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

The Great Depression

Causes of the Dust Bowl Tragedy

For the Educator

Periods of economic depression had occurred in the American economy before the 1930s, but no other period in American history had suffered the unexpected dramatic, deep and sustaining economic downslide that occurred in the fall of 1929. John Steinbeck, in “A Primer on the 30s”, an article he wrote for Esquire Magazine in 1960, paints unforgettable word pictures of 1929 and 1930 scenes. Following is a brief excerpt from his opening remarks describing a scene on the threshold of the Crash of ’29:

"I remember '29 very well ... the drugged and happy faces of people who built
paper fortunes on stocks they couldn't possibly have paid for. ... In our little
town bank presidents and track workers rushed to pay phones to call brokers.
Everyone was a broker, more or less. At lunch hour, store clerks and stenographers
munched sandwiches while they watched stock boards and calculated their
pyramiding fortunes. Their eyes had the look you see around a roulette wheel...
...but despondency, not prosperity was just around the corner.”

The Great Depression that followed the Crash of 1929 would not only have a devastating effect nationwide but also world-wide. For the farmers on the prairie lands of the American Great Plains, already being brought to their knees by severe drought and earth/air-smothering dust storms, the Great Depression was the knock-out punch. The following suggested activities address the nationwide consequences of the Great Depression as a prelude to closer examination of the impact of the Great Depression on the population caught in the Dust Bowl disaster as chronicled in John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath.

For the Student

To grasp the nature of the deep scarring of America wrought by the overwhelming impact of the Great Depression of the 1930s, the era needs to be examined in the context of 1920s America. Exploring the following references will help you build such a context:

Make a list of words and phrases that come to mind that describe your perception of the “Roaring 20s”. Incorporate thoughts about why the decade was called the “Roaring 20s.”

Working with a collaborative partner, develop an informal overview of the 1920s that includes, among other points you may want to add, some observations about how the following references help to define the cultural outlook and tone of the 1920s:

  • significance of the song title: “How Ya Gunna Keep Em Down On the Farm (After They’ve Seen Paree)”
  • cultural/social implication of Jazz
  • nature of popular social dances such as the Charleston and the Varsity Drag
  • the Ritz
  • raccoon coats
  • bootlegging
  • gangsters
  • influence of the new phenomenon Hollywood
  • change from turn of the century look in women’s fashions, hairstyle and behavior, for instance the “Coca Cola Girl” compared to the “Gibson Girl”, the implication of the first Vogue fashion show in New York City
  • the Model T Ford and rumble seat
  • the promise for the future projected by the early 1920s economic climate

The Great Depression grew out of the intersection of several major causes. The class has been divided into teams of three or four students and each team assigned to research one of the following major causes and present a documented summary of their findings to the class. Work with your collaborative partners to develop a substantive analysis of your assigned cause.

  • the plight of American farmers after World War I
  • limited avenues of industrial production and decline within avenues that did exist
  • downturn in consumer spending
  • drying up of credit – bank problems on domestic and international fronts
  • recession in international trade; the Hawley-Smoot Tariff Bill
  • laissez-faire capitalism
  • other causes?

The Great Depression burned haunting images of poverty, suffering, brutality, tragedy, and desperation into the American consciousness, but also enduring images of strong backbone, defiance in the face of defeat, Americans adapting, helping others, desperately searching for ways to cope. The following images help tell the story of both the misery and the courage and of ways some found to survive. Construct a brief description of each of the following images of realities of the Great Depression:

  • Breadline
  • the Hobo culture
  • Soup Kitchen
  • Squatters’ Village
  • Apple Mary
  • Bonus Marches and Bonus village
  • Itinerant walkers
  • the forgotten man
  • Hunger Marches
  • Brother, can you spare a dime?

Then, select one of the images to research further and use as a centerpiece for the development of a compelling creative response that captures how your selected image projects a consequence of the Great Depression. For instance, an original drawing or painting, a poem, a film documentary, a podcast, a brief dramatic script, a short story, a song lyric and/or music score, a choreography.

As a culminating experience, develop a three to five page essay in which you argue a position that supports or challenges the validity of all or part of the following assertion:

There are striking parallels between the causes and consequences of the 1930s Great Depression and causes and consequences of the 2009-2010 recession.

To build a persuasive case, document your arguments with substantive specifics from your study of the Great Depression and from what you consider to be reliable current newspaper, magazine article, book, TV and Internet sources.

Next: The Dust Bowl Migrants



Jayne Karsten
Original Writer

Editors & Producers

Kenny Neal
Manager, Digital Education Resources

Kennedy Center arts education resources have a new home!

© 1996-2019 John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts  

ArtsEdge is an education program of

The Kennedy Center 

with the support of

The US Department of Education 

ARTSEDGE, part of the Rubenstein Arts Access Program, is generously funded by David Rubenstein.

Additional support is provided by the U.S. Department of Education.

Kennedy Center education and related artistic programming is made possible through the generosity of the National Committee
for the Performing Arts and the President’s Advisory Committee on the Arts.

The contents of this Web site were developed under a grant from the U.S. Department of Education. However, those contents do not
necessarily represent the policy of the U.S. Department of Education, and you should not assume endorsement by the Federal government.
Unless otherwise stated, ArtsEdge materials may be copied, modified and otherwise utilized for non-commercial educational purposes
provided that ArtsEdge and any authors listed in the materials are credited and provided that you permit others to use them in the same manner.

Change Background:

Connect with us!    EMAIL US | YouTube | Facebook | iTunes | MORE!

© 1996-2019 John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts  
    Privacy Policy
| Terms and Conditions


You are now leaving the ArtsEdge website. Thank you for visiting!

If you are not automatically transferred, please click the link below:

ArtsEdge and The Kennedy Center are in no way responsible for the content of the destination site, its ongoing availability, links to other site or the legality or accuracy of information on the site or its resources.