The 1930’s were a decade of great change politically, economically, and socially. The Great Depression and the Dust Bowl wore raw the nerves of the people, and our true strength was shown. From it arose John Steinbeck, a storyteller of the Okies and their hardships. His books, especially The Grapes of Wrath, are reflections of what really went on in the 1930’s. John Steinbeck did not write about what he had previously read, he instead wrote what he experienced through his travels with the migrant workers.
“His method was not to present himself notebook in hand and interview people. Instead he worked and traveled with the migrants as one of them, living as they did and arousing no suspicion from employers militantly alert against “agitators” of any kind.” (Lisca 14) John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath was derived from his personal experiences and his journeys with the migrant workers.
John Steinbeck was born on February 27, 1902 in the town of Salinas, California. Salinas was an agricultural trading center with ties to the farms and ranches in the area. Steinbeck’s father, John Steinbeck Sr.
, was in the flour-milling business and through it supported his family of three daughters and one son. Steinbeck was a good student and a great writer even at an early age; he wrote stories for his high school paper. (Lisca 1-4)
The experiences that were most influential to Steinbeck were not at school, but instead came from his home and the countryside. He read his mother’s books, which included the titles
of Crime and Punishment, Paradise Lost and The Return of the Native. Another major influence was the countryside of California that surrounded him all his childhood. He went with
his family to his mother’s family ranch, where Steinbeck was surrounded by nature, and these kinds of trips led him to write such books as “East of Eden” and “The Red Pony”.
Later in life, Steinbeck wrote a book called “In Dubious Battle”, which made him known as sympathetic to the labor conditions in California. Because of this, Steinbeck accepted assignments to write articles about the migrants working in California. Steinbeck had been aware of the labor problems in his state of California, but for these articles he wanted to experience it firsthand. For inspiration for his articles, and also what would turn out to be the inspiration for “Grapes of Wrath”, he visited the farms outside his native Salinas and also visited the squatter camps near Bakersfield (Lisca 12-14). These visits to the squatter camps led to his creation of the Weedpatch camp in “Grapes of Wrath”.
A few years later, Steinbeck returned to California to write “Grapes of Wrath” and to further research the flawed California labor.
“He was not, however, merely researching materials for his next book, but passionately involved in the suffering and injustice” (Lisca 16). His fervor for the migrant cause almost lead him to abandon his recent writing and revise “Of Mice and Men” and sell it so he could donate to money to the migrant workers.
In early September 1936, Steinbeck went back to Salinas to find that there was a violent clash between growers and workers over a strike that resulted in riots and killings. This turned Steinbeck upside down, because now it was not only something happening in California, but was happening in the town where he grew up.
While visiting migrant camps that were being flooded by the torrential rain in Visalia, he was filled with anger at the conditions in which these people were living (DeMott 3). The people
were living in flooded tents where the people were without food or fire.
The town and the county had stopped giving help because the situation had become too unbearable (DeMott
xxviii). Here is an excerpt from Steinbeck’s personal journal when he was in Visalia in the winter of 1938:
I must go over into the interior valleys. There are about five thousand families starving to death over there, not just hungry but actually starving. The government is trying to feed them and get medical attention to them with the fascist group of utilities and banks and huge growers sabotaging the thing all along .