The Purpose Is to Direct

by Larry Guthrie


“Even though the suspicion is probably not justified, it is hoped that the persevering reader will lay down the book convinced that he knows and understands the backgrounds of this interesting state and has at least a speaking acquaintance with its present.

The obvious purpose of a state guide, of course, is to direct.”

—Angie Debo and John M. Oskison, from the preface of Oklahoma: A Guide to the Sooner State 

If you liked the film The Getaway (with Steve McQueen and Ali MacGraw in 1972, or with Alec Baldwin and Kim Basinger in 1994), you probably have Woody Guthrie to thank. It began when President Franklin Roosevelt in 1935, at the urging of the Writers’ Union, created the Federal Writers’ Project as part of the Work Projects Administration (WPA) to employ writers nationally during the Great Depression. Each state was tasked with writing a book that included its history, geography, commerce, industry, ethnic groups, culture, main cities, and the like.

Oklahoma: A Guide to the Sooner State was under the direction of Jim Thompson, a native of Anadarko, Oklahoma. Thompson took over for Bill Cunningham, a Watonga, Oklahoma, native and author of the novel The Green Corn Rebellion, as director of Oklahoma’s Writers’ Project. Louis L’Amour, later famed as a writer of Westerns, worked under his direction.

When Oklahoma’s guide was published in 1941, Jim Thompson was mired in “red scare” suspicion and consequently was not mentioned in the book. Rather, Angie Debo, Oklahoma writer and curator of maps at the OSU library, was credited for her work as editor along with John M. Oskison. But Debo wasn’t any less controversial. Her book And Still Run the Waters, about broken Indian treaties, got Debo temporarily barred from teaching in Oklahoma’s universities.

Woody Guthrie circulated Jim Thompson’s first novel, Now And On Earth, among leftist publishers in New York until it was published by Modern Age Books. Jim Thompson went on to publish The Getaway and collaborated with filmmaker Stanley Kubrick on a number of projects, including the forthcoming film Lunatic At Large, based on a Thompson manuscript recovered more than 50 years after it was written.

* * *

At statehood, Oklahoma was very different than it is today. Unions represented most trades: miners, bricklayers, and carpenters, among numerous others. Oklahoma also had a strong radical tradition among farmers, laborers, and academics. In 1916, over 47,000 voters statewide voted for Socialist candidates in Oklahoma.


That same year, a radical tenant farmers’ organization, Working Class Union (WCU), claimed 20,000 members in eastern Oklahoma alone. In 1910, 54.8 percent of Oklahoma farms were tenant-operated by 104,137 tenant farmers and sharecroppers.

Cunningham’s novel The Green Corn Rebellion was based on a tenant farmers’ uprising in Oklahoma by the same name, which was named after the Native American season and the food source for their planned march.

The Green Corn Rebellion, the event that became the basis of Bill Cunningham’s novel, arose in Oklahoma in August 1917. Tenant farmers were squeezed by usurious credit practices, crop liens by landlords, and the draft of World War I. These Oklahomans saw military conscription as an invasion of their rights. Although the “rebellion” was ultimately thwarted, progressive ideas still permeated the state.

Widespread radicalism in Oklahoma was evident. In 1941, the Oklahoma Legislature took action against presumed communists in the state universities. On February 11, 1949, OU’s president and students protested a proposed bill that would require all OU faculty and students to sign a non-communist oath. The Oklahoma state government continued “red hunts” at OU and OSU through the 1940s and ‘50s. As an example of “red” controversy, in 1925 Oklahoma changed its flag from the original red to blue.

Oklahoma: A Guide to the Sooner State was published several times and continues to be reproduced. These descriptions remain an accurate history even today. Like many of the state guidebooks across the U.S., the Oklahoma authors represented widespread radicalism throughout the 1920s, ‘30s, and ‘40s. Keeping their political views separate, they offer a romantic and poignant view of the Sooner State in the heyday of Route 66 driving.


Originally published in This Land, Vol. 5 Issue 1. Jan. 01, 2014.