In the summer of 1938 Sanora Babb, an aspiring, talented, and determined young writer, joined the volunteer staff at camps in California’s Imperial and San Joaquin Valleys run by the Farm Services Administration, which housed thousands of destitute farmers displaced by the Oklahoma Dust Bowl. Babb had a singular empathy for the “Okies,” since she had been raised in dire poverty in Oklahoma and Colorado. She wrote formal reports and kept personal notes on the tribulations of her charges: their hunger, resilience, search for work, and attempts at family life.
Babb passed some of these papers to her boss, the FSA administrator Tom Collins; he shared them with a visitor to the camps, John Steinbeck, who had just become famous for his book Of Mice and Men (1937). Babb also fused her notes with her own life story in the first chapters of a novel, which she dispatched, unsolicited, to Random House in New York.
Bennett Cerf, cofounder of Random House, was so enthusiastic about the manuscript that he paid Babb’s fare to fly east and arranged a hotel room in Manhattan where she finished the novel, entitled Whose Names Are Unknown after the wording of eviction notices: “To John and Jane Doe, whose True Names are Unknown.” Cerf wrote to Babb on July 27, 1939, that “our first reader’s report on your book is exceptionally fine.” Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath—also about those in flight from Dust Bowl storms, seeking work and shelter in California—had been published that April and had received the acclaim it deserved. That first reader told Cerf, “The GRAPES was first, and many will follow. This will be one of the best.” But a second reader was wary of Steinbeck’s impact: “Under the circumstances…we will invite hypercritical attention—to its disadvantages.” Cerf wrote to Babb on August 16:
What rotten luck for you that “The Grapes of Wrath” should not only have come out before your book was submitted, but should have so swept the country! Obviously, another book at this time about exactly the same subject would be a sad anticlimax.
Bitterly disappointed, Babb stashed her book in a drawer at her home in Los Angeles, where it remained unpublished until May 2004, by which time she was bedridden and had only nineteen months to live. Whose Names Are Unknown was a finalist for the PEN Center USA Literary Award for 2005. “A better read for today’s market than The Grapes of Wrath,” wrote the Chicago Tribune, “leaner, faster paced and full of details that give a more insightful look at a tragic time in American history.” “The publication of Whose Names Are Unknown rights a decades-old literary wrong,” according to The Salt Lake Tribune.
Yet Babb’s remarkable writing remains in America’s literary shadows, perhaps because she began her career in Steinbeck’s shadow. The first collection of critical writing on her work, Unknown No More: Recovering Sanora Babb, coedited by Joanne Dearcopp, her agent and friend for decades, has just been published. The essays in it appraise Babb’s contribution to American literature, especially to western and “regionalist” writing. There are also two new and expanded editions of Babb’s short stories and one of her poetry.
These books demonstrate the continuing relevance of Babb’s themes of ecology, feminism, migration, and racial injustice. At the same time, as the Pulitzer Prize–winning novelist William Kennedy writes in his foreword to a new edition of her memoir, An Owl on Every Post (1970), “It was her pursuit of the poetic that generated the lyricism that distinguishes all Sanora’s writing, and that led her to discover the mystery and the magic in the ordinary, in the hardscrabble life.” And no wonder: Babb was writing in significant part from the experience of her own exceptional life.
Sanora Babb was born in 1907 in Red Rock, Oklahoma Territory, the eldest of two sisters. Her father, Walter, was of Irish and Welsh stock, variously a baker, farmer, and professional gambler; her mother Jennie’s family was refined, originally from Virginia, and she had married Walter when she was fifteen. The family had close ties with the local Otoe tribe: Walter founded and coached a Native baseball team, and as a child Sanora stayed at Otoe summer and winter camps, where Chief Old Eagle honored her with a wild pony and baptized her Little Cheyenne Riding Like the Wind after she first rode it.
When Sanora was seven, Walter was persuaded by his father, Alonzo, to bring the family to join him on the high plains of southeastern Colorado, where they all lived in a one-room earthen dugout and tried to grow broomcorn on unsuitable land. These were formative years for Babb; she sometimes went a week without food and was at the mercy of—and in wonder at—the boundless land, immeasurable sky, and wrath of the weather.
The family next moved to Elkhart, Kansas, where Sanora attended grade school and, as she wrote later, “noticed with interest that a woman and her sons edited and published the weekly newspaper.” A woman also edited the Forgan Enterprise at the family’s next stop, Forgan, Oklahoma, where Sanora “asked the publisher for a job. But being only twelve…I qualified only for ‘printers devil,’” or apprentice. After she graduated as valedictorian of Forgan High School, her family moved again, back to Kansas. Babb studied at a junior college and started as a cub reporter at the Garden City Telegram, where she earned her Associated Press credentials. She moved to Los Angeles in 1929 to launch a career in journalism, but her arrival coincided with the Great Depression, and little work was forthcoming. She wrote poems and short stories, however, that were published in the many literary “little magazines” and left-wing publications such as The Anvil, The California Quarterly, New Masses, and The Clipper.
In 1936 Babb traveled with a leftist group organized by New Theatre magazine to see a drama festival in Moscow and Leningrad; she also visited collective farms and was impressed by what she saw, especially regarding the status of women, although this was the year of Joseph Stalin’s appalling show trials, about which she apparently wrote nothing. She also spent time in Paris and London. Upon her return, an organizer for the Communist Party USA in Los Angeles urged her to join, which she did.
Then came Babb’s time with the Farm Services Administration, established by FDR to help the rural poor. Babb’s field notes and reportage—published posthumously as On the Dirty Plate Trail—are at once empathetic and boldly factual:
It is not then a surprising thing to look into a trailer, cabin, or tent and find a whole family lying on the crowded beds, unable to get up from hunger. They are very quiet. The baby cried for the first day and then became still. Hungry mothers have no milk. The others had lain down first because they were too dizzy to walk about, and when they thought of getting up again, their bodies refused, and their minds had sunk away into a dazed half-world.
Babb resisted racial segregation. One camp note reads, “Be sure to put in novel about Negro committee with woman chairman—and conversation.” No such scene appears in Whose Names Are Unknown, but—unlike Steinbeck’s characters, who are all white—it includes an African-American called Garrison among the organizers of a failed strike. An article Babb wrote in 1938, “Migratory Farm Workers in California,” opens with “Filipinos and a fewer number of Asians, Negroes and Mexicans” working California’s fields; it was only the plight of white farm workers that provoked the government to establish the Relief Administration and other farm aid programs. Babb’s friendships testify to her enlightened views on diversity: they included Ralph Ellison (with whom she had an affair), the Filipino immigrant novelist Carlos Bulosan (a family friend), and the Armenian-American writer William Saroyan.
From Babb’s life, imagination, and field notes came Whose Names Are Unknown. While Steinbeck’s masterpiece is epic, Babb’s novel is intimate. She depicts the tribulations, endurance, pride, hopes, and fears of small farmers; she writes about hardship with tenderness. Unlike The Grapes of Wrath, which begins with the Joads already evicted from their land, the first half of Babb’s novel tells of a struggling farm family in the Dust Bowl before they journey to California. The setting is that of Babb’s childhood, a family inhabiting “one room half-buried in the earth.” The apprehensive depiction of landscape is striking:
The long hard winter set in brutal and dull in its unfolding…. The country wore a cruel magnificence, softened and made beautiful only by rare snows…. The great red sun was climbing and suddenly, into the lonely monotones of dawn, a fiery glow dusted the crest, poured the wide valley full of warm light.
The child narrator of the novel, Myra Dunne, understands nature and humankind’s existence in it with rare sensibility, derived from Babb’s childhood among Native Americans, and from her grandfather, here called Konkie. Myra learns to admire natural power even when it menaces:
“Look!” he said again, and they stood together not saying anything, awed by this new attack of nature…. It was magnificent and horrible like a nightmare of destiny towering over their slight world that had every day before this impressed upon them its vast unconquerable might.
Myra also craves education at a time when girls were expected to keep house and rear children. Her mother, Julia, yearns for town, her piano, and the mail.
Babb’s descriptions of the California camps and the dust storms that drove the migrants to them draw graphically from her, and their, experience:
Along the north the sky was a pale yellow…. This dull inert mass had been lingering on the horizon for the last hour, but now she saw it take the shape of a curved wall rising slowly in the air.
Like Steinbeck’s, her novel is political. A cruel narrative common to both her novel and her memoir is the miscarriage and burial of a baby boy, after the matriarch of a richer family from whom the Dunnes buy milk sends mother and daughters home through a storm rather than feed and shelter them until it passes. After Myra’s father inters the stillborn child, “the desperation of living came up in him again, in anger and humiliation…he shook his fist, shook it hard and fierce at something in the world.” The politics are also overt: a migrant pickers’ strike is broken, and the novel ends, “One thing was left, as clear and perfect as a drop of rain—the desperate need to stand together as one man. They would rise and fall and, in their falling, rise again.”
Once the novel was shelved, Babb returned to poetry and short stories with a voracious miscellany of subjects, from confessional to political. In 1941 she published “To the Nazis in Kiev” in The Clipper. Seven years later, for the first issue of Masses & Mainstream, she wrote a nuanced domestic drama, “Femme Fatale,” about a woman’s resentment of her lover’s captivation with a French actress on a cinema screen; the story is insightful about gaslighting: “‘Dearest, you’re wrong,’ he lied. ‘Seeing a woman like that makes me value you all the more.’… But the way he smiled at her now, as if the whole thing were her own invention, made her furious.” The story “Cry of the Tinamou” (1997) concerns a lone North American woman living among an indigenous tribe in “a Central American town”; it is noteworthy for Babb’s confrontation of racism against Natives by Spanish colonists, but also for its depiction of the patriarchal prerogatives of the woman’s host tribe.
In the 1930s Babb found secretarial work, then a script-writing job at a Warner Bros. radio station, KFWB, and became romantically involved with the Chinese-born Oscar-winning cinematographer James Wong Howe. The couple were prevented from marrying until California’s antimiscegenation laws were repealed in 1948. During the McCarthy era and the purge of Hollywood, Babb moved to Mexico City—on her own, but where she had friends—to protect Wong Howe from her leftist political record.
In 1958 Babb at last published a novel, The Lost Traveler, a fictionalized account of her father’s gambling, violent disintegration, and final break with her mother, sister, and herself. She transfers the setting from the open plains to a small town, depicting the domestic claustrophobia of a family implosion. There are three driving themes: the father’s self-demolition, which he turns with wanton cruelty against the women in his family; race and racism; and the value of friendship.
A professional cardsharp, Des Tannehill (as she names him in the novel) initially relishes providing for his family: when he wins, he throws his proceeds in the air for his family to catch and takes them shopping in Apache, Kansas, a fictional version of Garden City. But “it was as if the part of him that had been so bent on respectability was going bad.” Des slides from winning to losing, from Kentucky bourbon to slapping his wife, Belle, and telling her, “You feel the way I tell you to feel.” He half-seriously threatens to pimp one of his daughters, Stevie, still pubescent, to raise funds, and in the sickening denouement brutally beats the other, Robin (standing in for Sanora herself). It falls to Stevie to demand that her mother evict and divorce her father.
Beneath this main plot cuts Babb’s revulsion at racism. Not many novels set in the mid-1920s, written by a white author in the 1950s, feature an African-American teenager working in a garage, discussing classics of literature, and hell-bent on going to college. Chris Garrison (he shares a last name with the black activist in Whose Names Are Unknown), who lives next door, is Robin’s best friend and confidant. They read Eugene O’Neill aloud together and share each other’s restlessness: in one entrancing scene, after discussing Gogol,
they listened to the long, low whistle of an eastbound train going through Apache.
“It’s the ten-twenty-two,” Chris said longingly. “Some night I’m going to flag that train.”
“So am I,” Robin said, “and I don’t care whether it’s going east or west.”
At the calamitous finale, two themes collide: Robin has had an affair with Des’s gambling partner, Blackie, but her father imagines a bond with Chris instead: “‘I’ll teach you to lay around in the grass with a nigger!’ he shouted…. ‘I despise you,’ Robin said with cruel distaste. He slapped her again, hard, but she stood.” A shocking assault follows, after which Robin, bloodied and afraid for her life, shoots Des through the hand with his revolver and is run out of the house. Chris finds her cowering on a riverbank and welcomes her into his house. They confide their shared fears: he of racist hatred, she of domestic violence.
Babb’s memoir of her childhood, An Owl on Every Post, is at once vast, vivid, and intimate. With Whose Names Are Unknown still unpublished, no one could have known how much of the earlier novel was contained in the memoir, and vice versa. But Babb wrote Owl three decades of reflective experience later; not only does the writing mature, but its impact intensifies.
The understanding of landscape echoes the 1939 novel: crops fail beneath “the hostile sun, the treacherous sky.” But the philosophical comprehension of nature deepens, as the intuitions of Grandpa Konkie—now with his real name, Alonzo—assume an almost Coleridgian pantheism:
Man is the only one out of kilter…. And the chances are he has it in him to get back when he finds out he’s a part of nature and not its lord and master. Right here, now, if we plow up all this grassland and kill off all the animals, there’ll be a hard price to pay.
Babb considers humankind’s ravaging of land with striking cogency, invoking her affinity with Native philosophy:
The Indians killed buffalo for food and hide and still the plains were black with them, millions of them…. The white man slaughtered them all in just a few years. Goddang it, they’re after the coyote now, poisoning, trapping, shooting. The wild horses are mostly gone already, hid out in the mountains. What’s wrong with man that he can’t think in a pattern?
Alonzo connects the political and pantheistic with a vision that is at once ancient and of our time: “I would like to see every living thing—plant and animal—have a fair chance at life. But politics isn’t—well, politics means power, and, as I read once, power corrupts.”
In the memoir, significantly, Babb calls herself by her Otoe name, Cheyenne. “Her very early years at Red Rock with the Otoe,” said Dearcopp in a Zoom interview this spring,
had a lasting impact. She felt intuitively connected to the Indian belief that you don’t own the earth, that you are connected to nature. She was writing about Indians in the 1930s, but even in the 80s and 90s, she still talked and wrote about her pony and the Chief who gave it to her. She also wrote about damage done to the earth, which was contemporary by the time the book came out, but she had been writing on that theme long before then.
Feminist aspirations in Whose Names Are Unknown are deepened in the memoir. Physical hunger becomes a metaphor for yearning beyond the horizons expected of a little girl: Cheyenne has been hungry for food ever since she arrived in Colorado but is also “aware of…a hunger that stirred me to living life, a knowledge that I was more than myself, that self of the hours of day and night, that the unknown answer lay all about me.”
“Meeting Sanora for the first time,” recalls Dearcopp,
there was an immediate affinity even though there were thirty years between us. Sanora was so full of joie-de-vivre, she sparkled with enthusiasm. I would visit her and, after Jimmie [Wong Howe] died in 1976, I’d stay at their home in the Hollywood Hills. I’d arrive from New York and be ready for bed by midnight—3am for me—but she was a night owl, wanting to talk. She would stay up reading until three or four in the morning. I don’t know what she was reading, but I remember that her library included the classics, such as Flaubert, an original Ulysses, and many poetry books.
Babb lamented that An Owl on Every Post and The Lost Traveler were out of print, and Dearcopp became her agent, securing new editions with the University of New Mexico Press. Her short stories were gathered into The Dark Earth and Other Stories from the Great Depression (1987) and Cry of the Tinamou (1997); her poetry was collected in Told in the Seed (1998). The poems, like the stories, span a range of themes and moods: love, death, nature, landscape.
But there was one piece of unfinished business: Whose Names Are Unknown. Why did it take so long to be published? Dearcopp says:
I think there was just the hurt. She was so downhearted by what happened at Random House I don’t think she thought about it. But after all else was published, she agreed: let’s do it. By then Sanora’s health had deteriorated. I knew I didn’t have time to shop it around so I went directly to [Oklahoma University] Press thinking they were the likeliest, quickest possibility to get it published while she was still alive. They did and we made it.
What to conclude about Babb’s literary encounter with Steinbeck? Or, indeed, their face-to-face meeting? According to Douglas Wixson, the editor of On the Dirty Plate Trail, the two writers, along with Tom Collins, “visited for most of the afternoon following lunch in a diner.” They are unlikely to have avoided the subject of their literary plans for what they were witnessing, since Collins was urging both to write about it, and there is no doubt that Steinbeck saw some of Babb’s written material, whether or not he incorporated it into The Grapes of Wrath.
When Whose Names Are Unknown was finally published, comparison was inevitable. “Possibly as good as, perhaps better than, The Grapes of Wrath,” wrote the Tulsa World (with a local interest). Babb told the Chicago Tribune, “I’m thrilled. This is the most meaningful book I’ve written. It was a story I had to write.” But she added, boldly and perhaps unwisely, “I think I’m a better writer [than Steinbeck]. His book is not as realistic as mine.” “Better” is a stretch, “more realistic” a valid claim. In his introduction to The Lost Traveler, Wixson writes that Babb’s life “had given her an ‘insider’s’ perspective that Steinbeck, who made several investigative trips to the migrant camps, did not possess.” In an essay entitled “Radical by Nature,” he even suggests, “Had she brought a completed manuscript to Random House a few months earlier, Whose Names Are Unknown rather than The Grapes of Wrath might be required reading in high schools across the United States today.”*
Was there sexism in the decision to drop Babb once Steinbeck was published? “I really don’t think so,” says Dearcopp.
He was an established writer, and she wasn’t. Bennett Cerf and others felt the market couldn’t handle two dust bowl novels. However, if Sanora had published first, Steinbeck would have been published, too. I think the real issue was Steinbeck’s popularity.
In Unknown No More, Christopher Bowman insists that “the two novels are better served by being placed in conversation—rather than competition—with one another.”
After Babb’s death, Dearcopp became her literary executor. “Quite a few years went by,” she says, “some of the work went out of print, and I got an idea to republish it for a third time.” She set up Muse Ink Press to do so, but “when I say ‘published,’ I mean I printed it—there’s been no marketing or promotion.” There was, however, a coincidental and important flash of publicity: in 2012 PBS aired Ken Burns’s Dust Bowl, which drew on and briefly tells the story of Babb’s migrant camp notes and shelved novel. Sales of Whose Names Are Unknown spiked, yet Babb remained little recognized. Even one of the academic contributors to Unknown No More, Jessica Hellmann, confesses that “in my years of reading and researching the Dust Bowl and the novel that defined it, The Grapes of Wrath, I had never come across Babb’s name.”
In his foreword to Unknown No More, David M. Wrobel argues that the collection is “a clarion call for Babb’s enduring importance in the American literary canon and to the role of her activist writing in the struggles for social justice both during her lifetime and in our present moment.” Daryl W. Palmer makes the point that
although Babb’s novel was precluded from contributing directly to the public discourses of the time, its portrayal of climate refugee migrants is just as relevant now in a time of accelerating global climate destabilization as it was when Babb completed the first draft in the late 1930s.
He writes of An Owl on Every Post, “Problems of perspective, climatic extremes, ridiculous expectations, bold gambles, and the smell of sage sharpen every word of Babb’s narrative. Failures spin like dust devils in a dry land.”
An Owl on Every Post contains a passage of mystical enchantment, transgression of yet another boundary, the one between life and death—characteristically that of an animal, not a human. Accompanying Grandpa Alonzo on one of his mysterious nocturnal outings, young Cheyenne beholds a horse, Daft, who had jumped to his death into a ravine years before. The ghost horse “ran in utmost delight” across the plain, but then
streaked past us like a cold wind, ears back, nostrils wide open, and his eyes wild. He headed straight for the precipice. Beyond it, suspended for an instant in the empty air, he fell, screaming all the way down.
Cheyenne is inconsolable and Alonzo apologizes, thinking he had brought the child “just to see Daft play,” not replay his suicide. But then the “pure self of Daft,” as Alonzo calls the apparition, reappears, “free in his own image, resplendent in the moon’s light,” but casting no shadow, “free of the bright moon’s shade.”
This is the essence of Babb’s originality, an author for whom the act of writing itself had kinship with nature. Dearcopp has a typewritten note from Babb, written after she finished An Owl on Every Post, in which she reflects that “some writers begin knowing the whole story ahead,” while “others, and I am one, begin in a fog of atmosphere and feeling, waste pages finding my way.” But, she adds, “when I get the door open, it comes in unseen like the wind.”