Friday, June 17, 2016

James N. Gregory's AMERICAN EXODUS

Gregory: Politically Correct but Historically Inaccurate?
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.

Oklahomans are still filled with shame. Look online at the Oklahoma Historical Society article on "Okie Migrations." They went to the extreme of using "Okie" there, grant them. This how it starts: "Southwesterners had been moving west in significant numbers since 1910." Southwesterners? This later passage has much debatable about it: "Although Oklahomans left for other states, they made the greatest impact on California and Arizona, where the term "Okie" denoted any poverty-stricken migrant from the Southwest (Arkansas, Missouri, Oklahoma, and Texas). From 1935 to 1940 California received more than 250,000 migrants from the Southwest. A plurality of the impoverished ones came from Oklahoma." The article in the Oklahoma Historical Society goes on: "The classic story of "Okie" migration involves those who settled in the San Joaquin Valley. From 1935 to 1940 more than seventy thousand southwesterners migrated to this fertile inland region, hoping for a small plot of their own."

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." 

Where does the Oklahoma Historical Society get the peculiar notion that Oklahoma is a southwestern state? Well, the article draws on James N. Gregory's 1989 AMERICAN EXODUS. See Gregory’s Introduction, xiv: "This is an account of the experiences of a particular group of Americans: the more than one million Oklahomans, Texans, Arkansans, and Missourians who settled in California during the 1930s and 1940s. Called "Dust Bowl migrants" sometimes, 'Okies' and "Arkies' more frequently, and 'Southwesterners' in more respectful moments, they have since the 1930s occupied a unique place in California society. Unlike most of the other white native-born Americans who have settled in that state, Southwesterners were slow to be absorbed into the social fabric of California." Now, leave aside the question of whether or not many of the Okies were part Indian, look at "Southwesterners." You have to look at it because Gregory uses it throughout this book. By no stretch of the geographical term can Oklahoma be called a Southwestern state. Why does Gregory adopt "Southwesterners" (invent it or at least popularize it)? Because it is more "respectful"! But it's false! However, it is Politically Correct, do you think? Anything to avoid calling these people Okies all through the book? So you have a morbidly obese man like Governor Christie and you decide to call him a Tall Man. To call him "fat" would not be PC. So, "Tall Governor Christie today reiterated his support for Donald Trump!" There is simple dishonesty in this use of Southwestern that undermines much of AMERICAN EXODUS.

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?


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