Of Dust and Steinbeck

By Kay Quinn Ι September 4, 2014

JohnSteinbeck_TheGrapesOfWrathAs the Salina Reads Kickoff approaches on Sept 6, my thoughts turn back to the Dirty Thirties.  In preparation for working that day alongside other Altrusans, in partnership with the Library and the Smoky Hill Museum, I’ve been re-reading The Worst Hard Time and other volumes that describe, from various perspectives, that era and its many challenges.

For me, it’s harder to read, or in the case of Ken Burns’ great two-disc  The Dust Bowl series produced in 2012 for public television, to view the actual stories of those who lived through it, including my own father, Stan Quinn, born in 1929. He can just remember his mother putting dampened sheets on the screened  windows and tending to her precious laying hens, on the farmstead on which we still live.

So, back I go to Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, this time a 75th anniversary edition of the novel first published in 1939, for a dose of reality that I can actually digest.  Steinbeck’s novel, his eighth work, won the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize in 1940.It portrays the determination of the Joads as “everyfamily,” as they struggle to withstand what some would describe as the single-most traumatic national experience between the Civil War and the dropping of the atomic bomb.

After the publication in 1936 of In Dubious Battle, Steinbeck’s fifth novel, his reputation grew as a writer/farm-labor expert. George West, chief editorial writer for the San Francisco News, asked Steinbeck to write a series of articles about California farm workers. At the time, although Dust Bowl migrants had entered the state for some years, the movement had only recently begun to be considered a social problem, with federal and state governments constructing some sample sanitary camps in response.

Steinbeck toured farms, labor camps and Hoovervilles of California’s Central Valley with key Farm Security Administration officials, who were very supportive of his project. The Arvin Sanitary Camp was run by the tireless and much-admired Tom Collins, who was to become the single-most important source for Steinbeck’s impressions of the many difficulties that the Okies and other migrants had endured. By 1940, due to limited funding and a hostile Congress and conservative press, only 15 of a planned statewide chain of camps were completed.

Even for younger readers, the irony Steinbeck employs throughout Grapes is an effective “ingredient” of the complex recipe of his plot and characters. After being thrown off the land they did not own but had loved and worked for many years, the Joads journey to California, a land of plenty where “anything can grow.” While cropland is plentiful, the poor cannot access it–even to become more self-sufficient–so the Joad’s watch people starve while the bountiful soil lays fallow.  Large farms became adept at advertising widely for far more workers than they needed, to drive wages down as low as 15 or 25 cents a day per person. Even large families in which all the children worked all day often could not earn beyond what the farms charged workers back for lodging, water, and the high-priced camp-store food.

A history of wages earned over time by oneMidwestern male migrant worker, according to the WPA, included “jackhammer operator for railroad construction in Liberty, Mo- $4.80 a day; pipe-line construction laborer, Topeka, KS, $3 a day”; and fig picker in Fresno, Calif, 10 cents a box; averaged $1.50 a day or $50 in two months.”

Despite Tom Joad’s brushes with the law, the death of Grandpa, few work opportunities, and the desertion of pregnant Rose of Sharon by her young husband, the family unit somehow survives and remains compassionate. Across the novel’s landscape, Ma Joad’s protectiveness of her immediate family, according to editor Claudia Durst Johnson, enlarges to embrace all those around her. “Use ta be the fambly was furst,” Ma says. “It ain’t so now. It’s anybody. Worse off we get, the more we got to do. (p 569).

Steinbeck came under fire, especially in California, for his New Deal politics and negative portrays of some aspects of capitalism, with Grapes being banned in numerous cities and school districts for one or more years.  Soon after publication, novel was made into a film directed by John Ford and starring Henry Fonda, who was Oscar-nominated for his portrayal of Tom. Although Grapes ends indeterminately, with Tom once again on the run from the law after killing a man during a peach picker’s strike, the family’s indomitable spirit that many say characterizes Steinbeck’s work as “truly American” does prevail.

Four days after Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain announced via radio that Britain was again at war with Germany, The Grapes of Wrath appeared in English bookshops with overwhelming positive commentary. On September 8, 1939, the London News Chronicle’s Philip Jordan headlined his book review “War or no War: Read This Book.”

In the intervening 75 years, the humanity and life lessons so genuinely depicted within The Grapes of Wrath continue to inspire. Please read it or The Worst Hard Time soon, to add a little gratitude and perspective to your everyday life.

Kay Quinn is the Marketing and Development Coordinator at Salina Arts and Humanities