UNKNOWN NO MORE: RECOVERING SANORA BABB
Edited by Joanne Dearcopp and Christine Hill Smith
University of Oklahoma Press. 209 pages. £21.50. ISBN 978-0-8061-6936-1
Reviewed by Jim Burns
At some point in the early-1960s I was in Collett’s Bookshop on Charing Cross Road and bought an anthology called The American Century: 34 Short Stories by 34 American Authors. It was edited by Maxim Lieber and published by Seven Seas Books in 1960 from what was then East Berlin. Its left-wing leanings were plain to see. Lieber had been a literary agent in New York, but when the Alger Hiss/Whittaker Chambers confrontations hit the headlines in the late-1940s he was accused of being a Soviet spy and fled to Poland. And many of the writers in the anthology were identifiable as having left-wing inclinations. A few – Albert Maltz, Alvah Bessie, Philip Stevenson – had been caught up in the anti-communist purges in Hollywood, and others – Jack Conroy, Nelson Algren, Ben Field – had written radical novels.
A name that stood out was that of Sanora Babb. I knew little about her beyond the notes in the anthology, and those in Cross Section 1945 (L.B. Fischer, New York, 1945) that I’d come across in a second-hand bookshop and which had a story by Babb. Again, the liberal/left-wing leanings of the editor, Edwin Seaver and many of the contributors were in evidence. All this was long before the Internet and I didn’t follow up on finding out more about Babb, though I came across references to her in books by Alan Wald and others. There was a story in Writers in Revolt : The Anvil Anthology 1933-1940 (Lawrence Hill, Westport,1973) reprinted from a 1934 issue of Jack Conroy’s magazine, The Anvil. Curiously, she was omitted from what is otherwise an excellent collection, Writing Red: An Anthology of American Women Writers 1930-1940, edited by Charlotte Nekola and Paula Rabinowitz (Feminist Press, New York, 1987).
More recent years have seen a revival of Interest in Babb and reprints of most of her work. So, who was she? She was born in 1907 in Oklahoma and grew up there and in Colorado where the family moved to when she was seven. They lived with Babb’s grandfather in a one-room dug-out. Her father, a failed farmer, was a professional gambler. Babb’s early education seems to have been sporadic, though she did eventually leave school with qualifications, taught at a one-room schoolhouse, and obtained a job on a local newspaper. It’s worth noting that “Babb’s grandfather took the Appeal to Reason, a weekly socialist newspaper out of Kansas”.
By 1929 she was living in Los Angeles, where she experienced “poverty and often homelessness” while writing poems and stories that were published in magazines and newspapers, especially those with a left-wing policy. The collection, The Dark Earth and Selected Prose from the Great Depression (Muse Ink Press, Old Greenwich, 2021) has material from the 1930s, with publications such as The Anvil, New Masses, Outlander, and The Midland credited. It’s doubtful that she earned much from these magazines and she took various jobs, including one “writing copy for the Warner Brothers radio station KFWB”.
She was also mixing with many young writers such as Tillie Olsen, Carlos Bulosan, William Saroyan, John Howard Lawson, and Ray Bradbury. Saroyan and Bradbury both became successful fiction writers, Lawson was a playwright, screenwriter and, as a leading communist in Hollywood, later one of the Hollywood Ten. Olson struggled to balance writing with family and political involvements. Bulosan was a Filipino-American who was encouraged to write by Babb and her sister, Dorothy. His American Is in the Heart (Penguin Books, New York, 2019) is a classic account of what it was like to be drawn to American ideals but come up against the violence and prejudice that immigrants experienced. The account of working in the fields and factories of Southern California parallels some of Babb’s stories of the harsh practices that applied in such occupations. Attempts to form unions and strike for better pay and conditions could result in injuries and even deaths as local police, vigilante groups and hired thugs attacked strikers and their families.
Babb’s “immersion in the milieu of diversely radical and untamed artists and writers who were pulled to the Communist-led John Reed Clubs in the early 1930s” quickened her commitment to communism as a possible solution to the social, economic, and political problems then evident in America and the world at large. In 1935 she attended the First American Writers Congress in New York, an event organised by the League of American Writers, a Communist “front” organisation. She would have heard speeches by, among others, Malcolm Cowley, Waldo Frank, James T. Farrell, John Dos Passos, Meridel Le Sueur and Kenneth Burke.
And there was Jack Conroy talking about “The Worker as Writer” and offering the opinion that “To me a strike bulletin or an impassioned leaflet are of more moment than three hundred prettily and faultlessly written pages about the private woes of a gigolo or the biological ferment of a society dame as useful to society as the buck brush that infests Missouri cow pastures and takes all the sustenance out of the soil”. A fictional account of the Conference can be found in Farrell’s novel, Yet Other Waters (Vanguard Press, New York, 1952), where Conroy is satirised as a somewhat blustering and not very intelligent novelist and activist.
A trip to Russia in 1936 persuaded Babb to take a positive view of communist achievements. She claimed that no restrictions were placed on her movements and she was allowed to talk freely to the people she met. In “Dr Fera of Moscow”, a piece published in the left-wing magazine The Clipper in 1941, she wrote about the fact that “In Russia, women were competing equally with men in every field of work. I rode on a train completely run by women. I talked to a 22-year-old woman engineer who was directing a crew of a hundred men in the construction of a bridge. I visited the home of a collective-farm woman, who, freed of the drudgery of housework and baby-raising by co-operative effort and the amazing social care of children, had in middle-age become an expert in horticulture”. She also wrote about Dr Fera, a peasant girl who, after many misadventures, was encouraged to train to become a doctor.
In 1938 she took the plunge and joined the American Communist Party. It was also the year that she volunteered to work in one of the California Migrant Camps set up to try to provide basic forms of sanitation and housing for at least some of the families who had fled from the great dust storms in the Midwest. Many of them had lost everything as the drought, winds, and storms destroyed their farms. Interestingly, the Camp she worked at was the one under the supervision of Tom Collins, and it was also visited by John Steinbeck when he was writing The Grapes of Wrath, his powerful story of the plight of the “Okies”, the name given to the migrants. Babb herself wrote about them in her novel, Whose Names Are Unknown, which was initially intended for publication by a major New York house, but was dropped when Steinbeck’s book appeared and became a popular success. The would-be publishers of Babb’s book did not think there would be a viable market for another novel on the same subject.
Babb worked for The Clipper and The California Quarterly, both radical magazines, continued to write, and helped run a restaurant with her husband, the noted Chinese-American Hollywood cameraman, James Wong Howe. When the anti-communist purges started in the film capital in the late-1940s and early-1950s, Babb immediately fell under suspicion. As a Communist Party member and contributor to left-wing publications, her name and activities would have been known to the FBI and HUAC. She moved to Mexico around 1950 in order to draw attention away from Howe. Quite a few Americans found it convenient to spend time in Mexico as HUAC widened its investigations and the mood in America turned to one of hostility towards anything that smacked of Un-Americanism. What that meant precisely could depend on circumstances, and it was used as a weapon against the unconventional not only in politics but also in the arts and even personal behaviour.
Like many people, Babb drifted away from the Communist Party in the early- 1950s. She had become disillusioned by the levels of conformity and control, and even earlier, in 1946, she had expressed support for Albert Maltz when he was condemned by Party hardliners for suggesting that writers should be free to choose their own topics and how to write about them. She continued to write and publish poems and short fiction in a variety of magazines. And there were extended works such as An Owl on Every Post (Muse Ink Press, 2012) and The Lost Traveler (Muse Ink Press, 2013). Her 1930s novel, Whose Names are Unknown, continued to be hidden away until renewed interest in her work caused it to be “discovered” and finally published by the University of Oklahoma Press in 2004.
It perhaps could be said of Babb’s work as a whole that she essentially located most of it in the period prior to 1950. Her childhood in the Mid-West and her experiences in the 1930s seem to me to encompass many of her stories, memoirs, and longer works. Whose Names are Unknown is in two parts, the first of which deals with hard times in the Oklahoma Panhandle, and the second with the struggle to survive in California. The “Okies” (not all of them from Oklahoma) follow the fruit and other harvests, often residing temporarily in company shacks and forced to shop at company stores. When they try to organise and strike for better wages and conditions they’re harassed by police and company guards, and evicted. There is a vivid description of a union activist being falsely accused of getting “fresh” with a local’s wife and subjected to a beating by vigilantes.
The same sense of violent oppression is evident in “The Terror”, an account of a secret night-time visit to striking miners in New Mexico which originally appeared in a 1935 issue of International Literature, published in Moscow. It has recently been included in The Dark Earth and Selected Prose from the Great Depression. This is an excellent selection of fiction and reportage from a range of magazines. A story, “A Good Straight Game”, seems to have its basis in the activities of Babb’s father as the male character, despite previous promises, succumbs to the lure of a game of cards. Another, “The Old One”, from The Midland in 1933, tells of the sudden death of an old man and how the neighbours come together for his funeral.
The non-fictional items include a piece about the way in which those working as “extras” in Hollywood struggle to survive in the face of low wages and fierce competition for the available work. But should anyone think that all of Babb’s writing focused on social and political matters, they might have a look at the story, “Femme Fatale” which, to my mind, would not seem out of place in a collection of New Yorker short fiction from the Forties and Fifties. It was actually published in Masses & Mainstream, a communist journal, in 1954. They might also look at the stories in Cry of the Tinamou (Muse Ink Press, 2021), some of which appeared in widely circulated publications like Seventeen and The Saturday Evening Post.
Unknown No More is a collection of essays looking at different aspects of Babb’s writing. I haven’t wanted to single out individual pieces because they all seem to me of value in terms of drawing attention to an under-rated writer. I am tempted to refer to Christine Hill Smith’s “The Radical Voice of Sandra Babb” because it reflects my own interest in what Babb did. But that would be unfair to the other contributors and to Babb who clearly wanted her writing to encompass more than the specific world of left-wing politics and proceedings. She seems to me a writer well worth reviving.