Sanora Babb, 98; Writer Whose Masterpiece Rivaled Steinbeck’s
If there were lessons to be learned from Sanora Babb’s hardscrabble years as a child on the Colorado frontier, one of them must have been perseverance.
Babb waited 65 years in the shadow of a literary giant for her first completed novel to be published. Upstaged in 1939 by John Steinbeck’s bestselling “The Grapes of Wrath,” Babb’s tale about the travails of a Depression-era farm family was shelved by the venerable Random House, which feared that the market would not support two novels on the same theme. Bitterly disappointed, Babb stuck her manuscript in a drawer, and there it remained until 2004, when it was rescued by the University of Oklahoma Press.
At 97, Babb earned long-overdue praise for the novel, “Whose Names Are Unknown,” an acutely observed chronicle of one family’s flight from the drought and dust storms of the high plains to the migrant camps of California during the 1930s.
Reviewers called it a “long-forgotten masterpiece” and “an American classic both literary and historical,” as compelling as Steinbeck’s epic work and in some ways more authentic.
The widow of Oscar-winning cinematographer James Wong Howe, whom she dated in the 1940s in defiance of California’s anti-miscegenation laws, Babb died of natural causes Dec. 31 at her Hollywood Hills home, said Joanne Dearcopp, her longtime agent and literary executor. She was 98.
“She was a wonderful poet, a good short-story writer and a fine novelist,” said author Ray Bradbury, who knew Babb for more than 60 years.
He described the initial rejection of her first novel as “the sort of blow that happens to all of us as writers.... She didn’t let it destroy her.”
Babb wrote five books, including a novelized memoir, a volume of poetry and a collection of short stories. Two of her stories were chosen for the 1950 and 1960 editions of the distinguished anthology series “Best American Short Stories,” edited by Martha Foley.
She considered “Whose Names Are Unknown” her most meaningful work because it was inspired by people she grew up with and others she met as an organizer in the migrant camps where so many of her fellow Oklahomans wound up.
Babb was born in an Otoe Indian community in Oklahoma in 1907, the year the state was admitted to the union. As a child she followed her itinerant father’s restless path across Oklahoma to a broomcorn farm in Colorado, where her grandfather had homesteaded an arid tract of land.
She and her family lived with him in a one-room dugout, an underground room dug out of the dirt. She was bitten by a rat, witnessed the stillbirth of a brother and gave up precious belongings to help her family survive repeated crop failures.
Her grandfather taught her to read from a volume about the adventures of legendary frontiersman Kit Carson and newspaper articles about murders and scandals that he had plastered on the dugout walls for insulation. She did not attend school until she was 11 but caught up quickly and graduated from high school as valedictorian.
Babb eventually became a journalist for Associated Press and moved to Los Angeles. She was about to begin work at the Los Angeles Times when the stock market crashed in 1929. The writer spent much of the next decade broke and homeless, often sleeping in Lafayette Park.
She eventually found a job as a radio scriptwriter and wrote stories and poems that appeared in literary magazines, including the Prairie Schooner, the Anvil and Southwest Review. Many of her friends were struggling writers, including William Saroyan, John Fante, Carlos Bulosan, John Sanford, Meridel Le Sueur and Ralph Ellison. Babb joined the Communist Party and, like many other left-leaning writers of her generation, sought foreign adventures, visiting the Soviet Union in 1936 and reporting on the Spanish Civil War for the British journal This Week.
In 1938 she returned to California to work as an assistant to Tom Collins, manager of the Farm Security Administration, the federal agency established to help poor farmers during the Depression.
She kept detailed notes on her experiences setting up tent camps and organizing protests among the Dust Bowl refugees who had wound up in the San Joaquin and Imperial valleys. According to Douglas Wixson, an emeritus professor at the University of Texas who is writing Babb’s biography, Collins borrowed her notes to share with Steinbeck, who was visiting the camps to gather material for “The Grapes of Wrath.” Widely acclaimed when it was published in 1939, it won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction and was made into an Oscar-winning movie directed by John Ford.
Babb met Steinbeck briefly at a lunch counter but was not sure he ever read her notes. They became the basis for her own novel, which she began writing while working in the camps. She sent the first few chapters to Random House, where they impressed editor and co-founder Bennett Cerf. He paid her way to New York and put her up in a hotel to complete the novel. In a letter to Babb, he pronounced it an “exceptionally fine” work of fiction and planned to publish it -- until Steinbeck’s book swept bestseller lists.
“What rotten luck,” Cerf wrote in an August 1939 letter to Babb cited by Kansas State University professor Lawrence R. Rodgers in the introduction to “Whose Names Are Unknown.”
“Obviously,” Cerf continued, “another book at this time about exactly the same subject would be a sad anticlimax!”
Although Random House was shelving her first novel, it gave her a contract and an advance for her next one. But Babb was still bitterly disappointed.
Over the next decade, Babb edited literary magazines that helped introduce the work of Bradbury and B. Traven, author of “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre,” among others. She focused her own efforts on short stories and taught the craft at UCLA Extension in the late 1950s. But her writing was often cut short by her devotion to Howe, the master of low-key lighting and deep-focus cinematography who won Oscars for his work in “The Rose Tattoo” (1955) and “Hud” (1963).
A beautiful woman who was given a screen test by producer Irving Thalberg, she met Howe, a Chinese American, at the Pickwick bookstore on Hollywood Boulevard before World War II. In an era of rampant bigotry, they were not married until 1948, when the state law banning intermarriage was abolished.
During the 1940s, Babb ran a Chinese restaurant that Howe owned in North Hollywood. In 1950, during the heat of the communist witch hunts, she spent more than a year in Mexico. During her self-imposed exile, she completed “The Lost Traveler,” inspired by her complex relationship with her father. Issued in 1958, it was her first published novel.
Her other books include “An Owl on Every Post,” a 1970 memoir of her childhood in the Colorado wilderness that William Fadiman, writing in the Los Angeles Times, called “an evocative glimpse of a vanished era”; “Cry of the Tinamou,” a 1997 compilation of short stories; and “Told in the Seed,” a 1998 collection of poems.
A few years ago, Babb was persuaded to release the full manuscript of her first novel, which describes the travails of the Dunne family. Based in part on her mother’s letters about dust storms in western Kansas, “Whose Names Are Unknown” -- a title drawn from the language of eviction notices to Depression-era farmers -- was praised by reviewers for its authenticity and intimate perspective.
Scholars who have read both Babb’s and Steinbeck’s novels said Babb’s work portrays the struggles of Dust Bowl migrants on a far more personal scale and derived much of its power from her insights into family dynamics.
Said Wixson, her biographer, “It fills a lacuna in American literature,” giving voice to the ordinary people whose hunger for land brought them great misfortune in one of the most inhospitable regions of the country.
Babb told the Chicago Tribune in 2004 that she thought she was a better writer than Steinbeck. “His book,” she said, referring to “The Grapes of Wrath,” “is not as realistic as mine.”
A finalist in fiction for the 2005 PEN Center USA Literary Award, “Whose Names Are Unknown” will be issued in paperback in February.
Babb and Howe, who died in 1976, had no children. She is survived by a nephew, Don Lee.
Memorial contributions may be made to the Sanora Babb Memorial Fund, care of American Indian College Fund, 8333 Greenwood Blvd., Denver, CO 80221, www.collegefund.org.
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