The "characters" in Harvest Gypsies, a work of nonfiction, were real people.
Collins was the Resettlement Administration staff member assigned to accompany Steinbeck on his tour of the migrant camps. In the summer of 1936, Collins and Steinbeck traveled through several camps together. Having experience establishing and managing federal government camps, Collins proved to be an invaluable resource for Steinbeck. In his introduction to The Harvest Gypsies, Charles Wollenberg writes the men's "[. . .] relationship was based as much on mutual advantage as on personal friendship. Steinbeck used the camp manager's experiences for real-life material [. . .]. And Collins used Steinbeck to publicize a deeply-felt cause, to awaken the citizenry to the migrant's plight" (ix). When the two men met, Collins was working to establish the government's second camp at Arvin. Ultimately, Steinbeck modeled Jim Rawley, manager of the Weedpatch Camp in the Grapes of Wrath, after Collins. Steinbeck also partially dedicated The Grapes of Wrath to Collins who ended up serving as an advisor for the production of the Academy Award winning film version of The Grapes of Wrath released in 1940.
Lange was a photojournalist best known for the Depression-era studies of migrant people she took as an employee of the New Deal agency, the Farm Security Administration. Her work brought nationwide attention to the Dust Bowl migrant's situation and recorded their plight for posterity. Several of her photographs were reproduced with Steinbeck's articles and used as publicity pieces for The Grapes of Wrath to help demonstrate its authenticity. Her best-known picture from the time period is titled "Migrant Mother." (Images can be viewed at: http://www.loc.gov/rr/print/list/128_migm.html.) Lange would go on to photographically document the controversial internment of Japanese citizen in prison camps during WW II. She was inducted into the California Hall of Fame in 2008.
West was the editor of The San Francisco News who commissioned Steinbeck to write an article series on the Dust Bowl migrants. According to Charles Wollenberg's introduction, the two had been introduced at journalist Lincoln Steffens' home in Carmel a few years earlier (vi). Steinbeck's biographer, Jackson Benson, reports Steinbeck was sure the articles would not be printed because of the high anti-labor sentiment prevalent in California at the time. Steinbeck wrote to friend George Albee, "Any reference to labor except as dirty dogs is not printed by the big press out here" (qtd. in Benson 348). Nonetheless, The San Francisco News did run the week-long series.
Zanuck was the Academy Award winning producer of the film version of The Grapes of Wrath (1940). According to biographer Jackson Benson, Zanuck actually hired private detectives to investigate conditions in the migrant camps to verify Steinbeck's version of events. He later confessed to Steinbeck, "[. . .] conditions are much worse than you reported" (qtd. in Benson 409). Most film critics and historians consider the film to be an American classic. The film was directed by John Ford and Henry Fonda starred as Tom Joad. Collins was hired as a technical advisor for the film, and much of the movie was shot at the Arvin Federal Government Camp, where Collins was the manager.