Oklahomans in a potato pickers’ camp near Shafter in 1937. (Dorothea Lange)

How Sanora Babb paved the way for ‘The Grapes of Wrath’

In 1938, Sanora Babb, a struggling journalist from Oklahoma, found a job with the Farm Security Administration helping Dust Bowl migrants in California’s Central Valley.

She traveled with her supervisor, Tom Collins, from camp to camp, checking in on migrants and taking detailed notes about their lives. She was amazed by their resilience: “How brave they all are,” she wrote in a letter to her sister. “I have not heard one complaint!”

Babb, who was born in 1907, realized she had fodder for a great novel on her hands, and set about writing. She sent a few chapters to Random House in New York, which responded to the first-time author with enthusiasm, flying her out to complete the work.

What Babb didn’t know was that Collins had given her notes to another author who was working feverishly on his own Dust Bowl novel. His name: John Steinbeck.

The Salinas newsman had struck up a relationship with Collins while reporting articles for the San Francisco News. He talked Collins into sharing government reports that included Babb’s meticulous first-hand accounts of life in the camps.

Sanora Babb in 1925.
Henry Ransom Center/University of Texas at Austin

As Babb was adding finishing touches to her novel, “The Grapes of Wrath” was released in April of 1939. It was a sensation, dominating best-seller lists and ultimately catapulting Steinbeck to literary greatness.

The Random House publisher Bennett Cerf tore up Babb’s contract. “What rotten luck,” he wrote to her in August. “Obviously, another book at this time about exactly the same subject would be a sad anticlimax!”

Bitterly dismayed, Babb shoved her manuscript in a drawer, where it languished for decades. Then in 2004, the University of Oklahoma Press rescued the work, titled “Whose Names Are Unknown.”

Noting its lean prose and rich detail, reviewers called the novel a “work of art” and “an American classic both literary and historical.” Some said it was better than Steinbeck’s book. Babb, then 97 and bedridden in her Hollywood Hills home, was thrilled by the belated attention, calling the novel “the most meaningful book I’ve written.” A little more than a year later, she died.

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