The Tragedy of a Generation: Whose Names Are Unknown
July 9, 2013
I have always been fascinated by stories of the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl. I have read many books (The Worst Hard Time, The Grapes of Wrath, etc…) on both the greatest economic catastrophe and the greatest interrelated weather tragedy our country has ever faced.
I enjoy looking at photographs taken during the period. In the faces of the folks who struggled to survive during this period, I see my parents and grandparents staring at me, telling me to be grateful for what I have. Those feelings and my great curiosity about how these brave folks survived led me to Sanora Babb’s novel, Whose Names Are Unknown.
Babb was born in 1907 in Oklahoma Territory. Her family later moved to the Oklahoma Panhandle. She experienced what she writes about. She taught school for a time and wrote for farm magazines. She moved to California when she was twenty-two to become an AP reporter, but the depression stopped that. Babb was usually broke and at times, homeless.
The title to Babb’s book came from an actual eviction notice: To John Doe and Mary Doe Whose Names Are Unknown. She wrote the book during the thirties while working with refugee farmers in the Farm Security Administration (FSA) camps of California.
One of her closest contacts with the FSA was Tom Collins, the founding manager of the Weedpatch migrant labor camp in Arvin, California. Collins asked Babb to keep notes of what was taking place. He was impressed enough by her writing that he passed on her research to another writer who was visiting the camp to research a novel. That writer was John Steinbeck. Babb reports meeting him twice.
It is easy to imagine that her notes played a critical role in Steinbeck’s writing of The Grapes of Wrath, a novel that later took America by storm. Babb submitted her manuscript to Random House in 1939 even though the giant publisher seldom looked at agentless manuscripts.
Co-founder and editor Bennett Cerf (remember him from the old TV show What’s My Line?) liked what he saw and sent her an advance.But Babb’s and Cerf’s plans were dashed when The Grapes of Wrath sold almost half a million copies in five months.
Cerf backed off her manuscript, saying it was too much like Steinbeck’s book. She was also rejected by Scribner’s and Colliers. Steinbeck’s editor at Viking sent her a letter indicating no interest in publishing a novel that would compete with their star writer.
So the manuscript sat unpublished for more than sixty years. The story of Julia and Milt Dunne that begins with their struggles in Cimarron County of Oklahoma and migrates west to California remained untold. How does it compare to Steinbeck’s great novel? Read it and judge for yourself.