The Critical Response to John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath

By Barbara A. Heavilin | Go to book overview

The Grapes of Wrath

Joseph Fontenrose

Shortly after the publication of In Dubious Battle, the novel in which he first gave attention to the plight of migrant farm laborers in California, John Steinbeck made a tour of "Hoovervilles," the itinerant workers' camps, in the Salinas and San Joaquin valleys. He picked fruit and cotton beside the field laborers and reported his observations of their living and working conditions to the San Francisco News in a series of articles called "The Harvest Gypsies" ( October, 1936), later republished in pamphlet form as "Their Blood is Strong" ( 1938). Some of this material went into the interchapters of The Grapes of Wrath. The harvesters of California crops were no longer Mexicans and Orientals; now most of them were Okies and Arkies, families that had been evicted from their farms in Oklahoma, Arkansas, Kansas, Texas, and neighboring states. They had been tenant farmers or sharecroppers, burdened with heavy mortgages, and natural and economic forces had conspired to force them off the lands which they had called home. Dust storms and erosion exhausted the land and completed what economic depression had begun. The banks and the agricultural corporations (creatures of the banks) found it more profitable to foreclose mortgages and terminate tenancies, combine many farms into one plantation, and put it all to cotton. One man with a tractor could work an entire plantation for wages of three dollars a day. So the farmers and their families were evicted-- tractored off, their land plowed under and their houses pushed in, if they failed to leave promptly. Many went west to California, having heard or read that men were needed to pick the crops there.

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