— Mae D'Amico, History in the Making

Paper Proposal

Paper Proposal

As the top soil eroded and blew from the western plains, the farming people of the Midwest who were migrants just a couple generations before gathered their belongings once again and moved west to California. The migrants came from many states, mostly Oklahoma, Arkansas, and Texas, but in the time of the great exodus on Route 66, John Steinbeck the writer of The Grapes of Wrath, chose to focus on one Oklahoman family, the Joads. In his narrative following the slow deterioration of the family and their hardships, Steinbeck portrays the Okies in their attempt to go to California and then their fate once they arrive. In this paper I will not try to contest the historical events written about in The Grapes of Wrath, but rather to discuss whether or not Steinbeck in his novel created a historical myth of the plight of the Okies by exaggerating real events.

The man in question, John Steinbeck.

To arrive at the right conclusion, there are many questions that need to be asked. Initially one that could be raised is why did Steinbeck write the book at all? Was this some sort of political ploy to get more people involved or was it simply just a good melodrama he wanted to articulate like his other novel based in California, East of Eden? A question even more essential to my paper, what did Steinbeck get right in his research? What was overlooked or exaggerated? A question more related to my sources would be how other media sources helped Steinbeck create a historical myth? For this question I would draw mostly from primary sources like the pictures of Dorothea Lange or the folk songs from Woody Guthrie.

California and the Dust Bowl Migration by Walter J. Stein is the primary monograph that I will use for this paper. Stein’s book investigates the causes and effects of the Dust Bowl migration on California as well as the push and pull factors that brought the workers there. In the index there are even specific pages that quote Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath or check a certain aspect of the book for historical accuracy. The second secondary source that will be paramount in my paper is American Exodus, by James N. Gregory. This book researches the history of the dust bowl migrants and the way that the media portrayed their lives in California. In the introduction Gregory mentions that the media initially portrayed the migrants only through pictures that would bring attention to their dismal living and working conditions.

The novel in question, The Grapes of Wrath.

The novel in question, The Grapes of Wrath.

In addition to those very topic specific books I will also use Dust Bowl Migrants in the American Imagination by Charles J. Shindo which is based mostly on media perceptions of the Dust Bowl and that they only scratched the surface of what was truly going awry in California at the time. I will go through each source and extract what is relevant to my paper, trying to be as unbiased towards the thesis trying to be proven as possible. Primary sources, contrary to traditional analytical history papers will not be the best place to start on this paper as it has already been pointed out that they might be biased toward making a political point. Secondary sources will be key, primarily the monograph by Stein and the book by Gregory. For all the sources used in my paper it will be important to draw my own conclusions rather than just summing up what other historians have pointed out in their research.

The topic and purpose of this paper will not be an easy on to write or conclude. It is unconventional for a student studying history to try and disprove a fictional novel. However, when it comes to such an influential novel like Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath, I am convinced writers, especially historical fiction writers, should be held accountable to the accuracy usual historians are responsible for. As Edward H. Carr points out in his book, What is History? C. P. Scott, a liberal journalist wrote, “Facts are sacred, opinion in free.” Steinbeck’s opinions of how the Okies lived, died, and suffered were his own, but the facts will be held in higher esteem.

Working bibliography for my proposal.

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