Steinbeck’s Salinas Valley

The 1939 Federal Writers Project guide to California said of the area: "Here latter-day millionaires following in the steps of the mid-Victorian 'bonanza kings' have laid out estates, golf links, racetracks and polo fields." But the authors also noted that the verdant fields were troubled by the violence of the 1936 lettuce strike.

1930s postcard from Salinas 

The 1939 Federal Writers Project guide to California said of the area: "Here latter-day millionaires following in the steps of the mid-Victorian 'bonanza kings' have laid out estates, golf links, racetracks and polo fields." But the authors also noted that the verdant fields were troubled by the violence of the 1936 lettuce strike.

The Grapes of Wrath was published April 14, 1939 at a cover price of  $2.75. By May 6, two weeks after publication, it was at the top of the best seller list and remained there for two years. The book won the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize for fiction. The novel is still one of the most widely taught of all pieces of American literature. The images from the book and subsequent movie remain among the most indelible images of America during the Great Depression.

The Grapes of Wrath 

The Grapes of Wrath was published April 14, 1939 at a cover price of $2.75. By May 6, two weeks after publication, it was at the top of the best seller list and remained there for two years. The book won the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize for fiction. The novel is still one of the most widely taught of all pieces of American literature. The images from the book and subsequent movie remain among the most indelible images of America during the Great Depression.

Clell Pruett burns a copy of The Grapes Of Wrath as Bill Camp and another leader of the Associated Farmers stand by.  “One member of the county board of supervisors denounced the book as a 'libel and lie.' In August 1939, by a vote of 4 to 1, the board approved a resolution banning The Grapes Of Wrath from county libraries and schools.” Rick Wartzman, author of Obscene In The Extreme, says what happened in Kern County illustrates the deep divide between left and right in California in the 1930s.

Burning the Grapes of Wrath in 1939 

Clell Pruett burns a copy of The Grapes Of Wrath as Bill Camp and another leader of the Associated Farmers stand by. “One member of the county board of supervisors denounced the book as a 'libel and lie.' In August 1939, by a vote of 4 to 1, the board approved a resolution banning The Grapes Of Wrath from county libraries and schools.” Rick Wartzman, author of Obscene In The Extreme, says what happened in Kern County illustrates the deep divide between left and right in California in the 1930s.

Filipino boys thinning lettuce. Salinas Valley, California. Photo by Dorothea Lange. The more than 160,000 images of the Farm Security Administration-Office of War Information Collection are a landmark in the history of documentary photography. The images show Americans at home, at work, and at play, with an emphasis on rural and small-town life and the adverse effects of the Great Depression, the Dust Bowl, and increasing farm mechanization.

Lettuce field, 1939 

Filipino boys thinning lettuce. Salinas Valley, California. Photo by Dorothea Lange. The more than 160,000 images of the Farm Security Administration-Office of War Information Collection are a landmark in the history of documentary photography. The images show Americans at home, at work, and at play, with an emphasis on rural and small-town life and the adverse effects of the Great Depression, the Dust Bowl, and increasing farm mechanization.

The Department of Labor ranks field work among the most hazardous jobs in the country. Workers are exposed to the weather, pesticides, and hours of backbreaking work – many for just over minimum wage.  “The cutting and packing sheds require labor -- women and men to prepare the lettuce. These were migrant people who went from one place to another as the crop came in. There were a great many of them and they worked by the hour, and some by piecework.” John Steinbeck

Salinas field workers, 2013 

The Department of Labor ranks field work among the most hazardous jobs in the country. Workers are exposed to the weather, pesticides, and hours of backbreaking work – many for just over minimum wage. “The cutting and packing sheds require labor -- women and men to prepare the lettuce. These were migrant people who went from one place to another as the crop came in. There were a great many of them and they worked by the hour, and some by piecework.” John Steinbeck

Arkansas girl in migrant camp near Greenfield, Salinas Valley, California. This is an Arkansawyers auto camp, filled almost completely with Arkansawyers recently in California. Rent ten dollars per month for one room, iron bed, electric light. Lange's image of a migrant mother and child is one of the touchstones of The Great Depression. There are several hundred photos of migrant life in the Salinas valley in the Library of Congress collection.

Little girl by Dorothea Lange 

Arkansas girl in migrant camp near Greenfield, Salinas Valley, California. This is an Arkansawyers auto camp, filled almost completely with Arkansawyers recently in California. Rent ten dollars per month for one room, iron bed, electric light. Lange's image of a migrant mother and child is one of the touchstones of The Great Depression. There are several hundred photos of migrant life in the Salinas valley in the Library of Congress collection.

Many children of field laborers live in migrant camps. Census data shows that they are among the poorest in the state of California.

Children of field workers, Salinas, 2013 

Many children of field laborers live in migrant camps. Census data shows that they are among the poorest in the state of California.

White section gang near King City, California. Before the depression this work was done entirely by Mexican labor. The 1939 FSA description echoes Steinbeck's observation in The Harvest Gypsies: "Because the old kind of laborers, Mexicans and Filipinos, are being deported and repatriated very rapidly, while on the other hand the river of dust bowl refugees increases all the time."

"The White Gang" 

White section gang near King City, California. Before the depression this work was done entirely by Mexican labor. The 1939 FSA description echoes Steinbeck's observation in The Harvest Gypsies: "Because the old kind of laborers, Mexicans and Filipinos, are being deported and repatriated very rapidly, while on the other hand the river of dust bowl refugees increases all the time."

The fields of California were the scene of a bitter struggle in the 1960s as Cesar Chavez led the fight to organize farm workers. During the grape boycott Chavez highlighted the continuing poverty of field laborers in relation to that of consumers.

United Farmworkers banner 

The fields of California were the scene of a bitter struggle in the 1960s as Cesar Chavez led the fight to organize farm workers. During the grape boycott Chavez highlighted the continuing poverty of field laborers in relation to that of consumers.

John Steinbeck was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1962 "for his realistic and imaginative writings, combining as they do sympathetic humour and keen social perception". In his acceptance speech Steinbeck spoke of the responsibilities of the writer. "Literature is as old as speech. It grew out of human need for it, and it has not changed except to become more needed."

Steinbeck: American hero, Nobel laureate 

John Steinbeck was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1962 "for his realistic and imaginative writings, combining as they do sympathetic humour and keen social perception". In his acceptance speech Steinbeck spoke of the responsibilities of the writer. "Literature is as old as speech. It grew out of human need for it, and it has not changed except to become more needed."


Library of Congress FSA/OWI Photographs

NPR:’Grapes Of Wrath’ And The Politics of Book Burning

Nobel Prizes: John Steinbeck

The Steinbeck Institute

The Steinbeck Center

PBS: The American Novel: John Steinbeck

PBS: The Fight in the Fields

 
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