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The Grapes of Wrath and the language of the Dust Bowl

Seventy-eight years ago, a monstrous black dust cloud blotted out the sun above the American plains.

This dust cloud, though the worst, was only one of the dozens of “black blizzards” that since 1931 had plagued Oklahoma, Texas, Kansas, and large swathes of surrounding states —the area which, at that time, recently had been coined the Dust Bowl. The problem of decades of plowing and cultivating this once-fertile land, with little knowledge of soil conservation, was compounded by unrelenting drought. With nothing left in the ground to anchor the topsoil and no rain, the land became dust, swept up by strong winds into enormous, dark, swirling clouds.

Ultimately, that day seventy-eight years ago—April 14, 1935, when the unprecedented dust cloud covered the plains—came to be known as “Black Sunday” in American history, a symbol of the devastation the Dust Bowl brought. Exactly four years later in 1939, John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath was published, chronicling the westward march of the fictional Joad family as they, too, found themselves displaced by dust and the threats of starvation and poverty.

Perhaps more than any other piece of literature written during or about this dark period in US history, The Grapes of Wrath has cemented the effects of the Dust Bowl in the minds of its readers. In large part, I would argue, its great emotional influence is bound to the language of the 1930s and of the disaster which colored the decade; Steinbeck wields (happy-sounding, dark-underbellied) words like “Okies” and “jalopy” with grave yet affectionate poise, effectively placing us deep within the Joad “fambly” as they struggle to stay together in spite of the trials they face.

(Cartoon by John Taylor)

Here’s a look at some of those words which make The Grapes of Wrath so poignant as a testament to the Dust Bowl and its heavy mark upon American history.

“Goin’ wes’”

As crops died, the rain didn’t come, and families began to starve, many decided they had no choice but to flee the dust and move west, particularly when people known as boosters began to advertise the need for fruit-pickers in California; the boosters would literally “boost” California’s image in the eyes of this entranced audience, handing out pamphlets with pictures of beautiful green land and orange trees and promising an abundance of work. People clambered into jalopies—old, dilapidated automobiles (the origins of the word are uncertain)—and braved the highways and the unknown. Oklahoma, hit particularly hard by the dust storms, saw thousands of its farmers move west in this way; there, they were called Okies, an originally neutral word which rapidly adopted a derogatory tint (as the Joads are informed early in their travels: “Okie use’ ta mean you was from Oklahoma. Now it means you’re a dirty son-of-a-bitch”).

Others, who couldn’t afford jalopies, had to hitchhike (probably a newer word at that time, combining the verb hitch in the sense ‘to move with a jerk or a succession of jerks’ with the verb hike). Still others walked; in the early 20th century dogs became slang for feet, perhaps short for the rhyming slang “dog’s meat”. In addition, the word Hooverville became widely used during the Great Depression and was further popularized by the Dust Bowlers who moved west and began to settle; named for President Herbert Hoover, on whom many of the country’s economic troubles were blamed, Hoovervilles were shanty towns built by destitute workers and work-seekers during his presidency.

“Land and food; and to them the two were one”

Much of The Grapes of Wrath sees the Joads struggle for basic necessities, once provided by their farming livelihood—food, shelter, and clothing—as they venture west out of Oklahoma to find work.

The words for the kinds of food these farming families prepared showcase the character of the time. Spam, for instance—the famous tinned meat—was first introduced in 1937, and provided a relatively inexpensive, easy-to-store form of protein for those hit by the Great Depression. (In The Grapes of Wrath, however, even Spam is too expensive for some—Steinbeck writes a touching scene in which children covetously watch a tractor driver eat a Spam sandwich before he resumes leveling their family’s farm.) Though the Joads do not have Spam, Ma often makes pone—flat cornmeal cakes of American Indian origin (from the Virginia Algonquian word for bread)—which was cheap, filling, and easy to prepare. Unfortunately for the Joads and the other displaced families, however, the lack of variety and nutrition in their meals sometimes leads to serious bouts of skitters, an old Scottish word for diarrhea that is used colloquially in The Grapes of Wrath.

The need for durable clothing is also particularly important to the Joads and other families, unable to afford or transport much more than what is already on their backs. Ma Joad, for instance, wears a Mother Hubbard—a long, loose-fitting, shapeless dress named for early illustrations of the nursery rhyme. Tom Joad wears army last shoes, “tan shoes […] hobnailed and with half-circles like horseshoes to protect the edges of the heels from wear”; a last is a wooden model of a foot on which shoes are shaped, from an Old English word for footstep or boot. The men also wear jeans, which (though donned in casual fashion today) were worn then purely for their durability. The word comes from the Italian city of Genoa, which was then producing a long-lasting, woven cotton material.

“Gonna cuss an’ swear an’ hear the poetry of folks talkin’”

The former preacher Jim Casy (who says the above) is appreciative of the nuanced and lively dialogue he hears around him; to him, the idioms and phrases of “folks” are poetic in that they signify a larger worldview, a culture, an approach to life. One of the joys of reading Steinbeck’s novel is becoming immersed in the way his characters speak to each other: the drawl, the droppin’ of Gs, the smattering of “cuss” words, and in particular, the idiomatic turns of phrase.

Many involve aggressive verbs like ‘kick’ and ‘sock’, as in to ‘kick up a howl’ (whine or show regret), to ‘kick around’ (treat someone unfairly), and to ‘sock it to ‘em’ (deal a blow to someone). The bald violence of these phrases—though none signify a literal kick or punch—magnifies the reader’s sense of fermenting wrath belonging to the displaced and humiliated families of the book. However, these are matched by phrases of euphemism and appeasement. In “I mind my own yard”, there is a respect for privacy, however little is possible as people leave their homes; in “proud to have ya”, kindness and hospitality in the wake of hunger and poverty; in “(she) ain’t got no easy row to hoe”, empathy and understanding.

The last, in particular, is meaningful to the novel and to the time: it shows a lesson in compassion taken from living off the land, taken from a life of toil and back-breaking work that culminates in tangible reward and ownership. It shows a stubborn determination to euphemize hardship. And—hidden within an image of labor and pain—there is rhyme. There is the ability of the poor and displaced to insist nonetheless upon music in the heart of the Hoovervilles, “[looking] humbly for pleasure on the roads”, pulling a harmonica from a hip pocket. It, and what Casy calls “the human sperit”, is “always there—always in your pocket.”