The Dust Bowl years coincided with the Great Depression, greatly magnifying disastorous effects of either calamity. Steinbeck actually participated in bringing relief to starving children and families.
Excerpts from John Steinbeck: A Biography
Author: Jay Parini
Title: John Steinbeck
Publisher: Henry Holt
Date: Copyright 1995 by Jay Parini
Pages: 148, 198-199
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.”
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Footnote to History
Dust Storms left over 500,000 persons homeless. Thousands died of either “dust pneumonia” or starvation.
How many died of starvation? While there are no official records, as one would find today, estimates range between 7,000,000 and 12,000,000 deaths from starvation and/or malnutrition.
Homelessness is an important issue in today’s American economy. Approximately 5,000,000 home mortgages are classified “non-performing”. As a matter of fact, there are people continuing to live in modest homes for which no mortgage payment has been paid since 2005.
At a ratio of 3.5 persons per household, you can readily see that as many as 17,500,000 Americans face imminent peril.
Will you look the other way? John Steinbeck did not.
Another author, Harry Dent, writes a newsletter for investors. His book “The Great Depression Ahead: How to Prosper in the Crash that Follows” lays out a compelling forecast of a more disastorous event than the first Great Depression.