By Ady Wetegrove
Coming of age on the American High Plains, American novelist Sanora Babb was familiar with the endeavor for dignity among the people living in the poverty-stricken area. With her intimate knowledge of the landscape, she provided access to the daily circumstances of individuals struggling to survive in the Dust Bowl. Babb sought to depict the High Plains as a featureless physical space, while humanizing “the Great American Desert” as the stage on which people’s daily lives unfolded.
The Ransom Center holds the Sanora Babb papers, and some of the materials are highlighted in the Center’s web exhibition Sanora Babb: Stories from the American High Plains. In her fiction, Babb sought to illuminate the stories of those families who left little written account of the unrelenting duress and the socio-economic strife that characterized the American High Plains at mid-century. Materials from this collection are also featured in this Sunday’s premiere of Ken Burns’s new documentary The Dust Bowl on PBS, which draws heavily on Babb’s novels and documentary writings.
Before the stock market crash in October 1929, Babb moved from Colorado to Los Angeles where she found work as a scriptwriter for a radio station and began publishing her literary work in experimental activist magazines. These “little magazines” helped Babb get her foot in the door, and she soon met writers Dorothy Parker, Ralph Ellison, Genevieve Taggard, Nathanael West, John Howard Lawson, Theodore Dreiser, and B. Traven.
Increasingly involved in political activism and social advocacy, Babb worked with the Farm Security Administration (FSA) to set up tent settlements for the dispossessed in California’s farmlands. Babb’s employment with the FSA, as well as her own childhood experiences, provided the subtext for her first novel, Whose Names Are Unknown, which chronicles the lives of displaced High Plains families and their struggle to find work as seasonal harvesters in California.
Although Random House accepted Babb’s novel for publication in 1939, the contract was rescinded when John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath was published during the same year. According to Random House editor Bennet Cerf, the market could not support two books with similar subjects. Although both Steinbeck and Babb explore the Dust Bowl exodus of the 1930s, the authors interpret the difficult conditions in starkly different terms. In Whose Names Are Unknown, the intimate world of human relationships relies on testimonial witnessing, while Grapes of Wrath employs symbolic means to represent the condition of “Oakies.”
Disappointed that Whose Names are Unknown was eclipsed by Steinbeck’s work, Babb turned her attention to the manuscript of her second novel, The Lost Traveler (1958). Babb continued to work as a writer and publisher into her eighties, publishing An Owl on Every Post (1971), Cry of the Tinamou (1997), and Told in the Seed (1998). A re-edited manuscript of Whose Names Are Unknown, published in 2004, received critical recognition as a rival to Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath.