The Californian Confusion of Okies: Context is Everything

I recommend the book American Exodus: The Dust Bowl Migration and Okie Culture in California by James N. Gregory.

It basically lives up to what it sets out to do and what I expected of it. It’s a quality history of the so-called Okies. It remains a useful analysis despite it having been published in 1989, but I’m sure a lot of new historical research could be added all these decades later; indeed, I will add some of that myself here in this review.

There is a more recent book that might be helpful in adding context to this older book. The book I have in mind is From Bible Belt to Sunbelt: Plain-Folk Religion, Grassroots Politics, and the Rise of Evangelical Conservatism by Darren Dochuk. I’ve only started reading it, but it seems promising. The difference with it is that it focuses on the larger migration beyond the Okies. I may review it at some point.

Before I get into the meat of my review about American Exodus, I’ll offer something the author quoted near the end of his book in explanation of what it meant to be an Okie. This is from Woodie Guthrie in his describing his own Okie heritage (Kindle Location 3376):

Though my mama came from Arkansas
and my daddy came from Texas, and though we all came to Oregon from
Colorado by way of daddy being stationed at the Mare Island Navy
base in California during WWII, I nevertheless must admit that
I think of myself as an Oakie.
Let me tell you what being an Oakie means:
Being an Oakie means being the first of your whole family to finish
high school let alone go on to college …
Being an Oakie means getting rooted out of an area and
having to hustle for a toehold in some new area …
Being an Oakie means running the risk of striving out
from under a layer of heartless sonsabitches only to discover
you have become a redneck of bitterness worse than those
you strove against …
Being an Oakie is a low rent, aggravating drag, but it does
learn you some essentials … essentials like it isn’t a new car
that pulls over to help you when you are broke down with the
senile carburetor; it is somebody who knows what it is
to be broke down with a hurt machine.

The rest of my review will go into more detail, both about what is in the book and what isn’t in the book, both about the objective data and my personal way of connecting to it. So, let me begin.

The reason I decided to read American Exodus is two-fold. First, I was recently visiting California for the first time. Second, part of my visit involved visiting family or visiting places where family had lived. As I’ve been doing genealogical research, I thought it would be useful to gain some historical and cultural knowledge about the area. Living in the most western  section of the eastern half of the US, this was one of the books that offered an interesting way of looking at the relationship between the East and West in terms of one particular migration.

My father’s great uncle and great aunt on his mother’s side moved to California from Texas sometime in the very early 20th century (not sure when), but I doubt they moved for reasons of poverty and desperation as did the Okies. My paternal grandmother (the niece of my father’s great uncle and great aunt) along with my aunt moved to California from Indiana during the 50s and she too had been born in Texas. On the other side of my family, my mom’s uncle (my maternal great uncle) and his family moved to California from Indiana also in the 50s, but they were also of a more Southern culture as various lines of the family had spent many generations (many centuries, in fact) in the Upper South: Southern ‘Hoosier’ Indiana, Kentucky, Tennessee, South Carolina, North Carolina and Virginia.

None of my family was a part of the Okie migration, but that wasn’t unusual for most who ended up in California. The migration from Texas, the Western South and the Southern Plains had been going on in the decades before and in the decades after the Dust Bowl era. Besides, my family was going to California mostly departing from the Midwest, but they would have been in good company with many Midwesterners and other Northerners who went West (in California, I came across a Danish village called Solvang that was settled by Danish Midwesterners, some of the leaders from my home state Iowa).

My dad’s Texas great uncle and great aunt are family members I never knew and so I have no personal connection.

Even though Texas is very distant from my personal experience, I have been fascinated for a long while with the similar histories of Texas and California (both being former parts of Mexico and before that the Spanish Empire which means both have a local Hispanic populations that are older than the United States). The connection between Texas and California was only magnified by so many Texans (as Okies and otherwise) moving to California (many of these immigrants included millions of Hispanics and blacks, a fact the author does mention, though not in great detail as that isn’t the focus).

Texas played a special role for Okies, as the author explains. Many Okies had a combined sense of pride and shame about where they came from. Texas with its (self-proclaimed) proud history of revolution (ignoring all the violence and oppression) seemed like a more respectable place than somewhere like Oklahoma and so many took on the cowboy attire as a cultural signifier; although interestingly the entire cowboy culture originated from the Spanish and was passed on by Mexicans and Mexican-Americans to white Southwesterners and then to Okies.

It should be noted that the Mexico originally included most of Texas as well as parts of Oklahoma and Kansas. And, prior to that, the Spanish Empire included all of Florida through all of Texas along with the entire Gulf of Mexico coastline in between including all of Louisiana; everything going north from there including all of Arkansas, Missouri, Iowa and Minnesota; and nearly everything West of that all the way to the West Coast. As I pointed out in another post, in reference to the concentrated numbers of Hispanics in a quarter of the North American territory of the United States:

“Mexicans aren’t invading America. Americans invaded Mexico (and the former Spanish Empire).”

I would have liked to have seen in the book more analysis of how white Southern culture and Mexican/Tejano/Norteno culture in some ways merged together in the Southwest and in Southern California, a merging that was far from complete and that coincided with much conflict of course.

I would also like to have seen the relationship between whites and blacks in the Okie’s home states and in California. Located in Oklahoma was what has been called Black Wall Street which became famous with the Tulsa race riot.

Now, that would have made an interesting historical note to the story of Okies: poor white Okies came from a state that once had some of the richest black people in America, and then that thriving black community was violently destroyed by racist whites only a decade before the Okies began heading out to California. That would put into context some of the conflicts blacks and whites had in California, a place where blacks finally felt free to fight back in a fair fight as the Okies had no majority advantage to suppress them as they did back home.

Here is the passage where the author goes into greater detail about Okies and blacks (American Exodus, Kindle Locations 2273-2286):

Even as some whites were learning new lessons, others clung tenaciously to racial animosity. And if we are looking again for central tendencies, it would have to be said that racism remained the subculture’s dominant voice. Many Southwesterners found purpose in speaking out against rather than for interracial understanding.

This became quite evident in the 1940s, when the racial composition of California underwent a fundamental change. Black migration accelerated dramatically during World War II, nearly quadrupling the state’s Afro-American population by 1950. Where Okies and blacks met there was continual tension. Sociologist Katherine Archibald observed the conflict in a Bay Area shipyard. Blacks were resented by most whites, she noted, but especially by Okies, who “found it hard to accept the casual contact between Negro men and white women to which Northern custom had become indifferent-sitting together on streetcars and buses, standing together before lunch counters or pay windows, working side by side in the same gangs.”” Grumbling that “it’s the niggers who are taking over California,” Okics talked loudly, she added, about lynchings and other bloody remedies. “What you need round here,” one Southwesterner told her, “is a good old-fashioned lynching. Back in my home state we string a nigger up or shoot him down, every now and then, and that way we keep the rest of them quiet and respectful.”””

Apparently it was not all talk. Violent incidents, including cross burnings and even murders, occurred in both the Bay Area and Los Angeles, settings where defense work brought the two groups of Southerners together. At the end of the war a brief florescence of Ku Klux Klan activity in southern California was linked to Southwestern whites.’

Southwesterners enjoyed no monopoly on racism, of course. Nor did California, with its legacy of anti-Asian sentiment, need instructions in white supremacy. Black newcomers met resistance from many quarters. But some white Southwesterners brought a heightened militancy to the subject. Both because interracial contacts at work and school were new and because their self-esteem at this juncture was so fragile, vigorous racism became a prominent feature of the Okie response to California. Charles Newsome remembers the transference. “The people out here [Californians] looked down on the Okies but the Okies looked down on other people too at the time.””‘

Here is another passage where he explains how shocking California was to the Okie sensibility (American Exodus, Kindle Locations 2226-2249):

Settlement in California imposed a number of unfamiliar ethnic encounters on migrants from the Western South. Coming from a region where blacks and in some settings Hispanics were the only significant minorities and where white Protestant supremacy was an unquestioned fact of life, the greater diversity and somewhat more tolerant habits of California offered a serious challenge.”

Some found themselves working for Italian, Scandinavian, Portuguese, Armenian, or perhaps even Japanese growers; others for Hispanic labor contractors or once in a while a black contractor. They competed for jobs with Hispanic and Filipino workers, sometimes finding that these groups were preferred by certain growers. All this was confusing. “We thought we were just 100 percent American,” recalls Martha Jackson, who arrived in California as a teenager in 1937. “1 had never heard of an Armenian, I had never met an Italian and I never had seen Chinese or Japanese or Mexican people…. We thought their grandparents didn’t tight in the Civil War or Revolution.””`

The new encounters were especially difficult because of the contempt Okies experienced at the hands of so many white residents. Accustomed to a social structure which guaranteed them ethnic privileges, they read California’s arrangements as an inversion of accustomed patterns. “I have not noticed the California critics condemning the Filipinos, Japanese, or any other foreigners,” William Siefert wrote to Fresno’s major newspaper. “But when United States horn citizens come here, they say we cut wages and lower their standard of living.””3

“Just who built California’?” another writer asked rhetorically before revealing his ignorance of California’s ethnohistory:

“Certainly not the Chinese, Japanese, Hindus, etc., that you let stay inside her borders…. The aliens are perfectly welcome, but the real citizens must stay out…. Not one word of protest did I hear [about foreigners]. But let a citizen front the East come out here and try to make a home and be a respectable person and one hears plenty.”

James Wilson encountered similar complaints among the migrants he interviewed in Kern County. Among those who would speak freely of their feelings of discontent, several blamed Mexicans, Japanese, and Filipinos, all of whom, one Oklahoman claimed, “git the cream of the crop, they git the jobs.” “That is where a lot of our trouble is,” he continued, “the country is too heavily populated with foreigners … the farmers ain’t got no business hirin’ them fer low wages when we native white American citizens are starvin’.””s It was had enough, Clyde Storey* maintained, that Californians refused to “treat you like a white man,” but to encounter a sign reading “No White Laborers Need Apply” at the ranch belonging to former President Herbert Hoover was in his mind the most painful irony of all.” A young Oklahoman summarized the fear that pressed heavily on the self-esteem of many migrants: “they think as much of a ‘Nigger’ uptown here as they do white people.”” It was not true, of course, but the decline in their own social position, combined with what most Southwesterners saw as a substantial elevation in the rights of racial and ethnic minorities, perhaps made it seem so.

Without question the most troubling feature of the California ethnic system for Southwesterners centered on interactions with blacks. A tiny black population shared the farm-labor occupational strata with Okies in the San Joaquin Valley. Excluded even from the FSA camps, living mostly in isolated enclaves in some of the larger towns, blacks, as always, suffered far more serious economic and social discrimination than any whites. Still they enjoyed certain opportunities not common to the Southwest, and these offended the sensibilities of the newcomers. The superiority of white over black was the bottom line of plain-folk culture, and any change in the status of black people was very deeply felt.

The most obvious breach in segregation etiquette occurred in the schools, some of which admitted black students to the same classrooms as whites. Ruth Woodall Criswell recalls the resulting trauma in her household. It was “the first time in my life I’d ever gone to school with anyone except just white children.” Her parents “could hardly reconcile themselves to the fact. At first they didn’t seem to mind so much about the Mexican and Chinese but the blacks bothered them.”””

With clashes of culture and ethnicity, politics took on new meaning. Back in Texas and the Southern Plains, Okies had often been New Deal Progressives, union members and sometimes even socialists or communists. These tendencies were magnified for some Okies who found themselves on the strike lines with minorities. Other Okies turned reactionary which magnified, instead, their worst traits of racism and religious bigotry. It was a mix.

Maybe that is why country/folk music became so central to Okie culture. It was something all Okies could agree on.

I’m a Midwesterner and don’t have much Southern soil left on my family’s Southern roots.

However, I did spend 8th grade through college in South Carolina and several summers in North Carolina. Then I moved back to Iowa and have been here since. My time spent in the Deep South and the Bible Belt has made me endlessly fascinated by Southern culture. The transplantation of that culture to California equally fascinates me. As the book makes clear, California is where Southern culture and politics was transformed and nationalized. It is the originating point and the incubating place of so much of the contemporary clashes in our society, from Nixon’s Southern Strategy to the religious right, from country music and protest folk music to cowboy movies made in Hollywood.

American Exodus was helpful in my seeking to understand my Californian family members and the culture of the state they moved to. My grandmother was raised a Southern Baptist, although she became a Methodist in Indiana. It is interesting how much she changed by having moved to the Bay Area which is a very different place from the Southern California area her aunt and uncle lived in. My mom’s Hoosier family are much more of the Evangelical/Fundamentalist tradition that I suppose they brought with them from Appalachia, and so they would have meshed more with the Okie population.

Helpful as the book was, the author doesn’t fully explain to my satisfaction certain aspects of the changes that happened in this regional migration and cultural transplantation.

I already pointed out the political aspect. During much of their history well into the 20th century, the Southern Plains and Texas were known for radical and left-wing politics along with many alternative and even utopian communities (including some socialist), not necessarily or entirely the conservatism they are known for today. These were also bastions of New Deal Progressivism and the Democratic Party, and indeed many Okies and other Southwestern migrants remained or became liberal Democrats and labor unionists in California (something the author does note).

I can’t emphasize enough how socialist was this region. Texas and the Southern Plains was a breeding ground for agrarian socialists. It was a massive populist movement, and Oklahoma was the center of the storm. Okies came from an extremely radical political tradition.

The region Okies came from had been a place of great conflict, especially during the 19th century. The antebellum period saw the first Anglo-American settlements and then the conflict of slavery. Some Okies came from former slave states and some from former free states. Two examples will suffice. There was Bleeding Kansas which became a major battleground. And there was Texas that was founded by slave owners, partly for the reason that the Mexican government abolished slavery.

It has been famously asked, “What’s the matter with Kansas?” Likewise it could be asked, what’s the matter with Oklahoma and what was the matter with Okies?

Many things transformed the culture in these states during the mid-to-late 20th century and much more transformed the culture as it was transplanted to the West Coast. In California, there was a mixing together of all kinds of ideologies, religions, social systems, cultural traditions, and races/ethnicities. This exaggerated certain aspects of those who moved there while suppressing other aspects. There is a strange and complicated history behind Nixon’s Southern Strategy and the rise of the religious right, specifically as they came to national attention largely via Southern California.

I would point out a couple further shortcomings or problems with American Exodus.

I’ll start with the simpler criticism. The author occasionally, although not often, would make statements that seemed to imply some kind of positive bias toward Okies. I came across it a number of times in my reading, but I’ll offer the last one I came across (American Exodus, Kindle Locations 3228-3232):

Southwesterners were not alone in donning cowboy styles. Nor was the style particularly new. Well before the Dust Bowl migration, rodeos, Western Day celebrations, and a sprinkling of cowboy hats signified rural California’s Western heritage. But the look grew significantly more popular in the closing years of the Depression and became associated with the Okie subculture in the same nonexclusive way that governed most of the group’s symbols and institutions. A marker of sorts, it was not the defiant group uniform adopted by some subcultures (zoot suits, for example, by young blacks and Chicanos in the same period). Okies sought legitimacy from their symbolic statements. Choosing references they assumed to be widely respected, the distinction they valued was that of being the best Americans around.

Southwesterners, according to the author, were simply seeking respectability by dressing differently than those around them. Racial minorities, on the other hand, were adopting a “defiant group uniform” in their doing the same. Really? I’d say that the cowboy image was the very symbol of defiance. Okies even celebrated their defiance of a mainstream culture that they despised or pretended to despise, although less so after Southwestern culture became more mainstream. This defiance by Okies, in fact, is described by the author in this very book.

A simpler explanation is that young Okies in particular, in seeking peer approval, dressed up in the latest popular fashion among young Okies. The same explanation would apply to young blacks and Chicanos. That is just what young people do.

This is a minor complaint, though. I suspect the author for a brief moment fell into romanticizing the Okies, just as the Okies had romanticized their own Southwestern culture.

The romanticizing by Okies of cowboys holds an odd historical element. The defiance of cowboys came from their status as outsiders. Cowboy culture along with open-range ranching originated in Spain and was spread to America through the Spanish Empire. It came to fruition in the frontier areas that would later be annexed by the United States. The first cowboys were of mixed Spanish and Native American ancestry. In the highly ordered society of the Spanish Empire, cowboys had greater freedom than most in that they were itinerant workers that traveled freely between ranches. The imperial control was weakest on the frontier which was known for rebelliousness and revolutionary tendencies, even before any Anglo-American ever set foot there.

My other criticism is more complex and involved. The author at one point in the book had a minor discussion comparing the Okie influence on California with the Midwestern influence on California. This grabbed my attention.

I’m a Midwesterner and so is most of my family. I was born in Ohio where I lived in my early childhood and then spent several years in Illinois, but I ended up in third grade living in Iowa for a few more years. After spending almost a decade away from Iowa in my latter school years and thereafter, I returned to Iowa and have remained since. An Iowan is what I identify as and the Midwest is what I most personally know about. It is from this perspective that the following passage stood out to me (American Exodus, Kindle Locations 3365-3368):

A group identity may not carry very far unless it is tied to specific institutional vehicles. This may be one of the reasons why Midwesterners have not made the same kind of demonstrable cultural impact on California, despite massive numbers and sometimes avid home-state loyalties (Iowans for example). Of course, the fact that Iowans were never cast as social outsiders made a powerful difference, but so did the Southwesterners’ proprietorial control of several institutions that were relatively new to California.

There might be some truth to this, specifically about institutions. I couldn’t say which institutions that Midwesterns might have had proprietorial control of. However, that is far from concluding that “Midwesterners have not made the same kind of demonstrable cultural impact on California.” It is because Midwestern influence was so massive and powerful that it was so diffuse throughtout and so well integrated into California culture.

Southwesterners stood out so much as a sub-culture in California for the very reason that they were essentially a minority group there, thus competing against other minority groups in a very public clash of politics. Minorities tend to get a lot of attention from the mainstream media and from politicians, and maybe this is because they often seek attention in their seeking recognition. It also might just be a cultural difference among regional groups. Midwesterners are perceived as being so normal, so typically American as to be bland and boring. Another thing about Midwesterners, unlike Southerners and Southwesterners, is that they tend to be very moderate in both their politics and their religion. Midwesterners are good at blending in. Seeking attention/recognition just doesn’t seem to be a part of Midwestern culture.

Midwestern culture has become so widespread in American society that it is almost invisible. Midwestern English, specifically in the area centered in and directly surrounding Iowa, became Standard American English which is to say that when someone of this region speaks it is perceived as there having no accent. Ronald Reagan became the great conservative leader from California was born in western Illinois which is part of the region of Standard American English. It was because of Midwesterners such as Reagan that Midwestern English became so common in Hollywood (and so common on nationally broadcast radio and television); by the way, John Wayne also came from this region, having been born in Iowa. This invisibility of Midwestern culture goes along with the invisibility of German-American culture, as the Midwest is the main region where Germans settled and most people don’t realize that there are more Americans of German ancestry than of any other ancestry. Both my parents are largely of German ancestry.

Didn’t it occur to the author that it was odd that so many Californians speak Standard American English which originated in the Midwest?

Spending so much time in Iowa, I speak Standard American English. My dad also speaks Standard American English, more or less. My mom, even though she was born in central Indiana like my dad, inherited an Appalachian/Hoosier accent from her family. However, her cousin who was was born in central Indiana as well spent most of her childhood in California and doesn’t have a trace of accent. She speaks Standard American English, despite never having lived in the region from which originated Standard American English. It’s interesting that my mom’s family living in the Midwest had a Southern accent and only gained a more typical Midwestern accent by moving to California.

Also, consider this from a different angle.

The Midlands culture that forms the backbone of the Midwest isn’t limited to the Midwest.

Midwestern influence ended up being very broad as the migration pattern from Pennsylvania westward eventually spread north into Canada and south as far as the hill country of Texas. The very western area of the South that this book is about was heavily influenced by Midwestern culture, especially by way of German immigrants, long before there were any Okies in California. This influence of the Midwest was, therefore, carried to California by Midwesterners and by many Okies as well.

Along with this, consider the religious issue.

How did the South become so Evangelical in the first place? The South originally was one of the least religious regions during the colonial era and into the early American period.

It took Methodist circuit riders and Baptists from the North to begin the process of creating a more strong religiosity in the South, especially the Deep South; but initially these religious outsiders were perceived by Southerners as radical and intrusive. As explained in Christine Leigh Heyrman’s Southern Cross: The Beginnings of the Bible Belt (Kindle Locations 138-144):

The surprise, of course , is that evangelicals struggled for many decades to prosper among whites in the South. So long has this region been regarded as the cultural hearth of evangelicalism in the present-day United States that it takes some doing to imagine a past that was radically different, a time when a diverse, contentious spiritual culture seemed unlikely ever to become the “Bible Belt,” let alone its proudly proclaimed “buckle.” But much of what follows is an effort at doing just that— recovering a world marooned from living memory in which evangelicals, far from dominating the South, were viewed by most whites as odd at best and subversive at worst.

One of the earliest Baptists in America was Roger Williams, a former Bostonian Puritan who founded Rhode Island. The only Evangelical tradition native to Southerners is Presbyterianism which was mostly concentrated in the Upper South of Appalachia, and many of the earliest Scots-Irish who brought Presbyterianism there came through the Quaker colony of Pennsylvania.

However, even early Appalachia was less overtly religious for a number of reasons. The South in general and the frontier South in particular tended to be more often settled by single male immigrants (whereas, in the North, entire families or even entire villages moved together and settled together). Even when Appalachians did settle down in families, it was more difficult to build religious infrastructure as Appalachians were less motivated in building roads and towns, preferring to live in kinship groups spread far apart from others. Presbyterians also had the problem early on in finding enough preachers for it originally had been the practice for all preachers to be trained in Britain which meant some congregations lacked a preacher for extended periods of time.

The First Great Awakening (i.e., period of revivalism) had its most noticeable activity in New England, but its influence was felt throughout the colonies. At that time, Baptists were the driving force behind separation of church and state. Interestingly, long before the Okies, the Scots-Irish settlers in California were likewise the driving force (against New England settlers) behind separation of church and state. The later Okies were ironically also largely of Scots-Irish descent and so ended up fighting against the secular tradition of their forebears. If not for those first Scots-Irish, New Englanders might have successfully made California a religious state as their religious descendants helped make the South religious. New Englanders sought to establish Protestantism in California and promoted religious social reform, such as the blue laws that became common in the South.

From Colin Woodard’s American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America (Kindle Locations 3621-3639):

However well funded and organized they were, the Yankees had little luck with their efforts beyond their coastal beachheads. They successfully lobbied to get the state legislature to pass laws protecting the Sabbath, but the California Supreme Court was by then dominated by Borderlanders from the mining districts, who declared the law invalid. San Franciscans on the whole rejected Puritan morality. “In California, the Sabbath is ignored by the masses,” the San Francisco Bulletin reported in 1860. “The more abandoned resort to gambling saloons where, with drugged whisky and logwood wines they manage to stake their previous week’s earnings on a throw of dice or a doubtful game of pasteboard.” Yankees had influenced the Left Coast, but they could not make it a commonwealth of saints.14

The central problem, of course, was that from 1850 onward the overwhelming majority of California’s Left Coast residents—and those of the state as a whole—weren’t Yankees. The Gold Rush had drawn people from all over the world: Appalachian farmers, Chilean and Australian miners, Irish and Italian adventurers, and hopeful Chinese laborers. In a land whose colonial culture was yet to be defined, few were willing to simply follow the Yankees’ lead. Catholics rejected it altogether in favor of their own dreams that California, on account of its relative isolation and Spanish heritage, might serve as a refuge from Protestant America. They, too, had their schools, missions, orphanages, and colleges: Italian Jesuits were issuing degrees at Santa Clara while Berkeley was still a prep school. When voters elected delegates to the territory’s constitutional convention in 1849, Yankees were a distinct minority, outnumbered by Borderlanders and norteños. California’s first two governors were San Francisco residents, but both were from Appalachia.15

While the Yankees failed in their broad mission, they did have a lasting effect on coastal California from Monterey north. The coast blended the moral, intellectual, and utopian impulses of a Yankee elite with the self-sufficient individualism of its Appalachian and immigrant majority. The culture that formed—idealistic but individualistic—was unlike that of the gold-digging lands in the interior but very similar to those in western Oregon and Washington. It would take nearly a century for its people to recognize it, but it was a new regional culture, one that would ally with Yankeedom to change the federation.

The other side of the First Great Awakening was Deism and Universalism with a smidgeon of atheism and other heretical thought thrown in. Many of the revolutionary generation, including many of the founders and signers, were Deists, Universalists or otherwise (by today’s standards) not very traditional Christians.

The Second Great Awakening was most concentrated in an area of western New York that became known as the burned-over district. It was the Second Great Awakening that brought on the wave of Methodist circuit riders who reached into the backcountry of the Midwest and the Upper South. This is how Presbyterianism was brought out of its rural isolation and slumber. The Second Great Awakening was known for promoting grassroots democracy and progressive reform, in particular temperance, women’s rights, and abolitionism.

The other side of the Second Great Awakening was spiritualism, transcendentalism, Mormonism, and utopian movements. Many note that Quakers weren’t involved with the revivalism movement, but Quakers along with Shakers were the driving force behind spiritualism (as a side note, my paternal great grandfather was raised by Shakers). Like revivalism, spiritualism took hold in western New York and spread widely. Mormon also arose in that same area, also offered an alternative to revivalism, and then also spread West heading across the Midwest (I’ve seen the old Mormon wagon tracks that are still visible here in Iowa). Like the Evangelicals, Mormons later would support New Deal Progressivism and then even later identify with the religious right culture wars.

Mormonism has become more well known and almost mainstream at this point, but spiritualism had a great impact as well, way more than many today realize. Abraham Lincoln’s wife, and maybe Abraham Lincoln himself, was involved with spiritualist mediums and involved in spiritualist seances. Abraham Lincoln was certainly in the same social circles as many spiritualists, the most famous examples being Harriet Beecher Stowe (she claimed that Uncle Tom’s Cabin had been dictated to her by spirit authors) and a lesser known example being Robert Dale Owen (who was the son of an influential socialist and who was himself an influential socialist and politician who, for example, pressured Lincoln to declare the Emancipation Proclamation).

In the Third Great Awakening, the Social Gospel laid the groundwork for the Populist Movement and the Progressive Era which, in secularized form, laid the groundwork for modern liberalism and progressivism. The Social Gospel was, however, rooted in the progressive reform that was inherent to the first two Great Awakenings. Only later in the 20th century did such progressive reform become solely identified with and blamed on liberal elites and left-wing secularism, a fact that is typically omitted by conservatives, especially Southern Evangelicals.

The other side of the Third Great Awakening was New Thought Christianity, Christian Science, Theosophy and New Age Spirituality. All these were phenomena of the North, including the Midwest, long before they became associated with the West Coast. I was raised in Unity Church which was founded by Midwesterners and established in Missouri. Many Okies, of course, were from Missouri. It was because of various waves of Southern Plains and Midwestern immigrants that all of this alternative spirituality/religion ended up in California which is where my grandmother discovered it and how my parents became introduced to it. Like my mom’s cousin having to go to California to get a Midwestern accent, my grandmother had to go to California to get Midwestern alternative religion.

My point is that the Okies can’t be fully understood without the full context.

Okies get so much credit for influencing California culture and American culture because for one there was a mass media to report on them and second because they weren’t shy about grabbing the attention of mass media (e.g., all the Okies who became famous musicians and movie stars). But maybe this exaggerates their actual influence or obfuscates so many other influences both before and after their resettlement on the West Coast.

I’m sure iit won’t bother most readers that the author didn’t tackle this more difficult analysis. I won’t hold it against the author. I just felt the need to point out that it was missing since so few know about these intertwined aspects of history. Anyway, if the author followed my advice, his book would have become a cumbersome multi-volume project.

I’ll end on a positive note.

The author, even with my criticisms, was far from clueless about the larger historical context. For example, he acknowledged the similarity between the migration pattern of Southerners going to the North and to the West (my family being a part of both movements). Here is what he wrote (American Exodus, Kindle Locations 82-84):

One stream of the white exodus has been studied. Whites from the upper South and Appalachian highlands moved into Northern cities during the same decades that large numbers of Southwesterners were heading west. The two experiences appear to have much in common. Called “hillbillies” instead of “Okies,” white Southerners in cities like Chicago and Detroit acquired the same kind of socio-cultural definition as Southwesterners in California. Distinctive subcultures, shaped somewhat like those belonging to immigrant ethnic groups, emerged in both settings.

There are many other examples of the author offering historical context, specifically about various groups that moved to California. I learned much by reading American Exodus. It is a lot more interesting topic than I ever considered.

A book like this is inevitably limited in its intentionally narrowed focus. For me, though, the larger context is more interesting than the single topic by itself. Non-fiction books in particular are most valuable when not read in isolation, but that is the responsibility of the reader and not the author.

2 thoughts on “The Californian Confusion of Okies: Context is Everything

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