Ed Wallace

Return of the Harvest Gypsies

“I want to put a tag of shame on the greedy bastards who are responsible for this [the Great Depression and its effects]. — John Steinbeck, while preparing to write The Grapes of Wrath.

When John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath was published in 1939 there was an immediate pushback against the book’s story line; in many individuals’ view, it treated the poor and outcast much too kindly, while showing the more financially secure in far too harsh a light. Certainly the farm and ranch owners of Kern County, Calif., where much of the novel takes place, got that book banned in their region; radio shows debated its obviously subversive view of our economy; and in St. Louis the Library Book sponsored a burning of the title.

That book had come about because author Steinbeck had spent a decent amount of time with Americans migrating to California during the Depression. He had already written a series of articles for the San Francisco News titled, “The Harvest Gypsies.”

In spite of that national outrage over what was in Steinbeck’s novel — or maybe because of it — the public couldn’t get enough of that particular work, making it the best-selling novel of 1939. And, though Hollywood studios were run by fairly well known conservatives, they were pragmatic ones who could sense that a blockbuster movie could be made out of Steinbeck’s masterpiece. And if there’s one thing Hollywood conservatives have always loved, it’s making money hand over fist with some of the most liberal material available.

Still, even after Darryl F. Zanuck, head of production for 20th Century Fox, optioned the book and assigned fellow conservative John Ford to direct it, the studio was concerned. And so, because of the story’s very liberal, and to some possibly even a communistic slant, 20th Century hedged its bets and hired private investigators to go to Oklahoma. They were to research the plight of that region’s farmers — and then investigate the situation of those who had already migrated to California. They were looking to see whether Steinbeck had overstated the dire straits of the working poor. But the investigators came back and told the studio heads that, if anything, Steinbeck had understated how bad things were for that class of American in that time.

Today we want to think that was a different era in America. After all, is there any other work of literature or filmmaking where the hero we empathize most with was a two-time killer?

Further, two other issues should be pointed out. The first is that, by the time John Steinbeck wrote his first articles living among the California migrants, the American economy had technically come out of the Great Depression. Corporate earnings in 1936 finally bettered their previous 1928 high, but wages were still below those from a decade earlier. Second, 75 percent of all Americans had kept or found new jobs, even in the worst days of that economic downturn.

Believe it or not, when the movie The Grapes of Wrath was first shown in Russia, no one believed that truly poor people in America owned their own vehicles and could simply drive themselves to a better future.

It was then, as now, a period of Great Divisiveness as much as it had been a Great Depression. Moreover, everyone’s viewpoints can be substantiated historically. The conservatives were right in that the economy had come back to its senses; and the success of American business was proof positive of that. So were the liberals, in that those who had been only clinging to the bottom rung of the American economic ladder were cast adrift and the rest never managed to truly recover. That’s the real secret to history: Both sides can be absolutely right, but refuse to combine their two positions to create one correct and balanced reading of our past.

But there were more than just broke Okies traveling West in their old, nearly worn-out family cars and trucks. Dorothea Lange, who owned a successful San Francisco portrait studio, in 1935 gave it up and joined the Farm Security Administration. She turned her camera’s lens from the lucrative business of photographing the Who’s Who of her city and instead focused it on the homeless and dispossessed. It is through her photography that our humanity was allowed to see the reality of the Great Depression first-hand.

Never before in America’s history had this scenario existed. True, the economy had taken lots of major downturns, but for the first time — and solely thanks to the advent of affordable transportation — you could simply drive away from your problems and head West for what you hoped would be a new future. And if, when that future was no better than the one you left, then another motorist with a camera could record for all time the reality of the collapsed lives surrounding yours.

Surprisingly, that situation is back with us today, though few care to look at it. But author Jessica Bruder’s new book, Nomadland, reveals the current version of The Grapes of Wrath: Instead of the Joads’ story of leaving Sallisaw, Okla., in a Hudson saloon car they had converted into a truck, now we read the stories of people who purchase second-hand or older RVs and trailers, sometimes for as little as $500, and wander America looking for part-time work with the seasons. Some of their stories are more shocking than one can imagine.

Bruder has already told the story of Chuck and Barb Stout in Wired magazine, but the key points are worth retelling. Chuck, who started working at a McDonald’s in Toledo, Ohio, in 1960, by the mid-Seventies was head of product development for the corporation. You’ll remember one of his key additions to the McDonald’s menu: Ice cream sundaes. In time, he quit corporate life for his own McDonald’s franchise in Pennsylvania, and on 9/11 he took out on his own for New York, to make sure the first responders had food during those first traumatic days.

The next year he retired and moved to South Carolina and did minor work, like local tours, just to stay busy, and he remarried. But after the Financial Meltdown of 2008, his Wells Fargo advisor called to tell him that his $250,000 nest egg that had been invested, paying him $4,000 a month for life, had disappeared. No more money, no more annuity, sorry, but whatcha gonna do? Then he hung up.

His new wife Barb’s investments had also disappeared. In time, the two were forced to declare bankruptcy, as Chuck’s meager $1,186 Social Security check couldn’t cover their basic costs of living. One of Barb’s family members sold the couple a nearly 20-year-old, 26-foot travel trailer that leaked when it rained for $500, and they went on the road.

Modern-day Joads

Turns out they weren’t the only ones in this condition. No, every winter the sleepy town of Quartzite, Ariz., goes from 3,300 local inhabitants to over 40,000 coming in campers, tents, travel trailers and buses. (Not everyone who winters there is destitute.) During the peak season for these snowbirds to flock in western Arizona, recruiters and promoters descend on that region handing out fliers for temporary jobs across America. In much in the same way 90 years ago, fliers were handed out back East; they promised the poor and destitute, like those in Steinbeck’s book, that an economic nirvana existed in California’s farm and ranch industries for those who didn’t mind hard work.

These modern-day Joads now drive their own beat-up old RVs, or vehicles with travel trailers behind them, and they follow the modern corporate harvest. It’s this story that brought Chuck and Barb to the Metroplex in 2015, and to the Amazon facility in Haslet. That’s right, Buck Owens may have been a child of the Great Depression whose family left Garland for Arizona in their family sedan, hoping to find a better life; but now the guy who gave us McDonald’s ice cream sundaes was leaving Arizona for Texas, for seasonal work that would last only a couple of months.

One big difference? Jeff Bezos is now playing the part of the Depression-era Kern County peach growers. And there are so many Americans now in this economic stratum that Amazon has given them an adorable name, CamperForce. It even has websites to help them find jobs, give them tips on how to winterize their trailers, and so on.

Another big difference between then and now is that Dorothea Lange’s bleak, powerful photographs of the poor in the Great Depression were in black and white; Jessica Bruder’s are in color. But so many displaced individuals are now nomads looking for low-paying seasonal work that, when Chuck and Barb made their first trip to Amazon’s Fulfillment Center in Haslet, they had to park their travel trailer 34 miles north of Alliance. Closer parks were all full.

What is the same is that we are still the most mobile nation in the world; and, when economic security has been ripped away, many have the ability to travel to another place for work. But 90 years ago the storyline was about the poor whose situation got worse; today’s story features a former McDonald’s executive, who wasn’t poor but is now.

This Scenery’s Too Familiar

Still, in many ways, both old and new stories spotlight America recovering from tough times. Even in his younger days, Walter Chrysler, who worked for railroads across the West and became known as a first rate master mechanic, often found his employment terminated when times got tough in whatever part of the country he was in. So he would literally hop on a train and hide out in a freight car, hoping to find work in another rail yard somewhere down the line.

As he would later say, if you were too proud to beg for food, you just couldn’t make it. Often he, as did thousands of others, walked up to the back door of a farmhouse near the tracks and did just that. Decades later, after he succeeded, he and his best friend Alfred Sloan, head of General Motors, traveled West; and at every train stop along the way Chrysler went to look at the initials carved into the rail line’s water tower. Sloan asked why. Chrysler told him that he’d always put his initials into the wood of the water tower in any town where people showed kindness to him when he was busted. Sure enough, he found them on that very trip.

As long as economic upheavals happen, the ability to own a car and move has proven to make the critical difference in someone’s future. The only questions are why we allow these upheavals to keep happening — and why it is we don’t care any more about those they hurt.

© Ed Wallace 2017

Ed Wallace is a recipient of the Gerald R. Loeb Award for business journalism, bestowed by the Anderson School of Business at UCLA, and hosts the top-rated talk show, Wheels, 8:00 to 1:00 Saturdays on 570 KLIF AM. Email: edwallace570@gmail.com