The Julie and Rocky Dixon Chair of U.S. Western History and an associate professor of history and environmental studies at the University of Oregon, Marsha Weisiger specializes in the environmental history of the American West. Her research and teaching also encompass Native Americans, gender, social and labor history, and public history. Her book Dreaming of Sheep in Navajo Country (2009) won four awards, including the Western History Association's Hal Rothman Book Award and the the Pacific Coast Branch of the American Historical Association's Carol and Norris Hundley Award. She is also the author of Land of Plenty: Oklahomans in the Cotton Fields of Arizona, 1933-1942 (1995). She is currently working on two related books, one on the meaning of wildness along western rivers and the other on the ways that explorers, scientists, and recreationists narrated their adventures down the Colorado River. Additionally, she is researching the history of the intersections between the countercultural and environmental movements.
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.