Lately I’ve been fascinated with learning about the Dust Bowl, thanks to Tim Egan’s excellent recent book “The Worst Hard Time.” This book inspired me to finally get around to reading John Steinbeck’s classic novel of High Plains refugees, “The Grapes of Wrath.”
One thing that struck me about Grapes of Wrath: I doubt that particular story could happen with today’s communication media, even that available to the poorest of the poor. Here’s what I mean…
In the novel, the Joad family, like many other “Okies,” is lured west primarily by handbills distributed in Oklahoma promising ample work and high wages picking produce on the farms of California. In fact, in California available farm jobs were few and wages were low to nil.
According to the novel, those handbills were distributed by labor contractors seeking to attract a glut of desperate migrant labor and their families, deliberately causing wages to plummet. Pretty sleazy, I know. (Note: I haven’t been able to determine whether those handbills are indeed a historical fact, or whether they played such a huge role in the westward Okie migration.)
Anyway just taking the novel on its own terms, consider the information environment of the rural high plains in the 1930s. News wasn’t easy to get, especially out on the farms. And in farming communities, telecommunications was rare and difficult.
Imagine Grapes of Wrath with TVs and cell phones. I don’t think the vast migration would have happened in one huge push to California. People would see the handbills, but measure that against news reports of the situation in California, and figures something was fishy with the handbills. Relatives who’d gone ahead to California could phone home to family back on the plains or on the road and tell them of desperate conditions.
Where those people would have gone, I don’t know. They sure couldn’t stay where they were. Between the Dust Bowl, the changing economics of farms, and increasingly consolidating land ownership, they were going to be refugees one way or another. But perhaps they would have dispersed with greater geographic variety.
But then, maybe we wouldn’t have all those great Woody Guthrie songs…