by Alan McDaniel, Ali Morrison, and Doyel Armstrong
Throughout the 1940s, Oklahomans were “cursed by an inferiority complex” brought on by the publication of The Grapes of Wrath (Goins et. al. 226). The state’s relationship with Steinbeck was complicated, to be sure. The author first developed an interest in understanding the plight of displaced Oklahomans when he wrote a series of articles on migrants in California for the San Francisco News. Tom Collins, manager of the Arvin migrant camp, served as the author’s guide during his research trips. Steinbeck also conducted research at the offices of the Resettlement Administration in San Francisco and the Farm Security Administration in Washington D.C. Many believed that he also traveled to Oklahoma where he witnessed the Dust Bowl firsthand, but in reality, he spent little time in the state, only passing through on Route 66 in 1937 on his way home from Europe. This did not help his popularity in Oklahoma (Swensen 30-43).
Perhaps Oklahomans who migrated to California found a champion in Steinbeck, but many who stayed behind viewed him as a critic of the state and its citizens. W.M. Harrison, editor of the Oklahoma City Times, wrote, “Any reader who has roots planted in the red soil will boil with indignation over the bedraggled, bestial characters that will give the ignorant east convincing confirmation of their ideas of the people of the southwest…” (Shockley 354).
Others commented on the book’s significance, too. In March 1940, an exhibit in the University of Oklahoma’s Memorial Union building paired images taken by Farm Security Administration photographers with blocks of text from The Grapes of Wrath. The local press used the occasion to highlight the presence of migrant camps in Oklahoma City, along May Avenue, and in an area of Norman called Tower Town (Swensen 149).
Goins, Charles Robert, et. al. Historical Atlas of Oklahoma. University of Oklahoma Press, 2006.
Shockley, Martin Staples. “The Reception of the Grapes of Wrath in Oklahoma.” American Literature, vol. 15, no. 4, 1944, pp. 351-361.
Swensen, James R. Picturing Migrants: The Grapes of Wrath and New Deal Documentary Photography. University of Oklahoma Press, 2015.