Biography is a long, slow process of careful research … Reading diaries and letters and sifting through artifacts … I found the answers to these questions by carefully examining each document and artifact, and slowly I was able to write her story … As a biographer, going to an archive is how you find the person you are writing about.
—IRIS JAMAHL DUNKLE
Author John Steinbeck’s representation of the dust bowl and its aftermath in California in his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, The Grapes of Wrath, relied heavily on the work of American poet and novelist Sanora Babb (1907—2005), of An Owl on Every Post and Whose Names Are Unknown, among other works. Through my research, I learned Steinbeck had never set foot in Oklahoma before he wrote The Grapes of Wrath, and his story is set in counties that were largely unaffected by the Great Deperession.
In writing the novel, Steinbeck borrowed field notes that Babb recorded from 1938 to 1939 when she volunteered in refugee camps on the Dirty Plate Trail. Babb was researching a novel she wanted to write about the dust bowl that eventually was published as Whose Names Are Unknown (2004). A book that, even though it was under contract with Harper Collins, Babb indicates was dropped because of the success of Steinbeck’s book.
However, Babb’s novel is in stark contrast to Steinbeck’s. While Steinbeck created a fable-like story whose characters were meant to be “the over-essence of the people,” as he outlined in his notes for the book, Babb’s novel reveals the catastrophic event in real human detail: the daily toil of poverty met with dignity, childbirth, and suicides. Her characters are people we might know whose lives were forever altered due to a terrible natural disaster that was completely out of their control.
In Babb’s book, we find the faces of her family and friends, her family’s history of migration from Ireland, the land runs, the homesteading and their dry crop farms. The writing shows the hard choices her parents had to make, and the hate and prejudice she experienced when they arrived in California, planted familial roots, and became a large part of the permanent population of the state.
The story of Sanora Babb teaches us how important it is who tells the story. Ever since I learned about Babb, I have wanted to take on the project of writing a biography about her life and work.
Biography is a long, slow process of careful research. I spent the last six years writing a biography on Charmian Kittredge London, Jack London’s wife. Unearthing her story was tedious. I spent months visiting archives that held related collections, including the Huntington Library. Reading diaries and letters and sifting through artifacts. Why did Charmian keep her mother’s whalebone corset? Why did she always record her daughter’s birthday in her diaries until she stopped keeping them in her late 70s? I found the answers to these questions by carefully examining each document and artifact, and slowly I was able to write her story.
Now that my biography has been published, I’ve turned to writing about Babb. I was fortunate enough to visit the Harry Ransom Center last year to access the Sanora Babb Papers, just before coronavirus started to shut down the world.
As a biographer, going to an archive is how you discover the person you are writing about, and I was excited to finally get to know Babb. For hours, I pored over her carefully organized drafts and publications in the collection. I read her essays on writing and saw the decades of correspondence she had with other writers.
Before I left, I was able to sit in the listening booth and hear her speak. She had a drawl, charming and gentle, that drew you in. She sounded intelligent like the strong voice I’d read on the page in her novels, memoirs, and short stories. It was an extraordinary day, made even more so by the fact that I can’t return to the conversation that I began having with Babb in that room, that day.
Now, I have to rely on my memory of the collection, the finding aid, and the help of research librarians to find the documents that I need to begin to write Babb’s story. But I don’t think I will ever be able to recreate the experience of looking at the collections in person. Discovery of the tiny details of her life, one by one. Until then, I will continue to dream about the rest of the materials in the collection that I haven’t yet been able to see, including a dust mask with original packaging dating from the 1930s and her sister Dorothy’s photos taken while they both worked for the Farm Security Administration.