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Migrants and Misdeeds

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“Of Migrants and Misdeeds”
California and The Grapes of Wrath

by Dr. Susan Shillinglaw, San Jose State University

Slide Show (1.62 MB)

The Grapes of Wrath is, for many, Steinbeck's quintessential California fiction, the book that brings together his compassion for social outcasts, his vision of place, and his awareness of the unrealized possibilities inherent in westward migration. It is a book that owes as much to its journalistic roots as to its mythic underpinning—an exiled people in flight to the promised land. "You know he was a missionary," said Toby Street, a Stanford friend of Steinbeck's. "He was trying to expose, not from the standpoint of interfering with lives of people, but more from the standpoint of exposition. He was always trying to show you what a time, what a bad time we were having."

In the summer of 1936, George West, editorial page editor of the liberal San Francisco News, asked Steinbeck to cover the migrant situation in California. As reporter and witness, Steinbeck traveled first to Hoovervilles—makeshift roadside settlements—in Kern County and then toured Arvin Camp, a new migrant camp near Bakersfield that was depicted in John Ford's classic 1940 film adaptation of the novel and still houses migrant workers today. Arvin Camp was the second of a projected fifteen federally funded camps to be established in California to alleviate housing problems for the Southwest migrants pouring in from the Dust Bowl regions. While at Arvin, Steinbeck gathered material by reading manager Tom Collins’ detailed reports of the migrants' woes and speaking to destitute Oklahomans. In October 1936, the News published his series of six articles, titled “The Harvest Gypsies.” Each article was accompanied by Dorothea Lange's photos of the migrants' desperate lives. Both the photos and Steinbeck's lucid exposés compelled readers to participate in the actuality of migrant poverty; his prose nudged readers on a visual tour of dilapidated shacks and leaking tents.  By December 1936, Steinbeck knew that his next "big book" would be the migrants' story.

The Grapes of Wrath touched a national (and international) chord. Over 45,900 copies were sent to bookstores before it was even published on April 14, 1939, and it sold 83,361 copies in its first month, a record for Viking Press. California writer Frank Taylor wrote in Forum in November 1939, "Californians are wrathy over The Grapes of Wrath…Though the book is fiction, many readers accept it as fact." Accepting the book  purely as an historical document was the initial reaction of many readers both in California and in Oklahoma.  In Steinbeck's home state, impassioned charges were leveled against many of the novel's points and implications. The book treated California's Associated Farmers—one of the most virulent organizations in American history—with well-deserved contempt; it implied that large landowners lured thousands of migrants to the state in order to keep wages low with overabundant cheap labor. It suggested that police were in league with the powerful elite in hounding the migrants. And it depicted an unthinkable level of human poverty, misery, homelessness, and hunger.

Those initial objections suggest much about the California quality of The Grapes of Wrath. The book is concerned with contours of power and how those who wield control—whether banks, tractors, landowners, or angry mobs—strip freedom from those they control. In California, the powerless have long been migrants: Chinese, Japanese, Filipino, Mexican, and "Okie." The Grapes of Wrath also presents a probing assessment of what it means to have ownership of land and water rights in this state. California has a long history of rapacious dealings in land—and this book is very much about the use and misuse of California's vast resources: land, water, produce.  The Californian dream and its dark underside are evident; Steinbeck balances prosperity and plenty against failure, waste, and shame, deconstructing the mythic Western sagas of gunslingers, horse thieves, and the likes of Billy the Kid.  The rugged loner is exchanged for the embrace of the family, and the real story of western expansion is told. 

It was and is a definitive American book—a book about movement, the dream of a new home and land, and the resilience of realigned families. Steinbeck's most famous and controversial novel is a text so thoroughly engrained in the American social conscience that even now it speaks eloquently of poverty, exile, and self-determination. Steinbeck reported in a 1938 interview, "These people have that same vitality that the original Americans who came here had; and they know just what they want."  These Okies were, for Steinbeck, the state's newest pioneers.