Ken Burns Classroom

Sanora Babb

Ken Burns Film: The Dust Bowl

Collections: The Great Depression and WWII (1929-1945)

Subject: Journalism Women's History

Grade Level: 6-12

Sanora Babb poses with a CIO organizer and migrant, and a child
Sanora Babb poses with a CIO organizer and migrant, and a child, in California. Source: The Harry Ransom Center, The University of Texas at Austin.

1907–2005

Sanora Babb was an author, poet, editor, and journalist. The daughter of a gambler, Babb had spent her childhood moving from one place to the next in the area around No Man’s Land: Baca County, Colorado; Elkhart, Kansas; and then Forgan, Oklahoma, where she had graduated from high school as the class valedictorian (though
two town matrons kept “the gambler’s daughter”; from delivering the valedictory speech).

After a job as cub reporter for the Garden City Herald in Kansas, she moved to Los Angeles in 1929, hoping to make a name for herself on a big city newspaper. The stock market crash ended that dream, and she was homeless for a while, until finding temporary work in a string of secretarial jobs. In her free time, she began writing short stories.

When she came back to visit her mother in the spring of 1934, Babb barely recognized her old hometown. The Dust Bowl had seemingly leveled all the social distinctions she had felt so keenly as a young girl.”I saw them standing in line for the meat and potatoes of relief,” she wrote. “I saw the people I used to know who had lived smugly in their imaginary stratas – the best people who had bathtubs and cars, the middle ones who had bathtubs and white collar jobs, the unacceptable ones who had no bathtubs [and] manual jobs or doubtful means of support – standing in line together…. Their stricken faces, one after another in the line, looked very much alike.” Where, she wondered, would they go in America to escape the drought and Depression?

Babb returned to California and, in early 1938, began working with the federal government’s Farm Security Administration, traveling the Central Valley with her boss Tom Collins, informing migrants about programs to help them. Each night, she made notes in a journal – fodder for a novel she hoped to publish about the Dust Bowl refugees she’d met. “How brave they all are,” she wrote. “They aren’t broken and docile but they don’t complain…They all want work and hate to have help.”

Unbeknownst to Babb, Collins was sharing her reports with writer John Steinbeck. By the time she was ready to publish her work, in the winter of 1939, Steinbeck had come out with his own Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, The Grapes of Wrath. Steinbeck’s book was dedicated to Tom Collins and was an immediate best-seller – such a hit, New York editors told Babb, that the market could not bear another on the same subject.

Sanora Babb went on to write other books based upon her childhood on the southern Plains. Her Dust Bowl novel, Whose Names Are Unknown, was published in 2004, the year before her death.

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