Critical Reception

The Harvest Gypsies: Contemporary Reviews and Critical Reception


A man signs the form to receive his State Relief Administration check during the Great Depression. Photo by Dorothea Lange.


Though decades later it is still difficult to read The Harvest Gypsies and not become indignant and embarrassed by the nation's treatment of the Dust Bowl migrants, the article series did not receive much critical attention upon its publication, nor did it seem to have much impact on persuading the nation to do much to alleviate the migrants' terrible living conditions.  Additionally, the text was ultimately greatly overshadowed by its successor, The Grapes of Wrath (1939), which seemed to render The Harvest Gypsies an interesting historical side-note to the production of Steinbeck's most famous novel.   Nonetheless, The Harvest Gypsies is a gripping example of literary journalism that artfully combines text and graphics to create an equally memorable and moving portrait of the migrants' terrible plight.  In her reconsideration of Steinbeck's career-long contributions to American literary journalism, Jan Whitt explains, "The Harvest Gypsies is especially compelling because it includes photographs by Dorothea Lange, one of the Farm Security Administration photographers who became famous for her portrayal of migrant workers and others affected by the plummeting economy" (58).  The photos, along with Steinbeck's firsthand observations and obvious authentic concern for such human suffering, make for a text well worth reading.

The Harvest Gypsies apparently made for good fiction too.  Whitt explains, "While being immersed in the events of his time, Steinbeck met figures larger than life and who easily translated into fiction" (58).  His fictionalized portrayal of people and events in The Grapes of Wrath remains to be celebrated as one of the world's best loved novels.  Nonetheless, it appears Steinbeck saw journalistic writing as the most appropriate genre for communicating the truth behind the terrible events he witnessed.  In a letter he wrote to friend and agent Elizabeth Otis, he explains:

I break myself every time I go out because the argument that one person's effort can't really do anything doesn't seem to apply when you come on a bunch of starving children and you have a little money.  I can't rationalize it for myself anyway.  So don't get me a job for a slick.  I want to put a tag of shame on the greedy bastards who are responsible for this but I can best do it through newspapers.  (qtd. in Benson 371).

As a keen observer and clear and compelling writer of prose, Steinbeck would return again and again to journalism throughout his career to address some of the nation's most serious problems.  Though he was wrong in that he eventually "put a tag of shame" on giant agribusiness in fiction in The Grapes of Wrath rather than with journalism, The Harvest Gypsies remains an important example of Steinbeck's early experiments in literary journalism and provides insight into a sensitive and dedicated artist who was rightly appalled by the great human misery he witnessed on his tours through the migrant camps of California.