Did Steinbeck Get It Right? The True Tale of the Joads

Lecture Description

Steinbeck’s famous “Okies” weren’t from the Dust Bowl. That’s a misunderstanding. Most of those in the Dust Bowl region owned their land, and they stuck it out. In this talk, Weisiger draws from her book “Land of Plenty” and on her article “The Reception of the Grapes of Wrath in Oklahoma: A Reappraisal.”
She begins the talk by explaining that Steinbeck’s dust bowlers were actually from the eastern part of Oklahoma, a region of poor tenant farmers who were evicted, in part as a result of provisions of the Agricultural Adjustment Act, which paid landlords to take land out of production. Cotton growers in Arizona lured these farm families to the Southwest to pick cotton, then when the harvest was over, they pushed the migrant workers on to California. Journalists, government workers, and writers like Steinbeck assumed the stream of migrants were “refugees” from the environmental crisis that became known as the Dust Bowl, and the label stuck.
The book was widely read in Oklahoma immediately after publication in 1939, though some readers were offended by the profanity and earthy sensuality (as was true nationally). By 1940–following the release of the movie and an exhibit of Farm Security Administration photographs that documented the plight of the migrants–many Oklahomans came to see that Steinbeck’s portrait was largely accurate. In 1941, however, after congressional hearings on the causes of the migration, Oklahoma’s leaders vocally objected to Steinbeck’s portrait of the state, claiming that he had unfairly soiled its image.

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Great Depression Print Culture

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