John Steinbeck (1902-1968), born in Salinas, California, came from a family of moderate means. He worked his way through college at Stanford University but never graduated. In 1925, he went to New York, where he tried for a few years to establish himself as a free-lance writer, but he failed and returned to California. After publishing some novels and short stories, Steinbeck first became widely known with Tortilla Flat (1935), a series of humorous stories about Monterey paisanos.
Steinbeck’s novels can all be classified as social novels dealing with the economic problems of rural labour, but there is also a streak of worship of the soil in his books, which does not always agree with his matter-of-fact sociological approach. Throughout high school and college, Steinbeck took summer jobs working as a ranch hand. These jobs were extremely important to his literary career. Memories of his work on ranches would furnish the background for Of Mice and Men. John Steinbeck’s grandparents owned ranches in the King City area and in Hollister.
Samuel and Eliza Hamilton, his mother’s parents, owned a ranch in the hills east of King City, the southern part of the Salinas Valley. John Steinbeck spent a part of every summer at this ranch, doing chores, taking care of the animals, and exploring the land. A typical day for ranch children began at 5:00 AM. Certain chores needed to be completed before the family and ranch hands had breakfast, including hauling water from the well, feeding the horses, and collecting wood for the stove. The children then walked to school.
Some attended a one-room schoolhouse with a teacher, while others gathered at a neighbouring ranch to be taught by mothers and relatives. The children were at school for about four hours before returning home to work on the ranch. The younger children fed and cared for the chickens, goats, or pigs. Older children, about 14 years or older, worked with the adults to harvest the crops or herd the cows. Older girls usually took care of their younger siblings while the adults worked in the fields or the livestock. Ranch families would travel to the nearest town to purchase supplies and ools, go to church, and visit family members. The frequency of these trips depended on how far away they were from town.
For example, ranchers in Big Sur would only go to town once every three to six months, depending on the weather and their needs. For many families, this trip took an entire day or longer. Ranchers also received supplies from travelling salesmen, livestock traders, migrant labour, and veterinarians. There were two types of ranches that existed in the Salinas Valley in the 1920s/30s: these ranches could be distinguished from each other by their location in the valley.
The first type was located low on the green fertile valley floor. Hill ranches, the second type, were usually nestled up higher in the rocky and dusty terrain of the foothills of the surrounding mountains. The ranches on the valley floor were characteristically agricultural since they had more water. The rich soil and mild year-round climate lent itself to raising the lettuce and vegetables that the Salinas Valley is famous for. The ranch in The Red Pony was modelled after the second type of ranch, the hill ranch.
Hill ranches were primarily interested in the cattle industry. Since there was often a shortage of water at the higher elevations, the hill-ranchers raised cattle instead of the thirsty crops that lined the valley floor. These ranches were usually quite a bit further from town than the valley floor ranches, and this added to the hardships brought on by drought years and supply shortages. The Great Depression was the great economic crisis that is said to have been started because of the U. S. stock-market crash in 1929.
The prices on the Wall Street stock market fell a lot from October 24 to October 29, 1929. Many people lost their jobs. By 1932, 25–30% of people lost their jobs. They became homeless and poor. This ended the wealth of the Roaring Twenties. Many people think that the Great Depression started on Black Tuesday, but Black Tuesday was just an underlying problem that would help cause the Depression. From 1929-1932, the depression worsened. Many suspect that increased taxes on American citizens and the increased tariffs (taxes on countries that trade with the United States) worsened it.
Economist Milton Friedman said that the Great Depression was worsened because the Federal Reserve printed out less money than usual. When the Great Depression started, Herbert Hoover was the president of the United States, and as a result, he was blamed for it. People voted for a new president in 1932. His name was Franklin D. Roosevelt. Roosevelt got the government to pass many new laws and programs to help people who were hurt by the Great Depression. These programs were called the New Deal. One of these programs was the Civilian Conservation Corps or CCC.
The CCC put many young men to work in the outdoors. The men were paid 1 dollar a week to work, and they got free food and shelter. Another one of these programs was called Social Security. Social Security gave old people a small income so they had money for things they needed. The Great Depression was really bad, but with everyone’s help, it would get better. Between 1939 and 1944, more people had jobs again because of World War II, and the Great Depression came to an end. An important reason for the Great Depression was the Treaty of Versailles.
The Treaty of Versailles made the United States very rich. Britain and France both gave large amounts of money to the U. S. , and Germany had to pay a great amount of money for the damage they had done in World War I. However, it was this wealth that began the stock market crash. Even after the Wall Street Crash of 1929, people still had hope. John D. Rockefeller said, “These are days when many are discouraged. In the 93 years of my life, depressions have come and gone. Prosperity has always returned and will again. ” But soon the bad effects of the depression grew worse and worse.
People lost jobs, money, and homes. There were reports that in Germany and the United States, there was great hunger, disease, and even starvation. In previous depressions, farmers were usually safe from the severe effects of a depression because they could at least feed themselves. Unfortunately, during the Great Depression, the Great Plains were hit hard with both a drought and horrendous dust storms. Years and years of overgrazing combined with the effects of a drought caused the grass to disappear. With just topsoil exposed, high winds picked up the loose dirt and whirled it for miles.
The dust storms destroyed everything in their paths, leaving farmers without their crops. Small farmers were hit especially hard. Even before the dust storms hit, the invention of the tractor drastically cut the need for manpower on farms. These small farmers were usually already in debt, borrowing money for seed and paying it back when their crops came in. When the dust storms damaged the crops, not only could the small farmer not feed himself and his family, he could not pay back his debt.
If you migrated to California during this decade, you were among some 1. 3 million workers who made the trek, according to the University of California-Davis’ “Rural Migration News” from 2003. Not only did the state’s more hospitable temperatures draw farmers, but California also boasted a more diverse array of crops – from cotton and peas to lemons and oranges. Once you reached California, you continued to be transient. This was the case because you basically “followed the harvest,” travelling from place to place to harvest whatever crop was in season.
Earlier in the decade, there was a mentality that workers would be provided with the barest means, such as poor food, and then simply “sent on their way,” according to UC-Davis. With reform, that changed and migrant worker camps were established; essentially, these were a federally sponsored network of camps that provided shelter as well as health care, work counselling and food. Though these camps mandated that workers volunteer a specified amount of time, you didn’t just work; you also had opportunities to play, according to the Library of Congress.
It reports that there was a sense of culture that flourished in the camp. Music served as one of the biggest recreational activities; popular among workers were traditional Anglo-Celtic ballads, as well as early country works by the likes of Gene Autry. Music was created during this period by artists like Mary Sullivan and Jack Bryant, who documented what it was like to be a migrant in song. If you were a worker travelling from Mexico during this time, or an American of Mexican ethnic origin, you made far less than your white counterparts on the same job, according to the Oakland Museum of California.
That being said, you still earned more in the states than you did in Mexico during this time. Mexican-American migrants patched together shelter from anything they could find, be it burlap, canvas or branches. Though it’s estimated that in the 1920s, 75% of migrant workers were of Mexican origin, as the country fell into the Great Depression, white workers took over their jobs, leaving many Mexican-Americans unemployed. Your work options expanded with the advent of World War II. For this reason, migrant work became far less necessary and, in turn, far less desirable.
Many former migrant workers, according to the Library of Congress, went overseas to serve in the war. Still others supported the war effort stateside, taking on positions at coastal shipyards or at defence plants. The average family income dropped 40 percent between 1929 and 1933, and while men took second jobs or searched for better-paying employment in an oversaturated market, most of their wives stayed home and struggled with what Eleanor Roosevelt called “endless little economies and constant anxieties”.
At the bottom of the middle class, women worried about losing their homes and falling back into the class of renters – in Indianapolis, more than half the families with mortgages had defaulted on them by 1934. Those higher on the economic ladder simply had to figure out how to keep up appearances without the help of servants (an ad for bleach showed a pair of elegant hands in a tub of dirty laundry and asked: “doing it yourself these days? “) The marriage rate dropped. The nation declared a truce in its war on spinsterhood, and magazines once again ran articles about women who found happiness in life without a husband.
Live Alone And Like It was a bestseller. “Do you realize how many people in my generation are not married? ” asked Elsa Ponselle, who was working as a teacher when the Chicago school system ran out of money and started paying its staff in IOUs. Her own boyfriend, a commercial artist, vanished when he was laid off from his job. Society’s fight against contraceptives came to a virtual halt as well, partly because of national outcries against women on the dole who continued to have babies.
In 1936, the federal court struck down all federal restrictions against birth control, in a case memorably named U. S. v One Package of Japanese Pessaries. The birth rate plunged so low that for the first time in American history the nation was not replacing itself. Bertha Thompson, who called herself ‘Boxcar Bertha’, estimated that 500,000 to 2 million people were hoboes in the 1930s, and that perhaps a tenth of them were women. Most travelled in pairs, Thompson said, either with a man or another woman. But mainly, the women who took to the roads were with their families.
Peggy Terry, who travelled as a migrant worker, remembered seeing a “Hooverville” in Oklahoma. “Here were all these people living in old, rusted-out car bodies. I mean that was their home. There were people living in shacks made of orange crates. One family with a whole lot of kids were living in a piano box. This wasn’t just a little section: this was maybe ten miles long and ten miles wide. ” The issue of whether married women should work was chewed over constantly in the newspapers and women’s magazines, with the consensus coming down on the side of not.
A federal law, passed during the Depression, prohibited the employment of “married persons” whose spouses also worked for the government. Of the people forced to quit, three quarters were women (Eleanor Roosevelt called the law “a very bad and foolish thing” – government salaries, she argued, were so low, a family needed two incomes just to get along). Legislators in twenty-six states introduce laws completely banning the hiring of married women, although only Louisiana actually passed a law, and it was quickly declared unconstitutional.
More than three quarters of the nation’s public school districts refused to hire married teachers – unless they were male. Despite all this, the number of married women who worked continued to increase throughout the decade. Although most of these women struggled to keep poor families above water, a number were middle class and were attempting to preserve the good things they had gotten used to since World War I – like electric lights and gas stoves, and the ability to keep their children in school. It was an important cultural shift that sent women into the workforce in larger and larger numbers.
And for all the endless debate about whether or not it was good for society, the issue was resolved not by social theorists but by the wives themselves, determined that they and their families would not only survive but also move up. The 1930’s were a turbulent time for race relations in America. Despite the decline of such organizations as the Ku Klux Klan (which had enjoyed renewed support during the 1910’s and 1920’s) racism was as strong as ever in the Southern states.
Furthermore, as this picture alludes to, the increased presence of Black Americans in Northern cities (where many had migrated during WWII and especially during the Depression) resulted in increased tension between the races there as well. This image of a drunken African-American passed out in the middle of the city reflects the apprehension, which many rich white New Yorkers felt at the presence of so many blacks in what they considered to be their city. Many New Deal programs gave black Americans opportunities they had often lacked in the past, while also helping to bring their daily struggles to light for Northerners.
Such federal programs as The Federal Music Project, Federal Theatre Project, and Federal Writers project enabled black artists to find word during the depression, often times creating art or stories, which portrayed the historic and present situation of blacks in the South. Projects chronicling the lives of former slaves were also begun under the auspices of these programs. At the same time competition for WPA (Works Project Administration) jobs in the South during the thirties also brought to light the persistence of inequality even in the government.
Since the WPA required that eligible employees not have refused any private sector jobs at the “prevailing wage” for such jobs, African-Americans (who were paid less on average than whites in the South) might be refused WPA jobs which whites were eligible for. Such discrimination often extended to Hispanic-Americans in the Southwest as well. Despite such difficulties, WPA head Harry Hopkins worked with NAACP leaders to prevent discrimination whenever possible resulting in general support for the programs (and the government) by the black community.
Black Americans also received increased visibility during this decade for less auspicious reasons, resulting in bitter political conflict within the Democratic Party. While the South had been solidly Democratic since the Civil War, the Roosevelt administration actively appealed to African-Americans to join their party, thus alienating many Southerners. The growing divide between Northern and Southern Democrats over the issue of race came to a head in April 1937, when a bitter fight over an anti-lynching bill took place in the House of Representatives.
In the wake of a gruesome double lynching in Mississippi (only one of more than a hundred that had taken place since 1930) The House passed the anti-lynching resolution, despite the opposition of all but one Southern member. Declaring that the South had been “deserted by the Democrats of the North”, former Roosevelt supporters in the Senate carried out a six-week long filibuster that resulted in the withdrawal of the bill in February 1938. This bitter political fight was indicative of the racism and regional conflict still firmly in-trenched in America in the 1930s.