Harvest Gypsies - Plot Synopsis

Setting | Character Summaries| Plot Synopsis | Critical Reception
Cultural References | Key Terms and Concepts | Major Themes

Chapter 1

The first article introduces the background of the migrants, or the "new gypsies" as Steinbeck calls them, for the purpose of establishing their histories and way of life (19).  Steinbeck explains the migrants are constantly kept on the move as they must follow the crops ready for harvest up and down the state.  He argues they are considered "outlanders" and "foreigners" and are subject to total ostracism, even though their services are greatly needed by the agricultural industry.   He writes, "The migrants are needed, and they are hated. […] They are never received into a community nor into the life of a community.  Wanderers in fact, they are never allowed to feel at home in the communities that demand their services" (20).

The article then goes on to distinguish the Dust Bowl migrants from the imported foreign agricultural laborers who preceded them.  Unlike imported laborers, who were unvaryingly single males, these new migrants arrive with their entire families, "destitute and hungry and homeless" (21).  Having spent all of their resources to get to California and fearful of starvation, Steinbeck reports the migrants will take any job at any rate of pay simply so "the family may eat" (21).  Also unlike the imported workers taken from the laboring classes of their own nations, the new American migrants were once prosperous and likely to have owned or closely worked their own agricultural land.  Wandering is foreign to their nature, he argues, and they are driven by the desire to own land once again.  Equally foreign is California's system of industrialized agriculture in which the owners of land do not participate in its cultivation and cheap labor is employed only to harvest and pack produce.  Thus these families, who once cultivated their own land and participated in their own agricultural, church and civic institutions, are "frantically" driven by fear of starvation up and down the state, remaining always homeless and poor (25).

The article ends with both an announcement of the series' purpose and a dire prediction.  Steinbeck writes, "And in this series we shall try to see how they live and what kind of people they are, what their standard of living is, what is done for them and to them, and what their problems and needs are" (25).  He concludes by arguing that failing to handle the growing social problems associated with migrant labor may very well destroy California's current agricultural system.

Chapter 2

The second article in the series provides a moving portrait of the harrowing nature of migrant life in the squatters' camps and the inhumane conditions in which they are forced to live.  Steinbeck traces the degeneration of the migrants as their poverty and hunger increases.  The longer they live as migrants, Steinbeck argues, the further they degenerate into miserable inhumanity caused by a complete loss of their dignity.  While new arrivals, who still possess "spirit and decency" will attempt to maintain social graces, like privacy and hygiene, those who have been around longer and have been battered by starvation, sickness and death become listless and hopeless (27).  He vividly describes the migrant's vacancy and anger "[…] after the loss of dignity and spirit have cut him down to a kind of subhumanity" (31).  As a whole, and in this article especially, the series intends to show that loss of human dignity is the most devastating consequence of migrant life.    

Help Wanted Sign


A flier purportedly used by farmers to entice immigrants and those thinking of emigrating from Dust Bowl to come to California. There is some question as to whether these really existed. This flier may be a re-creation.


Chapter 3

The third installment examines the ways in which the growers utilize migrant labor and a variety of terror tactics they employ to keep the migrants in a perpetual state of fear, thus ensuring their inability to organize and overcome their oppression.  Steinbeck distinguishes between the smaller, independent farmer, who uses workers out of the migrant camps and the large conglomerates that run their own camps on the ranch premises.  While "[…] relations between the migrants and the small farmers are friendly and understanding," according to Steinbeck, larger growers employ an organized system of terror and manipulation when dealing with their labor pool (32).  The large ranches charge the migrants for use of substandard facilities and force them to buy supplies on credit ensuring they are in debt.  Additionally, Steinbeck states the grounds are patrolled by heavily-armed guards and the scourge of vigilantism is common.  He writes, "The attitude of the employer on the large ranch is one of hatred and suspicion, his method is the threat of the deputies' guns.  The workers are herded about like animals.  Every possible method is used to make them feel inferior and insecure" (35).  The threat of insecurity is especially important for keeping the migrants from organizing.

Steinbeck ends the article with a condemnation of vigilantism and the resulting perpetual state of fear that only creates increased suspicion and hatred among the growers who then feel the need to be even more repressive.  Steinbeck calls their policies "stupid" and wasteful, since the money spent on guards and ammunition could easily be used on sanitary facilities and wages, resulting in an increased standard of living for the migrants (37).

Chapter 4

Chapter 4 provides a brief snapshot of a federally run government camp, where life contrasts greatly with the experience of the typical migrant.  Steinbeck advocates the construction of many more government camps as a viable solution for the migrants' problems.  There, the migrants have access to clean facilities for hygiene and sanitation, basic medical supplies and an emphasis on community and even entertainment.  The organization of the government camps, Steinbeck argues, results in the restoration of "[…] the dignity and decency that had been kicked out of the migrants by their intolerable mode of life" (39).  Most importantly, the camps restore in the migrants a sense of civic duty as the inhabitants are responsible for self-government and for the care of their neighbors.  He writes, "The camp takes care of its own destitute, feeding and sheltering those who have nothing with their own poor stores" (3).  This sense of self-care is crucial in Steinbeck's view for full realizing one's own sense of humanity.

Steinbeck concludes by rebutting common arguments against the proliferation of government camps, such as they are a drain on existing resources and encourage radicalization among the migrants.  He shows instead, only positive consequences will result from encouraging hygiene, civic duty and educating the young.  Furthermore, in his opinion, raising the migrants' standard of living would greatly diminish the trend towards radicalization since workers' living conditions would be significantly improved.

Chapter 5

Steinbeck's fifth installment examines the typical experience of migrants as they attempt to seek relief from the existing community.  Since the migrants perpetually travel, they never live anywhere long enough to establish residency and therefore qualify for basic benefits intended to aid the poor and displaced.  According to Steinbeck, lack of access to medical care and nutritious food and general ignorance of how to seek public benefits leads to all sorts of unnecessary suffering, high infant mortality rates and disease epidemics among the migrants and the surrounding local communities.

Ultimately, Steinbeck blames the shortsightedness and "insular stupidity" of California communities for the continued suffering of the migrants (48).  Rather than rationally confronting the problem, communities ineffectually drive the migrants into neighboring counties and thus they are driven from county to county passing disease along as they go.  He writes, "It is this refusal of the counties to consider anything but the immediate economy and profit of the locality that is the cause of a great deal of the unsolvable quality of the migrants' problem" (48).  He ends by demonstrating the migrants' general state of malnutrition that makes them vulnerable to diseases and especially kills the young among them.

Chapter 6

Prior to the final article, which summarizes Steinbeck's proposal for greatly improving the migrants' living standards, he provides an overview of the history of California's agricultural labor pool to distinguish the new American migrants' needs from the imported laborers who came before them.  He summarizes the state's historical treatment of its foreign labor as "[…] a disgraceful picture of greed and cruelty" (52).  He then reviews the system of deportation laws and immigration practices and institutionalized discrimination that have characterized the United States' labor relations with Chinese, Japanese, Filipino, and more recently, Mexican laborers.

In contrast, Steinbeck argues, the new migrants are Americans, and will not be easily reduced to a class of peons bred for agricultural labor.  Interestingly, based on the prevailing cultural situation and the unforeseen consequences of WW II, Steinbeck predicts "[f]oreign labor is on the wane in California, and the future farm workers are to be white and American" (57). As such, he argues, California and the United States will have to come up with a more rational and just means of dealing with the migrants, lest social rebellion occur.

Chapter 7

Steinbeck's final installment recommends several measures for ending the migrants' poverty and suffering.  His recommendations are as follows: the migrants should be leased land on which to perform subsistence farming, self-government among the migrants must be encouraged to restore their sense of civic duty, sanitation, health and education services must be provided, and organization amongst the laborers must be encouraged.  He ends by vehemently condemning vigilantism as a threat against our law and order abiding society and reiterating that since the migrants are not going to disappear, the state and federal government must act in a rational manner to raise their standard of living.

Setting | Character Summaries| Plot Synopsis | Critical Reception
Cultural References | Key Terms and Concepts | Major Themes