This summer I’ll be taking a trip with a friend to Monterey, California. Among other things, we’ll be visiting the National Steinbeck Museum in Salinas. I’ve been there several times, but this year is the 75th anniversary of the publication of The Grapes of Wrath. The Center commissioned three artists to accompany members of their staff to travel and document the Joad family’s journey along Route 66 to California. This exhibit will be on a national tour to highlight similarities between the migrant journey in the 1930s and social issues faced today.
This reminded me that when I was teaching high school English in the late 1990s my students read The Harvest Gypsies: On the Road to the Grapes of Wrath, a collection of articles that Steinbeck wrote for The San Francisco News about the “Hoovervilles” of rural California. This series comprised the bulk of Steinbeck’s research for writing The Grapes of Wrath.
This prompted me to pull out my copy of The Harvest Gypsiesand reread it. I found that it is far more relevant today, following the financial crisis of 2008, than it was when my students read it.
When Steinbeck toured the migrant camps he found men who once had been self-reliant farmers on their own land reduced to poverty, humiliation, and starvation as they were forced to follow the crops through Central California in an attempt to keep their families alive. They weren’t always successful.
The circumstances Steinbeck chronicled in 1936 have many correlations to impoverished and homeless families today. A number of his conclusions – based on compassion for those who, through no fault of their own, were “so defeated that they had been cast down to a kind of subhumanity” – are just as relevant today as they were then.
This slim volume – a mere 66 pages – should be required reading for us all.