Copyright 2017 by Hershel Parker
The Daily News in the Texas panhandle town of Pampa (right in the middle of the Dust Bowl) on 9 August 1939 printed three associated articles on The Grapes of Wrath, which had been a sensation since its publication in April. The overall headline was “The R[oving] R[eporter] Probes ‘Okie’ Rumpus And Presents Two Book Reviews.” The Reporter, fresh from an exploratory trip to California, issued this call: “All right, Okies, let’s have your attention for a little while—that’s what they call you Oklahomans in some places out in California, and they don’t smile particularly when they say it, and you don’t smile either. You may not even be from Oklahoma. You may be from Texas, or Arkansas, or even from Kansas, but you’re an Okie to a certain type of Californian, and he hasn’t got much use for you if you are living from hand to mouth as some 300,000 Okies are doing right now in the San Joaquin, the Santa Clara and in other productive valleys.” In the heart of Steinbeck country the reporter had experienced a striking encounter: “Many of the migrants resent being called ‘Okies.’ In a Salinas cafe, we met a tall, strong, handsome young fellow, Tony Dehls, who by the way used to work at the Courthouse cafe in Pampa. Tony is a native of Arkansas. He said that he had been thrown in jail seven times as a result of fights with persons who had called him ‘Okie and didn’t smile.’” Everyone knew Owen Wister’s 1902 The Virginian (“When you call me that, SMILE”) and many knew Gary Cooper’s star turn in the 1929 movie (“You want to call me that, smile).