wartzman said. "The Board of Supervisors, the same body that had voted to ban the book, now has passed a resolution praising it."
Wartzman is the author of "Obscene in the Extreme: The Banning and Burning of John Steinbeck's 'The Grapes of Wrath'," the 2008 book that describes the week of Aug. 21-27, 1939. Wartzman will speak about that week and his book on Feb. 27 at the Levan Center for the Humanities at Bakersfield College.
"Time moves on and culture changes, and society evolves, so it's not entirely unprecedented," Wartzman. "And it's good."
The title of the book, "Obscene in the Extreme," is a quote from farmer W. B. "Bill" Camp, who led the protest against Steinbeck's book and actually posed for a photograph of the burning of a copy of the book in downtown Bakersfield.
"We are angry, not because we were attacked, but because we were attacked by a book that is obscene in the extreme sense of the word," Camp was quoted as saying.
Camp is the antagonist of Wartzman's book. The protagonist is then Kern County librarian Gretchen Knief, who was the lone voice of protest against the Board of Supervisors' ban.
"There are some incredibly brave and sensible letters she wrote to the Board of Supervisors about the dangers of censorship," Wartzman said.
"Those were her bosses. She served at their pleasure."
In one letter to the board, Knief wrote: "If this book is banned today, what book will be banned tomorrow?"
Wartzman is the executive director of the Drucker Institute of Social Enterprise at Claremont College, and has written several books, most notably about management consultant and professor Peter Drucker. Wartzman became interested in Kern County history when he collaborated with writer Mark Arax on "The King of California," a biography of grower J.G. Boswell.
"I stumbled on the 'Grapes of Wrath' story when I was writing the 'The King of California,'" Wartzman said.
Camp had figured in the Boswell book as well, Wartzman said. In his research, the author came across the photo of Camp and the burning of Steinbeck's book.
"I remember that photo," Wartzman said. "That was the kind of photo you don't forget easily."
A conversation with writer Lee McCarthy during a book tour inspired Wartzman to pursue the story behind that photo, leading to "Obscene in the Extreme."
"The canvas is kind of small; the story unfolds over one week in one area -- Bakersfield," Wartzman said. "But the window that it looks out over is really a large landscape: the class politics of 1939."
That large landscape included the Great Depression, a looming world war, political upheaval from the left and right side of politics, both around the world and in the United States. Those events had their impact on the residents of Kern County, which found itself inundated with migrant workers from the Dust Bowl, and with the publication of Steinbeck's book, the focus of national criticism.
"Their world was unraveling," Wartzman said. "They were genuinely at a place where their world, their way of life that they worked for and loved, was falling apart."
Wartzman said he will discuss that past at his lecture at Bakersfield College, but he also will discuss the present and how history can and does repeat itself.
"There's still a lot of censorship that goes in this country," Wartzman said. "Thousands of books are challenged each year in schools and libraries."