Article

The Grapes of Wrath's fictional Joad family represented thousands of real migrants forced to flee the Dust Bowl for the Golden State of California.

Photograph by Dorothea Lange, Farm Security Administration, courtesy Library of Congress

The Plow that Broke the Plains
For the first half of the 19th century, farmers used cast-iron plows to till soil in the Great Plains region. It wasn’t until blacksmith John Deere invented the steel plow that farmers could break down the complex root structure of Great Plains grasses on a larger scale. Deere’s plows were so effective they became known as “the plow that broke the plains.” Years later, this name would take on a new meaning as over farming in the region contributed to the Dust Bowl.
The Harvest Gypsies
The Grapes of Wrath was born from Steinbeck’s “The Harvest Gypsies”, a series of seven essays published in the San Francisco News in October 1936. Steinbeck’s research and observations for the series would serve as the foundation for The Grapes of Wrath two and a half years later.

By Ryan Schleeter

Monday, April 7, 2014

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.”

Vocabulary

Term Part of Speech Definition Encyclopedic Entry

abiding

Adjective

long-lasting and steady.

agricultural practice

Noun

method used to harvest crops or care for livestock.

agriculture

Noun

the art and science of cultivating the land for growing crops (farming) or raising livestock (ranching).

Encyclopedic Entry: agriculture

betray

Verb

to be disloyal to someone.

class

Noun

division in society based on income and type of employment.

connotation

Noun

additional meaning implied by a word or expression.

contemporary

Adjective

having to do with the present time period.

contend

Verb

to sincerely assert.

context

Noun

set of facts having to do with a specific event or situation.

controversial

Noun

questionable or leading to argument.

devastate

Verb

to destroy.

disaster

Noun

terrible and damaging event.

drought

Noun

period of greatly reduced precipitation.

Encyclopedic Entry: drought

droves

Plural Noun

large, moving crowds of people.

Dust Bowl

Noun

(1930-1940) term for the Great Plains of the U.S. and Canada when severe dust storms forced thousands of people off their farms.

dust storm

Noun

weather pattern of wind blowing dust over large regions of land.

ecology

Noun

branch of biology that studies the relationship between living organisms and their environment.

Encyclopedic Entry: ecology

economy

Noun

system of production, distribution, and consumption of goods and services.

Edenic

Adjective

having to do with paradise, or a perfect place.

elements

Plural Noun

weather or climate.

empathetic

Adjective

identification with the feelings, thoughts, and attitudes of others.

encounter

Verb

to meet, especially unexpectedly.

engage

Verb

to become actively involved with something.

erosion

Noun

act in which earth is worn away, often by water, wind, or ice.

Encyclopedic Entry: erosion

factor

Noun

element contributing to an event or outcome.

fallow

Noun

a field not in use.

familiarize

Verb

to understand how something works or operates.

fiction

Noun

media, such as books or films, that are imaginative and not true stories.

frenzy

Noun

extreme agitation or excitement.

Great Depression

Noun

(1929-1941) period of very low economic activity in the U.S. and throughout the world.

Great Plains

Noun

grassland region of North America, between the Rocky Mountains and the Mississippi River.

greenhouse gas

Noun

gas in the atmosphere, such as carbon dioxide, methane, water vapor, and ozone, that absorbs solar heat reflected by the surface of the Earth, warming the atmosphere.

idealize

Verb

to represent something in its perfect form.

identity

Noun

how a person defines themselves, or how others define them.

ignorance

Noun

lack of knowledge or education about a subject.

illusion

Noun

plan or occurrence that creates a false belief.

inception

Noun

origin or start.

industry

Noun

activity that produces goods and services.

labor

Noun

work or employment.

landscape

Noun

the geographic features of a region.

Encyclopedic Entry: landscape

loam

Noun

fertile soil rich in sand, silt, and smaller amounts of clay.

longevity

Noun

length or duration of a service, including usefulness or life itself.

metropolitan area

Noun

region surrounding a central city and has at least 15 percent of its residents working in the central city.

migrate

Verb

to move from one place or activity to another.

modification

Noun

partial change or alteration.

novel

Noun

fictional narrative or story.

pivotal

Adjective

very important or crucial point.

produce

Noun

agricultural products such as vegetables and fruits.

profit

Noun

money earned after production costs and taxes are subtracted.

prolonged

Adjective

taking more time than anticipated.

publication

Noun

communication that is shared with the public, usually in print or electronic format.

root

Noun

part of a plant that secures it in the soil, obtains water and nutrients, and often stores food made by leaves.

scholar

Noun

educated person.

sentimental

Adjective

very emotional, often evoking a memory.

sharecropper

Noun

farmer who pays a portion of his harvested crop as rent.

soil

Noun

top layer of the Earth's surface where plants can grow.

staggering

Adjective

overwhelming or shocking.

subsequent

Adjective

coming after.

symbolize

Verb

to represent an object, idea, organization, or geographical region.

testament

Noun

proof or evidence.

topsoil

Noun

the most valuable, upper layer of soil, where most nutrients are found.

trek

Noun

journey, especially across difficult terrain.

unemployment

Noun

state of not having a job.

weather pattern

Noun

repeating or predictable changes in the Earth's atmosphere, such as winds, precipitation, and temperatures.

Credits

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Writer

Ryan Schleeter

Editor

Jeannie Evers

Producer

Caryl-Sue, National Geographic Society

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