Novelist and Poet Sanora Babb

Sanora Babb, pictured about 1980, wrote
Sanora Babb, pictured about 1980, wrote "Whose Names Are Unknown." (By Michael Chavez Via Los Angeles Times)
Associated Press
Monday, January 9, 2006

Sanora Babb, 98, whose novel about the struggles of Dust Bowl migrants in California was published to critical acclaim 65 years after being shelved because of John Steinbeck's 1939 best-selling novel "The Grapes of Wrath," died Dec. 31 at her home in Hollywood Hills, Calif. No cause of death was reported.

Ms. Babb was working for the manager of the Farm Security Administration, a federal agency that helped farmers during the Depression, in the late 1930s when she began writing "Whose Names Are Unknown."

Inspired by her work in migrant camps and based partly on her mother's accounts of Kansas dust storms, the book was declared "exceptionally fine" by Random House co-founder Bennett Cerf, who planned to publish it.

Then Steinbeck's work on the same theme began dominating the bestseller lists and also won the Pulitzer Prize.

"What rotten luck," Cerf wrote in an August 1939 letter to Ms. Babb. "Obviously, another book at this time about exactly the same subject would be a sad anticlimax!"

The manuscript languished for decades until the University of Oklahoma Press rescued it in 2004.

Calling it a "long-forgotten masterpiece" and "an American classic both literary and historical," many reviewers said it rivaled Steinbeck's novel.

"She was a wonderful poet, a good short-story writer and a fine novelist," said author and longtime friend Ray Bradbury.

Bradbury said the rejection was "the sort of blow that happens to all of us as writers. She didn't let it destroy her."

In 1958, she published her first novel, "The Lost Traveler." Her other books include the memoir "An Owl on Every Post"; a short story collection, "Cry of the Tinamou"; and a book of poems, "Told in the Seed."

Ms. Babb told the Chicago Tribune in 2004 that she believed she was a better writer than Steinbeck, whom she'd met briefly at a lunch counter years before.

"His book," she said, referring to "The Grapes of Wrath," "is not as realistic as mine."

Born in an Otoe Indian community in Oklahoma in 1907, she followed her father across Oklahoma to a farm in Colorado. There, her grandfather had settled a desiccated piece of land.

Ms. Babb eventually became a reporter for the Associated Press and moved to Los Angeles. Through the years, she worked as a radio scriptwriter and wrote for and edited literary magazines.

Her husband, Oscar-winning cinematographer James Wong Howe, died in 1976.

She leaves no immediate survivors.


© 2006 The Washington Post Company