Sanora Babb’s Bad Timing

The Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas at Austin has just launched a handsome online exhibition, Sanora Babb: Stories From the American High Plains, dedicated to the author’s writing and photography during the Great Depression. Babb was born in Oklahoma in 1907 and moved to LA just as the markets crashed; from 1937 to 1939 she worked with migrant farmers as part of the Farm Security Administration. During that time she wrote a novel, Whose Names Are Unknown, based on her experiences.

Sound familiar? Bennett Cerf, head of Random House, felt the same way—figuring there wasn’t room in the market for both Babb’s novel and The Grapes of Wrath, he broke the publisher’s contract with Babb. Whose Names Are Unknown wasn’t published until 2004, a year before her death. Scanning through it, it’s not hard to see what Cerf was so concerned about—Babb’s prose mirrors the same simple prose style, the same rough-hewn nobility in the characters, the same symbolism about the earth and life. One chapter ends with the burial of an infant, and Babb is no less shy about inserting melodrama than Steinbeck was:

At the last he beat the ground down hard with the back of the spade. Suddenly he began to cry. He did not lower his head but stood as he was, his shoulders jerking with hard cruel sobs. He did not know what to do. The broken sounds came out of his throat and his whole body shook. He could not stop because he felt a hard loneliness and despair breaking up in him, crashing against the walls of his being. It was the boy and it was everything unnoticed and unknown in him. “I ain’t cried since I was a boy,” he mumbled. He stopped down on his knees again and pulled loose dirt carelessly over the grave to make it look like the rest of the field. When he had finished he stood still looking at the pure circle of earth around him, the far, smooth, lonely plain. The earth was very clean and fresh after the rain. He could see the long straight fences miles away. They were frail and small so far beneath the great clear morning sky. The desperation of living came up in him again, in anger and humiliation; in anger he shook his fist, shook it hard and fierce at something in the world.