Borrowed Notes

by Cortney Stone


In 1939, John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath became a best-seller and turned the nation’s attention to the plight of migrant farmers escaping the Dust Bowl. The novel’s central characters represented Oklahoma in public memory, giving the state a reputation as a place of tragedy and poverty. Many Oklahomans condemned the novel as an obscene misrepresentation.

Ask red-dirt-blooded Oklahomans today about The Grapes of Wrath, and you’ll probably receive a disgusted look—either because they do not want to be in the same category as the low-class Joads or because the book bored them to death in high school. Unfortunately, many do not know that while Steinbeck’s Dust Bowl novel was revealing a public crisis and embarrassing Oklahomans, a Dust Bowl novel from an Oklahoman was silenced.

Born in Oklahoma in 1907, Sanora Babb grew up in the hard life of busted-out farms in the Oklahoma Panhandle, Colorado, and Kansas. As a girl, Babb decided that she would write about the farmers of the arid High Plains—her people. In 1929, she moved to Los Angeles to further her career. Her social life grew to include artists such as Ralph Ellison—with whom she had a love affair—and Chinese-American cinematographer James Wong Howe. She married Howe, violating California’s anti-miscegenation laws, and she became involved with progressive causes and the Communist Party.

In 1938, Babb worked for the Farm Security Administration as the assistant to Tom Collins, the manager of FSA camps in California. The camps provided support for refugees displaced by drought, dust storms, and the loss of their farms. Babb lived in the camps and provided refugees with medical attention and education about sanitation and workers’ rights. She saw them exploited by growers, despised by locals, and turned away from hospitals and stores. She watched refugees suffer from starvation and illness through the winter months when there was no work. She supported striking workers and went to jail. She respected the refugees as good people who wanted work, not charity. Because she was from Oklahoma, the refugees trusted Babb and shared their stories with her, so Collins had her take field notes and write FSA reports. Babb also began planning a novel that would show how much her people were suffering.

She was not the only person with that idea. John Steinbeck had already written two Dust Bowl novels and was developing another about migrant farmers. He visited the camps for several weeks in 1936 and helped rescue refugees from floods for 10 days during the winter of 1937–38. Eventually, Collins gave him copies of Babb’s notes to use for his novel, and Steinbeck hurried home to write. Babb remained in the camps until October 1938 and by the time she began writing her own novel, Steinbeck had written most of The Grapes of Wrath.

In 1939, Babb sent excerpts of her novel Whose Names Are Unknown to Random House, and the publisher was eager to print it. When The Grapes of Wrath came out later that year, Random House decided they could not follow such a huge success with a similar publication. Babb stashed the manuscript in a drawer and quietly continued her career. Meanwhile, The Grapes of Wrath won a Pulitzer Prize and became a motion picture, and Steinbeck reigned as the champion of the people.

The rejection seems to be a mere misfortune, but examining Whose Names Are Unknown and The Grapes of Wrath side by side shows it is an injustice against Babb, Oklahoma, and the refugees. Both authors used the same notes and had been in the camps, but Babb had far more firsthand experience than Steinbeck. Though Steinbeck’s work is sympathetic and based on truth, the novel still has grave inaccuracies and shortcomings. Babb’s novel, however, is thoroughly detailed and accurate, and she shows greater respect toward the refugees.

Both novels begin in Oklahoma with farming families. Steinbeck’s Joads live near Sallisaw, and while his descriptions of the Dust Bowl are accurate, they could not have applied to eastern Oklahoma, which was nowhere near the Dust Bowl. Babb begins her novel with the Dunne family in the Oklahoma Panhandle—the only part of the state with severe Dust Bowl damage—and her descriptions of the environment are vivid and realistic. Steinbeck knew Oklahoma through photographs and a highway map, but Babb had lived in Oklahoma and breathed its air.

Both families lose their farms to the banks and decide to move to California in search of work, but the authors approach this differently. Steinbeck tells the story through dramatic dialogue and artistic meanderings on preparing, packing, and traveling on Route 66. His Okies speak in heavy dialect and use poor grammar, and their offenses include drinking, swearing, making obscene comments, sexual immorality, and violence. In contrast, Babb focuses on the Dunnes’ life in Oklahoma, establishing what the family has and who they are, before skipping straight to their resettlement in California to show what they have lost and who they have become.

The Dunnes and their neighbors use very little dialect, and Babb portrays them as moral people with normal human flaws. The Joads seem like flat characters crafted for a story, while the Dunnes appear to be a respectful amalgamation of people Babb knew personally in the FSA camps.

Though both writers describe the harsh conditions in California, Babb goes further than Steinbeck with the story. She shows deep sympathy and intimacy as she elaborates on working conditions, labor strikes, the hard winter, and the extreme near-starvation the families experienced. Steinbeck includes these issues, but not to the same extent.

Whose Names Are Unknown and The Grapes of Wrath are both great American Dust Bowl novels that emerged at the same time with different perspectives. Steinbeck hit shelves in 1939; Babb waited until 2004, when University of Oklahoma Press published Whose Names the year before her death. Babb tells a realistic story about credible characters in straightforward language, but Steinbeck is an outsider crafting a tale in pseudo-biblical language and scraggly dialect. In the end, Steinbeck’s work won the publishing race, but Babb’s work remains a voice that cannot be manipulated or silenced.

Originally published in This Land, Vol. 4 Issue 20. Oct. 1, 2013.