The lights dimmed and dimmed some more, and darkness fell upon the Big Room. No one talked or even dared to breathe too loudly. The children had been shushed, whispers stifled, and cigarettes snuffed. The only sound to be heard was the thwack-thwack-thwack of limestone water dripping onto rock. It is impossible to know, of course, what those in the crowd felt as this black blanket swallowed them completely, engulfing the afterglow and playing tricks on their eyes. They had come here, to Carlsbad Caverns, to vacation and take their minds off their workaday concerns; and for some, sitting 750 feet below the surface of the earth, surveying a gargantuan stalagmite known as the Rock of Ages, this undoubtedly was the high point of their trip. Before the lights had gone out, the tourists had soaked in the spectacle: several million years old, wrinkled and tinted with orange, rising up nearly forty feet, as huge as a house. The Rock of Ages was such a wonder that Robert Ripley, Mr. Believe It or Not, had visited this spot just weeks earlier to make a radio broadcast, his voice carried upward by telephone cables and then out across the country by CBS. And yet one can imagine that for others, descending deep into the ground and watching the last trace of light vanish would have brought feelings not of joy and adventure, but of angst and foreboding. It wouldn't have taken much of a leap, in those thirty seconds when all was quiet and still, to see that darkness was settling upon the world as well.
It was an uneasy time, late summer 1939. Hitler's troops were amassed along the fifteen-hundred-mile German-Polish border. The Soviets and Japanese clashed along Mongolia's Khalka River. And Franco was ruthlessly consolidating his power in Spain. At home, America teetered on the edge of war. The worst of the Depression was over, but the economy was still sick. The Roosevelt Recession — in which industrial production had tumbled by 40 percent, unemployment had jumped by four million, and stock prices had plunged by nearly 50 percent — was barely more than a year past. The jobless rate hovered above 17 percent, and personal income and total economic output were no higher than they had been a decade before. Even the national pastime had taken on a melancholy cast: in June, Yankees slugger Lou Gehrig had been diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, cutting short his extraordinary career. He may have just described himself as "the luckiest man on the face of this earth," but it seemed like an awfully tough break for a thirty-six-year-old dubbed "the Iron Horse." As for politics, things were as crazy as ever. President Roosevelt's popularity had ebbed in the last few years, and a volatile mixture of -isms was boiling and bubbling all over the place — Communism, Socialism, Fascism, Coughlinism, Longism, Townsendism. It was hard to tell sometimes which one might slosh out of the pot and stick.
Of all the eyes staring into the cave, among the weariest must have been Gretchen Knief's. She had trekked to New Mexico by way of theSouth and was on her way back home, to California's San Joaquin Valley, where she was the chief librarian for Kern County. She was a tall woman, impeccably dressed, her smile warm. No one would have called the thirty-seven-year-old a beauty, and she could be a little awkward at times. But it was an endearing awkwardness, and everybody admired her smarts. Knief had spent a portion of her trip examining libraries in Florida and Louisiana, and she had walked away feeling pleased with how Kern County's far-flung network of seventy-one branches, many of which she had single-handedly expanded, stacked up by comparison. But pressures were mounting too. Kern's main library was housed in the basement of the county courthouse in Bakersfield, in quarters so cramped that some of its materials were buried beneath old lighting fixtures, furniture, and other bric-a-brac. A proposed $300,000 bond issue to finance a new facility was scheduled to go before the voters in the fall. But who knew what they'd decide, given the budget squeeze afflicting the county? The situation showed no signs of easing, either, the way people were still streaming in to California's heartland, taxing public services of all kinds. "Authorities Predict Increase in Migrant Flow to Kern Soon," read the headline in the August 7 edition of the Bakersfield Californian.
The exodus had been underway for nearly a decade, with as many as four hundred thousand folks from Oklahoma, Arkansas, Texas, Missouri, and other states flocking to California in search of a better life. They were by no means exclusively poor. But many were. And the plight of these human tumbleweeds, as one observer had labeled them, had by now worked its way into the national consciousness. Leading periodicals had sent their correspondents to rural outposts up and down Highway 99 to chronicle the suffering. "Uncle Sam Has His Own Refugee Problem," the Providence Journal declared during the spring. "Lured to the West, They Find Misery, Squalor, Disease." Collier's magazine put it this way: "Perhaps the native and adopted sons of California pitched their voices a note or two too high when they warbled praises of the Golden State. Anyway, they got the idea across, and now they're sorry. An army is marching into California — an army made up of penniless unemployed, desperately seeking Utopia. 'Here we are,' say the invaders, 'what're you going to do about us?' And nobody knows the answer."
That may have been a tad hyperbolic, but coming up with answers was in no way simple. Kern County, for one, had seen its population swell by more than 60 percent in the last five years, and although health officers had cleaned up the squatter camps that once plagued the area, many migrants were still living in slums with inadequate sewers and drains, ramshackle houses, and litter-strewn dirt roads that would turn to mud after a hard winter rain. Who, though, was culpable for such conditions? Were they the fault of a grudging local government? Or were the newcomers themselves guilty somehow? Many suggested as much. The migrant community in Kern was branded as being full of "drunks, chiselers, exploiters and social leeches" — and that was in an official county report that had just been released. The language used on the street was even more blunt; in the lobby of a Bakersfield movie theater, a sign was posted: "Negroes and Okies Upstairs."
An alternative view, however, had also found its voice. This one laid the blame for the migrants' deprivation at the door of California agriculture, an industry that since the late nineteenth century had been defined by one main thing: its enormity. The state's giant landowners had made a travesty of the Jeffersonian ideal of 160 acres, assembling dominions that ballooned to one thousand times or more that size. "We no longer raise wheat here," said one grower. "We manufacture it." This wasn't family farming; it was agribusiness. And with it came a caste system in which relatively few got rich while many remained mired in the worst sort of poverty: Chinese in the 1870s, Japanese two decades later, Hindustanis early in the new century, Mexicans and Filipinos during and after World War I. Joining this ethnic parade were Armenians and Portuguese, Italians and Swiss — wave after wave of low-priced labor. Among the leviathan landholders were those who took care of their workers, some patronizingly, others with a genuine measure of respect. But many big farmers regarded their hands as expendable — "beasts of the field," in the words of an 1888 edition of the Kern County Californian. In many ways, things hadn't changed much in the fifty years since that description had been written, and with the Okies and Arkies now faring so terribly, social critics were pointing their fingers at California's agricultural elite.
The most articulate and powerful of the finger-pointers was author John Steinbeck, whose book The Grapes of Wrath had not only leapt onto the best-seller list after its publication in April but was also well on its way to becoming seared into the public's imagination forever. Darryl Zanuck was already busy with the film version of the story, starring Henry Fonda, and Woody Guthrie would soon record his ode to Steinbeck's protagonist, Tom Joad: Wherever little children are hungry and cry / Wherever people ain't free. / Wherever men are fightin' for their rights, / That's where I'm gonna be, Ma. / That's where I'm a gonna be. First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt had called her reading of The Grapes of Wrath "an unforgettable experience." And in the coming months, the president would tell the nation that he, too, had read of the Joads' journey from the bone-dry plains of Oklahoma to the bountiful lands of California, where they and others toiled away for a pittance and found themselves wishing "them big farmers wouldn' plague us so." "There are 500,000 Americans," the president said, "that live in the covers of that book." By 1940, The Grapes of Wrath would be invoked so often that it almost seemed to cheapen the novel. Good Samaritans, looking to raise money to aid the migrants, would hold "Grapes of Wrath" parties. The union seeking to organize California's farm fields — the United Cannery, Agricultural, Packing and Allied Workers of America — recruited five young Broadway actors to tour the West and Southwest, with ticket sales going into UCAPAWA's coffers. The troupe's name: The Grapes of Wrath Players. Meanwhile, pundits of all stripes would reference the Joads in articles and speeches, as if they were real: "Meet the Joad Family," "The Joad Family in Kern County," "What's Being Done About the Joads?" "The Joads on Strike." Men began to wear a hat called the "Joad Cap."
Knief peered into the inky cavern, and slowly the lights came up, like a sunrise in the distance. Then a ranger's voice washed over the Big Room:
Rock of Ages, cleft for me,
Let me hide myself in Thee;
Let the water and the blood,
From Thy wounded side which flowed,
Be of sin the double cure;
Save from wrath and make me pure.
In that very instant, it is conceivable that Knief and all the others assembled in the Big Room let their worries — the weight resting on "our troubled and confused generation," as she once expressed it — melt away. Whether that sense of tranquility lasted very long is another matter. As Knief headed back to Bakersfield, her vacation done, she motored along Route 66, the same stretch of highway on which the migrants "scuttled like bugs to the westward," as Steinbeck wrote. The Mother Road, as she was known, was the path to California's promise. Knief counted herself a Steinbeck devotee, having briefly met him during one of his research outings to the area. And on the eve of the publication of The Grapes of Wrath, she had lauded him as "one of our major creative writers in America today," a literary force on par with Faulkner, Hemingway, Saroyan, and Dos Passos. In "The Reading Hour," a column that she wrote for the Bakersfield paper, Knief had also noted that this tale of migratory labor was bound to be "of more than passing interest" to local readers.
As she'd soon discover, that would prove to be quite an understatement.
From the book Obscene in the Extreme by Rick Wartzman. Reprinted by arrangement with PublicAffairs, a member of the Perseus Books Group. Copyright © 2008.