Starvation Under the Orange Trees
By John Steinbeck
“Starvation Under the Orange Trees” was originally published in the Monterey Trader, April 15, 1938. In that year the Simon J. Lubin Society published it in pamphlet form as the eight chapter of Their Blood is Strong.
The Spring is rich and green in California this year. In the fields the wild grass is ten inches high, and in the orchards and vineyards the grass is deep and nearly ready to be plowed under to enrich the soil. Already the flowers are starting to bloom. Very shortly one of the oil companies will be broadcasting the locations of the wild-flower masses. It is a beautiful spring.
There has been no war in California, no plague, no bombing of open towns and roads, no shelling of cities. It is a beautiful year. And thousands of families are starving in California. In the county seats the coroners are filling in “malnutrition” in the spaces left for “causes of death.” For some reason, a coroner shrinks from writing “starvation” when a thin child is dead in a tent.
For it’s in the tents you see along the roads and in the shacks built from dump heap material that the hunger is, and it isn’t malnutrition. It is starvation. Malnutrition means you go without certain food essentials and take a long time to die, but starvation means no food at all. The green grass spreading right into the tent doorways and the orange trees are loaded. In the cotton fields, a few wisps of the old crop cling to the black stems. But the people who picked the cotton, and cut the peaches and apricots, who crawled all day in the rows of lettuce and beans are hungry. The men who harvested the crops of California, the women and girls who stood all day and half the night in the canneries, are starving.
It was so two years ago in Nipomo, it is so now, it will continue to be so until the rich produce of California can be grown and harvested on some other basis than that of stupidity and greed.
What is to be done about it? The Federal Government is trying to feed and give direct relief, but it is difficult to do quickly for there are forms to fill out, questions to ask, for fear someone who isn’t actually starving may get something. The state relief organizations are trying to send those who haven’t been in the state for a year back to the states they came from. The Associated Farmers, which presumes to speak for the farms of California and which is made up of such earth stained toilers as chain banks, public utilities, railroad companies and those huge corporations called land companies, this financial organization in the face of the crisis is conducting Americanism meetings and bawling about reds and foreign agitators. It has been invariably true in the past that when such a close knit financial group as the Associated Farmers becomes excited about our ancient liberties and foreign agitators, some one is about to lose something.
A wage cut has invariably followed such a campaign of pure Americanism. And of course any resentment of such a wage cut is set down as the work of foreign agitators. Anyway that is the Associated Farmers contribution to the hunger of the men and women who harvest their crops.
The small farmers, who do not belong to the Associated Farmers and cannot make the use of the slop chest, are helpless to do anything about it. The little store keepers at cross roads and in small towns have carried the accounts of the working people until they are near to bankruptcy.
And there are one thousand families in Tulare County, and two thousand families in Kings, fifteen hundred families in Kern, and so on. The families average three persons, by the way. With the exception of a little pea picking, there isn’t going to be any work for nearly three months.
There is sickness in the tents, pneumonia and measles, tuberculosis. Measles in a tent, with no way to protect the eyes, means a child with weakened eyes for life. And there are varied diseases attributable to hunger, rickets and the beginning of pellagra.
The nurses in the county, and there aren’t one-tenth enough of them, are working their heads off, doing a magnificent job and they can only begin to do the work. The corps includes nurses assigned by the federal and state public health services, school nurses and county health nurses, and a few nurses furnished by the Council of Women for Home Missions, a national church organization. I’ve seen them, red-eyed, weary from far too many hours, and seeming to make no impression in the illness about them.
It may be of interest to reiterate the reasons why these people are in the state and the reason they must go hungry. They are here because we need them. Before the white American migrants were here, it was the custom in California to import great numbers of Mexicans, Filipinos, Japanese, to keep them segregated, to herd them about like animals, and, if there were any complaints, to deport or to imprison the leaders. This system of labor was a dream of heaven to such employers as those who now fear foreign agitators so much.
But then the dust and the tractors began displacing the sharecroppers of Oklahoma, Texas, Kansas and Arkansas. Families who had lived for many years on the little “cropper lands” were dispossessed because the land was in the hands of the banks and finance companies, and because these owners found that one man with a tractor could do the work of ten sharecropper families.
Faced with the question of starving or moving, these dispossessed families came west. To a certain extent they were actuated by advertisements and hand bills distributed by labor contractors from California. It is to the advantage of the corporate farmer to have too much labor, for then wages can be cut. Then people who are hungry will fight each other for a job rather than the employer for a living wage.
It is possible to make money for food and gasoline for at least nine months of the year if you are quick on the get away, if your wife and children work in the fields. But then the dead three months strikes, and what can you do then? The migrant cannot save anything. It takes everything he can make to feed his family and buy gasoline to go to the next job. If you don’t believe this, go out in the cotton fields next year. Work all day and see if you have made thirty-five cents. A good picker makes more, of course, but you can’t.
The method of concentrating labor for one of the great crops is this. Handbills are distributed, advertisements are printed. You’ve seen them. Cotton pickers wanted in Bakersfield or Fresno or Imperial Valley. Then all the available migrants rush to the scene. They arrive with no money and little food. The reserve has been spent getting there.
If wages happen to drop a little, they must take them any way. The moment the crop is picked, the locals begin to try to get rid of the people who have harvested their crops. They want to run them out, move them on.
The county hospitals are closed to them. They are not eligible to relief. You must be eligible to eat. That particular locality is through with them until another crop comes in.
It will be remembered that two years ago some so-called agitators were tarred and feathered. The population of migrants left the locality just as the hops were ripe. Then the howling of the locals was terrible to hear. They even tried to get the army and the CCC ordered to pick their crops.
About the fifteenth of January the dead time sets in. There is no work. First the gasoline gives out. And without gasoline a man cannot go to a job even if he could get one. Then the food goes. And then in the rains, with insufficient food, the children develop colds because the ground in the tents is wet.
I talked to a man last week who lost two children in ten days with pneumonia. His face was hard and fierce and he didn’t talk much.
I talked to a girl with a baby and offered her a cigaret. She took two puffs and vomited in the street. She was ashamed. She shouldn’t have tried to smoke, she said, for she hadn’t eaten for two days.
I heard a man whimpering that the baby was sucking but nothing came out of the breast. I heard a man explain very shyly that his little girl couldn’t go to school because she was too weak to walk to school and besides the school lunches of the other children made her unhappy.
I heard a man tell in a monotone how he couldn’t get a doctor while his oldest boy died of pneumonia but that a doctor came right away after it was dead. It is easy to get a doctor to look at a corpse, not so easy to get one for a live person. It is easy to get a body buried. A truck comes right out and takes it away. The state is much more interested in how you die than in how you live. The man who was telling about it had just found that out. He didn’t want to believe it.
Next year the hunger will come again and the year after that and so on until we come out of this coma and realize that our agriculture for all its great produce is a failure.
If you buy a farm horse and only feed him when you work him, the horse will die. No one complains of the necessity of feeding the horse when he is not working. But we complain about feeding the men and women who work our lands. Is it possible that this state is so stupid, so vicious and so greedy that it cannot feed and clothe the men and women who help to make it the richest area in the world? Must the hunger become anger and the anger fury before anything will be done? Monterey Trader, April 15, 1938
I am going to begin this essay with a little bit of personal history, so new readers to the DD will know a bit more about who writes many of the articles on this Blog, and where I am coming from in my perspective. You may find me insufferable, egotistical and bombastic, and many more less than attractive qualities a person can have. Hopefully, this will help explain why I write the way I do, and why I see the world as I do. It might not make you like me any better, but at least you have an explanation to work with 🙂 The paragraphs which follow result from constantly being attacked for my writings.
I first read Steinbeck’s “Starvation Under the Orange Trees” essay long ago, even before my college years at Columbia University, in my Journalism class at Stuyvesant High School, a highly selective Public Magnet School in NY Shity. That class was under the tutelage of Frank McCourt (of “Angela’s Ashes” fame), but I knew the article was out there for anyone to Google up. To make Stuyvesant, you had to out-perform the kids who went to the Bronx High School of Science or Brooklyn Technical School, the other two magnet schools for science and math prodigies. The other schools in this system at the time were the High School for the Performing Arts (the FAME school), and the HS for Art & Design. On a Science and Math level, Stuyvesant was the Top of the Top of Public Schools ANYWHERE in the FSofA from the 1920s right up until today actually. To get in you had to best every Jewish and Chinese and Indian immigrant child on the entry test, which was the sole means of being selected for the school. NOTHING else mattered but how you did on that test, the Rite of Passage into Stuyvesant. Make the grade, you got the best education available on the Public Dime, better in fact than the education available at Prep Schools like Andover and Choate. ALL Smart Kids there, not dimwitted Illuminati Spawn like George Bush who only got into good Prep Schools because of Daddy’s Dollars. (you’ll also find I have a low opinion of Prep School brats).
It was damn tough to get into Stuyvesant, money could not get you there, only your intelligence did, and that was one motherfucking HARD test, let me tell you. Had to be, to separate the relatively smart from the outrageously smart of course. The upshot of all this is I found out I was smart early on there, so you should listen to me. LOL. A virtually ENDLESS parade of psychologists told me so and tested the living SHIT out of me for 3 years of my childhood from age 9 to 12 to prove it. So, regardless of how BRAGGING about it comes off in my writings, I do it anyhow. You simply have no IDEA how many hours I spent with the psychs testing my intellect over those years, I was a fucking lab rat for them. You wonder WHY I get pissed off when I get confronted with positively STUPID arguments? You wonder why I am such a Jerk? THIS is the reason for it. You spend 6 hours a day with shrinks testing you for 3 years and see how you turn out! LOL This is No Brag, Just FACT, as Will Sonnet used to say.
It IS who I AM. Later in my life I designed Tests for The Princeton Review, I know how this is done and I do it to this day in my classroom. It’s not hard at all to evaluate relative intelligence within a given body of knowledge at expected grade levels in a society. Of course, what experience you have coming into such tests plays a very big part in how you do on them, regardless of your native intelligence. Almost impossible to design a test that is independent of prior cultural learning, which is why generally IQ tests are not very valid. As mentioned in some other articles of mine, I took plenty of them also, so I know wherefrom I speak here on this subject. It is subject for another rant however, I will not belabor the point further here in this rant.
Frank McCourt was one of the greatest Teachers I ever had, and in “Angela’s Ashes” he evoked the true existence of the Irish Poor. I am soooo glad Frank wrote that novel before he died, he told all these stories to us many times in that classroom. I have read a LOT of stuff in 54 years walking the earth since those days in the ancient and decaying Public School of Stuyvesant,situated between 15th and 16th Street east of Union Square in NY Shity I attended from 1972-1974 listening to Frank’s stories, and I forget very little of it. Do NOT underestimate my ability to dredge it all up from the jumbled attic of my mind as needs be here. If you know nothing of Stuyvesant HS, I suggest you Google it up. More Westinghouse winners then even Phillips Exeter or Andover or Choate. My good friend Eric Lander (our last names came sequentially in alphabetical order so he was always right in front of me in many classes. Outrageous GENIUS that dude was and is) in fact went on to win the Westinghouse, and then to head up the Whitehead Institute at MIT where much of the Human Genome project was elucidated. Even more than Columbia, this is where I got the kind of education I can use now as I argue my perspective on the History of the World as we know it . Now what is in the Card Catalogue of my mind is available to access through Google. All to the good there, it is a powerful weapon to have at your disposal in any debate.
With all that in mind, let us now delve into the history of the Great Depression just a bit more, to see what we can ferret out from what has been written, and what has not or has been surpressed in our education system.
Folks, even if you did not go past reading Steinbeck’s fictionalized account of the Joad family in The Grapes of Wrath, you simply had to know from reading it that the plight of the migrant Okies was indeed quite severe through the period of the Great Depression. Many Bloggers have used The Grapes of Wrath as a jumping off point, but at the same time deny the implications of that novel. If you read “Starvation Under the Orange Trees” though, dismissing the idea that many people here in the FSofA really DID starve to death during the Great Depression is very difficult. Still, this is a hard thing for most people to accept given what we all were told in school and what sources we actually have available to read.
You can see also in “Starvation Under the Orange Trees” how this dovetails with my prior Rants on the subject of Unionization. The great FEAR of the Landowners and Corporate Ag was that the Okies would Organize, as Steinbeck wrote. (read Surly’s recent post in the Diner on the ongoing rollback of labor’s gains in the post depression years). There were endless waves of impoverished migrants coming into California from the Midwest, replaceable labor each year whether they starved or not in the Winter months. Steinbeck writes that this scene repeated itself each year, and wonders at the end of the article when “must the hunger become anger and the anger fury”? It did become FURY in the pockets where this occurred, but for the most part the news of it was suppressed by the corporate owned MSM of the day, and little besides John Steinbeck’s accounts survive the censorship to this day. Steinbeck of course was vilified as a Communist Sympathizer in the post-WWII years, which actually turns out to be a good thing from the historical record POV because it is WHY his works survive to be Googled up. Thank God also that Steinbeck’s letters to his friends also have for the most part survived.
How MANY actually died this way? Really I have no concrete ability to say, but I am sure it was a significant number. The Great Depression was an economic dislocation of the First Order, and considering the environmental catastrophe of the Dust Bowl at the same time, there is no reason to suspect we did all that much better over here than they did over in Europe during this time period. Boris “Badanoff ” Borisov the Ruskie Historian thinks the numbers were similar here as in the Ukrainian Holodomor, perhaps he is right and perhaps wrong, but its just not that important on a moral and ethical level what the absolute numbers really were. We will never really know the answer to that question. Really though, almost any number of people dieing this way is quite unacceptable if there really is plenty to go round, and there most certainly was even in the worst years of the Great Depression. It just had real distribution problems because the monetary system had failed.
After WWII, the Migrant Workers of Okies were replaced by impoverished Mexicans crossing the border. Again for the most part their plight was ignored, but they DID eventually succeed in Organizing under Cesar Chavez. This for a while along with the burgeoning economic Bubble that was California from the 60s through to the 90s made the lives of these people somewhat more livable, although of course there was still significant exploitation of illegal immigrants through the time period by Corporate Ag.
As we proceed into the future of our current Economic Collapse, the same sort of shit is likely to recur here. There will once again be waves of economic refugees descending on what few locations have any sort of work at all, and without Unions and Organization, such labor is easy to exploit, and it will be so exploited. You can rail all you like over the corruption systemic in Unions, but the fact of the matter is it is the only way the individual laborer can protect himself from being exploited. In the time of Plenty this might not seem so necessary, but in a time of Deprivation, it is essential Protection. Individuals MUST Tribe Up for protection, just like a herd of Wildebeasts must do so to protect from the Predatory Lions surrounding the Herd. In this case, the Predatory Lions are the Capitalist or Feudalist Landowners who will use the legal machinery of the State to define their Ownership rights, and the power of the State Military and Police forces to enforce those rights. Without Unions, the individual Sheeple are easy pick’ins.
Now, on the question of the Root of All Evil and my contention Biblical Evil did not exist prior to the advent of Agriculture, the point was made that most certainly there was plenty of Violence and Warfare prior to Agriculture. I do not dispute that point at all. This however conflates the concept of Evil with Violence and Warfare, and they are not precisely the same thing. Both Violence and Warfare can have either Good or Evil motivations attached even in the context of Ag society, but of course that context was different in H-G society.
In Ag societies, all the distribution of the food produced by the society is accomplished through the monetary system. Because of that, it is possible and even quite likely that in times of Plenty the Poor will Starve while the Rich Eat Cake. Also quite possible is that impoverished poor people will be conscripted up to fight wars of aggression against other similarly constructed societies. This is EVIL, because in fact none of it is necessary, it is an artifact of the monetary distribution of wealth in BOTH the competing societies.
In H-G societies which undertake Warfare, it is in fact generally NECESSARY to do so. The absolute SURVIVAL of the Tribe is hanging in the balance. Its not about how resources are distributed within the tribe, but how resources are accessed between tribes. As I see it, it is NOT Evil to undertake warfare and violence when your own survival is at stake and the resources are not there to support everyone. This is just Darwinian survival in practice amongst Homo Sapiens. It only becomes Evil when in fact there ARE enough resources for everyone, just some folks Hoard up resources at the expense of others. Call this claiming portions of the Earth as Private Property.
I do not believe in the concept of Private Property with respect to the resources of the Earth. These are all God’s Gift to ALL of mankind, and mankind as a herding animal can collectively establish grazing grounds, but the minute INDIVIDUALS in the society exert Property Rights over the grazing grounds is the minute you run into the problem of Evil. We can exist only as a COMMUNITY of people, not as Individuals. It is a fallacy to seek Freedom outside of the Community as an individual. It generally cannot be accomplished, really only if you are a Jeremiah Johnson Mountain Man can this be accomplished, and even THEN your life gets impacted on by others of your ilk. True Freedom died the day the Polynesian Navigators came upon the Big Island of Hawaii, the LAST place on Earth that no other Homo Sapiens lived upon that had great resources upon which to build a society. After that, it has all been a fight over these resources between all Homo Sapiens, with the Ag and Industrial cultures winning the day.
Now of course, this time is quite DONE. We will shrink back, we will REVERSE ENGINEER first back to the time before the thermodynamic energy of Fossil fuels was accessed in the 1750s with the Steam Engine, and eventually to Stone Age technology. So be it, this does not mean the end of intellect, of the exploration of the universe in any sense but the physical. Humanity can have a very RICH life of the intellect and philosophy, we do not need Computers to pursue this. It is all in the MIND, God’s real GIFT to Humanity, that of SENTIENCE. You need nothing more than this besides basic food and shelter, Of course, to our current population of industrialized slaves across the Globe, that is a pretty tough sell. So be it.