John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath: Voice and Vision

Drought and Devastation

Causes of the Dust Bowl Tragedy

For the Educator

The Dust Bowl catastrophe of the 1930s turned fertile topsoil of the prairie land of the American Great Plains into mountains of dust, into huge clouds and walls of dust that blotted out the sun, blackened day into night, and spread film layers of dust as far north as Canada, as far east as the New York coastline and even hundreds of miles onto ships in the Atlantic Ocean. The casual framework of that ten-year catastrophe is an entangling web of complexities –environmental, economic, political and social. Even the indictment of “greed”, which many scholars and survivors would cite as one central cause is forged out of the intersection of many complex causes. To help students develop some understanding of this complex causal web as part of a frame for study of John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, consider initiating the following questions and activities.

For the Student

  • The Dust Bowl era of the 1930s was one of the most devastating eras in American history. It was not only a period of environmental disaster, but also a period of severe economic, political and social disaster. As a first step in your study of the Dust Bowl in preparation for explicating John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, develop a brief profile of the history of westward settlement in the last half of the 19th century. Work in a collaborative team with two or three classmates to construct an overview that includes summarizing observations of the following. File your written responses in your notes to draw on for future assignments.

    • A map identification of the geographical area identified as the “Dust Bowl”
    • The geomorphology of the Great Plains, giving particular attention to the prairies
    • The denotation and connotation of the reference “Panhandle”
    • Some background detail on settlement in the area from after the Civil War until the end of the 19th century; include, for instance, ethnic roots and occupations of those who came and where they settled, the impact of the development of an intercontinental railroad structure; implication of the Homestead Acts; the “Land Runs” into Oklahoma Territory for free land that started in April, 1889; nature of the prairie soil in Oklahoma Territory; types of farming and prevailing crops

  • An unprecedented ten years of drought in the decade of the 1930s was one of the primary causes that turned much of the prairie land of the American Great Plains during that time period into a wasteland. There had been short periods of drought before, but nothing compared with the length and severity of that of the 1930s. What had brought on such a disaster? It is only recently, through the use of new technology in research studies by a team of scientists at the NASA Goddard Space Center, that a probable cause has been identified.

  • Working with a collaborative partner, explore and prepare a written explanation of this recently identified probable cause. To begin your exploration, gather data that will enable you to clarify and assess the validity of the implications of the following assertion:

    It is possible that the 1930s ten-year drought in the American Great
    Plains area started in the subtropical waters off the coast of Peru.

    Include in the data: significance of the sea surface temperature (SSTs); explanation of the references “El Nino” and “La Nina”; the role of the jet stream in developing drought conditions; specific explanation of how these elements converged as a causal factor in producing the sustained drought of the 1930s.

  • The question has been raised in an article by Richard Seager, research staff member at the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory of Columbia University: If we had known then what we know now, could the devastation of the Dust Bowl been prevented?

    Drawing from recent research, construct a brief written explanation of how you would answer that question.

  • Many references refer to Dust Bowl dust as “black dust”; in fact, the first big dust storm that hit the area occurred on what is now referred to as “Black Sunday” and the worst dust storm of the decade, in May 1934, was named “the Black Blizzard”. In reality, however, large amounts of the dust were also red, brown, or gray. Identify the geographical origins of each of these colors of the dust, including black dust; also explain what geological forces shaped these varied colorations.

  • A second major cause of the Dust Bowl catastrophe was related to farming practices. To gain insight into this part of the causal equation, work with a collaborative partner(s) to develop an overview of prairie farming in the 1920s and 1930s. Include, along with other detail you find relevant, explanations of the following:

    • Compare plowing, planting and harvesting techniques of the early 1920s with those of the late 1920s and 1930s. What prime elements effected change?
    • What specific farming practices, starting early in settlement of the prairie land, would contribute to erosion of natural top soil protection?
    • What effect did World War I and the end of the War have on crops grown on the prairies of the Great Plains? Clarify major factors contributing to the impact.
    • What contributed to Plains farmers on small farms accumulating huge amounts of debt during the 1920s? What was the consequence?

  • As a culminating assignment, drawing specifics from your exploration of the background of drought and farming in the 1920s and 1930s in the Dust Bowl, develop a three or four page essay controlled by these two words:

    If only...

    Give your analysis range. Avoid oversimplification.

Next: The Great Depression



Jayne Karsten
Original Writer

Editors & Producers

Kenny Neal
Manager, Digital Education Resources

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