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Films >> Grapes of Wrath (1940) >> Issue Essay >>

Miron's Criticism of McWilliams and Company

By Eric Weiss

[1] John Steinbeck's virulent attack on the California agricultural system in Grapes of Wrath shocked people out of their "everything is fine" mindset and allowed for the masses to understand some of hardships of the economic depression and the consequences of the drought in midwestern United States. However, his assessment of the problem leads audiences to the wrong conclusions about the majority of the lifestyles of migrant workers. Similarly, Cary McWilliams, former director of California State Division of Immigration and Housing, inaccurately portrayed California's agricultural system in his 1939 Factories in the Field so as to stir change in California's legislature. While his intentions may have been sincere, McWilliams' demagogue-like work designates blame by utilizing sweeping generalization and scant statistical proof or insightful analysis. In his The Truth about John Steinbeck and the Migrants (1939) George Thomas Miron examines Steinbeck's and McWilliams' works by dissecting their arguments and pointing out their contradictions, biases, and shortsighted solutions that perpetuated the problems in government instead of presenting solutions for them.

[2] According to Miron, the stinging approach that McWilliams takes in Factories in the Field causes him to contradict himself on more than one occasion. McWilliams declares that the value of California's agricultural increases after 1929 in order to make it seem like farmers pushed the migrant workers' wages down without any impetus; yet Miron argues that in 1929 the gross agricultural product was 7.5 million dollars, which deteriorated to 3.72 million dollars by 1932. This oversight is but one example of the sweeping generalizations that plague Steinbeck's and McWilliams' works. Another contradiction found in both works is blaming both the influx of Okies and the border patrol between counties in California on the farmers. While it may very well have been the farmers that sent handbills out to call for workers, it was also the farmers that stationed police to stop the excess migrant workers from entering the state. So, instead of liberating farmers of this blame, both Steinbeck and McWilliams chastise the farmers. How can they be at fault for attempting to rectify their miscalculation? Miron even goes as far to say that they did not miscalculate, because in the years prior to the depression era when the Chinese were excluded from California in the late 1800s, there was a serious shortage of work and the agricultural industry took a massive dive. This fact that both Steinbeck and McWilliams conveniently omit from their works explains the excess handbills that farmers sent to try to bring in workers, although there were a handful that used the excess handbills to purposely drive wages down.

[3] Even when McWilliams put forth a solution, Miron recognizes that his biases against farmers were integral in the structure of the plan. For instance, McWilliams called for a unionization of all field and cannery workers into one strong union and an abolition of California's "system of agricultural ownership." Basically McWilliams believes that if the state tightens its grip on control of farming, it can regulate the influx of migrants. While in theory this solution may be logically sound, McWilliams forgets that the state would have just as little control over the agricultural tide as the farmers do. In other words, the farmers are forced into the wages they provide by the economic and agricultural ups and downs. The farming business requires intense periods of work for short periods of time and then almost no work while the crops grow. Weather and foreign competitors as well as market prices influence these factors and cannot be regulated by anyone, let alone the state. In actuality, McWilliams' plan would only run the small farmers out of business while the larger farms would profit from the technological innovations that were growing ever faster. McWilliams' plan cuts out the farmers and gives their livelihood over to state control -- just another example of how he vilifies California's farmers, whose only ill was to try to break even with their year's harvest.

[4] Another way McWilliams belittles the farmers in Miron's view is by accusing them of importing minorities such as the Chinese, Japanese, and Filipinos, "running them through the hopper," then leaving them out on the streets with no housing or clean water. Steinbeck and McWilliams portray a vicious lifestyle that only a fraction of the population of migrants was forced to endure. By phrase-twisting and generalizing McWilliams lays the blame on the farmers when the government was the force behind the expulsion of foreign migrants. Although certain farmers were guilty of driving down wages and leaving the migrant workers jobless, Steinbeck and McWilliams vilify all California farmers in sweeping generalizations that only serve to infuriate farmers and incite public rebellion rather than find reasonable solutions to the migrant problem.

[5] Both Miron and McWilliams agree that the migrant problem in California is indeed a real issue, but the two authors disagree on how to fix this raging problem. McWilliams and Steinbeck utilize their works in order to exaggerate the extent of the abject poverty that some of the Okies had to endure so as to incite public anger and cause change from the bottom up. Miron, on the other hand, believes that this shortsighted method of change will be ineffective because it doesn't solve the problem at hand. When one thinks about the problem thoroughly, he will realize the migrant problem is directly caused by the economic and agricultural pressures put on farmers. Foreign farmers, opposing state farmers, world markets, and urban markets set the prices at which farmers were forced to sell, which in turn affected the migrant workers' wages.

[6] In short, Miron claims that both McWilliams and Steinbeck reveal their ignorance of the true issue when they blame the hardships of the migrants on these farmers. Instead of vilifying them, McWilliams should try to understand the pressures that forced the wages to drop so he could make a real difference through his powerful position of director of California State Division of Immigration and Housing. Farmers have the power to spark change in the migrant worker's life. Steinbeck's and McWilliams' prejudices against these farmers and their attempt to vilify them by use of phrase-twisting and sweeping generalization shows how little they really understand about the economic fabric of California's agricultural system. Miron concludes by asking how McWilliams could expect to work with these farmers in resolving the wage and living condition issue if he had such clear-cut bias against them. Only once those people in the legislature level with the farmers and understand they are just looking out for their families can they begin to come to the resolution that may finally cause change for the poorest of the migrants living in squatter camps and succumbing to the economic difficulties that plague California.