Wednesday, January 1, 2020

The Harvest Gypsies by John Steinbeck

Factual basis for The Grapes of Wrath
The Harvest Gypsies is a series of seven nonfiction articles that John Steinbeck wrote about migrant farm workers in California. They were originally published in October 1936 editions of The San Francisco News. These articles were eventually reprinted, along with an eighth piece entitled “Starvation Under the Orange Trees,” in a pamphlet entitled Their Blood Is Strong, published by the nonprofit Simon J. Lubin Society, a group dedicated to helping migrant workers. Like many journalistic writings produced by literary authors, The Harvest Gypsies would likely have faded quietly into obscurity were it not for the fact that these articles serve as the factual basis for Steinbeck’s 1939 magnum opus The Grapes of Wrath.

In The Harvest Gypsies, Steinbeck articulately explains how California agriculture has always relied on migrant workers for temporary low-cost labor, with successive waves of Chinese, Japanese, Mexican, and Filipino immigrants filling the role over the course of the state’s history. During the Great Depression, however, the ranks of migrant workers harvesting California-grown produce were swelled by American farmers displaced by the Dust Bowl in Kansas, Nebraska, Oklahoma, and Texas. Steinbeck describes from firsthand observation the squalid living conditions of migrant families. He also reveals ways in which these workers are exploited by landowners or neglected by state, local, and federal governments. Steinbeck then offers suggestions for reform by outlining a plan to set aside state and federal lands as subsistence farms for migrant workers and encouraging workers to organize and fight for their rights.

Throughout The Harvest Gypsies, Steinbeck’s prose alternates between pathos-inducing on-the-ground depictions of migrant poverty and a more rationally detached focus on statistics and economics. The writing calls to mind Jack London’s book-length work of 1903, The People of the Abyss, an exposé of working-class living conditions in the East End of London during the Industrial Revolution. Steinbeck is less of a blatant propagandist than London, however, and his motivations seem more humanitarian in nature than London’s strident pushing of a political agenda. Steinbeck’s articles remain vital and important today because some of the problems he describes still persist among California’s migrant workers, though those hardships are now faced mostly by immigrants rather than Dust Bowl refugees. Steinbeck does acknowledge and sympathize with laborers of other races, but since these articles were written before the civil rights movement The Harvest Gypsies primarily focuses on white labor with the intention of drawing sympathy from white landowners, politicians, and taxpayers.

Just as The Grapes of Wrath is a brilliant encapsulation of the social order of its time, The Harvest Gypsies is likewise a valuable historical document of the Great Depression in America. These brief but eloquent articles provide historical context that deepens the reader’s understanding of Steinbeck’s greatest novel.
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