In his 2022 State of the State address, Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt attempted to crack wise about a recent University of Oklahoma football coach who decided to head west. He asked his audience to imagine why anyone would leave “a place like Norman, Oklahoma, for southern California?”
Jeez, Guv. The answer is obvious: work and money.
That’s what led so many Okies to Bakersfield and points beyond during the Great Depression of the 1930s. (If you’re touring, look for signs advertising Dr. Pepper. There will be Okies or descendants within a five-mile radius.)
Some wag responded to the governor’s remark on Twitter by posting a still from John Ford’s classic film, The Grapes of Wrath, based on John Steinbeck’s classic novel of the same name. The picture of Henry Fonda and Jane Darwell prompted the governor’s communications director, Carly Atchison, to tweet a response. She said Steinbeck’s novel was both “horrible” and “terrible.”
But why? Because it doesn’t depict Oklahoma as a top-10 state?
No response to that shall be forthcoming, one supposes. It would be like, oh, conceding a loss in an election, or a legislative budget negotiation.
They talked to Steinbeck
Certain Oklahomans have railed against The Grapes of Wrath ever since it was published in 1939, with some politicians and sensitive Sooners nitpicking trivial details and saying the novel portrayed Oklahomans inaccurately. (See, for example, Bob Burke’s 2008 book John Steinbeck Was Wrong About Oklahoma!, wherein Steinbeck’s name is misspelled five times in the first two pages.)
Meanwhile, back at the podium, Gov. Stitt spoke about Oklahoma’s conservative values and the importance of resisting liberal notions resulting from federal overreach.
Well, folks at the State Capitol need to read some books while they are still to be found on library shelves. They might learn that, in 1912, Oklahoma had more registered Socialist voters than any other state, per capita. They might discover that most of those Socialists were farmers who would soon be hit by an agricultural depression a decade before the depression of the 1930s — farmers who were dusted out to become the Okies of whom Steinbeck wrote.
One of the criticisms of The Grapes of Wrath has been that its author never came to Oklahoma until after the book was published and therefore knew not whereof he wrote. No, he did his research in the migrant camps of California, where all the beaten-down Socialists had gone with their families in search of work picking fruit. They talked to Steinbeck.
Makes ’em traitors to the conservative cause, huh?
Or perhaps those Okies should never have gone to California. Then Steinbeck could have come to Oklahoma and sat around with all the poor folks until other Socialists (read: Democrats) like Franklin D. Roosevelt brought forth the New Deal to keep them from starving to death.
Could we possibly expect all those fine conservative members of state government, upon their retirement, to inform Uncle Sugar that they want no part of his Socialist Security? Better yet, should conservative lawmakers just reject their state pensions for legislative service?
Alternative reading suggested, encouraged
A final note about the Joad family, literary or cinematic: Traveling across half the country in a rattletrap truck, those poor, illiterate migrants were noble as hell, helping those who had less than what Ma called “the fambly” had, even to the point of giving mother’s milk to a starving old man. Horrible? Terrible? Not hardly.
And as for history, doubters of the foregoing in our government (or in our governor’s employ) are invited to take a look at the following tomes, before some crackpot school board or city council decides they can no longer grace library shelves or Amazon’s warehouses:
- Garin Burbank, When Farmers Voted Red
- James R. Green, Grass-Roots Socialism
- Danney Goble, Progressive Oklahoma
- Worth Robert Miller, Oklahoma Populism
- Robert C. Cottrell, The Social Gospel of E. Nicholas Comfort
If none of that gets your goat, try Nigel Anthony Sellars’ Oil, Wheat and Wobblies.
I can hear it now: “What? Me read a book?”