April 14, 2014, marks the 75th anniversary of the publication of The Grapes of Wrath. In the novel, John Steinbeck follows the fictional journey of the Joads, a family of sharecroppers from Sallisaw, Oklahoma, forced to migrate west during the Dust Bowl. The Joads join thousands of other migrants on the trek to the Salinas Valley of California, a place they idealize as rich with opportunity.
In telling the story of the Joads, Steinbeck—who would win the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize for The Grapes of Wrath and the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1962—captures the sentiment of a pivotal period in American history, one at the intersection of the Great Depression, the Dust Bowl, and the shaping of the American West.
What Was the Dust Bowl?
It’s impossible to understand the Joads or what they symbolize without understanding the Dust Bowl. Both a human and an environmental disaster, the Dust Bowl was a prolonged series of dust storms brought on by drought and erosion in the United States Great Plains region in the 1930s.
Chad Kauffman, professor of earth sciences at California University of Pennsylvania, explains that drought was not the only factor at play, however.
“There was a human influence on the Dust Bowl, as well. We don’t think of it in the context of CO2 or greenhouse gases as we do in the present context, but the human fingerprint on the Dust Bowl was agricultural practices and our ignorance of the nature of the Great Plains.”
While the region saw less rainfall than usual in the 1930s, it was really the modifications humans made to the landscape—particularly uprooting native grasses and exposing the virgin topsoil to the elements—that set the stage for the erosion that would follow.
“We didn’t understand how important natural grasses were to the ecology and physical landscape of the Great Plains. We’re talking multiple feet of grass, not like how you manicure your lawn. These tall grasses have a deeper root structure, and that root structure helps to fix the soil in-place, allowing it to take on the loamy texture that made the region attractive to agriculture.”
Coupled with the effects of the Depression on the nation as a whole, many families in the region were devastated, particularly those who relied on agriculture to make a living. For many, the only choice they had was to leave, and they found themselves on Route 66 headed to California.
Steinbeck’s Social Lens on Environmental History
Many of these families ended up in the Salinas Valley, where John Steinbeck was born, raised, and lived the majority of his life. Dust Bowl migration, the shaping of Californian identity, and human connection to the environment are all deeply personal topics for Steinbeck. It’s no surprise, then, that these themes underpin The Grapes of Wrath.
Susan Shillinglaw is a Steinbeck scholar and the author of On Reading The Grapes of Wrath, which reflects on the social, political, and creative impact of The Grapes of Wrath from the time of its publication through to today. She contends that much of the book’s impact stems from the way Steinbeck was able to familiarize such a complex and interwoven set of events and experiences.
“This book is about a huge topic. It’s about a migration of over 500,000 people coming into California and the environmental disaster that caused it. How do you write about weather patterns, drought, migration, and identity at once, as it is happening? Containing that contemporary story was a challenge … and one way that he met that challenge was to construct a family story that is punctuated by interchapters that tell a larger cultural and historical story. He structured the book so that it moves from one family, to many families, to the human experience.”
Capturing the human experience of migrant farmworkers also made The Grapes of Wrath controversial. The political frenzy went so far that First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, upon reading the book, called for congressional hearings that resulted in reform to labor laws governing migrant camps.
In reality, critics had very little to argue about. Families like the Joads, or “Okies” as they were disparagingly referred to, faced awful living and working conditions throughout their migration, and even upon reaching California.
Lifelong Salinas resident Dorothy Wallace grew up next door to the Steinbeck family and was a senior at Salinas High School when The Grapes of Wrath was published. Like Steinbeck and everyone else in her community, she saw migrant families like the Joads arrive in droves, many living in cardboard boxes in camps. She also remembers how her community reacted to their arrival, and subsequently to Steinbeck’s empathetic portrayal of their struggle in The Grapes of Wrath.
“If you were making money, you didn’t like [Steinbeck]. If you were coming up through the classes, you were a fan of him. But even those that disliked him respected his writing. He just wrote things as they really were. I remember everything exactly as the way he wrote it. How we all felt about Okies, that word had a horrible connotation. Everybody disliked them. But his books helped people see that they were just here looking for work and trying to pull themselves up, and in the end they did. Many of them became very successful in produce, and I think that’s when people’s attitudes started to change.”
In the end, this engagement with the human experience is a hallmark of Steinbeck’s work, and perhaps what keeps us talking about him today. Says Shillinglaw:
“Empathy is the signature of the book—an empathetic response to human suffering. So much of the dialogue today is about taking away food stamps or welfare, for example, and Steinbeck was a passionate voice for empathy.”
Current Event Connection: Drought
History repeats itself, and it’s now California experiencing severe drought. In the present context, The Grapes of Wrath once again serves as a resource for examining human-environmental interaction.
While there are numerous climatic and social parallels between the Dust Bowl and California’s contemporary drought, some of the most striking similarities are the economic costs. While Steinbeck captures the great struggle for migrants to find farm work in Depression-era California, according to Kauffman, today’s drought may have an even larger economic impact.
“The biggest thing you can look at is the unemployment line. Roughly ten of the top 20 metropolitan areas with the highest unemployment rates are in the Central Valley of California. That’s staggering, and it’s the direct result of fields that are fallow where they just cannot supply water . . . of course, so much of the economy in California is tied to agriculture. It’s not just job loss, but also huge profit losses at the industry level. By the end of all this, we may be looking at a multi-billion dollar disaster.”
All of this challenges the popular image of California as an Edenic place. But, Shillinglaw reminds us, that image has been challenged almost since its inception, with Steinbeck one of its prime challengers.
“California has always existed as a dream for Americans, a new beginning, and yet the state betrays that illusion … In The Grapes of Wrath, California is a fallen Eden. The Joads must encounter the other side of their vision. That dream and the reality of California was Steinbeck's abiding concern.”
Though it is certainly too early to draw firm comparisons between the Dust Bowl and California’s current drought, it is a testament to Steinbeck’s longevity and enduring influence that The Grapes of Wrath enters into this conversation 75 years later. Though it’s not a bad idea to take notes from the past when moving towards an uncertain future.
As Steinbeck writes through the voice of Ma Joad, “Up ahead they's a thousan' lives we might live, but when it comes it'll on'y be one.”