Abstract

This essay analyzes representations of agriculture, drought, and fecundity in John Steinbeck’s novel To a God Unknown in order to better understand the ways that this novel draws on, revises, and critiques regional histories of agro-industrial development in California. In particular, it explores parallels between the Wayne ranch's boom-and-bust narrative and its historical antecedents, particularly the rise and fall of California’s rancho economy in the mid-nineteenth century. Along the way, this article also examines the ways that Steinbeck’s representations of fecundity and drought reflect enduring entanglements between the cultural vocabulary of the U.S. family farm and settler colonial visions of claiming and developing fecund and malleable California landscapes. This article concludes with a reflection on To a God Unknown’s enduring relevance to contemporary discussions of water management, drought, and agriculture in the Anthropocene (the contemporary epoch of human-induced climate change), when California’s drought seasons are on track to become more regular and intense.

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