The Grapes of Wrath & The Great Depression

Instructor: Nate Sullivan

Nate Sullivan holds a M.A. in History and a M.Ed. He is an adjunct history professor, middle school history teacher, and freelance writer.

The classic novel The Grapes of Wrath is set during the Great Depression of the 1930s. In this lesson, we will highlight the key themes, developments, and characteristics of the Great Depression, allowing us to better understand this important work.

The Grapes of Wrath and Its Historical Context

John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath, published in 1939, describes a dark time in American history with its story of the Joad family and their journey from Oklahoma to California. The historical context for The Grapes of Wrath is the Great Depression, which raged throughout the 1930s. The Great Depression was the worst economic downturn in American history. Unemployment skyrocketed to more than 25%, with almost a third of American workers unemployed in 1933. Millions of Americans were left virtually penniless; their savings had been wiped out overnight. Unable to find work, many families were forced to relocate. Soup kitchens became a common sight as men stood in line for hours just to get food.

During the Great Depression it was not uncommon to see unemployed men lined up at soup kitchens.

Let's learn more about the Great Depression and the historical context in which The Grapes of Wrath was written.

The Roaring Twenties and the Stock Market Crash of 1929

It is important that we understand how the Great Depression began. The 1920s were an economically expansive decade. So much so, that the decade is commonly called the ''Roaring Twenties.'' The American economy was indeed roaring, and with new technologies like the automobile and radio, it was an exiting time to be alive. But much of the economic growth was driven by debt, and during the 1920s playing the stock market became popular. As it became more profitable, many people began to engage in risky, speculative practices. On October 29, 1929, a day that has become known as ''Black Tuesday,'' investors panicked and everyone began selling their stock at the same time. This caused the Stock Market Crash of 1929, an event which in retrospect signaled the onset of the Great Depression.

Overnight, millionaires lost it all, some even choosing to commit suicide. America was in a state of shock. How could so much prosperity be wiped out in such a short period of time? In 1930 things got worse when a wave of bank failures wiped out savings and led to deflation and skyrocketing unemployment. The Great Depression went on and on: it lasted throughout the entire decade of the 1930s. It was not until the outbreak of World War II that the American economy revived, largely due to the demand for workers and materials by wartime industries.

The Dust Bowl and Exodus from the Great Plains

As if things could not get any worse in the 1930s, drought and poor agricultural practices led to a phenomenon on the southern Great Plains that has been called the Dust Bowl. The Dust Bowl came in waves, but peaked during the middle of the decade. Its severe dust storms plagued Oklahoma, Texas, Kansas, Nebraska, parts of Colorado, and other nearby states. These storms killed cattle and crops, disabled automobiles, and swept up large quantities of dust into people's homes--sometimes even burying them. The dust was so fine that it was almost impossible to escape from it. In some locations, the sky was blacked out for days. People developed a severe lung condition called ''dust pneumonia'' from inhaling the dust. Children were especially susceptible to this potentially deadly condition. Dust storms were occasionally observed as far east as Washington, D.C., although the Southern Plains were the hardest hit.

A large dust storms threatens a farm in Texas during the Dust Bowl.

The causes of these dust storms were complex, but most experts agree that to a large extent they resulted from agricultural practices. Too much grassland was converted to farmland too soon, and as a result of deep plowing techniques, too much land was turned over into lose topsoil. When drought and high winds came, the land literally just blew away.

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