John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath serves as a milestone in the plethora of literature addressing the lives, adversities and perseverance of those affected by the American Great Depression of the 1920s and 1930s. However, the responses generated by the book vary greatly. Some have hailed it as one of the great American masterpieces, flaws included, whilst others describe it as a “so-so” book fraught with distorted, dramatised history and propaganda.
The question that persists sixty-six years after the publication of the novel, and sixty-five years after the debut of John Ford’s black and white drama, is can this work serve as reliable history and enduring literature? The novel was always intended to be a literal account of the hardships of the migrating “Okies”, yet as Keith Windschuttle eloquently dissects in his article Steinbeck’s Myth of the Okies, the historical distortions of the narrative, regardless of the author’s intention, abound. Before assessing the historical merit of such a work it is important to systematically debunk the gross inaccuracies of the text.
When assessing the historical writing of narrative, especially fictitious writing that presents itself as history, it is important to take into account the inherent subjective nature of a narrative. When creating any account of history it is unavoidable that the writer of fiction (or even brute fact) will select and combine sources he designates as relevant in order to aid the overall meaning-making process of the text. Thus, Steinbeck’s attempt to generate dramatised myth around the history of depression and in particular the Okies, is only a function of the narrative intended to “capture” the reader.
For example, in response to Keith Windschuttle’s article some readers of the New Criterion have been quoted; “the greatness of The Grapes of Wrath, Steinbeck’s masterpiece and one of the great American novels, should not be minimized, and I believe Mr. Windshuttle was wrong to do so. It is a story of the bravery and perseverance of three-dimensional human beings who come to life on the novel’s pages. The Grapes of Wrath is not a mere recounting of history, demography, or geography. ” -Grey Satterfield , Oklahoma City However, one cannot deny that the text is grossly distorted and propagandist at points.
For example, the dust storms spoken of repeatedly in the novel would not have affected many of the regions described , such as the area inhabited by the Joads, Salisaw Oklahoma. In truth only 16000 people (less than 6 percent of total South Western state migrants) migrated out of dust affected regions, most of them coming from areas such as Western Kansas, Eastern Colorado and Western Texas. The confusion of dust and drought was generated by locals along route 66 who associated the numerous automobiles with the dust storms (created by wind erosion) that had attracted widespread media coverage.
Likewise, the true exodus was not caused merely by economic depression during the 1920s and 30s, but on the contrary, by economic boom generated by the increase of manufacturing and factory jobs that arose due to global demand of World War II in the 1940s. Many of the migrants were not farmers; only 36 percent owned or worked farm land whilst 50 percent had occupational jobs in urban areas. In Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath we are told that the banks are too blame for the eviction of tenant farmers and sharecroppers from their land. However, this is fraudulent.
Steinbeck’s status as a “new deal democrat” caused him to shift the blame from the policies he endorsed to the faceless evil of the banks and their “great owners”. In truth, the evictions resulted from Roosevelt’s Agricultural Adjustment Act of the New Deal; The AAA paid farmers not to grow crops and not to produce dairy produce such as milk and butter. It also paid them not to raise pigs and lambs. The money to pay the farmers for cutting back production of about 30% was raised by a tax on companies that bought the farm products and processed them into food and clothing. ]n 1936 the Supreme Court declared the AAA unconstitutional.
The majority of judges (6-3) ruled that it was illegal to levy a tax on one group (the processors) in order to pay it to another (the farmers). Thus, subsidised by government aid, landlords began to reduce their cotton acreage, evict tenants and combine their assets. By 1924 the number of tenant farmers had declined by nearly a quarter. The mythical nature of Steinbeck’s tale is biblical. Route 66 is transformed in the narrative from a highway into a fabled rite of passage akin to wagon trails or great treks.
This dangerous route coupled with the ignorance of the Joads prior to their journey creates an environment fraught with epic drama. However, many migrants were able to make the journey in three nights and four days, staying in comfortable motels along the way. The vast majority of migrants were not ignorant of their destinations, like the Joads. Most had relatives or friends in California ready to guide them upon their arrival. Those who did not have direct connections created them by sending a son or brother westwards first in order to assess the area and pave the way for the rest of the family.
For example, oral historical transcripts of genuine Okies illustrates that most of them made the journey either alone or with one or two companions; Smith: Then I left Oklahoma and rode a freight train to California M. N: By yourself? Smith: Yes I rode the freight train back. I was 17. After I got back to Oklahoma I went to work. I worked in the oil fields around Seminole, Oklahoma, in El Dorado, Arkansas and in Smackover Arkansas. An entourage of thirteen family members, as in The Grapes of Wrath, would have been very much unique. California is depicted in the novel as hostile, unfriendly and fruitless in terms of the Joad’s expectations.
However, once again the fiction errs from reality. Unemployment in California did soar during the early 1930’s to numbers as high as 29 percent, yet due to World War II and the rise of manufacturing factory positions this quickly stabilized around 1934/1937. Cotton acreage in California was actually increasing, and in areas such as San Joaquin Valley the acreage quadrupled and wages doubled. This in conjunction with California’s generous relief system ($40 compared with Oklahoma’s $10) allowed many of the migrants to settle in one place as they could rely on relief for part of the year, instead of following the harvest.
Thus the migrants found means to alleviate the dire poverty professed in the novel and gained higher wages and lower unemployment rates than their countrymen who stayed in the South West. Steinbeck’s ulterior intentions for this novel revolve around the ideas of Karl Marx’s Das Kapital. This is clearly evident from the strong proletariat theme of the novel, particularly in concord of what was an individualistic American family turned into a collectivist unit with group values. Thus we are shown a dichotomy of the human condition under adversity and a socialist analysis of their suffering.
However, this theme is superfluous. Steinbeck’s personal communistic interest was short lived. He dabbled in pro-Marxist west coast literature circles and enjoyed the company of leading socialist figures such as Francis Whitaker, yet by the time of the Cold-War he had renounced these values. Ultimately the appeal of the novel is not the hidden subterfuge of collectivist ethic but the adaptation of biblical and mythical themes to the nuclear American family, albeit narrow connections to the “true” Okies.
As Windschuttle eloquently concludes; “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 individualistic cultural ethos, preserved their evangelical religion, and prospered in their new environment. “