Gazumped by John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, a story of Dustbowl climate refugees who rise up against their oppressors
Last summer, I read Sanora Babb's powerful 1939 novel Whose Names are Unknown (University of Oklahoma Press) about a family of Dustbowl climate refugees who become striking farmworkers. While the book is full of oppression at the hands of banks and bosses and weather and cops, it is also at every turn full of collective action. The black farmworkers, whose camp the bosses intentionally located three miles from that of the whites to curb any attempt at solidarity, lead the white ones, including the book’s main characters, in a sit-down strike. The strike doesn't work, and what ensues is starvation, dying babies, violence, dispossession. The children, too, go on strike from school because they are too hungry to learn and decide it is better to turn their incapacity into political opportunity. Yet at the end, even as their strike has failed, the workers sign a letter with a flurry of John and Jane Does (names often used in eviction documents) to the young woman organizer who remains jailed because her bruises from the beatings she has suffered are still visible, writing ‘Don't get discouraged. We was just practicing.’
Though this novel contains plenty of suffering, it has even more learning. I call it an ‘epistemology thriller’, my favourite genre, because the page-turning aspect of it always involves the suspense of waiting for the characters to crawl through the noxious cloud of ignorance that they are forced to breathe. As they learn the facts of the world, the characters become more than what the world has done to them. In Babb’s novel, the final transformation is that the men, who have now identified their enemy (the owners) and their tactics against the workers, also realize something about the women: that they are their equals in the struggle. With this new clarity, they all sit together, including a scab (someone who refuses to join a union) sympathetic to their cause, and collectivize their resources. The novel ends: ‘They would rise and fall and, in their falling, rise again.’
Babb completed Whose Names in 1939, but it was not published in the US until 2004. Someone gave John Steinbeck Babb's notes from the camps where she worked, and he used them to write The Grapes of Wrath (1939). After the publication of Steinbeck’s novel, Babb’s publishing contract for her own work was ‘lost’, and the press decided the marketplace couldn’t sustain two such books. She was ultimately blacklisted as a Communist and had to leave the US. Babb, who was born in Oklahoma and educated in Kansas, still had an enviable life, though, including an affair with that other great novelist of the southern plains, Ralph Ellison. In a 2004 interview for The Chicago Tribune, Babb remarked that, compared to Steinbeck, she is ‘a better writer’, which is probably true. I haven't read The Grapes of Wrath in a couple of decades, but the version of it that I remember – or misremember – is (probably unfairly) a melodrama about white men’s feelings compared to Babb’s book, in which men, women and children are all full participants in human life.
In Whose Names, a widow, hounded by the bank, brings her harassers a dead, rotting skunk. The widow is full of defiant joy: ‘I hope all the banks of America eat themselves to death. We poor people will then have to eat the corpse. We'll be good and hungry by then. Understand? Good and hungry!’ There’s another scene in which a starving woman in the midst of giving birth curses both the rich and God; when her husband tries to stop her, she yells that she would rather die with hate in her heart than a prayer on her lips. The capitalist villains are never given precise attention; instead, they are blandly described, as Satan was before Milton got to him, but every moment of oppression in the book is met as an opportunity to elucidate our species’s miraculous capacity for fuck you.
Babb’s novel is a revolutionary book for those for whom no revolution came, and it’s not alone in that. I’ve begun to keep a list of such novels, usually written by women, most of these women from the Great Plains. These include Agnes Smedley’s Daughter of Earth (1929) and Meridel Lesueur’s The Girl (1939), first published in 1978. These books read like artefacts from a future that never arrived, the major works of a parallel present, and the minor works of our own. They are suppressed or discouraged or forgotten not because of any individual misfortune, but from a collective one: the world in which these works would take their place as great literature never became ours. We are not, as the Babb’s workers wrote in their letter, to get discouraged. That was just practice.
Main image: Dorothea Lange, Migrant Mother, c.1930s. Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons
Anne Boyer is a US poet and essayist and the inaugural winner of the 2018 Cy Twombly Award for Poetry from the Foundation for Contemporary Arts. Her books include A Romance of Happy Workers (2008), My Common Heart (2011) and Garments Against Women (2015), which received the 2016 Firecracker Award from The Community of Literary Magazines and Presses. She lives in Kansas City.