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1939: Grapes of Wrath
June 8, 2023
by William P. Meyers

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Revolution diverted

In his famous novel, The Grapes of Wrath, published in 1939, John Steinbeck predicted a violent revolution in California. In my edition it is clearly predicted on page 325: "Every little means, every violence, every raid on a Hooverville, every deputy swaggering through a rugged camp put off the day a little and cemented the inevitability of the day."

There are many great insights into human nature and society in the book. Here I want to focus on two things: why there was no revolution in 1939 or 1940 in California or America, and how the homeless camps of that era compare to the homeless camps on the west coast today.

Bad times on American farms had begun well before the Great Depression or the dust bowls. Steinbeck describes tenant farmers who had rented land, usually in the form of a percent of crop sales. The land owners were losing money on this deal, so they kicked the tenants off and mechanized planting and harvesting. The local economies could not absorb the displaced people. So hundreds of thousands of them went to California looking for work, mostly as agricultural laborers.

The book came out in 1939. The general economy of the United States had already been improving, which is faintly reflected in the book's descriptions of more affluent people. In August 1939 Germany invaded Poland. England and France declared war on Germany. This set off a global scramble to produce military goods. [My mother, who had been growing up on an east Texas tenant farm, dropped out of school to take a job at a new factory, setup nearby, that made uniforms for the enlarging U.S. military.] Many of the new and expanded factories were in California. By 1940 many of the migrant farm workers Steinbeck writes about, particularly the younger ones, were taking jobs in those factories or enlisting in the military. In 1941 America's exports to England were greatly increased. November 26, 1941 U.S. Secretary of State Cordell Hull gave an ultimatum to the Japanese, who responded by attacking Pearl Harbor. In the U.S. a labor shortage quickly developed, resulting in many African-Americans moving from southern states to industrial states, including California. Large numbers of women entered the workforce.

So no revolution. Just the same New Deal plus full employment.

Presuming Steinbeck's description of the homeless camps (Hoovervilles) in California in the late 1930s are reasonably accurate, most of the campers were looking for work. They were used to work, and found dignity in work. They were not drug addicts, though perhaps some drank too much when they could afford to. Men and women worked even though some were what we now call disabled.

My impression, from personal experience and from looking at diverging story lines from pro-homeless progressives and anti-homeless conservatives, is that only a small percentage of today's campers in places like Seattle, Portland, San Francisco, and Los Angeles work or want to work enough to pay their way in life. My guesstimate is 10%, maybe 20% at most. Some are camping due to a misfortune, or the sort of mistake anyone could make, like getting in debt. But most are not interested in work. They live for what they can get for free, or can turn over for drug money quickly. They shoplift, they steal, they wait for the church ladies to make them food. They do not want free shelter if it involves any infringement on what they see as the right to party. If offered a hotel room or single-room apartment or tiny house, they most will take that. A different class of homeless live in shelters, or at least sleep in them at night.

So a booming economy means nothing to these campers. There is almost no unemployment in Seattle right now. All sorts of places have help wanted signs. Immigrants, legal and illegal, come here and can find work almost immediately.

So society has two choices: let them freeload, or coax them into working. One thing for sure, they are not a potential source of revolution. Most of them are not angry at society in general. They may be confused, and occasionally angry, and of course many are discouraged. Seattle and the State of Washington are trying hard to let them freeload. When they refuse to go into a shelter bed, but say they will take a nice studio apartment, the answer from the left is: well, give them a studio apartment. The problem with that is all the people who are working 40 or more hours a week to afford a studio apartment. For many of those people the idea of partying instead or working is a real temptation. One no longer even needs to fake a disability or get with child. All one needs to do is set up a tent be cooperative when the social workers come around.

What would Steinbeck say? I suppose he would point to another of his books, Tortilla Flat, where he examines the dynamics of a group of men who spurn working for a living. It is funny when it is four or five men in a town. It is not so funny when it is 10,000 or so people on the streets of Seattle.

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