Steinbeck’s classic of the era Grapes of Wrath is widely accepted as the revelation of plight of farmers in the 1930s caused by devastating dust storms and bank consolidations of private small farms. It has resonated for decades and is continuing to be used considerably in high schools and universities. Yet we students need to understand that no matter how significantly Steinbeck has shaped people’s perspective of the 1930s, Grapes of Wrath is still a literary work. He had surely done a lot of research through newspapers and other sources while working on the outline of the book, but a literary work is always supplemented with PURPOSEFUL truth instead of plain facts. Facts are rephrased, exaggerated, or even twisted to fit the author’s central ideas and the book’s structure. Therefore, it should not be that big of a surprise to find out that Grapes of Wrath is not a plausible history document.
Indeed, farmers suffered miserably from crop failures and financial shortages. The Dust Bowl, though, should not be listed as the foremost contributor. The Great Depression incurred a series of New Deal reforms including the Agricultural Adjustment Act (AAA). In order to control low prices and overproduction passed down the post-WWI days, the AAA was to pay farmers not to farm. Contrary to law makers’ expectations, unemployment actually rose due to bitter objections of farmers, consumers, and retailers alike. The mere image of destroying food and burning farmlands injected resentments into the farmers. Furthermore, decreasing produce would simultaneously decrease the need for labor, which would spike the cost of labor. Large farm owners were then induced to attract more laborers to keep the wages down. Yes, the Dust Bowl did drive many farmers out of their private farms, but what truly poisoned their lives were the malignant cycle of New Deal policies. On the other hand, Dust Bowl mainly affected regions stretching from Eastern Colorado to Western Missouri. Wind erosion triggered dust storms, but human misdeeds harmed Oklahoma and Kansas. High prices during WWI brought the farmers to cultivate massive acres of marginal land which was further hurt by dry-farming techniques of modern agriculture.
The two main deceptions we commonly extract from Steinbeck’s writing is that Dust Bowl was the criminal and banks the accomplice. In reality, human efforts such as the misapplied New Deal policies, harmful farming methods, and big farm owners’ attempts to curb rising wages did more to the farmers’ misery. Having looked at Grapes of Wrath from a questioning aspect, we are able to identify the subjectivity of literary works so as not to overly trust their tenability with respect to the actual history.