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Sanora Babb:

An Inventory of Her Papers in the Manuscript Collection at the Harry Ransom Center

Creator: Babb, Sanora, 1907-2005
Title: Sanora Babb Papers
Dates: circa 1840s-2006 (bulk 1928-2005)
Extent: 71 document boxes, 12 serial boxes, 5 oversize boxes, 2 note card boxes, 1 galley file, 1 oversize file folder, 2 restricted document boxes (32.84 linear feet)
Abstract: The Sanora Babb Papers consist of manuscript drafts, galley proofs, correspondence, photographs, publications, topical files, appointment books, notes and reflections, newspaper clippings, scrapbooks, artifacts, audio material, and digital material related to the American writer Sanora Babb, her sister, writer-photographer Dorothy Babb, and her husband, cinematographer James Wong Howe.
Call Number: Manuscript Collection MS-04852
Language: English and Spanish
Access: Open for research Condition Note: The Sanora Babb Papers includes numerous documents that were typed or printed on highly acidic paper. Over time, these sheets have deteriorated and are now very fragile. In order to diminish further deterioration caused by frequent handling, some original documents have been removed and restricted and replaced with photocopies or digitized images.


Administrative Information


Acquisition: Gifts, 2000-2008 (G11728, G12091, G12496)
Processed by: Amy E. Armstrong, 2009
Repository:

Harry Ransom Center, The University of Texas at Austin

Biographical Sketch


Sanora Louise Babb was born on April 21, 1907, at a hospital in Leavenworth, Kansas, though her parents Walter Babb and Jeanette “Jennie” (Parks) Babb (later Kempner) lived in Red Rock, in Oklahoma Territory. In 1909, the Babbs had their second daughter, Dorothy, while living in Waynoka, Oklahoma. A baker by trade, but a gambler by profession, Walter Babb had difficulty settling in one place and the family frequently relocated. Walter believed that there was a prosperous future in dry-land farming and in 1913 moved the family in with his father, Alonzo, in a one-room dugout home on a broomcorn farm in Baca County, Colorado. Babb's life on the High Plains influenced her development as a woman and a writer, and she drew from these early experiences in her poems, short stories, the novel The Lost Traveler (1958), and her memoir An Owl on Every Post (1971). After four years of crop failures, the Babbs moved to Elkhart, Kansas, and eventually to Forgan in the Oklahoma Panhandle. After graduating valedictorian of her high school class, Babb enrolled at the University of Kansas. After one year, she returned home and graduated from the Garden City Junior College in 1926. Soon after, she received a teaching certificate and taught for one year in a one-room school house.
Babb's professional writing career began in earnest after several poems were published in the local newspaper. The Garden City Herald offered her a job as a reporter and she soon obtained Associated Press credentials. She aspired to work at a larger newspaper and audaciously moved to Los Angeles, California, in 1929. As the country entered the beginning stages of the Depression, Babb had difficulty finding employment, but was soon hired as a secretary for Warner Brothers and then later as a scriptwriter for KFWB radio station. In 1934, Babb brought her sister Dorothy to California and supported her while she attended The University of California Los Angeles, where Dorothy received a B. A. in English. The Babb sisters enjoyed a close relationship, based on a strong familial bond born out of a difficult childhood as well as a shared interest in writing. Sanora, the stronger and more ambitious of the two, provided Dorothy with continual emotional and financial support for the remainder of Dorothy's life, which at times strained their relationship.
Babb published her poems and short stories in "little magazines" such as The Midland, The Anvil, Trend, and The Magazine. During the 1930s and 1940s, Babb came in contact with eminent and struggling artists and writers such as Carlos Bulosan, Ralph Ellison, Henry Koerner, Meridel Le Sueur, Dorothy Parker, Harry Roskolenko, William Saroyan, Genevieve Taggard, B. Traven, Nathanael West, and Chinese-American cinematographer James Wong Howe.
With Europe on the brink of war, Babb joined Howe in England in 1936 while he was on film location. Due to Hollywood's “moral code” and California's miscegenation laws, Babb and Howe married in a civil ceremony in Paris, France, in 1936. The couple later married in California after the repeal of its miscegenation laws in 1948. While in Europe with Howe, Babb traveled throughout England, France, Poland, and enjoyed an extended tour of the Soviet Union to attend a month-long theatre festival. She returned to London in 1937 where she co-edited the political magazine The Week with Claud Cockburn.
Always sympathetic to those less fortunate and perhaps inspired by what she observed in communities in Russia, after returning from Europe Babb joined the Farm Security Administration (F. S. A). She worked as an assistant to migrant camp manager Tom Collins, establishing tent camps for dispossessed migrant workers in California's agricultural valleys. During the day, she assisted families with basic needs and supplies, educated workers about labor rights, and helped them organize, while at night she recorded her observations and reflections in field notes she later used in her writings. Dorothy frequently visited Sanora in the field and recorded what she witnessed with her camera. Sanora's essays published in The Clipper and New Masses and Dorothy's photographs provide an intimate and realistic insight into the impoverished conditions at migrant camps. In 1939, Sanora began writing her first novel based on her F. S. A. experiences and sent several early chapters of Whose Names Are Unknown to Random House, which offered her a contract to complete the manuscript. Before she could finish the novel, however, John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath (1939) was published and Random House broke the contract, stating that readers would not be interested in another novel on the same subject. Despite her disappointment, Babb put the manuscript aside and continued writing poems, short stories, and developing ideas for a second novel.
Babb was active in the League of American Writers and served on the editorial board of The Clipper and The California Quarterly in the 1940s and 1950s. These publications exposed American readers to the work of B. Traven, author of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1934), Ray Bradbury, and the French colonial poets Aimé Césaire, Léon Damas, and Jean Joseph Rabéarivélo. In the 1950s and 1960s, Babb met regularly with a writers' group that included Bradbury, Esther McCoy, Sid Stebel, Bonnie Barrett Wolfe, C. Y. Lee, Peg Nixon, Richard Bach, and Dolph Sharp. During the House Un-American Activities Committee's hearings, she grew concerned that her political beliefs were jeopardizing Howe's film career and she moved to Mexico City, where she continued writing short stories and poems and drafted the manuscript for her second novel, The Lost Traveler (1958). While in Mexico, Babb became friends with Hal Croves, thought to be the novelist B. Traven; dancer and choreographer Waldeen; and numerous blacklisted Hollywood writers such as Albert Maltz.
After returning to Los Angeles in 1951, Babb continued writing and publishing for the remainder of her life. Decades after submitting the manuscript to Random House, Babb published a re-edited Whose Names Are Unknown in 2004 to great critical acclaim. The Los Angeles Times stated that Babb's Dust Bowl novel rivaled Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath because of its insider perspective and sensitivity to the subject. It was a finalist for both the 2005 Spur Award and the 2005 PEN Center USA Literary Award.
In addition to numerous poems and short stories, Babb's other publications include two collections of short stories entitled The Dark Earth and Other Stories of the Depression (1987) and The Cry of the Tinamou (1997) and a collection of poems entitled Told in the Seed (1998). Preceded in death by her husband James Wong Howe in 1976 and sister Dorothy in 1995, Babb died at age 98 on December 31, 2005, in Hollywood, California.

Sources:


In addition to material found within the Sanora Babb Papers, the following sources were used:
Babb, Sanora and Douglas C. Wixson, eds. On the Dirty Plate Trail: Remembering the Dustbowl Refugee Camps. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 2007.
Wixson, Douglas C. "Sanora Babb: Tales from the American High Plains." (Harry Ransom Center, 2008), http://www.hrc.utexas.edu/exhibitions/web/babb/ [accessed 21 April 2009]

Scope and Contents


Scope and Contents

The Sanora Babb Papers, circa 1840s-2006 (bulk 1928-2005) consist of manuscript drafts, galley proofs, correspondence, photographs, publications, topical files, appointment books, notes and reflections, newspaper clippings, scrapbooks, artifacts, audio material, and digital material related to the writer Sanora Babb, her sister, writer-photographer Dorothy Babb, and her husband, cinematographer James Wong Howe. The personal and professional papers provide diverse and comprehensive coverage of Sanora Babb's remarkable life–which spanned nearly a century–through extensive correspondence, writings, and photographs. The papers are organized into seven series: I. Literary Activities, II. Correspondence, III. Topical Files, IV. Photographs, V. Dorothy Babb, VI. James Wong Howe, and VII. Publications.
Series I. Literary Activities includes products associated with Babb's writing and is arranged into six subseries: A. Short Stories, B. Published Books, C. Poems, D. Other Writings, E. Notes, Reflections, Story Ideas, and F. Related Material. Though Babb wrote and published in a variety of literary forms, she primarily considered herself a short story writer. Works are arranged in alphabetical order by title with untitled drafts, fragments, and miscellaneous works arranged at the end of each subseries. Within each title, the material is generally chronological following the order of literary production beginning with research notes through to published drafts. When applicable, related materials such as reviews, correspondence, or adaptations follow the drafts.
Babb was an ardent and dedicated correspondent, exchanging lengthy, poignant, and sincere letters with family, friends, and professional associates that often span several decades. Series II. Correspondence is arranged into two subseries: A. Professional and B. Personal, each in alphabetical order by correspondent's name. This collection of letters documents many facets of Babb's life as a woman and as a writer.
Series III. Topical Files contains Babb's address books, daily appointment books, research files, clippings, and files related to the business aspect of her writing. The series is in alphabetical order by topic.
Babb enjoyed taking photographs of family and friends, as well as having her photograph taken. Series IV. Photographs includes black-and-white and color prints, negatives, cased daguerreotypes, cased hand-tinted prints on milk glass, tintypes, photo albums, and scrapbooks. Photographs in the collection span the duration of Babb's life.
Included in Sanora Babb's papers is a small amount of her sister's personal papers. Series V. Dorothy Babb contains Dorothy's literary output, transcribed letters from Filipino-American writer Carlos Bulosan, still-life photographs, a Garden City Junior College yearbook, and assorted notes and clippings. Glass slides of Dorothy Babb's Farm Security Administration photographs have been separated and formed into the California Migrant Farm Workers Slide Collection in the Ransom Center's Photography Department. All original prints of these photographs were retained with the Sanora Babb papers.
Series VI. James Wong Howe includes a small amount of material related to Babb's husband, cinematographer James Wong Howe. Articles, clippings, ephemera, letters, biographical notes, tributes, and sympathy cards form the bulk of this small series. Howe's professional papers are housed at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Science Center for Motion Pictures Study and a collection inventory from that repository is also included in this material.
Series VII. Publications are arranged in alphabetical order by title with the bulk consisting of magazines and literary journals containing Sanora or Dorothy Babb's published works, as well as issues retained for research related to particular writings.
The Sanora Babb Papers includes numerous documents that were typed or printed on highly acidic paper. Over time, these sheets have deteriorated and are now very fragile. In order to diminish further deterioration caused by frequent handling, some original documents have been removed and restricted and replaced with photocopies or digitized images.

Series Descriptions

Series I. Literary Activities, 1925-2005 (33 boxes)
This series includes materials associated with Babb's literary activities and is arranged into six subseries: A. Short Stories, B. Published Books, C. Poems, D. Other Writings, E. Notes, Reflections, Story Ideas, and F. Related Material. Many of the drafts in the collection are typed on paper that has become brittle and fragile over time. In extreme cases, originals have been removed and restricted and photocopies or digitized images have been provided.
Babb enjoyed writing short stories more than any other literary form and was frequently published in both literary journals and popular publications. Subseries A. Short Stories is arranged alphabetically by title and includes typescript drafts, revised drafts, and published versions of Babb's stories, as well as related material such as correspondence, critiques, and research notes. Stories with a high volume of drafts or accompanying material are in individual folders bearing the title of the work. Babb retained multiple duplicate photocopies of typescripts and published stories to send to friends and associates; however, identical photocopies have been removed from the collection.
Subseries B. Published Books is arranged in alphabetical order by book title and contains drafts, galley proofs, correspondence, synopses, screen adaptations, reviews, research files, and marketing materials related to Babb's book-length works. Published works include two short story collections, Cry of the Tinamou (1997) and The Dark Earth and Other Stories of the Great Depression (1987); two novels, The Lost Traveler (1958) and Whose Names Are Unknown (2004); and Babb's memoir, An Owl on Every Post (1970). Babb's ethnographic research material for Whose Names Are Unknown is particularly noteworthy, as she took extensive field notes while working with migrant families for the Farm Security Administration (F. S. A.). She documented migrants' personal stories and linguistic patterns, crop cycles and harvesting procedures, and living conditions. Babb also maintained a small amount of F. S. A. and camp documents, including her personal case file, forms, government publications, and labor and camp newsletters. Tom Collins, an F. S. A. administrator, worked directly with Babb and supported her research. Collins also assisted John Steinbeck with his research for The Grapes of Wrath, and this subseries contains two postcards and a letter from Steinbeck to Collins. The research material also contains copies of "Shorts," vignettes believed to have been written by Collins based on his own experience working with the migrant farmers. Also of interest are family letters, Jennie Babb's journal entry describing a Kansas dust storm, as well as Babb's essays about the migrant condition in California.
Correspondence with Random House and other publishers regarding the cancelled publication of Whose Names Are Unknown is filed in this subseries; however, researchers should also consult professional and personal correspondence in Series II. Correspondence. Additional material related to Babb's writings is located in Series III. Topical Files and VII. Publications.
Subseries C. Poems is arranged by Babb's original groupings: State of Manuscript, Topic, Chronology, and Assorted. A portion of Sanora and Dorothy Babb's early poems were removed from a small notebook which also contained other notes. Due to the arrangement, copies of a particular poem may be found in more than one location within the subseries.
Subseries D. Other Writings contains Babb's other literary forms and includes drafts, published articles, clippings, synopses, film treatments, scripts for plays and films, and book reviews. This series also contains unfinished works "in progress," including an excerpt from an unfinished novel, short stories, poems, and assorted drafts and fragments. While Babb successfully published numerous short stories and several novels and poems, she frequently wrote non-fiction including essays, book reviews, and articles on a variety of subjects, including the writing craft and the cinematographic work of her husband, James Wong Howe. Because of Howe's work and connections in the film industry, Babb and Howe collaborated on several screenplays that were never produced. Present in this series are drafts for Chinatown Story, Corner Grocery, and Rickshaw Boy.
A diversity of material comprises Subseries E. Notes, Reflections, Story Ideas. Babb was an avid letter writer and frequently maintained segments of letters she received, as well as copies of excerpts from letters she composed. She also typed or handwrote reflections on a wide array of often intensely personal subjects. Such jottings are often interfiled with story ideas and outlines, character studies, inspirational quotes, clippings and articles, and other writers' works, perhaps to serve as notes and inspiration for her writing. Babb's original arrangement of these materials by topic is mostly intact; however, the bulk of it covers a variety of subjects and has been filed as "General" notes.
Series F. Related Material includes index cards containing the titles of Babb's works, assorted letters from readers, and assorted published reviews of her novels, The Lost Traveler and An Owl on Every Post. Babb often combined material associated with these two works.
Series II. Correspondence, circa 1910-2006 (24 boxes)
Correspondence is arranged into two subseries following Babb's general arrangement: A. Professional and B. Personal. Babb frequently retained carbon copies of her outgoing letters, and incoming and outgoing letters are often interfiled; however, she filed a small number of outgoing letters separately. In her letters, Babb reveals her thoughts and feelings, provides advice and comfort, describes progress with her writing, and details her daily life and activities.
Subseries A. Professional correspondence consists of incoming and outgoing letters to publishers, literary agents, and other professional associates and is in alphabetical order by the organization name or topic. Babb's literary agents included Maxim Lieber, Harriet Wolf, Joanna Dearcopp, Mary Abbott and Julie Fallowfield with McIntosh and Otis, and Patience Ross with A. M. Heath & Company in London, England. Several notable publishers such as Saxe Commins at Random House, Kyle Crichton at Collier's, and Millen Brand at Crown Publishers nurtured her writing career through their critiques, support, and recommendations. Significant correspondence with publishers regarding specific works may also be located under the work's title in Series I. Due to Babb's life-long relationship with many of these individuals, correspondence often became more personal, and may also be filed in Subseries B. Personal Correspondence.
Subseries B. Personal Correspondence contains incoming and outgoing letters to family, friends, and associates and is arranged alphabetically by correspondent's last name or by topic. The most significant and voluminous letters in this series are between Babb and her sister Dorothy, her husband James Wong Howe, and her mother Jennie Babb (Kemper). Sanora and Dorothy engaged in frequent, lengthy, and candid correspondence; however, Sanora often didn't retain Dorothy's letters in their entirety, rather she kept only certain pages which interested her, perhaps to be used later as material or inspiration for her writing. In addition, these letters are often undated or difficult to date due to missing pages and envelopes. Letters with Dorothy and her mother often describe aspects of the family's early years in Oklahoma and Colorado and daily events.
Babb and Howe corresponded frequently, as he was often away on-location for various films. In addition to the personal dialogue between man and wife, Howe's letters provide details about his work and experiences on film sets.
As a writer and wife of a Hollywood cinematographer, Babb regularly met and corresponded with other notable artists, though she often down-played this aspect of her life. Her correspondence demonstrates her life-long friendships and brief encounters with both the famous, such as actresses Joan Crawford and Lynn Redgrave, and the unrecognized. She maintained a forty-year correspondence with her distant cousin whom she never met, Lillie Pollard, as well as with Kathleen Hawkins, a Colorado ranch woman Babb hired after Hawkins placed an ad as a typist in a writing magazine. Notable correspondents include Ray Bradbury, Hal Croves (one of many aliases associated with B. Traven), writer and intimate friend Ralph Ellison, dancer and choreographer Waldeen, Filipino-American writers Carlos Bulosan and José Garcia Villa, writer Melissa Blake Levitzky, painter Henry Koerner, and novelist William Saroyan. Correspondents often wrote to Howe and Babb together as evidenced by brief notes from Dorothy Parker, Pearl S. Buck, and Vincent Price. Also of interest are a 1943 letter and Christmas card author Toshio Mori sent Babb while he was interned at Topaz Internment Camp in Utah. Correspondent names are listed in the Partial Index of Correspondents located at the end of this finding aid.
Series III. Topical Files, 1878-2003 (bulk circa 1940s-1990s) (9 boxes)
Topical Files are in alphabetical order and contain Babb's address books, daily appointment books, research files, clippings, and files related to the business aspect of her writing. Babb also maintained clippings, writings, and correspondence about other writers; however, correspondence with those individuals is predominantly located in Series II. Of particular interest in this series are Babb's Biographical files, teaching files for a short story writing course she taught at University of California Los Angeles, correspondence regarding literary rights for B. Traven's stories, and correspondence with Arnold Rampersad concerning Babb's relationship with author Ralph Ellison.
Series IV. Photographs, circa 1840s-2005 (6 boxes)
Photographs in the collection include black-and-white and color prints, negatives, cased daguerreotypes, cased hand-tinted prints on milk glass, tintypes, photo albums, and scrapbooks. Photographs in the collection span Babb's life beginning with early nineteenth-century family, infant, and childhood photos through her final jacket photo for Whose Names Are Unknown. These photographs provide visual documentation of significant people and events in her life. There are a large number of historical family photos, including several early prints of the Baca County, Colorado, homestead that provided the setting for Babb's memoir, An Owl on Every Post. Many of the photographs are snapshots taken while traveling, including photographs of Europe just prior to World War II, social gatherings, and personal family moments, as well as studio portraits, including Babb's screen-test shots for MGM studios.
Babb frequently appears in photographs with her immediate family, including her parents, Walter Babb, Jennie and step-father Clarence Kemper, Dorothy, and her husband, James Wong Howe. Photographs of Howe include candid family photographs and a small number taken on-location at various movie sets. Due to their content and artistic composition, Babb's scrapbooks documenting her early school days, as well as her years at The University of Kansas and Garden City Junior College, are of particular interest. Also of interest are modern snapshots of Babb's childhood communities in Colorado, Kansas, and Oklahoma, taken by her biographer, Douglas Wixson.
The series also includes a photo album that belonged to Babb's sister, Dorothy, containing photographs of locations in Europe, California and New York, the Kemper family store, as well as Dorothy, Sanora, Walter Babb, Jennie and Clarence Kemper, and friends including author Carlos Bulosan.
Series V. Dorothy Babb, 1926-1996 (1.25 boxes)
Though not as prolific a writer as Sanora, Dorothy Babb did achieve limited publishing success. Series V. is comprised of Dorothy's personal papers and includes drafts and published versions of her short stories, essays, and poems. Dorothy was a close friend of Filipino-American writer Carlos Bulosan and she intended to publish a book of their correspondence, but never completed this work. A draft of this manuscript comprised of typed carbon transcripts of Bulosan's letters and an incomplete draft of her memoir are included in her works. Also in this series are a small number of Dorothy's still-life photographs, her Garden City Junior College yearbooks, and assorted notes and clippings. The Ransom Center has formed a separate collection of Dorothy Babb's Farm Security Administration glass slides, the California Migrant Farm Workers Slide Collection. Prints of these images remain in the Sanora Babb papers.
Series VI. James Wong Howe, 1939-2003, (0.75 boxes)
This series contains material related to Babb's husband, cinematographer James ("Jimmie") Wong Howe. The bulk of the items is comprised of biographical material related to Howe's film career and includes clippings, articles, tributes, filmographies, photographs, sympathy cards, and ephemera. Howe owned a Chinese restaurant called Ching How in Los Angeles during the 1940's, and several menus, reviews, and advertisements are also present. Researchers should also consult Notes, Reflections, Story Ideas in Series I. for additional Howe-related material Babb was compiling for use in writing a Howe biography, as well as a screenplay for several proposed Howe film projects. Howe's professional papers are housed at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Science Center for Motion Pictures Study, and that collection inventory is also present.
Series VII. Publications, 1928-1999, (12 boxes)
This series contains magazines and literary journals, the vast majority of which contain Sanora or Dorothy Babb's published works. A small number of serials were originally used for research purposes and filed within topical files, but to facilitate easier access, these have been separated from their original location and filed alphabetically with the other publications. Separation sheets mark their original location.

Related Material


The following collections at the Ransom Center contain additional material related to Sanora Babb, Dorothy Babb, or James Wong Howe: California Migrant Farm Workers Slide Collection containing Dorothy Babb's photographs, Literary Files, and David O. Selznick.
Other repositories with material related to Sanora Babb, Dorothy Babb, or James Wong Howe include: Margaret Herrick Library at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, Columbia University, Harvard University, Library of Congress, Ohio State University, Pennsylvania State University, Smithsonian Archives of American Art, Stanford University, Syracuse University, University of California Berkeley, University of California Los Angeles, and University of Pennsylvania.

Separated Material


Sanora Babb's library, including copies of her novels, has been separated from the collection and is housed in the Ransom Center's Book Collection. A dust mask with original packaging dating from approximately the 1930s, an official Pre-Convention Clinton Team lapel pin, a 1946 War Bonds medal, and a pair of children's beaded moccasins have been separated from the collection and are housed in the Ransom Center's Personal Effects Collection. Five audio cassette tapes containing interviews with Sanora Babb and a B. Traven seminar have been separated from the collection and are housed in the Ransom Center's Sound Recordings Collection. One 3.5-inch floppy disk containing drafts of the manuscript Whose Names Are Unknown has been separated from the collection and is housed in the Ransom Center's Digital Collection. Dorothy Babb's Farm Security Administration photographs have been separated and formed into the California Migrant Farm Workers Slide Collection in the Ransom Center's Photography Department.

Index Terms


People

Babb, Dorothy, 1909- .
Babb, Sanora.
Bradbury, Ray, 1920- .
Bulosan, Carlos.
Collins, Tom.
Crichton, Kyle, 1896-1960.
Ellison, Ralph.
Howe, James Wong.
Koerner, Henry.
McCoy, Esther.
Saroyan, William, 1908-1981.
Steinbeck, John, 1902-1968.
Traven, B.
Villa, José García.
Waldeen.
Wixson, Douglas C.
Zatz, Asa.

Organizations

United States. Farm Security Administration.

Subjects

Asian Americans.
Authors, American--20th century.
Cinematographers.
Dust Bowl Era, 1931-1939.
Gambling.
Migrant Labor–United States–20th century.
Women authors--20th century.

Places

High Plains (U.S.).

Document Types

Clippings.
Correspondence.
Galley proofs.
Manuscripts.
Photographs.
Poems.
Postcards.
Publications.
Scrapbooks.
Scripts.
Serials (publications).
Sound recordings.
V-mail.

Container List