Study Guide

John Steinbeck Great Depression

Great Depression

As John Steinbeck was developing as a writer, events taking place in the United States provided him with plenty of material to write about. In October 1929 the U.S. stock market crashed, sparking the Great Depression. Banks collapsed. Businesses closed. By 1933, a quarter of the population was unemployed. Then environmental catastrophe struck as well. From 1930 to 1936, severe drought plagued the Great Plains of the American Midwest, which at the time were mostly farmland. The drought killed crops, and with no plants to hold down the soil, the dry dirt swirled up into suffocating dust storms when the winds kicked in. The entire region became known as the Dust Bowl. The Oklahoma panhandle was the hardest hit. Farmers' crops were destroyed, and with nothing to sell many lost their homes and farms. They were forced to migrate in search of work. Men who had once been their own bosses were now forced to work for wages on other people's farms, often in exploitative conditions.

In 1934 Steinbeck met two labor organizers who were hiding in Seaside, California after participating in a cotton strike in the San Joaquin Valley the previous year. Steinbeck shaped his interviews with the men into the pro-worker novel In Dubious Battle, published in 1936. Steinbeck also spent part of that year traveling with a group of migrant workers displaced by the Dust Bowl for a San Francisco News series. Steinbeck was horrified by their plight and empathized with the men's sense of dignity. "They are men who have worked hard on their own farms and have felt the pride of possessing and living in close touch with the land," he wrote. "They are resourceful and intelligent Americans who have gone through the hell of the drought, have seen their lands wither and die and the top soil blow away; and this, to a man who has owned his land, is a curious and terrible pain."blank">The Grapes of Wrath—but none eclipsed the novel that is widely considered the masterpiece of his career.