The Grapes of Wrath
The Joads’ hometown in The Grapes of Wrath, Sallisaw, is in Sequoyah County, Oklahoma, roughly thirty miles from the Arkansas border. Scholars and readers questioned the accuracy of Steinbeck's account because the Dust Bowl had a minimal impact in Sequoyah County compared to the wheat country of western Oklahoma during the 1930s. The county’s economic problems had more to do with cotton prices dropping than with dust storms. The majority of the county’s farmers were tenants and sharecroppers with little income or education. After a brief economic boom during World War I, local farmers struggled to pay for the land and equipment that they had purchased when agricultural prices were at their peak. Sequoyah County, like many farming areas, entered an economic downturn before the Great Depression (Hall 36-39).
To deal with declining cotton prices, many farmers overburdened with debt either became tenants or moved to oil camps or cities. The boll weevil undermined the efforts of those who continued farming. At the same time, hillside topsoil, stripped and overtaxed by intensive cotton farming, eroded. Unlike the characters in Steinbeck’s novel, many county residents stayed and requested aid from federal and state agencies (Hall 40-43).
Other discrepancies exist between the novel and history. The pain of being “tractored-out,” or displaced by farm mechanization, figures prominently in Steinbeck’s novel. Yet most farm families in the county were small. Only twenty farms consisted of more than 500 acres, meaning the area lacked the type of corporate farming that dominated the Dust Bowl region. There were no corporate farms in Sequoyah County at the time, and there were as few as forty tractors in the entire county. In fact, rather than using tractors to farm, locals were more likely to have switched to raising cattle (Hall 48-49).
Whereas Steinbeck describes Oklahomans fleeing Sequoyah County and moving to California, the county was actually one of the few places in Oklahoma where the number of farmers grew during the Depression. People moved to the county because it offered cheap and relatively uncultivated tracts of land. As historian Ryan Hall suggests, this trend challenged the idea that the Dust Bowl was solely about Oklahomans moving in one direction to California (Hall 49-50).
Why, then, did Steinbeck choose Sallisaw as the setting for his novel? In all likelihood, he selected the town because the famed bank robber, Pretty Boy Floyd, had grown up in the area. He wanted to connect the Floyd family with the Joads, so Sallisaw seemed like the logical choice (Hall 51-52).
Nevertheless, Sallisaw still embodied the struggles of the Great Depression. Russell Lee, a photographer for the Farm Security Administration, visited the area after The Grapes of Wrath's publication. He was charged with capturing the landscapes that Steinbeck described. He realized that the author's depictions were not entirely accurate, but he photographed scenes that showed the essence of the novel. The images shown below are part of the photo collection that Lee created in Sequoyah County in 1939 (original captions included).
Hall, Ryan. "Struggle and Survival in Sallisaw: Revisiting John Steinbeck's Oklahoma." Agricultural History, vol. 86, no. 3, 33-56.