Dust Drought, and Depression #18.
In 1936, The San Francisco News commissioned John Steinbeck to write a several articles about Salinas Valley migrant workers. The series, entitled “The Harvest Gypsies,” was published daily from October 5th through the 12th. Two years later, the seven articles were published in pamphlet form titled Their Blood is Strong by the Simon J. Lubin Society, with an added eighth chapter. (See the original seven articles, below)
Migrants in the hundreds of thousands were traveling, primarily from the Central Plain’s dust bowl region, to California, looking for work. Many ended up in makeshift roadside camps, impoverished.
Steinbeck traveled through the labor camps and fields with Tom Collins, staff member of the Federal Resettlement Administration, recording the terrible living conditions faced by the migrants. While touring the camps, he found once independent farmers and laborers demoralized and defeated by the poverty forced upon them by what he saw as the organized oppression of wealthy landowners. His articles record both his great indignation at the utter misery he witnessed and present possible solutions to the huge problem. Primarily he advocates the development of more Federal Camps where he argues self-government, small, family-run farms and decent living conditions would save lives and restore the migrants’ dignity. Steinbeck’s text is accompanied by twenty-two photographs by Dorothea Lange and others, several of which appeared with the original articles in the San Francisco News.
Besides being one of his earliest works of journalism, Steinbeck’s experiences touring the migrant camps would lay the foundation for his most famous work, The Grapes of Wrath (1939). Several of the people he met and events he witnessed make into the narrative in altered form. In addition to providing insight into the inspiration for one of the world’s best known novels, The Harvest Gypsies has sociologic relevance today as an historical document that provides a firsthand account of a never before seen experience in American history. Never had such a large group of Americans been displaced by natural disaster and faced such destitution and oppression. Steinbeck recounts with great indignation and sympathy the huge loss experienced by hundreds of thousands of Americans during the period.
This Dorothea Lange photo was used on the cover of Their Blood is Strong.
“Drought refugees from Oklahoma camping by the roadside. They hope to work in the cotton fields. The official at the border (California-Arizona) inspection service said that on this day, August 17, 1936, twenty-three car loads and truck loads of migrant families out of the drought counties of Oklahoma and Arkansas had passed throught that station entering California up to 3 o’clock in the afternoon.” – Dorothea Lange
Library of Congress image.