Steinbeck's myth of the Okies

by Keith Windschuttle



John Steinbeck performed a rare feat for a writer of fiction. He created a literary portrait that defined an era. His account of the “Okie Exodus” in The Grapes of Wrath became the principal story through which America defined the experience of the Great Depression. Even today, one of the enduring images for anyone with even a passing familiarity with the 1930s is that of Steinbeck’s fictional characters the Joads, an American farming family uprooted from its home by the twin disasters of dust storms and financial crisis to become refugees in a hostile world. Not since Dickens’s portrayal of the slums of Victorian England has a novelist produced such an enduring definition of his age.

According to Penguin Books, which produced a very handsome series of paperbacks to mark the centenary of his birth this February, Steinbeck’s novels still generate a combined sale of around two million books a year. Originally published in 1939, The Grapes of Wrath remains a widely studied text in both high schools and universities, and the 1940 John Ford film of the book still enjoys healthy sales on videotape and frequent reruns on classic movie shows on cable television. The story that these various audiences hear goes like this:

Dust storms and bank foreclosures during the Great Depression forced a mass migration of hundreds of thousands of small landowners and sharecroppers from the American southwest, especially Oklahoma, Arkansas, and east Texas. Enticed by false advertising, impoverished farming families loaded their possessions onto ramshackle automobiles and pickup trucks to brave the thousand-mile journey westward to California where they hoped to revive their fortunes and regain their livelihood on the land. This American version of Exodus faced its own Sinai crossing in the Arizona desert, where many vehicles broke down or ran out of gas. Those who survived the hazardous passage to the promised land, however, found the large corporations that controlled Californian agriculture used the rapidly growing number of migrants to continually beat down harvest wages. Police and vigilantes set upon those who complained or resisted, especially if they were suspected of being “reds” or Communist agitators. The Okies ended up landless, homeless, and impoverished, forced to watch their children starve in a land of plenty. Folk singers like Woody Guthrie, in his Dust Bowl Ballads, expressed their bitterness and anger: “I’m goin’ down the road feelin’ bad. Lawd. Lawd. And I ain’t gonna be treated this-a-way.”

Although it is about the experiences of the fictional Joad family, The Grapes of Wrath was always meant to be taken literally. Borrowing from John Dos Passos’s U.S.A. trilogy and other works in the realist or documentary genre of the time, Steinbeck interspersed his fictional chapters with passages that gave a running account of the prevailing social, climatic, economic, and political conditions. Steinbeck himself had researched the living conditions of the Okies for a series of newspaper articles he wrote for a San Francisco newspaper, and, soon after his novel appeared, its tale was confirmed by the publication of America’s most famous work of photographic essays, Dorothea Lange and Paul S. Taylor’s American Exodus, which traced every step of the Okie’s tragic journey across the country. In other words, Steinbeck’s book was presented at the time as a work of history as well as fiction, and it has been accepted as such ever since. Unfortunately for the reputation of the author, however, there is now an accumulation of sufficient historical, demographic, and climatic data about the 1930s to show that almost everything about the elaborate picture created in the novel is either outright false or exaggerated beyond belief.

For a start, dust storms in the Thirties affected very little of the farming land of Oklahoma. Between 1933 and 1935, severe wind erosion did create a dust bowl in the western half of Kansas, eastern Colorado, and the west Texas/New Mexico border country. While many Oklahoma farms suffered from drought in the mid-1930s, the only dust-affected region in that state was the narrow panhandle in the far west. Steinbeck wrote of the dust storms:

In the morning the dust hung like fog, and the sun was as red as ripe new blood. All day the dust sifted down, and the next day it sifted down. An even blanket covered the earth. It settled on the corn, piled up on the tops of the fence posts, piled up on the wires; it settled on roofs, blanketed the weeds and trees.
But nothing like this happened anywhere near where Steinbeck placed the Joad family farm, just outside Sallisaw, Oklahoma, part of the cotton belt in the east of the state, almost on the Arkansas border. In the real dust bowl, it is true that many families packed up and left, but the historian James N. Gregory has pointed out that less than 16,000 people from the dust-affected areas went to California, barely six percent of the total from the southwestern states. Gregory blames contemporary journalists for the misunderstanding:
Confusing drought with dust, and assuming that the dramatic dust storms must have had something to do with the large number of cars from Oklahoma and Texas seen crossing the California border in the mid-1930s, the press created the dramatic but misleading association between the Dust Bowl and the Southwestern migration.
It is true that many people left Oklahoma for California in the 1930s. This was anything but a novel phenomenon, however. People had been doing the same since before World War I, as the southwestern states’ economy failed to prosper and as better opportunities were available in other regions. Between 1910 and 1930, 1.3 million people migrated from the southwest to other parts of the United States. In the 1920s, census data show that about 250,000 of them went to California, while in the 1930s this total was about 315,000. The real mass migration of Okies to California actually took place in the 1940s to take advantage of the boom in manufacturing jobs during World War II and its aftermath. In this period, about 630,000 of them went to the west coast. It was not the Depression of the 30s but the economic boom of the 40s that caused an abnormal increase in Okie migration.

Moreover, most of the migrants who did leave Oklahoma in the Depression were not farmers. Most came from cities and towns. The 1940 Census showed that in the period of the supposed great Okie Exodus between 1935 and 1940, only thirty-six percent of southwesterners who migrated to California were from farms. Some fifty percent of these migrants came from urban areas and fitted occupational categories such as professionals, proprietors, clerical/sales, skilled laborers, and semi-skilled/service workers. Predictably, they had a similar distribution when they joined the Californian workforce. Their favorite destination was Los Angeles, which attracted almost 100,000 Okies between 1935 and 1940, with about a quarter as many going to the cities of San Francisco and San Diego. Of the two major destinations for agricultural workers, the San Joaquin Valley attracted 70,000 and the San Bernadino/Imperial Valley region 20,000 migrants. This fell considerably short of their demographic portrait in The Grapes of Wrath:

And the dispossessed, the migrants, flowed into California, two hundred and fifty thousand, and three hundred thousand. Behind them new tractors were going on the land and the tenants were being forced off. And new waves were on the way, new waves of the dispossessed and the homeless, hardened, intent and dangerous.
Steinbeck blamed the banks for their plight. Rather than allowing small farms and tenant farmers the right to exist, the banks fostered competition, mechanization, land consolidation, and continual expansion. “The bank—the monster has to have profits all the time. It can’t wait. When the monster stops growing, it dies. It can’t stay one size.” He compared this inhuman imperative to the rights of those who worked the land:
We were born on it, and we got killed on it, died on it. Even if it’s no good, it’s still ours. That’s what makes it ours—being born on it, working on it, dying on it. That makes ownership, not a paper with numbers on it.

We’re sorry [say the owner men]. It’s not us. It’s the monster. The bank isn’t like a man.

Ironically, for someone whose politics have been described by his several biographers as a “typical New Deal Democrat,” Steinbeck identified the wrong culprit. In two separate studies of the plight of southern tenant farmers in the 1930s, the historians David Eugene Conrad and Donald H. Grubbs have blamed not the banks but the agricultural policies of the New Deal itself. In the early 1930s, some sixty percent of farms in Oklahoma, Arkansas, and Texas were operated by tenants. However, during the Depression they found themselves victims of Franklin Roosevelt’s 1933 Agricultural Adjustment Act, which required landlords to reduce their cotton acreage. Fortified by AAA subsidies, the landlords evicted their tenants and consolidated their holdings. It was government handouts, not bank demands, that led these landlords to buy tractors and decrease their reliance on tenant families. By 1940, tenant farmer numbers had declined in the southwest by twenty-four percent.

In The Grapes of Wrath, thirteen members of the Joads’ extended family set out in the one vehicle, including grandparents and grand-children. In two moving scenes, both Grampa and Granma die en route. Along the way, in-laws and uncles also abandon them, leaving Ma Joad, who is in her fifties, to try to keep the rest of the family together. This entourage would have been demographically unusual. Rather than large families extending over several generations, the most common trekkers from the southwest to California were composed of husband, wife, and children, an average of 4.4 members. Only twenty percent of households included other relations. Most were young. Of the adults, sixty percent were less than thirty-five years old. They were also better educated than those of the same age group who stayed behind. In other words, they were typical of those who have undertaken migration in every era, whether over the Rockies or across the Atlantic: upwardly rather than downwardly mobile young people seeking better opportunities for themselves and their children.

The most comprehensive historical study of the background of the Okie migrants was written by James N. Gregory in 1989. Its title, American Exodus: The Dust Bowl Migration and Okie Culture in California, indicates that the author did not set out to demolish any of the myths generated by Steinbeck, Guthrie, and Lange. This, however, is what he actually does accomplish, especially in his account of the motivations of those who went to California. The Joads packed up and left for no better reason than a yellow handbill Pa Joad found saying there were good wages and plenty of work in California. According to later chapters of the novel, this was simply an advertising ploy by the “great owners” of California to entice more men than they needed to their harvest so they could reduce wages. Hence the Joads set out for a region about which they knew nothing. To find work, they could only wander helplessly from one location to the next.

Gregory argues that the real migrants were much better informed than this. Most had direct information about working conditions from relatives already there. Two-thirds of Okies interviewed in the Salinas Valley had relatives living in California before they came west. In two other surveys in Sacramento Valley and Kern County, the majority of migrants said relatives or friends had been instrumental in their decision to relocate. “All of this suggests,” Gregory writes, “that the Dust Bowl migration was not an atomistic dispersion of solitary families but a guided chain migration of the sort very typical for both trans-Atlantic immigrants and rural-to-urban immigrants.” Some families generated their own migration chains, sending out a teenage son or young male relative to explore California before deciding whether to follow him. Gregory provides examples of some young men who made several such exploratory trips west during the 1930s.

In the film of The Grapes of Wrath, Steinbeck’s statement that people owned their land not because they had a piece of paper but because they had been born on it, worked on it, and died on it is given to the half-crazy character Muley Graves. His sentiments, and the injustice of the dispossession behind them, resonate throughout the drama. Again, however, these remarks bear very little relationship to the real farmers of Oklahoma. American rural communities have rarely been populated by the permanent, hidebound settlers that urban journalists and novelists have so condescendingly assumed. Southwestern farmers in the early twentieth century were highly mobile people who felt free to move about in search of better land or even to leave the land for opportunities in town. At the 1930 Census, forty-four percent of Oklahoma farmers and forty-seven percent of those in Arkansas said they had been on their current farms for less than two years. They were actually more mobile than the national farm average, where only twenty-eight percent answered the same. A 1937 study by a sociologist found that the average Oklahoma farmer moved four times in his working life, five times if he was a tenant. The Joads, who had all grown up in the same place where Grampa had fought off snakes and Indians in the nineteenth century, would have been most unusual Oklahomans.

A large part of Steinbeck’s success with his reading public lay in his ability to merge deep, mythical concerns with the American experience. One of the reasons why his Okie story defined the era, while other Depression tales of poverty and hardship did not, was its theme from Exodus. But, once more, this part of the tale had very little historical authenticity. The road the migrants took was not a Biblical camel track but the comparatively new national highway Route 66, which since the 1920s had provided a direct route from the southwest to the California coast. Steinbeck treats the road more like a covered wagon trail than the fast, modern highway it actually was. In reality, if their car was in good shape, an Oklahoma family in the 1930s could make it to California in three days. Rather than taking weeks while yarning about their hardship with other travellers and singing folk songs around campfires, the real migrants slept en route in auto courts (motels) for two or three nights. While some used the highway several times in the 1930s to test job prospects, others did the same simply to pay short visits to relatives. Gregory writes:

Ease of transportation was the key both to the volume of migration and to the special frame of mind with which the newcomers began their California stay. The automobile gave these and other twentieth-century migrants a flexibility that cross-country or trans-Atlantic migrants of earlier eras did not share. By reducing the costs and inconveniences of long distance travel, it made it easy for those who were tentative or doubtful, who under other circumstances would have stayed behind, to go anyway. They went knowing that for the price of a few tanks of gasoline they could always return.
Even if all they had was an old jalopy of the kind that broke down, this by no means necessitated the tragedy implied by Dorothea Lange’s photographs. Gregory points out that farming families had a number of options to make money en route. Some of them planned their journey to coincide with the Arizona cotton-picking season. Others who were less well organized nonetheless found plenty of agricultural employment along the way in the newly developed irrigation fields of the desert state. In the 1930s, Arizona acquired thousands of new citizens in this way.

This version of the story, in which agricultural migrants had many more active choices than the powerless victims of Steinbeck’s novel, was also true of California. Although the state was hit particularly hard by the Depression, with the unemployment rate reaching twenty-nine percent in early 1933, its economy bounced back comparatively quickly between 1934 and 1937. In this period, Californian agriculture suffered not unemployment but labor shortages. At the time, Californian growers needed thousands of harvesters for their crops. In the San Joaquin Valley, cotton acreages quadrupled between 1932 and 1936. As a result, demand for cotton pickers soared and wages more than doubled. From forty-five cents for one hundred pounds in 1932, the rate for cotton picking rose to ninety cents in 1934 and one dollar in 1936. A new bout of recession in 1937–38 reduced wages to seventy-five cents per one hundred pounds, but this still paid twenty to fifty percent more than the going rate in the southwest. In almost every other industry where low-skilled Okie agricultural laborers sought work, such as meat packing, oil, cement, clay, machinery, railroad, and ice manufacturing, Californian wages were twenty to fifty percent higher than back home.

California also had a much more generous unemployment relief system: $40 a month for a family of four, compared to $10 to $12 a month in the southwest. Although paying relief to migrants generated resentment among Californian taxpayers, it was an important consideration for agricultural workers. It obviated the need to follow the harvests up and down the state all year and allowed them to drop their nomad status and settle with their children in one place, working part of the year on the harvests, part in construction and similar laboring occupations, and part on relief. The combined income from these varied sources lifted them out of poverty, giving them a modest but decent standard of living.

The social policy Steinbeck favored for them was quite different. He was part of a group of west-coast writers and intellectuals who urged Washington to expand the Farm Security Administration Camps funded under the New Deal. The Grapes of Wrath described a model camp of this kind in the form of Weedpatch where the Joads stay for a while. The author dedicated his novel to Tom Collins, a social worker who administered one of these camps and who was one of his principal informants about Okie customs and language. The FDA camps comprised orderly rows of tents with clean water and sanitation. They encouraged the migrants to form self-management committees to handle chores like garbage disposal and ablution block cleaning.

Most Okies who went to the agricultural valleys, however, preferred other options. “Little Oklahoma” or “Okieville” settlements sprung up on subdivisions on the outskirts of larger inland cities like Bakersfield. For as little as $5 to $10 down and the same each month, migrant families could own land on which to build their own houses. They constructed them of cheap building materials and they initially had poor water supply and sewage disposal and no electricity. However downmarket they might have seemed to other neighborhoods, who often resented their presence, these typical Okie settlements were still a long way from either the canvas lean-tos and abandoned railway carriages Steinbeck made his characters inhabit in the novel, or the prim government camps he urged the New Deal to provide for them. The great majority of real Okies voted with their feet and went to the private market to buy their own land and build their own houses.

Rather than a tragedy, the Okie migration was a success story by almost any measure. By 1940, well before the World War II manufacturing boom transformed the Californian economy, a substantial majority of Okies had attained the goals that had brought them west. Eighty-three percent of adult males were fully employed, a quarter in white-collar jobs and the rest evenly divided between skilled, semi-skilled, and unskilled occupations. About twenty percent earned $2,000 or more a year, a sum that elevated them to middle-class status after less than five years in their new state. While their average incomes were beneath those of longer established Californian families, their earnings were significantly higher and their unemployment rate significantly lower than that of their compatriots who remained in the southwest. In short, despite the Depression, California delivered on its promise.

It should be emphasized, however, that the received story of the great Okie Exodus was not entirely an invention. Instead of Steinbeck’s 300,000, there were actually about 90,000 agricultural workers fitting the Okie category who migrated to and settled in Californian farming valleys in the 1930s. While the great majority of them prospered, a small minority did not. In 1937, when the problem of migrant homelessness was at its worst, a Californian government health survey estimated there were 3,800 of these families living in squatter villages of the kind portrayed in The Grapes of Wrath. This would appear to be the most accurate estimate of the number of people who experienced what the Joads went through. This is not an insignificant number, but neither is it a quantity that warrants being the received image of the Great Depression. This number amounted to about five percent of the dimension claimed by Steinbeck and gives a fair idea of the scale of exaggeration his book has perpetrated. If this is so, it raises the question: how did such a grossly false picture become so entrenched in the popular imagination?

The Okie myth owes its existence not only to the Old Testament but also to Das Kapital. Today, Steinbeck is known as an admirer of Franklin Roosevelt, a friend of Lyndon Johnson, and a patriotic supporter of the Vietnam War of the 1960s. In the 1930s, however, he inhabited a west coast literary milieu that was much more Marxist than New Deal. One of his friends in the early 1930s was Francis Whitaker, then a leading figure in the Communist Party’s John Reed Club for writers. Through Whitaker he met the organizers of the wave of strikes conducted by the Communist-controlled Cannery and Agricultural Workers’ Industrial Union from 1933 to 1936. In these years, several young members of the John Reed Club and the Young Communist League were regular visitors to the author at his cottage in Pacific Grove.

At the time, his west coast mentors also included the aging radical author Lincoln Steffens and his wife Ella Winter. At the height of the Depression, Steffens was one of a group of celebrated writers who produced the manifesto Culture and the Crisis in which they announced their support for Communist Party political candidates. Steinbeck had begun visiting the Steffens’ household at Carmel in 1933 where he was introduced to George West, an editor at the San Francisco News, who later commissioned him to write the series of newspaper articles that became the genesis of The Grapes of Wrath. After the Communist Party proclaimed the Popular Front in 1935 to forge alliances with non-party identities and movements, Steinbeck joined the League of American Writers, the organization formed by the Communists to succeed its more militant John Reed Club. Steinbeck’s first wife, Carol Henning, was a Marxist who took him to radical political meetings in San Francisco throughout the time he wrote the novel. In 1937, the pair made what at the time was, for those intellectuals who could afford it, an almost obligatory pilgrimage to the Soviet Union to inspect the “new civilization” created by the Bolshevik regime.

These kind of political connections were not especially unusual for a hopeful young novelist in the 1930s. This was the “Red Decade” in artistic and intellectual circles when many took Marxism and Communism seriously. The Great Depression had, for some, shaken their faith in the market-based economic system; for others, it had confirmed their belief in Marxist theory, which they equated with modernism. Among aspirant writers, Marxism inspired a great deal of experimentation in literary forms, including realist prose, newsreel formats, proletarian novels, and books combining history, fiction, and documentary. Many writers on the left regarded themselves as a “proletarian avant-garde,” waging a “literary class war” against the establishment. They wrote novels, plays, poems, and songs about the strikes and the political conflicts of coal miners, steel workers, laundry hands, textile workers, and sharecroppers. One 1929 textile strike in North Carolina alone produced four novels in the subsequent decade. While much of this material was crude ideological cheerleading, some of the better proletarian novels included Upton Sinclair’s Little Steel and Harriette Arnow’s Dollmaker. The movement especially affected the publishing industry in New York. Many publishers, editors, agents, reviewers, and book sellers sought to transform what they regarded as the spirit of the age into a literary form.

Steinbeck’s first commercially successful novel, In Dubious Battle, was conceived and written within this atmosphere. This book tells how a group of Communist union leaders organize a protracted strike among agricultural workers in the Californian apple industry. The experience of getting it published, however, soured the author’s attitude towards party members. The manuscript was assessed and rejected by Harry Black, a Marxist editor at Steinbeck’s publisher, Covici-Friede, on the grounds that it was inaccurate and that its less than heroic portrayal of the strike leaders would offend readers on the left. Steinbeck was reportedly furious because “some cocktail circuit communist back in New York” had accused him of being inaccurate. Later, the critic Mary McCarthy repeated Black’s sentiments that the text was not sufficiently orthodox for a proletarian novel, a response that generated a life-long enmity between her and Steinbeck.

Today, these quibbles over Marxist orthodoxy might seem like splitting hairs. In Dubious Battle is a grim and inelegant work, but it does toe the Marxist ideological line fairly well, especially by preserving that theory’s central inconsistency: a worker’s revolution is inevitable but needs a vanguard of activists to bring it off. There was, however, a real disagreement between Steinbeck’s temperament and the demands of the party. He had more faith in the ability of the workers, rather than the party leadership, to manage their affairs. That is why, in The Grapes of Wrath, he endorsed the idea of the migrant workers running self-management committees at the Weedpatch FDA camp. To apply a label that the author himself would not have appreciated, in the great debate over Marxism within the American left during the period of the Popular Front, Steinbeck was more Trotskyite than Stalinist. He was a non-conformist Marxist who eventually became an anti-Communist in the Cold War of the 1950s, a not unfamiliar American intellectual trajectory of the era.

Even though the author’s more enthusiastic biographers would dispute calling him a Marxist, the text of The Grapes of Wrath makes it plain that he was both predicting and justifying nothing less than a proletarian revolution in America. In one of his nonfiction interludes he provides the rationale for the coming conflagration:

And the great owners, who must lose their land in an upheaval, the great owners with access to history, with eyes to read history and to know the great fact: when property accumulates in too few hands it is taken away. And that companion fact: when a majority of the people are hungry and cold they will take by force what they need. And the little screaming fact that sounds throughout all history: repression works only to strengthen and knit the repressed. The great owners ignored the three cries of history. The land fell into fewer hands, the number of the dispossessed increased, and every effort of the great owners was directed at repression.
The development of the capitalist system, he tells the reader, makes revolution almost inevitable:
The tractors which throw men out of work, the belt lines which carry loads, the machines which produce, all were increased; and more and more families scampered on the highways, looking for crumbs from the great holdings, lusting after the land beside the roads. The great owners formed associations for protection, and they met to discuss ways to intimidate, to kill, to gas. And always they were in fear of a principal—three hundred thousand—if they ever move under a leader—the end. Three hundred thousand, hungry and miserable; if they ever know themselves, the land will be theirs, and all the gas, all the rifles in the world won’t stop them.
On their great trek, this is a lesson that Steinbeck’s fictional characters learn as well. The preacher Casy, who plays the novel’s prophet, muses over the meaning of the exodus:
“They’s stuff goin’ on that the folks doin’ it don’t know nothing about—yet. They’s gonna come somepin outa all these folks goin’ wes’—outa all their farms lef’ lonely. They’s gonna come a thing that’s gonna change the whole country.”
By the end of the book, Ma Joad, who was initially concerned to keep the family together and to preserve their food and supplies for their own use, now identifies herself as one with all the other poor and oppressed.
The stout woman smiled. “No need to thank. Everybody’s in the same wagon. S’pose we was down. You’d a give us a han’.” “Yes,” Ma said, “we would.” “Or anybody.” “Or anybody. Use’ ta be the fambly was fust. It ain’t so now. It’s anybody. Worse off we get, the more we got to do.”
In other words, the Depression had taken the individualistic American farming family and turned it into a proletariat with a new set of collectivist values. Many of Steinbeck’s admirers claim that he is an observer of the human condition rather than the proselytizer of a political position, but passages like the above are little more than Marxist wishful thinking.

This was, in fact, widely recognized when the book was published. Many Californians were outraged at a story they believed was a grotesque misrepresentation that defamed their state. There were a number of anti-Steinbeck public meetings organized and several angry pamphlets produced. Steinbeck’s neighbor and fellow author Ruth Comfort Mitchell, wife of the Republican State Senator, called one of these meetings in San Francisco where she promised to write a reply to the libel and set the record straight. The sentimental novel she eventually produced, Of Human Kindness, however, was hardly a match for her rival’s ability to generate powerful literary mythology.

At the time, Whittaker Chambers showed the most insight into why such a piece of propaganda had become so popular. He contrasted the book with the film, arguing that the latter brought out the essence of what was actually a great story. Reviewing the film in Time in February 1940, Chambers wrote:

It will be a red rag to bull-mad Californians who may or may not boycott it. Others, who were merely annoyed at the exaggerations, propaganda and phony pathos of John Steinbeck’s best selling novel, may just stay away. Pinkos who did not bat an eye when the Soviet Government exterminated 3,000,000 peasants by famine, will go for a good cry over the hardship of the Okies. But people who go to pictures for the sake of seeing pictures will see a great one. For The Grapes of Wrath is possibly the best picture ever made from a so-so book… Camera craft purged the picture of the editorial rash that blotched the Steinbeck book. Cleared of excrescences, the residue is a great human story which made thousands of people, who damned the novel’s phony conclusions, read it. It is the saga of an authentic U.S. farming family who lose their land. They wander, they suffer, but they endure. They are never quite defeated, and their survival is itself a triumph.
I think Chambers is right. The Grapes of Wrath is the only example of the proletarian novel to survive. Why it became the story that defined the Great Depression for America is a question that still calls for an answer. Why weren’t other novels from this genre and this period—stories of battles at Carolina textile mills, Pennsylvania steel towns, or Appalachian coal mines—the ones that did the job? The ultimate answer does not lie in the proletarian novel or any other version of Marxist literary endeavor. The enduring appeal of Steinbeck’s story—though not his book—is its application of a great Biblical theme to the experience of an ordinary American farming family.

None of this, however, has much connection to the history of the Great Depression or the experience of the great majority of the Okies. Rather than a proletariat who learned collectivist values during a downward spiral towards immiseration, all the historical evidence points the other way. The many sociological studies made over the last forty years confirm the same picture. In the 1940s and beyond, the migrants retained their essentially individualist cultural ethos, preserved their evangelical religion, and prospered in their new environment. In popular music, Woody Guthrie’s Dust Bowl Ballads proved a bigger hit with New York bohemians than with California Okies, who much preferred Gene Autry and Merle Haggard. By the 1960s, the Okies and their offspring constituted an important part of the conservative coalition that twice elected Ronald Reagan governor of California.

From The New Criterion Vol. 20, No. 10, June 2002
©2002 The New Criterion | Back to the top |

The URL for this item is: