33 pages 1 hour read

John Steinbeck

The Harvest Gypsies: On the Road to the Grapes of Wrath

Nonfiction | Essay Collection | Adult | Published in 1936

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Summary and Study Guide


In October of 1936, American journalist and novelist John Steinbeck wrote a series of essay-style articles for The San Francisco News on the migration of hundreds of thousands of white farmworkers from the Midwest and the South to work in California’s booming agricultural sector. Known together as The Harvest Gypsies, these seven articles are compiled in the nonfiction book The Harvest Gypsies: On the Road to the Grapes of Wrath, which was first published in 1988. Charles Wollenberg—a social sciences professor and an author of books on California history—penned the introduction to the book, whose most recent edition dates to 2011. The book also includes photographs by Dorothea Lange, many of which ran with Steinbeck’s original articles.


Steinbeck conducted his reporting with the assistance of Tom Collins, an idealistic reformer who managed a federal labor camp for migrant workers in California. Both Steinbeck and Collins were progressive liberals who supported the rights of workers to organize for humane working conditions, to support their families, and to live with dignity. The two men reported on conditions not only in the federal labor camp that Collins managed—known colloquially as “Weedpatch Camp”—but also in the informal squatters’ settlements located throughout the Central Valley, which was the heart of California’s growing farm sector.


In his series of articles, Steinbeck illustrated how California—and to a larger extent, the United States government—had left behind hundreds of thousands of workers whose livelihoods had been ravaged by the Dust Bowl and the Great Depression. These previously middle-class individuals had no choice but to flee their homes in search of opportunity elsewhere, and this opportunity lay in the Golden State of California. However, large-scale, corporate farms exploited these workers for maximum profit. Steinbeck delved into the history of the exploitation of farmworkers in the state of California, including foreign-born workers from Asia and Latin America. In doing so, he not only reported the facts and stories of the migrant workers, but also shared his concerns about their abuses and his recommendations for how the government could assist them.


The reporting that Steinbeck carried out with Collins would inspire the writer’s most influential work: the novel The Grapes of Wrath, which highlighted the desperation of one migrant family making its way to California in search of work.