Okies and John Steinbeck


by L. J. Martin


I subscribe to delanceyplace.com and get lots of interesting info from them.  The article below, a excerpt from the book John Steinbeck, although I believe only partially true, is close to the facts.  The Weedpatch it refers to is actually south of my hometown of Bakersfield, CA, near another tiny town with an equally colorful name, Pumpkin Center.

My friend and superb writer Gerry Haslam wrote lots of great stuff regarding the ‘Okie’ plight during and subsequent to the Dust Bowl.  Gerald Haslam, a native of Oildale, is the author of “Workin’ Man Blues: Country Music in California,” “The Great Central Valley: California’s Heartland,” and “Grace Period,” among many other works of fiction and nonfiction.  No one writes the lexicon of the time better, and every word of his books ring true.  Gerry, a couple of years older than me, grew up on our block in Oildale, across the river from Bakersfield.  Our little mansion was about 350 square feet, smaller than a normal two car garage.  I don’t remember Gerry’s house, but he writes with the validity of one who’s lived it.  If you’re interested in California Gerry writes great compelling stuff with authority and compassion.

Jerry Stanley’s Children of the Dust Bowl also does a great job of telling the story.

I actually made a little money from Hollywood off the Dust Bowl and from Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath.  One of the great stories from the time came from the actions of a lady of German heritage who had a big job for a woman at the time as the head librarian for the County of Kern, where Bakersfield and Weedpatch is located.  Gretchen Knief was appalled when she returned from vacation to discover that Steinbeck’s book had been banned from her libraries and from the schools by the County Board of Commissioners, and they encouraged the burning of the book on the steps of the county courthouse.  The fact was Gretchen herself did not like the book, particularly the scene at the end when a woman suckles a starving man.  However, that did not keep her from risking her job to fight to get the book reinstated in the library…this was 1939 when Nazis were burning books in her home country, a time when Americans of German heritage were looked upon with suspicion.

The head of the country commissioners happened to be judged one of the most powerful politicians in the country, much less the state, and was an ex-Grand Wizzard of the local Klu Klux Klan.  He was an interesting character, to say the least, and not one to cross.  Gretchen went head to head with him and with the board for a year.  At the end of that year, he was voted out of office, the book was reinstated in the libraries and schools, Steinbeck won a Pulitzer Prize, and Gretchen accepted a job as the head of the state library in Washington.  I wrote a screenplay set around these incidents which was optioned by an NBC approved production company, although it was never produced, I did make a little dough and was proud to tell Gretchen’s story.

By the way, my family was one of  those who came to California in 1936 with a mattress on top a Model A.  My old man took a job in a Wasco potato shed jigging and trucking 100 lb sacks of potatoes and was glad to get it.  I did the same work during the summers when in high school.  My mother hated Steinbeck as she thought he coined the term ‘Okie.’  I never discussed with her how much I admired his writing, although she saw me reading every word he wrote while in high school…I probably told her a white lie in that it was ‘assigned’ reading.

This is the delanceyplace.com piece:

In today’s excerpt – in 1933, thirty-one year old author John Steinbeck newly famous and living near Monterrey, California, with its unmatched views of the Pacific Ocean, began to notice the strange appearance of rundown vehicles from Oklahoma.  By 1938, he was watching destitute fathers cooking rats, dogs and cats as food for their children while working on what would become The Grapes of Wrath.  Though it became a best-seller, and was almost immediately recognized as an American classic, it was also reviled, accused of being “a lie, a black infernal creation of a twisted, distorted mind” by Oklahoma’s Congressman Lyle Boren, and banned by school boards in New York, Illinois, California, and elsewhere:

“To get away from the desperate scene [of his parent's illness] at home [in 1933], Steinbeck went for long walks around the town and its outlying areas; for the first time he noticed the old jalopies from Oklahoma stacked high with furniture and spilling over with ragged people en route to what they imagined was a new life in the West. This was the first trickle of Dust Bowl refugees to reach California, and Steinbeck immediately saw the glare of disappoint­ment on their faces and was moved. These ‘Okies’ set up a shantytown outside of Salinas that soon was called Little Oklahoma by the locals, and Steinbeck once spent an afternoon visiting them and hearing their stories. ‘There’s a novel here somewhere,’ he said to [his wife] Carol later. Little did he know, then, what an amazing novel it would be and how it would change his life. …

“He was hard at work on The Grapes of Wrath by midwinter [of 1938], taking occasional field trips to the sanitary camps, where conditions seemed only to worsen. In the interior valleys, he noted to [his agent] Elizabeth Otis, ‘five thousand families were starving to death.’ What appalled him was that local bankers and businessmen, the class of people he in a sense came from, did everything they could to thwart the migrants, hoping to drive them back to the Dust Bowl. He decided to write about the crisis in the local papers as a way of getting back at those who were doing the damage. ‘Shame and a hatred of publicity will do the job to the miserable local bankers,’ he told Otis, full of just indignation. ‘The death of children by starvation in our valleys is simply staggering.’ (One article did eventually come out in a local paper.)

“There was a huge flood in the Visalia region, with lightning flickering along the valley and rain falling slantwise for weeks on end. Migrant fami­lies found themselves sleeping in wet blankets, with water pouring through the thin cloth of battered tents. Children ran in the rain, got chilled, caught pneumonia, and died for lack of medicine and dry clothes or bedding. Food was scarce, and frantic fathers hunted the dumps for rats, dogs, and cats, which were duly cooked over smoldering fires. Those who still had working automobiles found themselves stranded at the roadsides, their wheels sunk in mud, their carburetors soaked. The Farm Security Administration worked day and night to bring relief in the form of food and medicine to these desperate people, but the small relief that it could offer barely scratched the surface of the problem.

“On February 14, Steinbeck joined [federal camp manager] Tom Collins for two weeks of work at the Weedpatch camp. The old pie truck couldn’t make it through the waterlogged road to the camp, where the ridges were two and three feet deep in places, so he set out with Collins on foot, walking through the night to get to the camp. Once there, though chilled and splattered and racked with a deep cough, Steinbeck worked frantically to help the sick and dying for two days without sleep, often dragging half-starved people under trees for shelter from the rain, which continued unabated. Mud-caked, drenched, and exhausted, Steinbeck continued working day after day, driven to action by the pathetic conditions of the migrants, many of whom were too weak from hunger to walk even a few steps toward a meal.

“He returned to Los Gatos for a few days at the end of the month, then headed straight back to Visalia. This time he went with a photogra­pher and an assignment from Life [magazine]. If he was going to be famous, he might as well put his fame to good use; now people would pay attention to his byline. ‘I break myself every time I go out because the argument that one person’s effort can’t really do anything doesn’t seem to apply when you come to a bunch of starving children and you have a little money,’ he wrote to Elizabeth Otis. But a serious blow came when Life refused to print the article. It was, the editor explained, too ‘liberal’ for the maga­zine’s taste. It was never kosher, then or now, to suggest that all is not well in America. Our national intentions are always good; our people are generous. The government exists to help the sick and the poor, the lame and the needy. And so forth. Steinbeck ran smack into the self-censorship of editors that has always been a crude fact of American journalism: you can say anything you want, they tell the writer, but you can’t say it here.”

Author: Jay Parini

Title: John Steinbeck

Publisher: Henry Holt

Date: Copyright 1995 by Jay Parini

Pages: 148, 198-199

L. J. Martin is the author of 30 works of fiction and non-fiction.  He lives in Montana with his wife, NYT best-selling romantic suspense author Kat Martin.  The Martin’s winter in California where both were raised.  For more see www.katmartin.com, www.ljmartin.com, www.wolfpackranch.com, and http://fromthepeapatch.com.

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