Guest author Anne Kenney, Cornell Carl A. Kroch University Librarian:
It's no secret that The Grapes of Wrath was chosen in large part for its relevance to today's economic recession. The book vividly explores the consequences of depression, drought, dust storms, and degradation through the lives of an Oklahoma farm family, the Joads. They, like hundreds of thousands of others, were forced off their land and took to the road. In rereading The Grapes of Wrath, I was most struck by that theme of upheaval. I kept imagining a country in motion, much like a wave moving across the top of Cayuga Lake, a terra fluida. Steinbeck described Route 66, the principal highway to California, as "the path of a people in flight, refugees from dust and shrinking land, from the thunder of tractors and shrinking ownership, from the desert's slow northward invasion, from the twisting winds that howl up out of Texas, from the floods that bring no richness to the land and steal what little richness is there." The movement was both away from an intolerable situation and towards a tantalizing promised land. Steinbeck focuses mostly on the latter, with much of the story centering on how disillusioning and difficult life was in California. But I kept thinking about the effect on Oklahoma of such a mass migration out of state. Most of those who made the trip stayed in California and eventually found steady work, especially once war production jump-started the economy. Few took the trip back home, and Oklahoma was one of five states--all of them from the Great Plains--to lose population during the Depression. Between 1930 and 1940, Oklahoma's population declined by 3%, Kansas' by 4% and Nebraska's by 4.5%. It took two decades for Kansas to surpass its 1930 population level. It was nearly 1960 before Nebraska regained that number. Oklahoma's population did not recover until the mid 1960s when gas production again became a profitable industry. By comparison, California's population increased nearly 22% during the 1930s, tripling by 1960.
Although today's economy is still nowhere near the levels of the 1930s and we've yet to experience upheaval on the scale of the Great Depression, the US remains a country in motion. There are early indicators that those old Dust Bowl states are becoming the place to move to rather than away from. Beginning in 2004, nearly twice as many Californians have left for Oklahoma and Texas, than the other way around. As a recent web article speculates: Are the "Okies" heading home? One final set of statistics to leave you with. I visited the U-Haul Website to get quotes on truck rentals between California and Oklahoma. It costs twice as much to rent a 14' moving truck to drive from Los Angeles to Oklahoma City than it does to drive from Oklahoma City to LA. Same distance. Too many trucks going east.
[Route 66 image from the tauzero.com web site.]