In the mid-1930s John Steinbeck began research that would eventually lead to his writing his masterpiece, The Grapes of Wrath. While doing so he often met with a man named Tom Collins who is the co-dedicatee of the book. Steinbeck made trips from his Bay Area home to Southern California to visit the camp Collins had set up on behalf of the Farm Security Administration (FSA). Near Bakersfield, the Arvin Sanitary Camp was more commonly called Weedpatch.
This was fortuitous as Collins was a repository of camp humor, folklore, and gossip. The camps might have 200 to 2,000 inhabitants. He was so good as his job that he was assigned to help open each camp and to help train new camp managers. Steinbeck used his camp reports as a sort of handbook of migrant attitudes, behavior, their ways of speaking, and conditions of life within the camps.
Steinbeck was thinking of a “big book,” but before he would begin that novel, he produced some first-rate journalism, a series of seven articles that appeared in the Oct. 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10 and 12, 1936 issues of “The San Francisco News” called The Harvest Gypsies. According to his biographer, Jackson J. Benson, Steinbeck “traced the background of migrant labor in California, identified the new migrant from the Dust Bowl, described the living conditions in the squatters’ camps, discussed the large, corporate farm structure of much of California’s agriculture and the relations between the large growers and migrant labor, examined the government camp program, and made recommendations for the future.”
The Harvest Gypsies is not only a precursor to The Grapes of Wrath, it also was the source of one of the most elusive of Steinbeck’s first editions, a pamphlet titled Their Blood Is Strong. That book was the brainchild of Helen Hosmer.
Hosmer was a radical critic of California agribusiness in the 1930s. At one time she worked for the Information Division of the FSA which established migrant farm worker camps throughout California. As such, she traveled all over rural California to investigate conditions and to select possible sites for camps. It was during this time that she came to know famed photographer Dorthea Lange and Steinbeck.
Hosmer resigned her FSA position in 1935 to pursue her political goals, co-founding the Simon J. Lubin Society which published Their Blood Is Strong in April 1938, a year before Viking published The Grapes of Wrath. Simon J. Lubin was part of Hiram Johnson’s gubernatorial administration who was active in investigating farm labor issues.
In an interview with Randall Jarrell as part of an oral history project in 1977, Hosmer recalled her role in publishing Steinbeck’s book which is illustrated with photos by Lange, including the famous front cover illustration of a migrant mother suckling her child.
“Steinbeck gave us permission to use all these articles of his that had appeared in The San Francisco News. So I rushed to the printers and got them printed up and called them Their Blood Is Strong.” Steinbeck wrote an epilogue especially for this book that was added to the reprinting of his articles on book form. The book is identified by the Goldstone & Payne bibliography as A10a. “Steinbeck gave me all the proceeds, didn’t ask for a dime,” according to Hosmer.
“I peeled off the first twenty copies and handed them to anybody who came in. I was glad to get something published….A month later I got a letter from a big publishing house in the East saying ‘Do you have any in mint condition? We’ll pay you $100 apiece.’ We were selling them for 25 cents. I forget which publishing house, but we got requests from at least three after that. I didn’t have one. I’d given them all away.”
Hosmer added, “We got sponsors to publish it. It sold like hotcakes. I don’t know how many times we went back to the printer for reruns.” Actually, the book was reprinted in May, June, and December 1938, but, according to Hosmer, the first printing was comprised of only 100 copies, making it one of the scarcest of all of Steinbeck’s first editions.