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Taylor's Wrath for Steinbeck's Grapes of Wrath

By Erin Meinert

[1] John Steinbeck's legendary work The Grapes of Wrath left a lasting impression of the Dust Bowl and the Okies with its audience. In the process, it also enraged numerous critics who felt Steinbeck's portrayal was largely exaggerated. Among these disgruntled critics was Frank J. Taylor who defamed the novel in his 1939 essay "California's Grapes of Wrath." He attacks the novel ultimately for its historical inaccuracy, pinpointing three major social groups -- the Okies, California farmers, and the government and big businesses -- that he felt Steinbeck wrongly portrayed. Combining powerful personal experiences from his visits to the agricultural valley, specific historical examples, and potent statistics, Taylor creates a convincing argument that The Grapes of Wrath truly was an exaggerated falsity that wrongly persuades and informs its audience of the Dust Bowl and its Oklahoma migrants.

[2] Among the numerous aspects of Steinbeck's work with which he disagrees, Taylor also objects to the physical and internal representations of the Okies. The Joad family is comprised of eight members from Oklahoma, the majority of whom are well over thirty years old. However, Taylor confronts this portrayal as one of the most misleading aspects of The Grapes of Wrath. In actuality, the average Okie family during the Dust Bowl migration had approximately 2.8 children with a median member age of thirty years old. Taylor claims these weathered images of Ma and Pa Joad as the leaders of the disparaged migrant family, in addition to the presence of Grandma and Grandpa Joad, were entirely used to appeal to the emotional aspect of his audience. This is further supported by the passage in which the Joad family arrived at the "land of promise" in California, where the image of starving families and children was greatly emphasized. Yet according to the historical evidence Taylor highlights, the only migrant children and families who were left hungry were those who denied the aid of the Farm Security Administration (FSA), a government agency that had eleven stockrooms intentionally located throughout California to provide for migrating Okies.

[3] The personalities of the Joad family as Steinbeck depicts them are best described as humble, determined, and traditional. Yet in the eyes of Taylor, the Okies are anything but the above qualities. Instead, they are ignorant, unintelligible, and stubborn. They pursue actions that they know may be largely unrewarding, they defy the laws of basic human intelligence, and they openly reject the aid of government institutions that seek only to assist them. Taylor focuses on the most demeaning and incomprehensible stories to illuminate the Okies in a different light. He recalls a story from Magera County in which a group of migrants seek refuge atop a steaming manure pile for heat and refuse to move until they are forcibly taken away by police authorities. When news of a typhus outbreak became public, people were quick to blame authorities for failing to aid the migrants. Yet a closer investigation, which Taylor provides, proves that the outbreak was due to Okies who "had chopped holes in their cabin floors for toilets, without digging pits" (4). Another incident further proving the Okies' ignorance was the massive flood that Steinbeck portrayed in his novel as the final incident that doomed the Joad family. Dr. Lee A. Stone was a health officer in Magera County, the area hit hardest by the disaster. He caught wind of the catastrophic situation and thus rallied 800 refugees to higher ground and offered them all transportation back to their respective home states where work would be more prevalent. Yet the Okies denied his aid -- no more than ten people out of the 800 were receptive to his offer. Taylor uses these specific events to drive home the image of the Okies as ignorant individualists.

[4] According to Taylor, Steinbeck's novel alleges that the California farmers "deliberately lured a surplus of workers westward to depress wages, deputized peace officers to hound the migrants ever onward, burned the squatters' shack towns, stomped down gardens and destroyed surplus foods in a conspiracy to force the refugees to work for starvation wages, allowed children to hunger and mothers to bear babies unattended in squalor" (1). These accusations enrage Taylor, and he attacks these allegations with statistics and more historical examples that directly defy Steinbeck's descriptions. For example, the average California wage was $2.10 a day, which included board and medical service, a largely nonexistent refinement elsewhere, whereas the average wage in Oklahoma was a meager $1.00 per day excluding housing and health services. Clearly the conditions that California farmers endowed their workers with far exceeded those they had encountered in their past experiences. Rose of Sharon's unattended birth is another falsehood Taylor challenges. He claims this rarely, if ever, occurred because each FSA camp was forced to have at least one full-time nurse on staff at all times to assist in childbirth if the mother could not be taken to a hospital. Statistically, of the 727 children born in Kern County, over 540 were delivered in a hospital. Also, most Okies had never seen a hospital until they had ventured to California, and most migrants were accustomed to giving birth in their homes.

[5] Taylor further sympathizes with the California farmers because of the demanding nature of their job and how greatly the Okies varied from the Mexican migrants whom they typically employed. The nature of the agricultural industry is extremely demanding; as Taylor explains, "crops are so extremely perishable that they must be harvested on the day of ripening -- not a day earlier or a day later" (7). Because of this, when the produce needs to be harvested, a great number of migrants are needed for a short period of time, and consequently the workers are left jobless once the fruit is picked. Mexican migrants who would travel over the border for these jobs were ideal because they were easily accessible, and then they would "disappear over the horizon at the end of each harvest" (8). In contrast, the Okies who migrated to California not only overflowed the available job positions, but they also expected to find a permanent home and land of their own in this false utopia. Though numerous advertisements were posted warning migrants not to come westward, they came in great numbers and settled in clusters that left the current civilians with numerous problems and tax increases of over 200% to cover the welfare costs the Okies brought with them. Evidently, Steinbeck failed to include these key facts in his ruthless portrayal of the California farmers.

[6] The last social groups that Taylor felt Steinbeck had wrongly portrayed were the government and big businesses. In The Grapes of Wrath the Bank of America and the Associated Farmers are portrayed as having conspired together to drive down the migrant's wages. In reality, neither of these groups had the authority to do so. In fact, it was the Okies own kind, farmers themselves, of a specified region who would determine the appropriate earnings of each worker. Steinbeck's novel was so startling in its accusations regarding the wages that federal agencies conducted searches into the validity of this occurrence and only two cases were discovered; consequently, both contractors were stripped of their licenses. The government agency FSA created the camps in which the workers resided, and the Governor's Committee on Unemployment also worked to find Okies employment at co-operative farms. These jobs would have given Okies the chance to farm their own crops while earning good wages, yet they denied the opportunity, proclaiming "I'm not going to have any damn government telling me what I'm going to plant" (9). It was this rugged individualism that Taylor capitalized on to prove that it was the Okies at fault, not the government institutions or big businesses.

[7] In conclusion, Taylor openly defies Steinbeck's portrayal of the Dust Bowl and its Okie migrants. He attacks the historical accuracy of The Grapes of Wrath and contradicts its descriptions of the Okies, California farmers, and big businesses and government agencies. To support his arguments he draws upon statistical evidence, personal experiences, and historical examples that leave no room for questioning. His essay "California's Grapes of Wrath" illuminates an entirely different side of this era in history and leaves his audience questioning the validity of Steinbeck's novel that many accept as the truth.