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The Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History and Culture

BABB, SANORA LOUISE (1907–2005).

Author Sanora Louise Babb was the eldest of Walter L. and Anna Jeanette "Jennie" Park Babb's two daughters. Born on April 21, 1907, in Red Rock, Oklahoma Territory, she grew up learning the culture of the Otoe who lived in the area. Their communal living standards influenced her future leanings toward socialism. Her grandfather Alonzo Babb also instilled populist and socialist ideas. In 1924 Sanora Babb graduated as valedictorian from high school in Forgan, Oklahoma. She continued her education at the University of Kansas for one year, graduating from Garden City (Kansas) Junior College in 1926. In 1929 she moved to California, and her younger sister Dorothy soon followed. While living in California, Sanora Babb married Hollywood cinematographer James Wong Howe in Los Angeles on September 16, 1949. His work won Oscars for the movies The Rose Tatoo (1955) and Hud (1963).

During her lifetime Babb experienced hardship, disappointment, and racial discrimination. Her father's habitual gambling created an unstable financial situation, and the family moved often. Due to his bad reputation some of the Forgan, Oklahoma, matrons kept Sanora from delivering her valedictory speech at the commencement service held in a local church. During the Great Depression she was homeless. Her marriage to Howe, of Chinese descent, met with public disdain in California during a period of antimiscegenation.

Despite these drawbacks Sanora Babb became a noted author. Early in her career she worked as a journalist for the Garden City (Kansas) Herald newspaper and as a scriptwriter for a Los Angeles radio station. While living in California, she was a member of the League of American Writers and edited their local organization's journal, The Clipper, later known as The California Quarterly. Babb's first published full-length work was The Lost Traveler (1958), a novel based loosely on her childhood and her estranged relationship with her father. Another novel, An Owl on Every Post, published in 1970, gave an account of her life when her family lived with her grandfather Babb in Colorado. In addition to novels she wrote short stories and poetry that were published under the titles The Dark Earth and Other Stories (1987), Cry of the Tinamou (1997), and Told in the Seed (1998).

Babb wrote her first novel, titled Whose Names Are Unknown, in 1939. However, it was not published until 2004. She based that work on intimate knowledge of the displaced people of the Dust Bowl era, gained while she worked for the Farm Security Administration (FSA) in California. In the 1930s Babb worked directly with Thomas "Tom" Collin, director of the FSA camps organized for the thousands who trekked to California to find work in its Central and Imperial valleys, known for fruit and cotton production. Collins gave his and Babb's detailed field notes to author John Steinbeck. Her work languished for sixty-five years because Steinbeck's novel The Grapes of Wrath (1938) was published to wide acclaim before Babb's work could be printed. Her publisher believed that the depressed market at that time would not bear two books on the same topic. Although Steinbeck won a Pulitzer Prize for The Grapes of Wrath, Babb's novel has received praise as rivaling that of Steinbeck's.

Babb was a member of the Communist Party for eleven years. In 1936 she traveled to the Soviet Union to study theater productions. During the active period of the U.S. House Un-American Activities Committee she and others from Hollywood exiled themselves in Mexico. In 1951 she returned to California where she continued to write. She died at her home in Hollywood, California, on December 31, 2005, at the age of ninety-eight.

Linda D. Wilson


"Sanora Babb," Vertical File, Research Division, Oklahoma Historical Society, Oklahoma City.

Douglas Wixson, ed., On the Dirty Plate Trail: Remembering the Dust Bowl Refugee Camps (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2007).

Douglas Wixson, "Radical by Nature: Sanora Babb and Ecological Disaster on the High Plains, 1900–1940," in Regionalists on the Left: Radical Voices from the American West, ed. Michael C. Steiner (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2013).

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The following (as per The Chicago Manual of Style, 17th edition) is the preferred citation for articles:
Linda D. Wilson, “Babb, Sanora Louise,” The Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History and Culture, https://www.okhistory.org/publications/enc/entry?entry=BA041.

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