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Critical Analysis of James N. Gregory’s American Exodus


The book, American Exodus: the Dust Bowl Migration and Okie Culture in California, is written by James N. Gregory and it depicts the great dust bowl times which caused major agricultural and subsequent economical damage in American agricultural lands from the years 1930 to 1936. Canadian prairie lands were also affected by the “dust bowl”. The book is a thorough study of the migration process of Arkansans’, Texans and people of Missouri and Oklahoma to California.

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Something similar might be said of the culture and identity of the people the Dust Bowl migration brought to California. Their states of origin-Oklahoma, Texas, Arkansas, and Missouri-are best understood as Border States marking the limits of the South as it shades into the West and Midwest. This is where the great regions of American heartland come together (Gregory 3).

In the beginning of the discussion lets look at the dust bowl and what was it. The natural phenomenon was a result of a severe drought. Actually due to unscientific ways of farming, there were no natural cover of the soil at that time, and it turned to dust. Dust flew to East and southwards creating huge black clouds. Millions of acres of farmland due to the dust bowl become useless. This book is one of the must read books for all the California historians. The critics utter the name of the book in the same breath as they praise California and the Dust Bowl Migration by Walter Stein. The book was published almost half a century ago and it brought the public attention to the dust bowl phenomenon. Along with the dust bowl migration Gregory here also sheds light about the “okies” culture, which was earlier dealt only by John Steinbeck in his book The Grapes of Wrath, and some folklore. While Gregory, in his book, defined the immigrants as the south westerners, like from “Texas, Arkansas, Missouri and Oklahoma, and named all of them as ‘Okies’” (Battat 1001-1009).

By penning down the book, Gregory has used all the modern day facilities of research and scholarly used materials. His writing has a certain amount of poignancy, as the reader will feel that the writer wants to say that if he can not tell the story no one can tell the story of these people. The ultimate result of this is that the book has become one of the best documents of the time and it also a treasure house of rich quotations of the actual migrants.

Author’s central thesis or hypothesis

The book deals with the issue of migration and the consequences of the migration. The migration of the people was due to a huge natural calamity that devoured the farming fields. The book is a long and lonely journey according to the author himself.

While criticizing the domain and the significance of the book, along with the scope for the book to prominently feature in future researches about the “dust bowl” incident, only one word comes to mind, and the word is “definitive”. We can draw parallels to the famous Walter Stein book named California and the Dust Bowl Migration (1973). James N. Gregory exhaustively researched about the subject. One of the most important features of the book is the story is extended to the present era rather than it completely focuses on the depression era.

Another very important aspect of the book is that here Gregory sophisticatedly analyzes the Okie phenomenon and culture as an evolving “sub-culture” of California. He does it in a very convincing way in the book. The complete book is designed to convince the reader that Okie culture, socio-economic values, religion, food habits and most importantly the Okie music welded the migrants from all the places into a cohesive subculture. This subculture was quite subordinate in the early stages but later mixed with the Californian culture in a triumphant way.

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The story of dust bowl migration is often told in American culture. But the special quality of Gregory is that he shows original insights in every turn of the book writing process. It is interesting to know that only a mere 6% of the South westerners came from the proper Dust Bowl (Rahman 161-174). In general, most of the immigrants did not undertake any arduous journey to reach California, as they took the Route 66 which was always an excellent highway.

One of the most important problems of the Okie people in California was that will they settle permanently in the valley or they move away as the harvest season starts, like their predecessors. The Okie people have always suffered from a lot of negative stereotypes. One of the most important aspects of these people that they have a very good service record in the United States armed forces. Many migrants finally decided to go further west to Los Angeles as they could mix with the population there with more ease or to go further north into the Central Valley to embrace a life of agricultural labor, which subsequently led in many cases to poverty and discrimination. In those lands the distinctive subculture. But in this book, Gregory discusses less about the Metropolitan Okies. The places like San Diego and other metropolis were neglected though there were a number of Okie people. The problems faced by those people are not touched here for discussion (Battat 1001-1009).

Basically, the central focus of the book is on San Joaquin Valley and especially Bakersfield, which is often termed as the “heart of Okiedom” (Battat 1001-1009). The place is historically important in the context of the Okie culture, as here the Okie sub-culture formed, struggled to get an identity and ultimately prospered. One of the most beautiful features of the book is the detailed description of the major and minor features of the Okie culture. One of the very informative parts of the book is the analysis of the confused and complex religious situation of the people. The failure of the Southern Baptists to convert them into their fold has been elaborately discussed in the book.

He also touches the new and developed turbulent Pentecostal and evangelistic classes. The beautiful country music of these people holds a special place in the book. He devotes a long time to discuss this and it is really engrossing to read the analysis of the country music by Gregory. He also sums up how the music contributed to the development of the modern popular music. Works of musicians like Gene Autry, Spade Cooley, and Merle Haggard are discussed in the book in details. He says that they can be deplored but they can not be historically ignored on the ground that they significantly contributed on the development of the modern musical genres. This book is certainly one of the most important source book for any historian working on California, or just a man wanting to know about California and his culture. In other words the book is simply ‘unputdownable’ (Rahman 161-174).


This book is the result of extensive research on the subject of Dust bowl migration and the Okie culture. The book takes us back to the Dust Bowl migration of the 1930s and the influx of the war boom of the pre World War II era. It goes on to explore the experience of the one million immigrants who went in search of opportunities to live a better life in the cities like California and subsequently in Los Angles, in some cases. Gregory’s level of research allows him not only to the process of the loves of the Okies, but also their socio-economic structure, and subsequent impact of the oft-discussed Okie subculture on California’s culture and society. One has to remember that this culture ultimately became one of the important aspects of the Californian cultural landscape (Battat 1001-1009).

The book essentially fills an important gap in the cultural sub-text of the cultural history of United States. If any one goes through the book from the front cover to the back cover he or she will understand the nature of extensive research of Gregory. One of the very important aspects of the book is the quotations of the real life immigrants which bear witness their struggle and subsequent mixing up with the people.

The research of the author was directed towards different directions. From extensive research works in different libraries like Bancroft library and the library of California State College, he even studied the field notes of Walter Goldschmidt from his research of San Joaquin Valley research for the purpose of the book. The writer found a number of taped interviews from Margo McBane and Tom Norris.

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Actually in a final analysis we can say that the book is a historical account, along with plenty of statistical data, and also and academic treatise to be very precise. It can not be termed as a speculative study in any case. All the archival resources have ultimately contributed the development of the book in a great way. The thorough research, the honest attempt of portraying a historical event in a true color has made the attempt of the author worth remembering.

Defining the Problem

In the initial part of the book we see the picture of Florence Thompson, who was a mother of six and a widow. She said about her condition, “I worked in hospitals, tended bars; I cooked and worked in the fields” (Gregory xv). Her words say that the immigrants had to work really hard only to settle in the new land, and the new and relatively complex culture. The distant sub-culture about which we are talking was the ultimate result of the mixing and matching of many subsequent cultures that came together to develop the “Okie” culture. Ultimately the book chronologies the real legacy of the migrants and how they successfully become a community. A migrant said, “We won-we took over….” (Gregory xviii). Another person said about San Joaquin Valley, where the main part of the population resided, “When I go there….I feel I am in Oklahoma, Arkansas and Texas” (Gregory xvii).

An overview of the Out migration

The people who generally out migrated to the places are a large stream of general exodus. The count of the immigrants was nearly four million in the 1940s, and merely 23% of the population was persons whose birth place in Oklahoma, Texas or Missouri. Basically to be very precise, one third of the migrants, a total of 1367720 people stayed in California and others went away in different places. One of the biggest American problems of the 20th century was the process of agricultural modernization and the dust bowl migration. With every passing decade, merchandizing of farming was slowly taking its toll upon the farming fraternity, and abruptly taking a toll on the farming community itself (Battat 1001-1009).

Other than the declining international markets after the World War I was another very important cause to determine. A study showed that most of the places of migration after the dust bowl incident lost more than 50% of the farming people who went to find new avenues for living. One of the occupations was to join the army. Other includes turning into cheap labor for the growing industry in American cities. We can say that the climax of the dust bowl migration was the culmination of the farmers into war-workers in the subsequent “war industry” of the 1940s (Rahman 161-174).

Historically speaking all the earlier migrations were directed to the opportunity filled lands. The West was always symbol as the land of opportunities, and there the middle class of the populations mainly dominated the proceedings. Hungry for a new start, the migrants wanted a place which will be full of opportunities. But that was not entirely the case. Many went to enter the cotton business in Los Angles, as one person said:

I had a couple of cousins here already, and they sent me the Wasco News with large articles in it about opening up new land. That was in the fall of 1925. In’26 I started work at the [cotton] gin, and the gin company wanted me to farm- almost anyone could get a farm at that time (Gregory 9).

With the crash of stock market in 1930, and the subsequent depression that followed industries like oil and transportation declined faster than the agriculture industry. Distress descended upon the place from all the directions. With the lessening of crop prices and environmental disasters had made the farmers condition worse and thus they followed the migration path (Rahman 161-174).

Other related works and the book

There are some memorable works on the subject like John Steinbeck’s classical novel called The Grapes of Wrath. It says an epic story of a farm family who was driven to California by dust storms and other subsequent economical hardships and drought. Other than that the famous Dorothy Lange’s unforgettable photographs show the tough life of the migrant people. The book in discussion, American Exodus: the Dust Bowl Migration and Okie Culture in California, also features a number of photographs taken by her which vastly increases the standard of the book. The book by James N. Gregory is path breaking in many senses, it is a historical study which moves beyond the fictional story and the photography, it generally discusses the real causes of the migration and tries to uncover the full meaning of the effects of the dust bowl migration on the culture of the American society and the influences of the Okie people in different sub texts like music.

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The books transports the reader back to the dust bowl migration of the 1930s and the subsequent war boom due to the influence of the World War II. It goes on to explore the experiences of the one million people who came from various parts of the United States of America like “Oklahoma, Texas, Arkansans and Missouri”, (Battat 1001-1009) to search for profession and better opportunities of living in great and big American cities like California. In the book, the author tries to reach the economic lives of these immigrants. One of the most important features of the book is that the discussion of the cultural impact of the people. The tracing of the development of the Okie subculture is one of the very important aspects of the book and one of the finest discussions ever printed on the specific subject till date.

The consequences of the migration had further impact than California only. It was the event that propelled millions of rural southern and Midwestern people to the North side of the nation to work as cheap labors in the industrial circles. It also examines the great population shift of the 20th century. One of the richest accounts of the migration experiences, in this book Gregory, tells about the first hand accounts of the people who came in the search of a better future only to give America a new culture. This is a very important filling up of American cultural history (Rahman 161-174).

Gregory, in his book vividly depicts other different issues too. An important aspect of the journey of the people was that they eventually brought with them the devotion towards “evangelical” form of Protestantism. Other than that their plain and folk American values and rich country music that impacted on the culture of America. These values eventually gave a new meaning to their new home. Their homes were called as “Little Oklahoma” (Battat 1001-1009).

With the creation of new communities and churches, along with bars, they started an interesting mix of culture which gave lace to religious beliefs along with hard drinking. The musical geniuses of the people had started a new type of music called the country music, which is still dominating the popular music scene in America still today. The Okie culture is one of the most important aspects of American culture. They have subsequent influence on the political scenario of America in many ways, and these are clear in the book and other discussions (Battat 1001-1009).

In the final analysis we can say that the book by James N. Gregory, American Exodus: the Dust Bowl Migration and Okie Culture in California, is a treasure mine of information on the context of Dust Bowl migration. It is a really authentic study with the quotations of real life immigrants and their feelings about their immigration and the life in the new lands where they had settled afterwards. With a number of great pictures, the book gives a complete picture of an event that helped to shape the culture of America in a great way along with its economical policies. This book is a must read for any historian who is working on American culture.

Works Cited

Battat, Erin R. “Literature, Social Science, and the Development of American Migration Narratives in the Twentieth Century”. Literature Compass, 5.5, (2008): 1001-1009.

Gregory, James N. American exodus: the Dust Bowl migration and Okie culture in California. New York: Oxford University Press US, 1991.

Rahman, Mizanur. “Temporary migration and changing family dynamics: implications for social development”. Population, Space and Place, 15.2, (2009): 161-174.

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StudyCorgi. (2021) 'Critical Analysis of James N. Gregory’s American Exodus'. 13 December.

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