I read The Grapes of Wrath—this year celebrating the 75th anniversary of its publication in 1939—the summer after I graduated from a Southern California girls’ high school less than a quarter-century after its author, John Steinbeck (1902-1968), had banged out his socialist-realist magnum opus about downtrodden Dust Bowl farmworkers. This was long before Grapes became the favorite assigned class reading of high school English teachers across America, taught both as an exposure to highbrow literature and as the purported nonfiction history of what life was like in California during the Great Depression.
I was thus able, at age 18, to form an independent assessment of Steinbeck’s novel. It was: There’s not a thing in here that rings true.
I’d been to the book’s geographical setting, California’s densely agricultural San Joaquin Valley, because my parents a few years before had selected Highway 99—the same road that Steinbeck’s fictional Joad family follows as they lurch from one tragic mishap to another in their rickety Beverly Hillbillies mobile—as the quickest route for a family trip to San Francisco. I had seen no sign, in the late 1950s, that any people like the Joads had ever existed: no ragged tent-camps with starving, cruelly exploited inhabitants subsisting on vegetable gleanings; no abandoned boxcars that entire multi-generational families called home. By then, the farmworkers were all of Mexican descent, Cesar Chavez’s people.
The Okies, as they were called by us Los Angelenos because they hailed from such contiguous Southwestern states as Oklahoma, Texas, and Arkansas, filled an entirely different demographic niche in Southern California two decades after the publication of Grapes. They were the twangy hayseeds who worked defense-industry jobs around Los Angeles and oilfield jobs in Bakersfield, lived in VA-financed postwar tract developments, and adhered to flamboyant strains of Pentecostal Christianity that were the diametric opposite of the cynical religious skepticism that marks Grapes’s jailbird-on-the-lam protagonist, Tom Joad, and his mentor, the defrocked preacher and Steinbeckian Christ-figure Jim Casy (JC—get it?).
The Okies I knew of when I was growing up were also diehard political conservatives of the quasi-John Birch variety who wouldn’t have gone for the cornpone Marxism that Steinbeck put into the mouths of Tom Joad and his rebarbative mother, Ma Joad, the family matriarch. (She’s symbolic, so Steinbeck didn’t give her a first name.) Ma Joad regularly spouts pithy hick-dialectic in Grapes, such as, “If we was all mad [at the evil capitalist growers] the same way . . . they wouldn’t hunt nobody down.” The Okies believed in revolution, all right: the Reagan Revolution. They were the backbone of support for Reagan as both California governor and president of the United States. To this day, the Okie-culture-saturated San Joaquin Valley is California’s main “red-state” region.
As time rolled on, it became clear to everyone except English teachers that Steinbeck had gotten everything wrong in The Grapes of Wrath, perhaps deliberately. He was even off on Dust Bowl geography, having the Joads begin their California-bound trek in Sallisaw, in eastern Oklahoma, near the Arkansas border, where they have lost the family farm thanks to evil banks and evil machines such as tractors. In reality, the Dust Bowl of the early 1930s in Oklahoma was confined to the state’s western panhandle.
Like the Depression photographer Dorothea Lange, who was so infatuated with the picturesque primitivism of her iconic “migrant mother” in the pea-picker camp that she neglected to obtain the woman’s name or permission to take her picture, and like Woody “This Land Is Your Land” Guthrie, whose homespun collectivism was mainly popular with East Coast intellectuals, Steinbeck viewed the Okies through a lens clouded with sentimentality, fashionable leftist ideology, and an insistence on seeing only what he wanted to see. This was, perhaps, to be expected: Steinbeck himself came from an upper-middle-class family in Salinas, California, and his only hands-on contact with Okies consisted of having interviewed a few of them for some newspaper articles.