After the Civil War, particularly in the last part of the 19th century when opportunities opened for Americans to homestead on areas of free land, a legion of farmers and their families – composed primarily of Irish, Scotch, English, and German stock – settled in the prairie states of the American Great Plains. These fiercely independent, hard-working, determined “pioneers” suffered various setbacks in the first two decades of their settlement but a large majority had ridden out discouragement and continued to work the land, holding tightly to the dream that had brought them there.
The essence of that dream is captured in opening and closing songs of the Broadway musical, Oklahoma, - its narrative set in the Oklahoma Territory, around 1907, on the brink of Oklahoma becoming a “brand-new” state. The music scores and lyrics joyously celebrate “a beautiful mornin’,” promising “a beautiful day”. Rich images speak of a place that is “Gonna give you barley, carrots and pertaters, pasture fer the cattle, spinach and termayters! Flowers on the prairie where the June bugs zoom, Plen'y of air and plen'y of room.…Plen'y of heart and plen'y of hope” where “The corn is as high as an elephant's eye/And it looks like it's climbing clear up to the sky” - where “All the sounds of the earth are like music” and “The breeze is so busy it don't miss a tree.” The settlers’ dream of “promise” not only of a “beautiful day” but also of a beautiful future had prevailed.
An American Nightmare
Fast-forward to the years 1931 – 1939. Images from chapter one of John Steinbeck’s Pulitzer-Prize winning novel, The Grapes of Wrath, encapsulates the story of that dream turned nightmare.
The earth that once had given “barley, carrots and pertators…flowers on the prairie”… Plen'y of heart and plen'y of hope’ was now “crusted, a thin, hard crust.” The young corn that once had grown “as high as an elephant’s eye” now had a “line of brown spread along the edge of each green bayonet” and “as the central ribs of strength grew weak, each leaf tilted downward”…. “Every moving thing lifted dust into the air.” The wind that had started gentle, increased “steady and unbroken by gusts” then “grew strong and hard.” Each stalk of corn “settled wearily sideways toward the earth and pointed the direction of the wind” and “little by little the sky was darkened by the mixing dust, and the wind felt over the earth, loosened the dust, and carried it away….The dawn came but no day.”
On one level The Grapes of Wrath is fiction, but the details of background, of the land, the encounters, the nature of the characters and the situations that both trapped them and infused them with courage are actualities. They are chronicled out of Steinbeck’s first-hand observations of the physical environments, the scourge of poverty, the natural and man-made disasters, the visions of hope, the frustrations, the trials and tribulations, the perseverance and determination that shape this semi-documentary account of one of the darkest, most heart wrenching decades in America’s history – the Dust Bowl/Great Depression decade of the 1930s.
About This Series
The first segment of suggested lessons and activities that follow aim at helping students build a framework, from various perspectives of the 1930s, in which to embed a close study of Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath. The second segment offers suggested approaches for explicating the text of the novel, shaped by several goals: strengthening and expanding students’ skills of analysis; fostering student awareness of specific ways the novel reflects the environmental, economic, political and social climate of the Dust Bowl/ Great Depression decade; and promoting recognition of the strong parallels of 1930s environmental, economic, political and social issues defined in the novel with current issues in America. The third segment examines derivatives built from The Grapes of Wrath and encourages students to build their own derivatives.
Next: Drought and Devastation