John Steinbeck’s ‘Harvest Gypsies’ and its modern message

The Anti-Okie Panic

by Thomas Conner


In the public discourse, the desperate people pouring over the border in search of work were described as an “influx of undesirables.” They were “criminals,” “troublemakers,” “parasites,” “enemies of society,” or, even worse, “radicals.” Something had to be done to stop the “hobo horde.” No one seems to have suggested actually building a border wall, but in the winter of 1936 one California lawman did the next best thing.

James “Two Gun” Davis, serving his second term as police chief of Los Angeles—the beginning of which found him advocating for “military, or semi-military control” of the police force—mustered 136 officers from the LAPD and marched them to the state’s borders, wherever roads and railways entered California from Arizona, Nevada, and Oregon. Their mission: keep the bums out.

The Los Angeles Times reported that February anywhere from 6,000 to 7,000 people were entering the state each month in search of farm work, and Davis claimed that 70 percent of those wound up in his city, overwhelming public services and crowding the labor pool. The newspaper’s rhetoric was highly charged and full of fear, lacking any real assumption that some of them were good people. Instead, the Times cheered “the blockade” and praised its “shock troops” (a photo of LAPD cops newly arrived in Truckee, along the road from Reno, shows them wearing actual knee-high jack boots). An opinion column favorably compared Davis’ “bums battlefield” to the Draconian vagrancy laws of Henry VIII and his successor, declaring that “Queen Elizabeth (Not Our Police) Launched the First War on Bums.”

One city councilman moved to recall this “foreign legion,” referring to Davis in the text of his motion as a “Los Angeles edition of Mussolini.” Editorials around the country condemned the deployment while officials in and out of the state questioned the legality of city police operating far outside of their jurisdiction.

By March, word was spreading that “the organization happily styling itself the Hoboes of America” had announced that its “20,000 bums will march on Southern California from the hobo convention at Louisville, Ky., in May.” Whimsical notions of a hobo convention aside (there was an annual Hobo Convention in Britt, Iowa, that began in 1900, which lives on today as the Britt Hobo Days festival, recently held August 11–14, complete with a beauty contest and 5K run), the truthiness of this news served as justification in print for the show of force against demonized fellow Americans: “The prospect of such an attempted invasion makes it a poor time to throw obstacles in the way of the State’s only protection against such swarms of two-legged locusts.”

Tempting as it may be to label this racism, the hordes in question were largely white Americans—migrants of the Dust Bowl, destitute farmers from numerous states who would all eventually wear the pejorative “Okies.” The border police force was saying pretty much what Woody Guthrie reported in his song about the blockade, “If You Ain’t Got the Do Re Mi”: “The police at the port of entry say… Better get back to beautiful Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Georgia, Tennessee.”

Any institutional racism, oddly enough, actually was on the side of foreign laborers. Californians in the ’30s would have been amenable to a wall along the state’s eastern border, not its southern one. Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce Chief George P. Clements, borrowing heavily from theories of eugenics, explained that Mexican immigrants were perfectly suited to the “unskilled, casual labor” required of California’s seasonal agriculture, “a type of labor to which the white man cannot adapt himself but which is of second nature to the Mexican.”

It was a perfect storm of fear—Californians’ fear of an invasion, the Okies’ fear of survival—and John Steinbeck drove straight into it.

A few months after Davis’ army assumed its posts, in the spring of ’36, Steinbeck toured the heart of California to see with his own eyes and hear with his own ears (and, let’s face it, smell with his own nose) the impact and ultimate result of this particular case of class warfare. Steinbeck had been asked by an editor at the San Francisco News to report on the migrant workers’ situation. After two tours of the inland valley, he wrote seven articles for the newspaper. In them, he describes, in efficient but riveting detail, the squalor of the camps—which he dubbed “Little Oklahomas”—and the cruel fates of the destitute American cast-offs who found themselves stuck there.

The series was published 80 years ago (October 5–12, 1936), and the texts remain notable as the inspiration for Steinbeck’s signature novel, The Grapes of Wrath, published three years later. (The articles also are no slouch in the annals of what would 30 years later be called New Journalism.) They are also worth revisiting amid an American campaign season that has been infused with an anti-immigrant rhetoric sounding remarkably similar to the anti-Okie panic Steinbeck was trying to allay. Over the course of a few thousand words, Steinbeck calls upon our basic decency to support—with programs, not just platitudes—our struggling fellow Americans, not bar them at the border. Even through the tinge of his own conditioned racial stereotyping, Steinbeck illuminates the danger—the tiresome, age-old, recurring danger—of demonizing an Other for political gain.

“He’s illuminating that nativist part of American history that’s always been there,” says Charles Wollenberg, California historian and author of the introduction to the latest (1988) bound publication of the “Harvest Gypsies” articles. “It’s a strain that goes back at least as far as the Know Nothing movement [in the 19th century]. Even Ben Franklin said some things about Germans coming into Pennsylvania—they’re going to take over, they breed like rabbits, they’re not integrating into society… It’s worth being aware of it every time because we can fight against it, we can take these things into consideration when we vote. What people were saying about the Irish in the 1840s or the Chinese in California in the 1860s or, in this spectacular case, the Okies in the ’30s—always there’s the idea of another group you can look upon as a threat, and particularly demagogues like Donald Trump use that to rally support and attention.”

Truth is angrier than fiction: Steinbeck’s beat

I have used a small strike in an orchard valley as the symbol of man’s eternal, bitter warfare with himself. I’m not interested in strike as a means of raising men’s wages, and I’m not interested in ranting about justice or oppression, mere outcroppings which indicate the condition.

— John Steinbeck to writer George Albee, January 1935

In the above letter, Steinbeck illuminated his intentions behind In Dubious Battle. The novel was published early in 1936, and indeed its taut tale of a workers’ strike in an apple orchard is far more sociological than political. But the book brought Steinbeck to the further attention of newspaper editor George West, who wondered if Steinbeck might in fact be interested in just such ranting.

West had been using his editorial page at the San Francisco News (a daily later combined, with others, into the Examiner) to argue for a more compassionate response to the state’s influx of migrant workers. In August 1935, West had published pieces about starving pea pickers, illustrating them with Dorothea Lange’s photos. He praised the federal government’s establishment of food delivery for the workers and the construction of two experimental camps for migrant workers. West’s editorials advocated for supporting and dignifying the workers who were, after all, so crucial to the state’s seasonal agriculture—many crops simply can’t be collected by machines—rather than turning away not just fellow Americans, but fellow human beings.

Once acquainted with Steinbeck (as introduced by journalist Lincoln Steffens), West proposed a journalism assignment to the novelist. Steinbeck remembered it in 1960 as West asking him a casual question: “There are a bunch of people over in the valley starving, John. Do you want to go over and see what it is all about?” Steinbeck thought it through by conducting research. He went to the Berkeley office of the Resettlement Administration (RA) and read through their archive of dispatches; these included the reports from the Kern Migratory Labor Camp in Arvin, just south of Bakersfield, written by its director, Tom Collins. These reports were so eloquent and accurate (including Okie dialect and aphorisms) that West had published some of them verbatim. They contained pleas for the destitute migrants, for dialogues between the government and the growers, for the construction of more camps. The words made a case at least to Steinbeck, enough to go out and see for himself.

So Steinbeck bought an old bakery truck—the “pie wagon,” he called it—and outfitted it with a cot, a chest, and an icebox. (Call it a first draft of Rocinante, the camper truck he’d take around the country two decades later for Travels With Charley.) Eric Thomsen, an assistant regional director from the RA, signed on as a guide for the trip, and the two men drove over the Diablo Range and into the Central Valley, one of the most productive agricultural regions in the world even today.

Thomsen’s guidance was calculated to make a certain impression. He first directed Steinbeck to some of the worst living conditions in the valley, the ramshackle settlements and makeshift squatters’ camps in roadside ditches. In the second of the “Harvest Gypsies” articles, Steinbeck describes a typical site. The text is dystopian, at best. Generations, dirty and hungry, huddle in houses made from paper scrounged from the nearest dump. In the first rain, these dwellings “slop down into a brown, pulpy mush.” Families sleep together on one moldy scrap of carpet, amid ticks and the buzz of flies. Children wearing sacks play in stagnant water full of hookworms, and kids die of easily-treated diseases. (Steinbeck twice mentions the lack of even breast milk for the babies, zeroing in on a heartbreaking detail that would drive his later transformation of this reality into a best-selling narrative.) Eventually, after some months in these squalid conditions, people develop a glazed look, a far-away stare, an indication of hopelessness and hunger so severe they can no longer think straight, which only further impedes their ability to work. Included in this mindset, Steinbeck says in closing, is something not essential to their character but an obvious result of their condition: “a suspicion and hatred of well-dressed, satisfied people.”

Thomsen then ushered Steinbeck to the promised land: the Arvin camp, one of two federal government camps then operating in California (the other was upstate at Marysville). This site came to be colloquially referred to as the Weedpatch Camp, but it was a tidy haven compared to the muddy misery on the roads. On a 20-acre tract, the government had built simple tent homes for 400 people. Steinbeck’s description of this site, in the fourth “Harvest Gypsies” article, contrasts the squatters’ squalor with imagery of clean lodgings and community support. Most importantly, the respect shown by the effort of government aid was crucial to restoring these people’s dignity, the loss of which—in a theme throughout this series—threatened the state with some kind of revolt:

In this series the word “dignity” has been used several times. It has been used not as some attitude of self-importance, but simply as a register of a man’s responsibility to the community. A man herded about, surrounded by armed guards, starved and forced to live in filth loses his dignity; that is, he loses his valid position in regard to society, and consequently his whole ethics toward society… We regard this destruction of dignity, then, as one of the most regrettable results of the migrant’s life, since it does reduce his responsibility and does make him a sullen outcast who will strike at our Government in any way that occurs to him.

Collins managed the comparative domestic bliss at the Arvin camp, and Steinbeck thought as much of him in person as he had from reading his reports. Steinbeck stayed at the camp for several days, attending camp meetings and going to their dances, but mostly talking to Collins, even driving with Collins in the pie wagon to see nearby farms. Steinbeck later would think of Collins as the model for Jim Rawley, the federal camp manager in The Grapes of Wrath, who Ma Joad describes as a “little man dressed all in white… a man with a thin, brown, lined face and merry eyes.” Steinbeck’s relationship with Collins would shape not only his perspective on the migrants’ situation but the overt policy suggestions he would weave into his “Harvest Gypsies” articles.

Steinbeck returned to his home in Los Gatos to start writing, but in September he was back on the road—this time witnessing not only the misery of destitute workers but the violence of their oppression. He passed through his hometown of Salinas shortly after a strike by lettuce pickers had been met with police clubs, rocks, even razor blades inserted into hurled potatoes. (“There are riots in Salinas… that dear little town where I was born,” he told a friend.) In early October, Steinbeck published an unsigned piece about the riots in Literary Digest magazine. Its opening reads like his novels:

The town’s first warning came in September, 1934, when a band of vigilantes, on a professed red-hunt, burned a workers’ settlement to the ground and drove 800 laborers from the valley. Two years later to the month, the dictatorship moved in, ruling the countryside with an iron hand from a barricaded hotel floor. To maintain “discipline,” the streets were sprayed at intervals with poison gas. Boys under twenty-one were deputized and armed. Schoolchildren were put to work fashioning clubs, although the dictatorship had not been challenged or attacked.

The story is not laid in war-torn Spain, nor in Nazi Germany—but in the United States, in the once peaceful Salinas valley, Monterey County, California. It is the story of sporadic strikes among the lettuce pickers and packers in “the Salad Bowl of America,” and the aftermath of those strikes. But it is more than that; for it is the story of a type of fascist psychology of which Sinclair Lewis opined that “It Can’t Happen Here”—because it did happen.

Witnessing the lettuce-strike violence was a turning point for Steinbeck—nudging him from simple curiosity to fierce and determined anger, and transforming a reportorial journalism project into one of activism and advocacy—according to Rick Wartzman, who wrote about the explosive impact of Steinbeck’s portrayal of Okies in his book Obscene in the Extreme: The Burning and Banning of John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath. Wartzman, a senior adviser for the Drucker Institute at Claremont Graduate University, reiterated the point to me in a recent interview: “The more he spent time actually in the fields, in the camps, going through the valley and witnessing the strike, and witnessing the giant flood [in 1938] which becomes a big part of the novel—the more he saw made him angrier and angrier. …He was clearly moved by what he saw with his own eyes.”

Steinbeck would complete his assignment for the newspaper, but he knew he had to do more with this information. This was an injustice on a large scale, and his narrative response would have to calibrate accordingly. This needed to be a novel. Steinbeck soon wrote in a letter that he was writing “a series for the S.F. News on migrant labor” before adding of the experience, “down the country I discovered a book like nothing in the world.”

Talking about a revolution: Steinbeck’s warning

The resettlement administration of the government asked me to write some news stories. The newspapers won’t touch the stuff, but they will under my byline. The locals are fighting the government bringing in food and medicine. I’m going to try to break the story hard enough so that food and drugs can get moving. Shame and a hatred of publicity will do the job to the miserable local bankers. … The death of children by starvation in our valleys is simply staggering. I’ve got to do it.

— Steinbeck to Elizabeth Otis, February 14, 1938

The “Harvest Gypsies” articles were Steinbeck’s first salvo. They would lead to other stories about the migrant crisis in California—both fictional and journalistic, for newspapers and government agencies—and they laid the theoretical foundation for The Grapes of Wrath. But it’s useful to look back through the novel’s history and hype, past the title’s seemingly benign allusion to “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” to focus on that word, “wrath.”

By the end of 1938, the first short drafts of what would become Wrath were polemics of the first order. His original titles telegraphed his disenchantment: The Great Pig Sticking and then, because the Salinas strikes formed the core of his mission, L’Affaire Lettuceburg. “He had earlier versions that were much more cynical and… ‘jokey’ isn’t the right word, but the tone was entirely different from what came together as Grapes,” Wartzman says.

The working title of the first draft long enough to be called a book was The Oklahomans. In a 1938 newspaper interview, Steinbeck said the book would explain the character of the Okie, because “the Californian doesn’t know what he does want. The Oklahoman knows just exactly what he wants. He wants a piece of land. And”—using a phrase that could sound complimentary to the Okie or threatening to the Californian, maybe both—“he goes after it and gets it.”

That year was also when the “Harvest Gypsies” articles were published again, this time as a pamphlet and notably re-titled Their Blood Is Strong. “A lot of migrants did not want to be identified as ‘gypsies,’ ” Wollenberg says. Notably, the edition of Steinbeck’s articles, for which Wollenberg wrote the introduction, restored the original title as The Harvest Gypsies: On the Road to The Grapes of Wrath. “Even within oppressed groups, there are these stereotypes and prejudices.”

Such stereotypes were tricky to navigate, and Steinbeck’s good intentions earned him more than his fair share of hell. The publication of Wrath irked both the landowners Steinbeck sought to judge for their brutality and the Okies he sought to assist by broadening and broadcasting their plight. Lyle Boren (David’s dad), then a junior congressman from Oklahoma, infamously vilified the book on the floor of the House, calling it a “dirty, lying, filthy manuscript.” A few months after the publication of Grapes, Steinbeck noted that “the Okies hate me and have threatened to kill me for lying about them,” though he noted this was a rumor started by “the large landowners and bankers”; still, he wrote, “I’m frightened at the rolling might of this damned thing. It is completely out of hand.”

The fright he refers to stems from a barrage of letters and insults. In the “Harvest Gypsies” articles, Steinbeck raises an alarm about a more physically violent uprising. In the first paragraph of the first article, he claims, “There are at least 150,000 homeless migrants wandering up and down the state, and that is an army large enough to make it important to every person in the state.” Steinbeck is a writer whose choices of words are rarely careless. Labeling the migrant throng as an “army” aligned his project with the fears of his audience—with ordinary citizens who couldn’t see past the pejoratives, with farm owners who feared their resources being overrun, with the residents of Los Angeles who supported Chief Davis’ mobilization of an opposing army. The last paragraph of the last article returns to the word: “The new migrants to California from the dust bowl are here to stay… They can be citizens of the highest type, or they can be an army driven by suffering and hatred to take what they need.”

You’re right, Steinbeck is implying, we need to defend ourselves. The difference, of course, is that Steinbeck is advocating peace, not war. Vigilance, not vigilantism. His justification for this, however, deserves criticism. The “Harvest Gypsies” articles are products of their era, and though Steinbeck was a firm defender of human rights across classes, he displays here a troublesome instinct for racism. His entire sixth article in the series chronicles California’s lengthy history of importing different foreign groups to work its fields. His historicization of the problem both supports his case (saying, hey, someone has to pick the damn crops, and thus far we’ve been comparatively OK with reducing brown-skinned people to this “peon class”) and weakens it with a litany of racial stereotypes and a pervading assumption that the foreign laborers possessed essential traits for enduring harsh work and treatment. He winds up agreeing with someone like Clements, who also had said that agricultural work is “not conducive to the United States standard of living.”

“His argument was, basically, you can kick around Mexicans and Filipinos and Asians, but these [Okies] are red-blooded white folks and they won’t stand for it,” Wartzman says.

“He was not particularly racist,” Wollenberg adds, “but still there’s this idea in the text that it’s good, white Americans in this situation and these people will revolt. It’s an irony of the highest level, that levels of union activity were then dominated by Mexicans and Filipinos. They were much more willing to organize and fight.”

Indeed, in the first article, Steinbeck says, “These are American people,” thus “we must meet them with understanding and attempt to work out the problem to their benefit as well as ours.” Foreign workers, by implication, did not merit such working-out, but—in a convoluted appeal to the patriotism and, perhaps hand-in-hand, the stereotyping instincts of his readership—he declares that our fellow Americans deserve the effort of our collective problem-solving. Again aware of his audience, he decries the violence against workers (“terrorism,” “fascist”) less on humanitarian grounds, deploying instead an argument in support of capitalism and the status quo. In the third article, the “stupid policy” of violent oppression by landowners “constitutes a criminal endangering of the peace of the state,” and in the final article: “The need of California agriculture for these people dictates the necessity of such a plan.”

In other words, whatever you think of the treatment of workers, we gotta keep the cauliflower trucks rolling—and the best way to accomplish that is through the thorough aid, planning, and regulation that only the might of the American federal government can justly provide, and Steinbeck (a staunch New Dealer) used his final article to detail potential policies and programs.

Today’s harvest gypsies: Steinbeck’s journalism legacy

What makes these pieces such essential reading in 2016 is the historical lesson of not only how the discourses demonizing migrant labor continue to be revived, reapplied, and recirculated but how the contemporary globalized world has complicated the identity politics on which nativist assumptions rest. The Okies had a powerhouse figure in a centralized media system to make that case for them. Who is making that case for the Mexican immigrants at the center of anti-migrant polemics today?

In 2016, the part of Chief Davis is played by Donald Trump, vowing to raise a shield at the latest border in question allegedly to protect due process and the superior human rights of native citizens. The part of Steinbeck is played by… well, it’s not easy to find those voices in today’s decentralized media landscape, but here are three worth seeking out:

• David Bacon is a write and photographer whose work has chronicled the difficult context of whole communities in Mexico dependent on the resources delivered by migrant laborers in the United States. He’s written, too, about continuing efforts to prevent the organizing and striking of these workers, and his continuing work for The Nation exposes consistent brutality against Mexican migrants. He published the 2008 book Illegal People: How Globalization Creates Migration and Criminalizes Immigrants.

• Matt Black is a documentary photographer and writer using new media to highlight connections between current migration, agriculture, and poverty in rural California and southern Mexico. One project in process, partly inspired by Dorothea Lange’s famous Dust Bowl photos, is The Forgotten Black Okies: A Lost Journey Into a Land of Broken Promises, a series of photographs of sharecroppers in central California—many of them descendents of African-American Okies who “worked side by side with Steinbeck’s Joads” but “no books or photographs ever documented their lives.” He’s also created The Geography of Poverty, a digital documentary combining geo-tagged photographs with census data to map and document America’s poorest communities.

• The International Labour Organization presents annual awards for Excellence in Reporting Fairly on Labour Migration. Their honorees work in numerous languages and contexts, reporting on Okie reverberations in California and also Middle Eastern migrants in Europe, African migrants in the Middle East, and migrants throughout Asia.

The themes recurring throughout current migrant-labor journalism are easily recognizable as those that drove Steinbeck to report on the “Harvest Gypsies.”

“The whole underlying premise to ‘Harvest Gypsies,’ and eventually Grapes, was that we live in this land, even during tough economic times back then, by and large with prosperity for some at the top—and how long are the people shut out of that going to stand for it?” Wartzman says. “It certainly echoes what’s being said today. Look at the political right with Trump and the left with what Bernie [Sanders] has been able to accomplish and the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street—they’re all movements that you can argue have said at least somewhat what Steinbeck was saying, which is we’d better do something for these people and give them opportunity or we’ll have a real revolt on our hands. The caveat, of course, is that, even with all that, America has proved itself as quite conservative and exceptional in that way. We didn’t have a revolution in the ’30s. But given how these discourses keep circling back, the question keeps coming up, more urgently: How long can you keep pushing people before something does snap?”

Originally published in This Land: Fall 2016