To her dying day, my mother could never understand the gravitational-like pull that John Steinbeck’s work exerted on me. As far as she was concerned, he’d taken the name “Okie,” promoted it into a grossly unfair label indicating people of low intelligence and lower class, and then almost personally slapped it on her back and the backs of those around her for the world to see and scorn.
In a sense, she was right. The publication – released 75 years ago – and subsequent success of Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath had shown, with relentless clarity, the horrible working and living conditions of the migrant farm workers and others who’d left the middle of America for California in the 1930s (while fiction, it was based on Steinbeck’s own observations). The popularization of “Okie” as a negative term became an unintended consequence of the novel’s runaway popularity.
Steinbeck, however, neither invented it nor made it a pejorative. That distinction goes to a California journalist who appropriated the word to describe a phenomenon he, like Steinbeck, witnessed first-hand. In an entry in the Oklahoma Historical Society’s online Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History and Culture, Carolyn G. Hanneman explains the origin of the label, noting, “In the early twentieth century people from Oklahoma were occasionally nicknamed ‘Okies,’ a special appellation that seemed a natural shortening of the state’s name.”
Then, she adds: “In the 1930s, California newspaper reporter Ben Reddick wrote a series of articles on the movement of farm laborers into California and observed that many came in cars with tags from Oklahoma. Reddick seized the Oklahoma nickname and began to apply it to all migrants. Indeed, the term ‘Okie’ took on the same negativity as a racial or ethnic slur.”
But it was certainly Steinbeck, a native Californian, and his hugely influential bestseller, that planted that slur in many minds. Okies – and, by inference, all Oklahomans – were uneducated, unwashed and unwanted, especially in California, where many of them ended up.
Those migrants from the Midwest, following the time-honored American tradition of heading west for a better life, didn’t have a lot of choices. Their diaspora had its roots in the days just after World War I, when the joyous news of the armistice also signaled the end of some huge markets for crops and meat – both here and abroad – since there were no longer vast numbers of soldiers to be fed by their governments. The grinding down from a wartime to peacetime economy led to a couple of U.S. recessions over the next four years, and farmers found themselves going into debt in order to buy new equipment that would, theoretically, increase the yield of their land and keep their incomes from dropping too precipitously.
Then came Oct. 29, 1929, and the stock market crash that echoed around the world. The Great Depression was on, and soon, in Oklahoma and its surrounding states, so were the drought and gale-force winds of the Dust Bowl.
According to the National Endowment for the Arts’ Reader’s Guide for The Grapes of Wrath, when the westward migrations described in Steinbeck’s book began in earnest, “the Depression unemployment rate was pushing 30 percent, and California entrepreneurs were spreading rumors of better days to the west.”
Unable to grow anything in the ravaged, windblown soil, those whose living came from agriculture – especially tenant farmers like Steinbeck’s Joads, who worked and lived on rented land – became incapable of paying their landlords, often resulting in the seizure of their homes and acreages. Even subsistence farmers were starving.
My mother knew about all of this. Raised in northeastern Oklahoma in the ‘20s and early ‘30s, she and her siblings experienced the Dust Bowl and its privations personally. One of the stories she told concerned her Chelsea High School graduation ceremony in 1934. Like most teen girls of the time, my mother liked to dress sharply, but the only shoes she could afford for graduation were the cheapest the Sears, Roebuck & Co. catalog had to offer, and they were adorned with big buckles, which she thought looked hideous. So when the shoes arrived in the mail, she cut the buckles off and tried to make them look like they’d never had any at all.
She said that her family, the Seelys, had been luckier than most, because her dad had a job running an oil lease. That meant he had a steady, if small, paycheck, which was something to be coveted during those Dust Bowl days. Every time the check arrived, he would go to town and buy staples like flour, sugar and lard – and always in duplicate. That was because their next-door neighbors were farmers, and, because of the adverse growing conditions, they couldn’t even raise enough crops to feed themselves. So he would always take them, as a gift, the same load of groceries that he’d bought for his family.