When the Americans first came to settle in California, they were hungry for land. Driven by a desire for property, they dominated the complacent Mexican natives, successfully stripping them of their claim to this fertile farmland. Soon, these Californians were no longer squatters, but owners. Farming became an industry, not a passion, and success was measured in dollars only. Farms became larger and owners fewer.
As the dispossessed come to California, they bring with them a wild, desperate hunger for land. History had told them that when all land is held by a few, it is taken away. And when great masses are going hungry, while a few are well fed, there will be a revolt. In an effort to diffuse the strength of the migrant workers, the owners make laws, and law officials enforce them. Any man farming on a small strip of land is charged with trespassing, and squatter's camps — "Hoovervilles" — are closed and burned for being a threat to public health. Meanwhile, children in the Hoovervilles are dying from hunger while their parents pray for food. When the parents stop praying and start acting, the end for the owners will be near.
Together with Chapters 21 and 23, this chapter presents historical background on the development of land ownership in California, tracing the American settlement of the land taken from the Mexicans. Fundamentally, the chapter explores the conflict between farming solely as a means of profit making and farming as a way of life. Steinbeck criticizes the industrialization of farming in which a love of the land is replaced by a capitalist mentality. With the advent of this industrialization came a shift toward commercial farming. With the focus only on the moneymaking aspects of growth, the corporate farmers increasingly exploit immigrant and migratory workers who are willing to work for a low wage. Like the machines that pushed the sharecroppers off their land, these great landowners had "become through their holdings both more and less than men." A key image of agrarian sympathy is found in the patch of jimson weed. Here Steinbeck effectively illustrates the crimes committed by the frightened owners with a picture of a hungry migrant stealthily clearing a jimson weed patch so that he might grow a few vegetables to feed his family, only to have it gleefully destroyed by a local sheriff.
A distinct contrast is also made here between existing immigrant workers (the Chinese, Mexican, and Filipinos) and the recently arrived "Okies" who feel strongly that they are Americans. Perceiving themselves as coming from a similar background as the rest of the inhabitants of the Golden State, the "Okies" insist on similar rights. This knowledge that they deserve the same decencies as any other American citizens gives strength and credence to their demands and makes them appear more dangerous to the California natives.
serfs persons in feudal servitude, bound to a master's land and transferred with it to a new owner.
straw bosses supervisors who have little or no authority to support their orders.
dispossessed deprived of the possession of something, especially land, a house, and so on.
barbarians people regarded as primitive, savage, and so on.
Hooverville any of the encampments of displaced persons especially prevalent during the 1930's; "Hoover" is a reference to the President of the United States at the time, Herbert Hoover.
jimson weed a poisonous annual weed.