MILBURN, GEORGE (1906–1966).
Born on April 27, 1906, in Coweta, Indian Territory, author George Milburn earned his literary reputation writing about his home, eastern Oklahoma. Although historian Angie Debo declared that he was not loved in his home state because his settings in rural and small-town Oklahoma were "to him very unpleasant places filled with disagreeable people," Milburn's thoughts and writings turned to Oklahoma again and again. In his 1946 essay "Oklahoma," published in The Yale Review, he adopts a cutting tone that nevertheless seems fondly reminiscent of his Sooner State. In the essay he insightfully describes the contradictions of Oklahoma and its people, applying a razor-sharp wit to subjects such as politics, race, prohibition, and scandals.
While in Coweta, at age seventeen he took a job as a contributor to the Tulsa Tribune. He attended the University of Tulsa after high school, but an illness in his second year ended his relationship with the school. The next year (1925) he attended Oklahoma A&M, but after a few months wanderlust prompted him to drop out and take to the road. Eventually making his way to Chicago, during this time he wrote Little Blue Books, usually joke books or slim volumes condensing, or as he explained it, "mutilating," classics for Haldeman-Julius. Titles he penned for the company included Best Jokes About Doctors, Best Rube Jokes, Book of the Best Ford Jokes, A Handbook for Amateur Magicians, The Story of a Mad Sweetheart (Adieu), and many others that fit this pattern. In 1927 he visited Commonwealth College, an avant-garde, pro-labor school in Mena, Arkansas, for a few months and then jumped a train to New Orleans. There he worked at various odd jobs, including selling racing forms at Fairgrounds Park. He also wrote material for "pulp" magazines. While living in the French Quarter, he began writing the stories that filled his book Oklahoma Town. In 1929 he came home and enrolled in the University of Oklahoma (OU). In Norman he married Vivian Custard.
While at OU he published The Hobo's Hornbook, a compilation of hobo ballads and recitations he had collected in his travels. Folklorist B. A. Botkin included three of Milburn's tales in his OU Press Folk-Say series. After John McClure reviewed them, these stories came to the attention of H. L. Mencken. Mencken bought more of Milburn's work, publishing it in the American Mercury. Milburn soon sold articles to other magazines including the New Yorker, Vanity Fair, Harper's, Scribner's, and the Saturday Evening Post. In 1931 Harcourt published Oklahoma Town, a collection of short stories set in a small town. The next year Die Stadt Oklahoma, a German translation, sold in Europe. In 1932 he spent time in Sarasota Springs, New York, on invitation from the Trask Foundation. He stayed on the East Coast until he went to Europe in 1934 on a John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Fellowship.
In 1933 Milburn followed the critically successful Oklahoma Town with No More Trumpets, a collection of short stories set in a variety of American locales. Again, a majority of national critics hailed the novel. Catalogue followed in 1936, his first novel, set again in a small Oklahoma town. In 1947 he wrote Flannigan's Folly, depicting an Irish farmer in eastern Oklahoma, which was translated into Italian in 1949. His last published novel, Julie, appeared in 1956 as a paperback. He based the book's plot on Chaucer's "The Miller's Tale" but set it in Oklahoma.
By 1935 Milburn resided in Missouri. For most of the 1940s he wrote scripts for radio and motion pictures, living in Hollywood, New York, or Missouri. In 1948 he returned to New York City after his wife filed for divorce. In the 1950s he worked at various jobs and published a few magazine articles, as well as the novel Julie, while developing a novel tentatively titled "Disaster Like a Dandelion." In 1958, needing the benefits and income, he went to work for the state of New York. On September 22, 1966, George Milburn died of heart disease and liver cancer in New York.
Milburn never equaled the literary success he had achieved with Oklahoma Town and No More Trumpets. He seemed at his best in his short tales about the interaction of small-town characters. Much of his success stemmed from observations made during the time he had traveled the country in a destitute and carefree state and from his early observations of small-town life in Oklahoma. Although his harsh and unbending dissection of Oklahoma life, including racism and lynchings, did cause some natives to disown him, his work still commands praise from critics and the public around the nation.
Daily Oklahoman (Oklahoma City), 24 September 1966.
Angie Debo, Oklahoma Footloose and Fancy-Free (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1949).
Mary Hays Marable and Elaine Boylan, A Handbook of Oklahoma Writers (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1939).
Steven Turner, George Milburn, Southwest Writers Series No. 28 (Austin, Tex.: Steck-Vaughn Co., 1970).
The following (as per The Chicago Manual of Style, 17th edition) is the preferred citation for articles:
Larry O'Dell, “Milburn, George,” The Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History and Culture, https://www.okhistory.org/publications/enc/entry.php?entry=MI018.
© Oklahoma Historical Society.