Excerpts from a commentary about the Ken Burns documentary, “The Dust Bowl,” September 24, 2014, Purdue Libraries

The Grapes of Wrath

John Steinbeck was one of the most prolific and, in my view, significant American novelists of the twentieth century. He was influenced by and synthesized his own politics and personal experience with the political culture and movements of the 1930s. He is most known for his iconic novel, The Grapes of Wrath, 1939, which described in detail the migration of the Joad family from their dust storm devastated farmland to California seeking work and eventually, they hoped, to accumulate enough money to buy land in that presumed mecca. Their travels involved encounters with thousands of other migrants, called “Okies,” desperately leaving their homelands in several Southern and Midwest states to find a livelihood. The metaphor that shapes our consciousness of the suffering of the Great Depression of the 1930s, scholar Michael Denning suggests, is a natural disaster, the Dust Bowl. 

But the natural disaster is in fact a part of a long history, political economy, politics and culture. New agricultural technologies shifted how crops were grown and what crops were produced. These changes made small farming obsolete. This and a debt system that kept tenant farmers in bondage created an inextricable connection between a crisis-prone capitalist political economy and the delicate balance of the natural environment.

Corporate land owners demanded that tenant and small farmers produce more cotton and wheat from land that had been overworked and when those farmers could not produce enough to pay their debts, tractors came and plowed under fences, farmhouses, and ways of life. In fact, the new mechanized agriculture did not require as many tenant farmers to grow the crops that fed the nation. So between the erosion of the land, the huge winds that blew the dusty soil all across the sky, the new agriculture, and the debt system millions were set afoot. The deeply indebted tenant farmers forced off their land and enticed by advertisements promising work and wealth in California began the long migrations from Oklahoma, Texas, Arkansas and elsewhere via old dilapidated trucks and cars to California. 

We’re sorry, said the owner men. The bank, the fifty-thousand-acre owner can’t be responsible. You’re on land that isn’t yours. Once over the line maybe you can pick cotton in the fall. Maybe you can go on relief. Why don’t you go on west to California? There’s work there. And it never gets cold. Why, you can reach out anywhere and pick an orange. Why, there’s always some kind of crop to work in. Why don’t you go there? And the owner men started their cars and rolled away.[1]

Steinbeck powerfully describes the trek westward, the expenditures of life savings, the prejudices of gas station owners and other merchants against the “Okies” along the way, the inspiring desperate efforts of migrants to share their meager food with others and the shocking arrival in a California where migrant labor was cheap and expendable. Grandpa and Grandma Joad died along the way. Tom the second oldest son, and a recently paroled killer, joined a California labor struggle and killed a sheriff in a brawl after his friend Preacher Casey was killed. Tom, forced to flee his family, tells his mother of his decision (powerfully recited by Henry Fonda in the movie version) after she asks how she will know about him. Tom Joad responds:

 Well, maybe like Casey says, a fella ain’t got a soul of his own, but on’y a piece of a big one-an’ then—

…..I’ll be ever’where-wherever you look. Wherever they’s a fight so hungry people can eat, I’ll be there. Wherever they’s a cop beatin’ up a guy, I’ll be there….I’ll be in the way guys yell when they’re made an’-I’ll be in the way kids laugh when they’re hungry an’ they know supper’s ready. An’ when our folks eat the stuff they raise an’ live in the houses they build—why I’ll be there.[2] 

Woody Guthrie on The Grapes of Wrath

Folk balladeer Woody Guthrie went to see the film, taken from Steinbeck’s novel and wrote in a column in the People’s World, the west coast paper of the Communist Party USA:

Seen the pitcher last night, Grapes of Wrath, best cussed pitcher I ever seen.

The Grapes of Wrath, you know is about us pullin' out of Oklahoma and Arkansas, and down south, and a driftin' around over state of California, busted, disgusted, down and out, and a lookin' for work.

Shows you how come us to be that a way. Shows the dam bankers men that broke us and the dust that choked us, and comes right out in plain old English and says what to do about it.

It says you got to get together and have some meetins, and stick together, and raise old billy hell till you get your job, and get your farm back, and your house and your chickens and your groceries and your clothes, and your money back.

Go to see Grapes of Wrath, pardner, go to see it and don't miss.

You was the star in that picture. Go and see your own self and hear your own words and your own song.[3]

One day shortly after seeing the film Guthrie bought a jug of wine, stayed up all night and penned the classic song depicting the story of The Grapes of Wrath called “Tom Joad.”


Tom Joad got out of the old McAlester Pen;

There he got his parole.

After four long years on a man killing charge,

Tom Joad come a-walkin' down the road, poor boy,

Tom Joad come a-walkin' down the road. 


Tom Joad, he met a truck driving man;

There he caught him a ride.

He said, "I just got loose from McAlester Pen

On a charge called homicide,

A charge called homicide." 


That truck rolled away in a cloud of dust;

Tommy turned his face toward home.

He met Preacher Casey, and they had a little drink,

But they found that his family they was gone,

He found that his family they was gone. 


He found his mother's old-fashion shoe,

Found his daddy's hat.

And he found little Muley and Muley said,

"They've been tractored out by the cats,

They've been tractored out by the cats." 


Tom Joad walked down to the neighbor's farm,

Found his family.

They took Preacher Casey and loaded in a car,

And his mother said, "We've got to get away."

His mother said, "We've got to get away." 


Now, the twelve of the Joads made a mighty heavy load;

But Grandpa Joad did cry.

He picked up a handful of land in his hand,

Said: "I'm stayin' with the farm till I die.

Yes, I'm stayin' with the farm till I die." 


They fed him short ribs and coffee and soothing syrup;

And Grandpa Joad did die.

They buried Grandpa Joad by the side of the road,

Grandma on the California side,

They buried Grandma on the California side. 


They stood on a mountain and they looked to the west,

And it looked like the promised land.

That bright green valley with a river running through,

There was work for every single hand, they thought,

There was work for every single hand. 


The Joads rolled away to the jungle camp,

There they cooked a stew.

And the hungry little kids of the jungle camp

Said: "We'd like to have some, too."

Said: "We'd like to have some, too." 


Now a deputy sheriff fired loose at a man,

Shot a woman in the back.

Before he could take his aim again,

Preacher Casey dropped him in his track, poor boy,

Preacher Casey dropped him in his track. 


They handcuffed Casey and they took him in jail;

And then he got away.

And he met Tom Joad on the old river bridge,

And these few words he did say, poor boy,

These few words he did say. 


"I preached for the Lord a mighty long time,

Preached about the rich and the poor.

Us workin' folkses, all get together,

'Cause we ain't got a chance anymore.

We ain't got a chance anymore." 


Now, the deputies come, and Tom and Casey run

To the bridge where the water run down.

But the vigilante thugs hit Casey with a club,

They laid Preacher Casey on the ground, poor Casey,

They laid Preacher Casey on the ground. 


Tom Joad, he grabbed that deputy's club,

Hit him over the head.

Tom Joad took flight in the dark rainy night,

And a deputy and a preacher lying dead, two men,

A deputy and a preacher lying dead. 


Tom run back where his mother was asleep;

He woke her up out of bed.

An' he kissed goodbye to the mother that he loved,

Said what Preacher Casey said, Tom Joad,

He said what Preacher Casey said. 


"Ever'body might be just one big soul,

Well it looks that a-way to me.

Everywhere that you look, in the day or night,

That's where I'm a-gonna be, Ma,

That's where I'm a-gonna be. 


Wherever little children are hungry and cry,

Wherever people ain't free.

Wherever men are fightin' for their rights,

That's where I'm a-gonna be, Ma.

That's where I'm a-gonna be."[4]


In Dubious Battle

In 1936, three years before his more famous novel, John Steinbeck published what would be a less discussed but powerful novel of labor strife in a California apple orchard. In Dubious Battle is about Communist organizers trying to mobilize super-exploited apple pickers to strike for higher wages and the right to form a union. In Dubious Battle takes place in the aftermath of large-scale strikes all up and down the west coast including a general strike by longshoremen in San Francisco. It was also at a time when the Communist Party USA was actively engaged in helping to build a new militant, largely industrial, labor movement. While the reader does not find out the outcome of the strike and the new young militant organizer Jim, working as an apprentice of the experienced Mac is killed by vigilantes, the narrative takes the effort and the party militancy seriously. It also addresses in depth the problematic tactical questions about how to build class consciousness, creating unity and willingness to struggle out of isolation and self-absorption.

Near the end of the novel Mac, the Communist leader, is called upon to give a eulogy for Joy, a hapless working class activist who spent his life protesting and getting brutally beaten by police. Joy arrived in a trainload of scabs and almost immediately is shot and killed by the same vigilantes who later would kill Jim. Mac tells the assembled mourners about Joy:

The guy’s name was Joy. He was a radical! Get it? A radical. He wanted guys like you to have enough to eat and a place to sleep where you wouldn’t get wet. He didn’t want nothing for himself He was a radical!...D’ye see what he was? A dirty bastard, a danger to the government I don’t know if you saw his face, all beat to rags. The cops done that because he was a radical. His hands were broke, an’ his jaw was broke. One time he got that jaw broke in a picket line….He was dangerous—he wanted guys like you to get enough to eat….What are you going to do about it? Dump him in a mud-hole, cover him with slush. Forget him.[5]

The Cultural Front

The heart of this cultural front was a new generation of plebeian artists and intellectuals who had grown up in the immigrant and black working-class neighborhoods of the modernist metropolis… a radical social-democratic movement forged around anti-fascism, anti-lynching and the unionism of the CIO.[6] 

Michael Denning portrays the “cultural front” of the 1930s as a broad network of organizational connections constituting a mass movement. The Communist Party of the United States was a significant element of this network, expanding well beyond the orbit of the party to encompass performance artists, labor activists, civil rights workers, and varying anti-fascist forces in the United States. The cultural front was a mass movement, it was a cultural moment,  it was an ambience or atmosphere that attracted millions of people. For Denning the cultural front’s most visible manifestation was the massive mobilization of workers to demand the right to form unions. The Congress of Industrial Organizations or CIO was its organizing vehicle and below that, it should be added, the dogged Communist Party organizers who worked for years building support for industrial unions.


Michael Denning locates the two Steinbeck novels in the context of a decade of class struggle: textile workers in Gastonia, North Carolina; the wave of strikes in coal mining, steel and laundry work by Black militants; coal miners’ struggles in Harlan County Kentucky, uprisings in steel, auto, and other manufacturing facilities across the Midwest; as well as agricultural workers struggles against powerful landowning associations in California. Denning argues that a metaphoric “way out” of exploitation and racism was migration, “and the representation of mass migration became one of the fundamental forms of the popular front….With its biblical archetype and its historical centrality--the migration of southern whites and blacks to the North and West did reshape the society on the North American continent--the migration as exodus came to be one of the grand narratives, the tall tales, of the mid-century United States.”[7]  And, of course, The Grapes of Wrath and In Dubious Battle provide the popular front—Communists, CIO labor organizers, anti-racist activists, and farm labor organizers--with “the grand narrative” that will capture the interconnectedness of struggles for land, jobs, justice, and environmental sustainability. 


Connecting the Dots from the 1930s to 2014

It is relevant to reflect today on the Dust Bowl migrations, the works of John Steinbeck and Woody Guthrie, and the cultural front of the 1930s because: 

*there always is an intimate and inextricable connection between human travails; involving the environment, the economic system, class struggle, human misery, and the need for radical change.

*social movements from time to time come together to advocate for change. Sometimes they are successful, other times not. It is through the connectedness of peoples and issues that hope resides.

*artists, whether they are directly engaged in political campaigns or not, have always played an important role as chroniclers of the human condition, as articulators of alternative visions, and as inspirations to action. You can’t have a successful political movement without song, poetry, storytelling, and visual images.

*and during periods of social upheaval “layers of causation” affect the total ambience of a period. In the 1930s the dust bowl and the depression, linked to a capitalist system in crisis, generated radical political parties, the mobilization of militant workers, and a mobile and angry rural population. In addition many artists created a popular culture that broadly represented the vision and purpose of the social movements of the time. The great African American singer and actor Paul Robeson declared in 1937: “Every artist, every scientist, must decide NOW where he/she stands. He/she has no alternative.” That understanding is relevant to artists and all of us today.

[1] John Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath. Penguin, London, 1976, 46.

[2] John Steinbeck, 572.

[3] Woody Guthrie from a column in People’s World, 1940, reprinted in Woody Sez, New York, 1975, p.133.

[4] Woody Guthrie, “Tom Joad,”

[5] John Steinbeck, In Dubious Battle, Penguin books, London,2000, 254.

[6] Michael Denning, The Cultural Front, Verso, London, 1996, xv,xviii.

[7] Michael Denning, 264.