Up from the Dust
IT WAS 1952, AND OLIVER CARLSON WAS BACK IN KERN COUNTY, TRYING TO FIND out what had happened to the Dust Bowl migrants. He had spent time there before, in the late 1930s. Much had changed, including the investigator himself. At one time he had been willing to highlight the inequalities of American life; now his eyes were trained on evidence of the selfrestorative ability of "America's system of free opportunity for all." And he was sure he had found it. Gone were the dilapidated cars, the roadside encampments, the tents and ragged clothes, the hungry looks that he remembered. The terrible poverty of the 1930s had vanished. The valley seemed more prosperous now, and the Okies with it. "The pariahs, outcasts and social lepers of yesterday have become . . . worthy and respected members of the communities in which they settled. They are honest and industrious. They have better homes, better jobs, and greater economic security than ever before. They have regained their self-esteem; and they walk, talk, work and vote as equals among equals."
Especially impressive was the new look of the communities south of Bakersfield, the little towns of Arvin, Lamont, and Weedpatch in the area that had provided the setting for parts of The Grapes of Wrath. Streets of "tar-paper shacks, tents, and trailers" had given way to "modern but modest frame cottages," and men and women who had once drifted in to pick cotton now distributed themselves across many occupations and activities.