The History of the Great Depression
By Shirley Gilbert
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Over 70 attendees — a full house — listened fascinated as Dr. Khal Schneider, Assistant Professor in the history department at Cal State University East Bay, pacing back and forth, told the story of the Great Depression of the 1930s and early ’40s and how it affected both the young and older Joads in Steinbeck’s classic novel The Grapes of Wrath.
The talk took place on Monday, February 27, 2012 in the Fremont Main Library. Dr. Schneider covered 80 years of economic history in 45 minutes.
Fremont Branch’s Margery Leonard introduced Dr. Schneider and was the one responsible for engaging him to talk about the economy in the period. “The economy,” said Margery, “plays a big role in Grapes of Wrath and Dr. Schneider can shed some light on the role economics plays in the book.”
“The book,” said Professor Schneider, “brings up how people viewed our capitalistic system at that time in history. Steinbeck seems to ask Is this system fair? Is it just or unjust?”
Schneider focused not on the lead characters of Tom, Ma and Pa Joad and Jim Casey, but on the younger characters of Al, Ruthie and Winfield Joad. According to Schneider, they will live their lives after the Great Depression and after World War II. As a result, they will experience much better, more affluent and more hopeful economic situations than the older generation. They will be part of the new resurgent middle class that flourished after the war.
“For example,” he said, “Winfield might go to college on the GI bill if he fought in the battlefields of Europe. Ruthie’s family may move into the suburbs and own their own home. The Joads, who were democrats, might vote for Reagan. And they will all most likely have more debt than their parents. The younger Joads might even be proud to be called Okies rather than embarrassed by it as in the novel.”
“The reason for the difference”, said Schneider, “is the dramatic rise of the middle class under President Roosevelt. And it was Roosevelt’s influence in creating the New Deal which brought about some basic securities for citizens in the post depression economy”.
Dr. Schneider pointed out that Steinbeck used “ironic twists” — he referred to three — to call attention to the kind of industrial struggle that was taking place at the time of Grapes of Wrath. That struggle signaled the emergence of the modern industrial economy taking over from the old agrarian age.
- First Ironic Twist: Owning land was the way to middle class security. This was the established wisdom of the day in an agrarian economy. In the mid 19th century large and small farms were the way to economic stability. Farmers grew their own food and sold what was left over. However farm prices cratered and cotton, for example, went from 16 cents to 7 cents a pound. The Dust Bowl realities in Eastern Oklahoma made the plight of the farmers — and sharecroppers like the Joads — extremely desperate. They could not make ends meet and suffered bankruptcy and the loss of their property.
- Second Ironic Twist: If you work you will prosper. The Joads found that the harsh realities in California meant that no matter how hard they worked they could not get ahead — indeed, not even make enough to eat. In California the Joads learned that there were 42 workers for every job and the $1.50 they thought they would get for 100 lbs. of cotton went down to 40 cents. In this environment, workers labor forever but never get anywhere. The new capitalism really let them down.
- Third Ironic Twist: In a sense the Joads are treated like foreigners in their own country: with the same distrust and distaste that greeted many foreigners like Mexicans, Japanese and Chinese. One of the characters says: “We ain’t foreign…we are Americans seven generations back.” They went west because, as Casey said, people want something better. But their reception robbed them, they believed, of their rights as citizens. And that is one of the great ironies in the novel.
Here are some other historic perspectives from Dr. Schneider:
- The Joads are from another era and are painted as economic innocents. “They are old-fashioned and folksy people; they have strong kinship ties, a tenuous grasp of literacy. The older Joads belong to the 19th century and they fare poorly in a modern capitalist society.”
- The old truths the Joads believe in are overturned in the new economy and the pre- World War II era: work hard and you will do well; own property and you will have something solid for the future…all these values are overturned.
- Even the forces of nature prove them powerless; just like the economy. The novel starts with a dust storm and ends with a flood.
- Steinbeck supports organized labor in the novel. He describes conflict like a war between people who own things and people who don’t. Workers rebel, wages fall, workers go on strike in the steel mills and agricultural fields.
- The depression brings on great class conflict with regard to financial matters.
- The Weed Patch Camp is a democratic model that Steinbeck admires. The people govern themselves in a fair way and in the camp, run by the government, poor people can live decently and respectfully.
- FDR and the New Deal helped to change things for the Joads and gave the country unemployment insurance, old age pensions, recognized labor unions, made it easier to buy a house — in short, expanded the middle class in the U.S. a great deal.
- The rise of suburbia took place after W.W.II when middle class people were able to buy their own home. Home construction went to the suburbs. Older Joads would be stunned by younger Joads’ affluence.
- The older Joads thought debt was dangerous because of long-standing distrust of banks. Younger Joads have much more debt and consumer debt becomes a major American product.
- We’ve come full circle today. Post depression FDR put considerable checks on big business and banking. In the ’70s and ’80s the marketplace is trusted; but government is thought to be too big and must be checked. Now once again distrust of business and banks. Insecurity, debt, income inequality have returned to the news. Poverty rates are rising; there is more working poor; incomes are falling; and it appears there is less social mobility in today’s economy.
- Dr. Schneider concludes that we have a better chance of preventing crises like the Depression if we understand our economy not as a faceless monster but as the product of deliberate human decisions.
Click here for a photo album taken by Mary Lynn Pelican at the talk in the library.