Conference on Western Radicals, featuring Sanora Babb to be held Nov 2014

sanora_babb-210Below is a Session proposal for a conference on Western Radicals, featuring the works of Sanora Babb, among others. Sanora is, of course, the would be famous, author who’s work An Owl on Every Fencepost was pulled from release after the blockbuster reception of Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath.

I mentioned this at the reunion and wanted to post for any that were interested in attending. If you are interested in attending or to learn more about the conference follow this link:


Following the Proposal, is a list of links to learn more about Sanora and her works:


SESSION PROPOSAL for ASA November 2014 Conference



SESSION TITLE: Western Radicals and Innovators: Sanora Babb, Willa Cather, Carlos Bulosan, and James Wong Howe


Session Abstract:


This panel aims to recover the extraordinary career of Sanora Babb, placing it in the context of western artistic innovation and political radicalism in the 1930s. Raised in the Oklahoma Panhandle, Babb migrated to Los Angeles in 1929, published in radical magazines, traveled through Europe and Russia, and worked with migrant workers in California. Her first novel, Whose Names Are Unknown, gave voice to her fellow dust bowl migrants, winning an advance contract from Random House. Unfortunately, her editors reneged when Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath was published in 1939, fearing competition in a tight market. Babb’s writing promises to reorient the existing scholarship that emphasizes the political seriousness (and often aesthetic shortcomings) of white male writers of proletarian novels who viewed their subject matter primarily through the lens of class. In contrast, Babb expresses an intersectional politics in joyful, life-affirming language. The papers in this session shed new light on radical literature of 1930s California by highlighting Babb’s environmental consciousness, nascent feminism, and racial progressivism.


Babb’s radical environmentalism and woman-centered perspective are distinctive features of Whose Names, a dynamic explored by Meg Sparling. Unlike The Grapes of Wrath, Babb’s story of agricultural crisis and migration imagines a communal environmental ethic that includes women as full participants. In her paper “Failing and Flourishing on the Frontier,” Tracy Tucker extends this environmental analysis to Babb’s memoir, An Owl on Every Post. Tucker uses eudaimonia—the study of well-being—as a theoretical framework for comparing the landscape writings of Sanora Babb and Willa Cather. Babb tells her family story of hungry years pioneering the arid high plains, yet her narrator’s child-like wonder at the beauty of the natural world expresses an alternate way of living against austerity.


The other two papers connect Babb to her political and cultural context of California in the 1930s and 1940s, emphasizing race and ethnicity. In his semi-autobiographical novel America Is in the Heart, Filipino writer Carlos Bulosan based the characters Alice and Eileen Odell on Sanora Babb and her sister, Dorothy, who embodied for him the promise of America. Cristina Cheveresan’s paper investigates this dialectic of promise and prejudice in Bulosan’s novel. Bulosan offers a race and class-based critique of the American Dream, while insisting on a place for Filipinos within it. Perhaps no other place embodies the American paradox like Hollywood—a site of commercialized pleasure and social stratification. As Anne S. Choi’s paper relates, the Oscar-winning cinematographer James Wong Howe navigated this paradox in his career and personal life.  As a Chinese immigrant, Howe defied legal exclusion to win accolades for his innovative lighting techniques. Howe also defied California’s efforts to police racial boundaries in his partnership with Sanora Babb, which was legalized after the repeal of California’s anti-miscegenation laws in 1948. Babb’s life and writing offers a new lens onto the radical literature and culture of the 1930s that crosses the disciplines of literature and environmental studies, the regions of the plains and California, and the experiential modes of fun and fury.


Session Keywords: Environmental Studies, Race and Ethnicity, Working-Class Studies





Chair: Michael Steiner, University of California, Fullerton


Dr. Michael C. Steiner is Professor Emeritus of American Studies at California State, Fullerton. During his 38 years at Cal State Fullerton, Steiner has served as department chair and director of the MA program and continues to teach courses on environmental history, folk culture, the built environment, regionalism, California, and the West.  He has won the ASA’s Mary Turpie Award in 2006 and has twice held a Distinguished Fulbright chair–in Hungary in 1998-99 and in Poland in 2004.  His most recent book is Regionalists on the Left: Radical Voices from the American West (Oklahoma, 2013.



Presenter 1: Tracy Tucker, The Willa Cather Foundation


Failing and Flourishing on the Frontier: Outlook and Outcome in Cather and Babb


Tracy Tucker is the Education Director at the Willa Cather Foundation in Red Cloud, Nebraska. She graduated from Kansas State University (B.A. ’10) and the University of Nebraska-Lincoln (M.A. ’11) specializing in Creative Writing and Great Plains Studies.



Presenter 2: Meg Sparling, University of California, Davis


American Pastoralism and Female Agricultural Experience in Sanora Babb’s Whose Names Are Unknown


Meg Sparling is a PhD candidate at UC-Davis. Her dissertation explores how dynamics of vision and sound shape the ways that intellectuals represented black agricultural laborers in nineteenth-century American literature.



Presenter 3: Cristina Chevereşan, West University of Timişoara, Romania


Carlos Bulosan’s 1930s California: The Sound of Filipino Fury


Cristina Chevereşanis an assistant professor of modern and contemporary American Literature, Culture and Civilization at the West University of Timişoara, Romania. The past recipient of fellowships from the Salzburg Global Seminar (2012), UCD Clinton Institute for American Studies (2008), the School of Criticism and Theory (2007). Fulbright Senior scholar (research grant on ethnic American literature(s), Harvard University; 2010/2011). Fulbright Ambassador (2013). She has published four books (critical essays, interviews, book reviews) in English and Romanian.



Presenter 4: Anne Soon Choi, California State University, Dominquez Hills


“For You Alone”: James Wong Howe and Sanora Babb


Dr. Anne Soon Choi is an assistant professor in the Department of Interdisciplinary Studies at California State University Dominguez Hills. She has been the recipient of Henry Luce Postdoctoral Fellowship in Korean Christianity at UCLA and the Andrew Mellon Postdoctoral Fellowship at Swarthmore College.



Comment: Erin Royston Battat, Harvard University


Erin Royston Battat received her Ph.D. in the History of American Civilization (American Studies) from Harvard University in 2008, and currently teaches in Harvard’s History & Literature program.  Her book, ‘Ain’t Got No Home’: America’s Great Migrations and the Making of an Interracial Left (UNC 2014) examines how writers, artists, and activists used stories of migration and itinerancy to fight for economic and racial justice amidst the capitalist collapse of the 1930s. She has also published essays on Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath and on the intersections of sociology and literature. She has served on the Executive Committee of the Eastern American Studies Association.



Sanora Babb LINKS


Official website:


Babb Web Exhibition:


Rediscovering a National Treasure: ForeWord Magazine article


ForeWord Review of Owl


OK Metropolitan Library System YouTube video:


Film clip from PBS Dust Bowl re: Sanora/WNAU:


About Burns Documentary: dust storm footage


Steinbeck vs Sanora cover story in This Land


Steinbeck Now Online article including “Whose Name Are Unknown Forgotten OK Novel” (scroll almost half way down)


ALA Dust Bowl traveling exhibition 6/14-12/15:

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