Draws parallels between Steinbeck's Dust Bowl refugees and the New Orleans diaspora

Mills, Nicolaus

SEVENTY YEARS AGO this October, before he was famous as a novelist, John Steinbeck published a seven-part series in the San Francisco News on the Dust Bowl families pouring into California to...

...Natural disaster has led to social disaster...
...But with a fresh hurricane season upon us and the New Orleans victims of Hurricane Katrina constituting a diaspora comparable to the estimated 250,000 "Okies" who fled drought-ridden Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas, and Colorado during the Great Depression, Steinbeck's reportage has new relevance...
...The study lacks Steinbeck's moving prose, but the results it shows for families who have moved on average 3.5 times since Hurricane Katrina mirror Steinbeck's findings...
...The one politically hopeful sign that Steinbeck found was the migrant camp that the New Deal Resettlement Administration had established in Arvin, California...
...SEVENTY YEARS AGO this October, before he was famous as a novelist, John Steinbeck published a seven-part series in the San Francisco News on the Dust Bowl families pouring into California to start new lives...
...Looked upon as "ignorant and dirty people" and "carriers of disease," they were seen as increasing the necessity for police and raising the tax bill for schools in the communities where they settled...
...Poorly dressed and often behind their grade level in basic reading and writing skills, they experienced school as an ordeal rather than a refuge...
...They were, he quickly discovered, feared...
...NICOLAUS MILLS is Professor of American Studies at Sarah Lawrence College...
...The critical question for the proŚNew Deal Steinbeck was whether the federal government was going to build more camps like the one he saw in Arvin...
...Today, as the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) stumbles its way through the Katrina aftermath, failing to supply even enough trailers where they are needed, it is easy to wish that we had a Steinbeck documenting the lives of the New Orleans refugees...
...Nearly a quarter of the children from these families were not enrolled in school at the time of the survey or had missed at least ten days of school in the previous month...
...34 percent of the children suffered from asthma, anxiety, or behavioral problems, and of their parents, 44 percent of whom had no health insurance, nearly half were dealing with a chronic condition such as diabetes or high blood pressure, while 37 percent described their health as poor or fair, compared with only 10 percent who did so before the hurricane...
...Today, the 1936 series is read primarily by scholars tracing its influence on Steinbeck's masterpiece, The Grapes of Wrath...
...At the core of the articles, which Steinbeck called "The Harvest Gypsies," is the vulnerability of the migrants he met as he traveled the back roads of California in an old bakery truck...
...Most frustrating of all to Steinbeck was the treatment accorded the Okies by the people in whose midst they now found themselves...
...Good reporter that he was, Steinbeck would also be sure to point out that Hurricane Katrina's evacuees are mostly black and urban, unlike the overwhelmingly white and rural Okies he knew...
...He is currently at work on a book about the Marshall Plan and the politics of rescue...
...But it is hard to imagine Steinbeck dwelling on these differences for long...
...As if these problems were not enough, for all too many of the Katrina diaspora the passage of time has not been a benefit...
...They provided the psychological stability that was essential if the thousands of migrants arriving in California were ever to get over the trauma they had been through and regain their place in society...
...98 n DISSENT / Fall 2006...
...Such camps were not, Steinbeck knew, a permanent solution to unemployment or to the Dust Bowl...
...It might improve the government's response to them, might let us enter more deeply into their lives than television coverage has...
...Today's parallel with Steinbeck's reportage is the recent study of 650 families displaced by Hurricane Katrina by the Mailman School of Public Health at Columbia University and the Children's Health Fund...
...Run by Tom Collins, who would become the model for the director of the fictional Weedpatch Camp DISSENT / Fall 2006 n 97 NOTEBOOK run by Jim Hawley in The Grapes of Wrath, the Arvin camp caught Steinbeck's attention because it was a site where families could erase the shame they felt at being turned into refugees...
...From the first the intent of the management has been to restore the dignity and decency that had been kicked out of the migrants by their intolerable mode of life," Steinbeck wrote...
...He was speaking as an advocacy journalist, insisting that bearing witness only made sense if it led to political action...
...They are homeless people who cannot get loans or credit because "their resources have been exhausted," and "since most of their dealings with authority are painful to them," they are not, Steinbeck added, good at getting help from the government or, if they are sick, from clinics and doctors...
...They arrive bewildered and beaten," Steinbeck wrote, "with only one necessity to face immediately, and that is to find work at any wage in order that the family may eat...
...For the children of the migrants, the situation was even worse...
...In Houston, which more than any other city has gone out of its way to accommodate the influx of Katrina victims, school fights, a rise in the homicide rate, and an increase in sexually transmitted diseases have all been attributed to the evacuees from New Orleans and produced a backlash reflected both in television coverage and radio call-in programs...
...When in his conclusion to "The Harvest Gypsies," Steinbeck wrote that a "plan must be contrived to take care of the migrants," he wasn't talking about color or region...
...But they were a vital start...

Vol. 53 • September 2006 • No. 4


 
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