American Exodus: The Dust Bowl Migration and Okie Culture in California.
By James N. Gregory. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989. Illustrations. Appendix. Notes. Index. 338 pages. $24.95.
Reviewed by Jackson K. Putnam, Professor of History, California State University, Fullerton, author of Modern California Politics, 3rd edition (San Francisco: Boyd & Fraser, 1990).
In contemplating the scope and significance of this book the word “definitive” springs immediately to mind. Exhaustively researched and extending the story to the present rather than focusing entirely upon depression era, as Walter Stein does in his excellent California and the Dust Bowl Migration (Westport, 1973), Gregory sophisticatedly analyzes the Okie phenomenon as an evolving California subculture and he does so in a most convincing way. After reading these pages it is difficult to doubt the author’s main assertion that Okie suffering, Okie striving, Okie socio-economic values, Okie religion, Okie diet, and especially Okie music welded the southwestern migrants (here limited to those from Oklahoma, Texas, Arkansas, and Missouri) into a cohesive subculture, at first subordinate but ultimately triumphant in California society.
In recounting what is in part an oft-told story Gregory drips original insights at almost every turn: only six percent of the southwesterners came from Dust Bowl proper (one wonders at his choice of a sub-title in that case); most migrants did not have an arduous journey to California, for Route 66 was an excellent highway; the essence of the Okie problem in the Central Valley was the Okies’ insistence on settling permanently in Valley towns rather than moving on after the harvest season as their predecessors had done (this insight is partly shared by Stein); after suffering unjustly from many unfair negative stereotypes, the Okies benefitted unfairly from an inaccurate positive one of high rates of service in the armed forces when in actuality they were the same as those of other whites and lower than the rates of Hispanics, nonwhites, and foreign-born; the crucial decision made by Route 66 migrants was whether to keep going west to Los Angeles where they were fairly easily absorbed into the metropolitan populace or to turn north into the Central Valley where they faced a life of agricultural labor, poverty, discrimination, and the necessity of forming their distinctive subculture.
Those who chose the first option also made their contributions, but aside from Los Angeles in the late 1930s and the Bay area during the war years, Gregory says comparatively little about these metropolitan Okies. The San Diego area, for example, seems neglected, for the book shows that it absorbed more than four percent of the 1930s migration and contained a comparable or larger percentage of Okies in its population than Los Angeles, 1935-1970, but little is said about the peculiar problems (if any) experienced there.
But the central focus is quite properly on the San Joaquin Valley, especially Bakersfield, the heart of Okiedom. Here the subculture formed, struggled, and ultimately prospered, and Gregory’s detailed delineation of its major and minor features is beautifully done. His analysis of the confused and complex religious situation is very informative. He shows how the southern Baptists at first failed to gather the migrants into their fold and then regained a significant portion of them, how the more persnickety regular denominations turned up their noses at the Okies, and how the new turbulent pentecostal and evangelistic sects gathered in the majority by default. Equally engrossing is his analysis of country music and the major Okie contributions to this now nationally popular musical genre. He convincingly demonstrates that, depending upon the historian’s cultural tastes, the performances of the likes of such stars as Gene Autry, Bob Wills, Spade Cooley, and especially Merle Haggard may be either extolled or deplored, but they cannot be ignored.
No California historian should be content with his knowledge of this important subject until he has read this book.
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