I have been working for several years on a book I am now calling "ORNERY PEOPLE: WHO WERE THE DEPRESSION OKIES?" Mainly, I have been working on who the white and part white immigrants were who came into Indian Territory in the mid-1800s, long before the celebrated land openings. Like any Okie, especially any literary-minded Okie, I have mixed feelings about THE GRAPES OF WRATH but I have forced myself to re-read it recently as a part of understanding how the term "Okie" became a way of shaming someone. There's a writer on Melville, for instance, someone Harrison Hayford referred to as Chowderhead, who never missed a chance to identify me not as an Okie but as something much much more insidious. Give him a podium, and he will point to me and say, "There's Hershel Parker, who hails from Oklahoma." That's a shaming I can live very comfortably with. One hour's talk with Ken Kesey in the 70s got me over, forever, the shame of being an Okie, although it did not get me over the attendant liabilities--early TB, bad teeth, and so on. But Oklahomans have never gotten over the shame of being identified in THE GRAPES OF WRATH as "goddamn Okies." I am a published author--of a two-volume biography of Melville, of a book on biography itself, MELVILLE BIOGRAPHY: AN INSIDE NARRATIVE, and other pieces! But a few years ago I could not interest an Oklahoma press in my proposal for a book with Okies in the subtitle. I submitted my proposal to the press I thought was the most natural place to publish a book on who the Okies really were. I got back a rejection eight minutes, was it?, from the time I emailed the proposal.
Now, if you go to the Internet and look up "southwestern states" what do you find? Here is one definition: "southwestern United States - the southwestern region of the United States generally including New Mexico, Arizona, Texas, Nevada, California, and sometimes Utah and Colorado." Here is Wikipedia: "The Southwestern United States (also known as the American Southwest) is a region of the United States which includes Arizona, the western portion of New Mexico, bordered on the east by the Llano Estacado, southern Colorado and Utah below the 39th parallel, the 'horn' of Texas below New Mexico, the southernmost triangle of Nevada, and the most southeastern portion of California, which encompasses the Mojave and Colorado Deserts."
Steinbeck never went to Oklahoma and chose Sallisaw because he had read the accounts of Pretty Boy Floyd being buried right near there. No matter that Sallisaw was not in the Dust Bowl, as Oklahomans gleefully pointed out in 1939. Steinbeck was writing a book of fiction, though the best parts of it were based on the documentary evidence provided by Tom Collins. Gregory is writing a book of history, and Oklahomans at the Historical Society happily took it as history because it used "Southwesterners" many times instead of "Okies." I find myself behaving as a historian, wanting to look behind many assertions in AMERICAN EXODUS--feeling forced to look at evidence, say, in newspapers from the 1930s, feeling forced to distinguish between the migrations in the 1930s and in the 1940s, feeling very uncomfortable at being in the hands of a PC historian. That's a contradiction in terms, don't you think?