The‘Dust Bowl’occurred across many
southern states of theUSA fora ten-year
period covering thelate 1920s and1930s.
Over-cropping by increasingly intensive
farming methods andthecutting down of
woodlandand hedgerows toincrease field
sizes, coupled with aseries of hot, dry, windy
summers andwinters led toan agricultural
disasternever before met in theUSA.
Hundreds of thousands of farmers packed
up their families and few belongings, and
headed for ‘Golden’ California. Thestate’s
mild climate promiseda longer growing
season and, with soilfavorable toa wider
range of crops, it offered more opportunities
toharvest. TheCalifornians turnedmany
back, fearing they wouldbe over-run. The
migrants were often met with scorn by
California farmers andnatives, which only
made their dislocation andpoverty even
Therefuges had nowhereto goback to, so
they set up homein huge camps in the
California valleys - living in shacks of
cardboard andold metal - and sought work
as casual farmhands.
By the time ‘Of Mice and Men’
was published huge combine
harvesters harvested almost half
of America’s grain. Five men
could do what hundreds did a
decade before. George and Lennie
are some of the last of the
migrant farm workers. Huge
numbers of men travelled the
countryside between the 1880s
and the early 1930s harvesting
wheat. They earned at most
$3.00 a day, plus food and
From the 17th Century, when the first
settlers began to arrive from Europe, they
dreamed of a ‘New World’ and the chance to
start a better life – a place where hard work and
‘right-living’ would be rewarded; a place where
a new and better Christianity could exist, free of
what they saw as ‘Old World’ corruption and
immorality. But for many this ‘American Dream’
became a ‘nightmare’: the horrors of slavery, of
the American Civil War, the growth of towns
with slums as bad as those in Europe, and the
corruption of the American political system led
to many shattered hopes. For the American
society as a whole the dream ended with the
Wall Street crash of 1929. This was the start of
the Great Depression that would affect the
whole world during the 1930s.
However the dream survived for individuals.
Forced by poverty and hope, thousands made
their way west to California to escape from the
ruined and bankrupt farmlands in the mid-West
– made worse by the ‘Great Dust Bowl’ and
increased mechanisation of farming.
The growing popularity of cinema was the last
American Dream for many.
James Truslow Adams
(who coined the phrase,
“The American Dream)
[The American Dream is…]
that dream of a land in
which life should be better
and richer and fuller for
everyone, with opportunity
for each according to
ability or achievement. It is
a difficult dream for the
European upper classes to
interpret adequately, and
too many of us ourselves
have grown weary and
mistrustful of it. It is not a
dream of motor cars and
high wages merely, but a
dream of social order in
which each man and each
woman shall be able to
attain to the fullest stature
of which they are innately
capable, and be recognized
by others for what they
are, regardless of the
fortuitous circumstances of
birth or position. [The Epic
of America, 1931]
The American Dream
‘People who had always been able to put food on the table suddenly found
themselves standing in bread lines and soup lines.’
The family structure for poor Americans worsened dramatically during the 1930s –
and it is easy to imagine that life for poorly educated Black Americans worsened
most of all.
Even in white families, the father’s role as provider and head of household became
more challenging because there were far fewer jobs. The general expectation in this
patriarchal society was for fathers to work and support their families; however, as the
Great Depression progressed and more men lost their jobs, these fathers had to
spend their days searching for any kind of work they could find. The reality was few
brought home any pay.
Some fathers suffered dreadful anxiety and feelings of worthlessness for failing to
provide for their families. The lack of jobs made many American men feel
‘emasculated’ – less than ‘real men’. Many, driven by desperation, resorted to
stealing food and money just to get by:
‘Men resented employed women for they felt that they were occupying jobs
that could be given to unemployed men’.
Children were expected to try to get an education so that they could improve their
future situation; but in addition, they were needed at home to help with household
chores. Unfortunately, many children of poor families dropped out of school because
they felt obliged to help support the family financially. Girls felt especially that they
should be involved with the chores of keeping home and helping mum to bring up the
Yet there was an obvious difference in lifestyle for the middle class. The upper-
middle class still managed to live well and sometimes had servants. This allowed
parents, particularly mothers, to take on larger social roles; however most lower-
middle and working families barely had enough money to provide the basic
necessities for their children.
Families were broken apart because of the constant migration from town to town in
search of work. Some lost their homes and had to make temporary shelters out of
boxes they found on the street. These so-called ‘shanty towns’ constructed of
packing crates, boxes and any other kind of left-over materials, were called
‘Hoovervilles’. They became frequent sites across the country.
The family structure of the upper class during the Great Depression did not vary
much from the family structure before the depression. It differed from the lower class
in that the father generally managed to keep a steady job and therefore was able to
give his family above and beyond what they needed. The women of the upper class
had a very relaxed lifestyle and sometimes had servants or help around the home.
Mothers were usually at home which meant the children had more chances to spend
time with them.
Children of the upper classes – especially the boys – were given a first rate
education. They were sent during the day to boarding schools and spent the rest of
their time with their families.
The Great Depression
Prosperityin theUnited States in the1920s overshadowed the chronicpoverty ofcertain
vulnerable populations.These were the same populationsthat hadalways been at risk in
American history:children, older Americans,minorities, female-headed families, people
with disabilities, and workerswith unstable or low-paying jobs.
According to James T. Patterson, author of America’s StruggleAgainst Poverty: 1900-
1994, about one-fourth of the populationinsouthern rural areas consisted of poor
sharecroppers and tenant farmers.4 Over a thirdof these small farmers were African
When thestock market crashed in 1929 (on BlackFriday)these peoplebecameeven poorer
and more vulnerable.
This is when many middleand upper-income families first experienced povertyin America.
These were hard-working peoplewho fully shared thevalues and ideals of theAmerican
dream, peoplewho had enjoyed thestrong economy of the1920s and hadbought the
homes, refrigerators, and automobiles.Thesudden and severe downturn of theAmerican
economy left many ofthese peoplein shockand denial. Some became suicidal. Between
1929 and 1933, unemployment in theUnited Statesjumped from 3.2 percent to 24.9
percent, almost a quarter of theofficiallaborforce.6 This represented 12.8 millionworkers
In 1933 Franklin Delano Roosevelt was sworn in as the32nd President; a Democrat he
believed that thegovernment should interfere in people’slives to relieve povertyand
Roosevelt introduces ‘TheNew Deal’ to try to get American agriculture and industry back
on its feet. This includes providing foodandclothing,schoolsand employment for the
unemployed. Somework is provided through constructionof roads, publicbuildingssuch
as schoolsand hospitalsand otherimprovement schemes.
Welfare and poverty
Agriculture and the west
Steinbeck admired many of the particular ‘community’ qualities inherent in the ‘old ways’ of cowboy
ranch life – he came from Soledad himself and had seen it at first hand; by the mid-1930s however,
he saw that this traditional way of life was being warped and threatened by what he perceived to be
the increasing greed for profit of the farm owners (capitalism – where costs are reduced to a
minimum, and profits are maximised), by the influx of cheap labour created by the Great Depression
and the Great Dust Bowl, and by the increasing mechanisation of farm work.
The characters in the story form a kind of moral hierarchy both directly and indirectly.
Steinbeck felt that many of the enduring good qualities in the old agricultural way of life were still
apparent, qualities of behaviour that relied on modes of ritual shown through particular courtesies,
acts of playfulness, games, the devoted enjoyment of natural processes, an admiring concern for
sexuality, a pattern of warm-hearted appreciation of goodness that is completely outside of any
concern for property or wealth.
Such ritualistic descriptions within the novel (‘setting down’ to talk together, the sharing of food and
drink, the game of horse shoes, and so on) act as a kind of ‘symbolic shorthand’ to help the careful
reader understand a character, his actions and ways of thinking and living more fully. Steinbeck
believed strongly in the influence of myth and archetype (Carl Jung, the eminent 20 century
psychoanalyst, developed and proposed these ideas - that certain all-pervading human thought
patterns and ways of behaviour were universal and ancient in origin. It was as if such ways of
thinking emanated from a kind of ‘universal genetic pool of thought’. Jung termed this, mankind’s
‘collective unconscious’. Such archetypes create particular patterns of thought and have their origin
in ancient myths, stories and legends: stories of good versus evil, of the brave warrior, the evil
dragon, the wicked witch, the temptress, the happy family, and so on). Steinbeck felt that such
universally held ideas were important to the way humanity behaved and he incorporated some of
these ideas within this simple story because he knew the power they have on readers of all ages.
Prejudice: society’s intolerance to anyone on the ‘outside’ or in a minority, or just ‘different’ from
the accepted white, physically strong, male, middle class ‘norm’ power holders of society.
In the period of the 1930s in America there were lots of forms of prejudice and discrimination:
Women were not seen as equal to men - they had fewer rights than men. They were paid less
and most of them were only allowed to take care of domestic chores.
Most single women worked for a living, and so did a lot of married women. The number of
married women going out to work increased during the 1930s because many women were trying
to keep their families afloat. Some people objected to married women working, because they
thought they were taking jobs from single women who needed to support themselves. Many
school boards for instance refused to hire married women teachers. But in spite of this, the
number of working married women increased steadily throughout the 30s.
Slavery was practiced in the Deep South of America until the end of the American Civil War in
By 1937, slavery had been abolished in the USA. However, black people did not yet have
Although they were free, the Black Community were not allowed to live in the same areas,
attend the same schools, eat in the same restaurants or travel on the same trains or buses as
white people. Black and white people were segregated or separated. Black people, of course, had
a lower quality of resources, education, etc.
Local laws made sure they remained second-class citizens.
Many black people were forced to take poorly paid jobs which left them as badly off as when
they were slaves.
The police ignored the majority of crimes against black people, whilst it only took an accusation
of a crime for a black person to be presumed guilty. Therefore, it was a white woman’s or man’s
word over a back man’s; the white person was always believed and the black person suffered
Ageismin its limited meaning (regarding discrimination against the elderly) tends to assume that
the elderly are no longer able to contribute to society in a meaningful way, and drain the broader
society’s resources because of a continuous decline in health and well-being.