Steinbeck - The Grapes of Wrath


(Essay #5)
Though most Americans are aware of the Great Depression of
1929, which may well be "the most serious problem facing
our free enterprise economic system,"( ) few know of the
many Americans who lost their homes, life savings and jobs.
This paper briefly states the causes of the depression and
summarizes the vast problems Americans faced during the
eleven years of its span. This paper primarily focuses on
what life was like for farmers during the time of the
Depression, as portrayed in John Steinbeck's The Grapes of
Wrath, and tells what the government did to end the

In the 1920's, after World War 1, danger signals were
apparent that a great Depression was coming. A major cause
of the Depression was that the pay of workers did not
increase at all. Because of this, they couldn't afford
manufactured goods. While the factories were still
manufacturing goods, Americans weren't able to afford them
and the factories made no money (Drewry and O'connor 559). 

Another major cause related to farmers. Farmers weren't
doing to well because they were producing more crops and
farm products than could be sold at high prices. Therefore,
they made a very small profit. This insufficient profit
wouldn't allow the farmers to purchase new machinery and
because of this they couldn't produce goods quick enough
(Drewry and O'connor 559). 

A new plan was created called the installment plan. This
plan was established because many Americans didn't have
enough money to buy goods and services that were needed or
wanted. The installment plan stated that people could buy
products on credit and make monthly payments. The one major
problem with this idea was that people soon found out that
they couldn't afford to make the monthly payment(Drewry and
O'connor 559). 

In 1929 the stock market crashed. Many Americans purchased
stocks because they were certain of the economy. People
started selling their stocks at a fast pace; over sixteen
million stocks were sold! Numerous stock prices dropped to
fraction of their value. Banks lost money from the stock
market and from Americans who couldn't pay back loans. Many
factories lost money and went out of business because of
this great tragedy (Drewry and O'connor 

By the 1930's, thirteen million workers lost their jobs
which is 25 percent of all workers. The blacks and
unskilled workers were always the first to be fired.
Farmers had no money and weren't capable of paying their
mortgages. Americans traveled throughout the country
looking for a place to work to support themselves and their
family (Drewry and O'connor 560-561). John Steinbeck, born
in 1902, grew up during the Depression near the fertile
Salinas Valley and wrote many books of fiction based on his
background and experiences during that time and area of the
country. One of his great works would be the Grapes of
Wrath In this book, Steinbeck describes the farmers plight
during the Great Depression and drought. When the rains
failed to come, the grass began to disappear. As the
farmers watched their plants turn brown and the dirt slowly
turn to dust they began to fear what was to come. In the
water-cut gullies the earth dusted down in dry little
streams. As the sharp sun struck day after day, the leaves
of the young corn became less stiff and erect; then it was
June and the sun shone more fiercely. The brown lines on
the corn leaves widened and moved in on the central ribs.
The weeds frayed and edged back toward their roots. The air
was thin and the sky more pale; and every day the earth
paled. (qtd. Steinbeck 2-3). The farmers worst fears were
realized when their corn and other crops began to die. The
dust became so bad they had to cover their mouths with
handkerchiefs so they could breath (Steinbeck 3- When the
drought hit the Great Plains and the soil turned to dust,
many farmers moved to California because they could no
longer farm their land(Drewry and O'Connor 561). The
drought began to affect other parts of the country. In
1930, Virginia's belt of fertile land dried up. Ponds,
streams, and springs all dried up and the great Mississippi
River water level sank lower than ever recorded. Small
farmers every-where began to feel the drought. Their small
gardens were ruined and their corn crop was cut almost down
to nothing. The hay and grass needed to feed their
livestock was no longer available. They now faced a major
problem -how to feed their livestock. The silos were
rapidly emptying and the barns in many cases were empty.
The farmers were terrified that the government feed loans
wouldn't be available to keep the livestock from dying. In
many cases, the Red Cross was making allowances for feed to
keep alive livestock (Meltzer 121). The small farmers of
fruit trees and vegetable plants depended on others who ran
canneries to bottle and can their produce. The people they
depended upon were the same people that hired scientists to
experiment on the fruits and vegetables to come up with
better tasting and yielding produce. Thus the small farmers
were dependent on these same rich landowners for almost
everything. They couldn't harvest their produce on their
own so they sold it to the rich landowners and thus made
very little money on their produce (Steinbeck 444-447). The
farmers found themselves in debt caused by the purchase of
land, tools, animals and other items bought on credit. This
credit was due to the bank and when the farmers found them-
selves unable to repay the debts the bank took away
everything they had - their land, homes, animals and
equipment. When the banks took over, they went in with
tractors and destroyed everything on the farms which
included their homes and barns. This is best por- trayed in
Steinbeck's description of how the tractors destroyed
everything in its way. "The iron guard bit into the house
corner, crumbled the wall, and wrenched the little house
from its foundation, crushed like a bug (50). 

"In the little houses the tenant people sifted their
belongings and the belongings of their father and of their
grandfathers" (Steinbeck 111). This describes how after
many generations of farming on their land these people had
to gather their property and memories and then try to sell
whatever they could. The farmers were so desperate for
money that they had to sell for literally pennies.Steinbeck
describes the desperate conversation of a farmer to a
persepective buyer "Well, take it-all junk-and give me five
dollars. You're not buying only junk, you're buying junked
lives" (Steinbeck 112). 

The desperation for work and money became so bad that they
were willing to work for as little as was offered just so
they could have some sort of job and make any amount of
money. Soon it was a fight for life or death (Steinbeck).
In a desperate search for a job farmers moved themselves
and their families all over the country. As people wandered
the country looking for work they were unable to live in
one place. Large numbers of homeless people led to
Hoovervilles. The farmers and their families had to build
homes out of anything that they could acquire as Steinbeck
describes "The south wall was made of three sheets of rusy
corrugated iron, the east a square of moldy carpet tacked
between two board, the north wall a strip of roofing paper
and a strip of tattered canvas, and the west wall six
pieces of gunny sacking"(Steinbeck 310-311). The homes were
usually near water source so they could have water to drink
from, cook and wash their clothing (Steinbeck 311). 

To cut down the number of people seeking jobs or needing
help, the government decided to try to come up with some
sort of relief. Among other things, they limited
immigration, returned hundreds of Mexicans living here,and
sought other methods to help the farmers. Hoover's Federal
Farm Board urged farmers to plant less so that prices would
go up but there was no encouragement to do so.From 1920 to
1932 farm production did drop 6 percent but prices fell ten
times as much-by 63 percent. Farmers watched prices hit new
lows-15 cents for corn, 5 cents for cotton and wool, hogs
and sugar 3 cents, and beef 2.5 cents(Meltzer 123). With
farm prices so low, most farmers, living under the fear of
their mortgages, knew that sooner or later they will lose
everything. In 1932 the farmers declared a holiday on
selling. They picketed roads asking people to join the.
They gave away free milk to the poor and unemployed rather
then let it spoil because they refused to sell it. A
thirty-day holiday on farm selling was begun August 8 and
extended indefinitely(Meltzer 125). In December 1932, 250
farmers from twenty-six states gathered together for a
Farmers National Relief Conference. They announced that
they demand relief from creditors who threaten to sweep
them from their homes and land(Meltzer 126). 

In May 1933, the Agricultural Ajustment Act was passed. The
aim of this act was to raise the farm prices by growing
less. The farmers were paid not to use all the land to
plant crops. The money came from tax on millers, meat
packers, and other food industries. In June of that same
year the Farm Credit Act was passed. This act helped
farmers get low interest loans. With this act, farmers
wouldn't lose their farms to the banks that held the
mortgages. The farmers who lost their farms already would
also receive low interest loans(Drewry and O'connor 569). 

The Great Depression was the end result of World War I. It
affected the rich and poor alike, factory workers and
farmers, bankers and stockbrokers. In short, it affected
everyone; no one was left untouched. But of all the people
hurt, farmers were the worst off. John Steinbeck chose to
write about farmers hoping that Americans would recognize
their plight and correct the situation. The Great
Depression is known to be the worst economic disaster in U.
S. history. For this reason, the Depression caused many
people to change their ideas about the government and


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