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On the Dirty Plate Trail

On the Dirty Plate Trail
Remembering the Dust Bowl Refugee Camps
Edited with introduction and commentaries by Douglas Wixson

A vivid, firsthand account of the migrations, immigrant camps, and labor organizing of displaced Midwestern farmers during the Dust Bowl of the 1930s, illustrated with striking photographs.

Series: Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center Imprint

April 2007
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208 pages | 7 x 10 | 102 b&w photos |

The 1930s exodus of "Okies" dispossessed by repeated droughts and failed crop prices was a relatively brief interlude in the history of migrant agricultural labor. Yet it attracted wide attention through the publication of John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath (1939) and the images of Farm Security Administration photographers such as Dorothea Lange and Arthur Rothstein. Ironically, their work risked sublimating the subjects—real people and actual experience—into aesthetic artifacts, icons of suffering, deprivation, and despair. Working for the Farm Security Administration in California's migrant labor camps in 1938-39, Sanora Babb, a young journalist and short story writer, together with her sister Dorothy, a gifted amateur photographer, entered the intimacy of the dispossessed farmers' lives as insiders, evidenced in the immediacy and accuracy of their writings and photos. Born in Oklahoma and raised on a dryland farm, the Babb sisters had unparalleled access to the day-by-day harsh reality of field labor and family life.

This book presents a vivid, firsthand account of the Dust Bowl refugees, the migrant labor camps, and the growth of labor activism among Anglo and Mexican farm workers in California's agricultural valleys linked by the "Dirty Plate Trail" (Highway 99). It draws upon the detailed field notes that Sanora Babb wrote while in the camps, as well as on published articles and short stories about the migrant workers and an excerpt from her Dust Bowl novel, Whose Names Are Unknown. Like Sanora's writing, Dorothy's photos reveal an unmediated, personal encounter with the migrants, portraying the social and emotional realities of their actual living and working conditions, together with their efforts to organize and to seek temporary recreation. An authority in working-class literature and history, volume editor Douglas Wixson places the Babb sisters' work in relevant historical and social-political contexts, examining their role in reconfiguring the Dust Bowl exodus as a site of memory in the national consciousness.

Focusing on the material conditions of everyday existence among the Dust Bowl refugees, the words and images of these two perceptive young women clearly show that, contrary to stereotype, the "Okies" were a widely diverse people, including not only Steinbeck's sharecropper "Joads" but also literate, independent farmers who, in the democracy of the FSA camps, found effective ways to rebuild lives and create communities.


Finalist, 2008 National Council on Public History Book Award

  • "Migrant Farmer," by Dorothy Babb
  • Preface
  • Acknowledgments
  • Introduction: The Babb Sisters
  • 1. The Dirty Plate Trail
  • 2. Field Notes
    • Oklahoma Panhandle, 1934
    • "Triple A, Dusted Out"
    • Note on the government's AAA program to reduce hog production and corn acreage
    • The Dispossessed
      • Labor Conditions
      • Farmer-Industrialist
    • Labor Protest
      • Organization of labor
    • Government Camps
      • Fascist characteristics of the campaign against the migratory workers in California
      • Visalia 2/24/38
      • Labor Contractor
      • Kinds of camps in California
      • Birthrate
      • In answer to the frequent threat...
      • In the fields, 1938
    • Large Landowners
      • Rag Town
    • Refugee Needs
      • A day in the camps
      • San Joaquin Valley, California, 1938
      • Thirty-seven varieties of religon...
    • Striking Workers, Angry Growers
      • March, 1938
      • October 29, 1938
      • Two stories of labor spies
    • Notes for a Novel
  • 3. Reportage
    • Migratory Farm Workers in California (1938)
    • There Ain't No Food (1938)
    • Farmers without Farms (New Masses, 21 June 1938)
    • We Sure Struck It Tuff: The Storm
    • Dealing in Major Catastrophes (New Masses, 23 May 1939)
    • Letter to Dorothy Babb (May 1938)
  • 4. Dust Bowl Tales
    • The Dark Earth (The Magazine, Nov.-Dec. 1934)
    • Morning in Imperial Valley (Kansas Magazine, 1941)
    • Whose Names Are Unknown
  • 5. The Dust Bowl as Site of Memory
  • 6. Epilogue: Letters from the Fields
  • Notes
  • Bibliography
  • Index

Sanora Babb (1907-2005) became an acclaimed short story writer, poet, and author of three novels. Dorothy Babb (1909-1995) frequently collaborated with Sanora in her work.

Douglas Wixson, Professor Emeritus at the University of Missouri-Rolla, is the author of Worker-Writer in America: Jack Conroy and the Tradition of Midwestern Literary Radicalism, 1898-1990. He currently lives in Austin, Texas.


Self-pity is not their way of telling you:
This migrant life is hard.
That it is unaccustomed and deplored.
The wives say almost half apologetically:
"You must excuse the way things look;
We ain't yet used to managing this way,
But we'll soon learn."

But there's fine dignity the way
They manage in too-small tents with beds
Along each wall—a tin camp stove
Not more than two feet high, and dirt floors
That run with water when it rains.

One family said: "The rats are awful bad.
They come in off the fields." And smiled:
"They must be hungry too." Four pork chops
Sizzled on the tin camp stove—their first
Meat in three months. They asked us
If we wouldn't share their meal. They said:
"There's plenty. Don't go now." It was
Their ever-flowering sense of hospitality,
Not dead, but just the same as if we'd been
A caller come to visit them at home.

Some people seem to think they had no homes;
That migrant farmers never owned a farm,
But came out West from downright laziness
To leech upon the bounty of the rich,
The corporation-farms and state relief.

To see a strong man flat upon his back,
Too weak to move because there was no food,
No work, and no relief. To hear him say:
"We'll find a way out yet. We ain't give up,
But we won't go on starving." To see a woman
With a wordless grief because she knows her baby
Must be born on old newspapers in a leaky tent,
(The county hospital has refused her aid),
To see these people shyly seek relief,
Knowing that only hunger brought them there,
Because their pride and courage always frowned
Upon receiving money without work,
Is like a knife-thrust to complacency,
Or attitudes of "Oh, they'll get along."
They'll get along.

Farmers, with no farms to farm,
With intermittent work at pittance pay,
Relief checks much too small or none at all,
There is a beauty in the earnest way
You say "We'll get along."
And there is strength behind these simple words,
A challenge, like a promise to be kept.

—Dorothy Babb, in Direction 7 (Summer 1944): 15.

As I complete the final draft of this book, refugees from Hurricane Katrina flee flood-stricken New Orleans and other devastated Gulf cities. Little in the initial response of the federal and state governments to the present calamity shows evidence of having learned from the experience of the Dust Bowl refugees or modeled their relief measures on the Resettlement Administration and its successor, the Farm Security Administration, of seventy years ago.

Longer than recorded history, mass displacements of people, uprooted by famine, war, disease, natural disaster, or economic failure, have created permanent migration flows that move through and around human settlement. In the long chronicle of uprooting and dispossession a single episode resembles every other in its account of losses and gains; only the proportion of each differs. Forced by extenuating circumstances or drawn by the promise of a better life, people will take great personal risks, severing ties with place, loosening personal bonds, forgoing familiar resources. They become migrants: marketable human commodities, statusless outsiders, figures in statistical surveys. The terms of their contingent status frequently compel migrants to accept undesirable living and work conditions, discrimination, and exclusion. As individuals they are condemned to silence, valued for their labor power, not for other human attributes they possess. Driving through California's agricultural valleys travelers glimpse brown-skinned migrants harvesting in fields, timeless figures of toil like Millet's "Gleaners." In the cities Spanish-speaking workers lay masonry foundations and blow leaves from suburban lawns. Across the land a perpetual flow of migrants moves like shifting currents of water, forming transitory subcultures of work—separate, little noticed, yet indispensable to our economy.

For generations, non-native-born workers—Mexican, Filipino, Asian—have planted, pruned, and harvested California's farmlands and orchards. For a relatively brief time, however, from about 1935 to the early years of World War II, dispossessed Anglo-Americans, mainly from the Great Plains, accomplished the main field labor in California's fertile valleys. "Okies" is a term familiar to every high school student assigned to read Steinbeck's Grapes of Wrath. The notoriety accompanying the publication of photographs of the Anglo refugees made by a handful of Farm Security Administration (FSA) photographers, as well as the publication of Steinbeck's novel (1939), erupted into cries for reform in response to what was then viewed as a national scandal. The silence that for generations had enclosed immigrant workers was suddenly shattered. It was considered intolerable, as Walter J. Stein notes in California and the Dust Bowl Migration, that Anglos should experience conditions viewed as normal for immigrants and blacks.

If the short episode of the migrant Okies attracted the nation's attention only briefly, university researchers, historians, and labor activists have long addressed the problems and prospects of labor migration. Within the ranks of the migrants themselves labor leaders emerged who, like César Chávez were not content to let consumers purchase their vegetables without wondering under what conditions they were produced.

Earlier bracero (guest worker) programs have yielded today to an accelerating and nearly uncontrolled flow of Latino workers consisting for the most part of undocumented Mexican migrants arriving through the southwestern border states. Recent trends indicate the permanent settlement of families, the result of the unremitting demand for cheap, skilled labor, lax migration controls, established migrant networks, and sporadic legislation legalizing migrants. Every year since 1995 nearly half a million Mexicans have entered the United States to find work, according to Fernando Lozano Ascencio. By January 2004, 5.3 million undocumented immigrants, 57 percent of a total of 9.3 million, had arrived in the United States from Mexico. Some 9 percent of the population born in Mexico live today in the United States. And those numbers continue to increase.

The largest share of immigrant workers from across the southern border are located in California and Texas, yet increasingly the migrant flow of workers has shifted to other parts of the country where work can be found in poultry processing, construction, and agriculture. The sheer push-pull dynamics of migration have made immigrant workers, of whom the majority today are illegal, permanent constituents of American culture and the economy. Apart from providing a cheap pool of ready labor, they contribute tax revenues. In Chicago, for instance, of approximately 300,000 illegal immigrants 70 percent pay into Social Security and unemployment insurance, according to a study by the Center for Urban Economic Development at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

A small number of writers from within the ranks of the migrants have given voice to the voiceless workers, putting a human face on sociological statistics and inscribing individual lives in the broad sweep of labor history. Sanora Babb (1907- ) was not a migrant worker, but she wrote from within the experiences and everyday life of the dispossessed Anglos who were pulled into the migrant flow by economic failure and natural disaster. Born in Oklahoma, raised on the High Plains, an experienced journalist and labor activist, Babb was well situated and well equipped to make good journalistic and literary use of her position tending the "Okies" as assistant to FSA camp administrator Tom Collins. The field notes and journal she kept during her stay in the fields (1938-1939) have never been published. Nor have the photographs of the migrant workers—Anglo, Mexican, and black—with whom she lived in the FSA camps. By grounding a brief but significant chapter of the long history of internal migration in personal narrative and personal observation, these texts and photographs together give an incomparable testimony to an important and tragic episode in American life.

This book is part of a project of literary recovery that began some ten years ago with the intent of drawing readers to Sanora Babb's remarkable legacy of work while laying the groundwork for its interpretation. The span of the entire project, of which the present book is one of several outcomes, includes numerous visits with Sanora Babb; interviews of former Dust Bowl refugee-farmers and their now-grown children and of informants in the three-state area (Oklahoma, Colorado, Kansas) where the Babb sisters grew up; extensive reading of source material; the reprinting of two of Babb's novels and the first-time publication of a third, her Dust Bowl novel Whose Names Are Unknown; the creation of an archive at the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center containing Sanora's papers and Dorothy's photographs; and ultimately a full-length study of the Babb sisters' lives and creative work. Sanora and Dorothy, like the Brontë sisters, shaped their own worlds from materials that less imaginative minds might have failed to notice.

Researchers who study literary production and reception have argued convincingly that the institutions that control publication and set standards of judgment act to mainstream certain works while ignoring others that are deemed of regional interest or that speak to the concerns of working-class people. Such arguments are seldom heard today, drowned out by the sheer volume of popular fiction produced, causing booksellers to move works of literary quality to the back of the store to join other prestigious but little-read works. The difficulty of obtaining a hearing for serious work that lies beyond the bounds of acceptability (and marketability) established by current publishing and merchandising standards makes crucial the task of recovery. This task includes establishing a work's significance within an appropriate framework of values, aesthetic, historical, and sociological. As Alan Wald, Cary Nelson, and others have pointed out, one justification for recovering a long-forgotten text, or situating a recent but ignored one, has to do with the need for diversity of literary expression in the face of institutionalizing forces, whether in academia, in the media, or among general readers who depend on the opinion of others to make their choices.

A gift of a Kodak camera when she was a child initiated Dorothy's lifelong love of photography. The legendary cinematographer James Wong Howe, the Babb sisters' close friend, gave Dorothy and Sanora Leica and Rolleicord cameras when he learned of Sanora's intent to work with the Farm Security Administration in 1938 setting up tent camps for the farmer-refugees. The sisters had worked as informal collaborators since their early days on the High Plains, where, seeking relief from penury and isolation, they read to one another, performed dramas, and published their poems in magazines. Sanora, strong-willed and vibrant, inevitably took the lead; Dorothy, richly talented but diffident, kept to herself. A 1935 graduate of English literature at UCLA, Dorothy offered her sister revisions and suggested topics. Yet Dorothy was reluctant to let the world see her own work. Dorothy shrank before the world; Sanora embraced it with whole heart. Dorothy's photographs were gathering dust when Sanora drew my attention to them several years ago. "You might find these photographs interesting," she said.

Don't let this year make a damned fool of you next year.

—Oklahoma Panhandle saying

Returning home from Denver and Leadville in 1879, Walt Whitman remarked that the plains of eastern Colorado and western Kansas impressed him more than the grandeur of the Rocky Mountains. He predicted a populous future for the region. The Great Plains, Whitman wrote soon after the trip, would become "A newer garden of creation, no primal solitude, / Dense, joyous, modern, populous millions, cities and farms / With iron interlaced, composite, tied, many in one." Similarly, William Cullen Bryant's "The Prairies" (1850) envisions an "advancing multitude / Which soon shall fill these deserts." Early travelers responded diversely to the Great Plains, as Ray Allen Billington notes, ranging from semireligious awe to recoil against loneliness and isolation. Such impressions were formed quickly, with little recognition of the variations in soil, climate, life-forms, and topology that exist in the Great Plains environment. Anyone with a deeper familiarity of this vast region, extending west from Illinois to the Rocky Mountains and farther beyond to the Great Basin, would have known what makes the High Plains so different from the neighboring prairies to the east.

In his classic study The Great Plains (1931), Walter Prescott Webb marks the ninety-eighth meridian that bisects Kansas and Oklahoma as a line marking semiaridity: to the west annual rainfall is less than twenty inches, defining a region that before Anglo settlement was devoted to grazing and hunting. The entire Great Plains, as Webb points out, is a comparatively level, treeless, and subhumid region. These characteristics are intensified on the High Plains to the west of the hundredth meridian, where like a canted deck the plains tilt upward to join the Front Range of the Rockies. In the period from 1961 to 1990, according to the National Weather Service, the annual rainfall in the High Plains (elevation ranges from 3,000 to 5,000 feet) amounted to little more than eighteen inches. This is less than half of that received in the fertile prairies of eastern Nebraska, Iowa, and Illinois. Prevailing winds of relatively high velocity exacerbate the decrease in annual rainfall, driving terrible blizzards down the plains and scouring the earth in great dust storms. The few existing desiccated trees offer little shelter.

To Zebulon M. Pike, crossing westward in 1810, the High Plains appeared unfit for human habitation, an opinion reiterated by subsequent explorers such as Stephen Harriman Long of the U.S. Topographical Engineers, who coined the term "Great American Desert." This view was revised following the expedition in 1842 of John Charles Fremont, who saw opportunity for exploitation. Of a different opinion was John Wesley Powell, who, in his Report on the Lands of the Arid Regions (1878), cautioned against expansion. Environmental conditions, he argued, necessarily limit cultivation. Josiah Gregg, on the other hand, in Commerce of the Prairies (1844), promoted settlement. Cultivation, he said, would lead to rainfall. By 1875 farmers had begun to settle the grasslands where the Cheyenne and Kiowa tribes had hunted buffalo and ranchers grazed their cattle in summer. Yet an extended drought in the early 1890s chastened the prospect of agricultural development. A series of land acts intended to institutionalize settlement on the High Plains early in the twentieth century took into account the region's special conditions. Encouraged by new dry-farming technologies and some ten years of favorable weather conditions, settlers from eastern timber regions poured in as the High Plains were opened to homesteading.

Among these new settlers was Alonzo Babb, a widower, who had homesteaded in Baca County, Colorado, in 1910 to escape personal grief and inhibit his drinking. Joining him several years later was his son, Walter, and daughter-in-law, Jennie, and their two daughters, Sanora and Dorothy. Disillusioned with the growth of small-town life in Oklahoma (representing, in his mind, commercial values and hypocritical morality), Walter sought a freer, simpler way of life. Although isolation held little attraction for them, wives dutifully followed their husbands to homesteads on the High Plains. What choice did they have?

Sanora Babb, born in 1907 in an Otoe Indian community in Indian Territory (Oklahoma), and her sister, Dorothy, born in Waynoka, Oklahoma, in 1909, spent their early adolescence in a dugout home on the High Plains of eastern Colorado. Their father, Walter, a professional gambler and sometime baker, moved the family to Baca County in a hapless, ultimately disastrous quest for simplicity and independence. And perhaps Walter too, like his father, Alonzo, hoped to dry out from an addiction, in Walter's case, gambling. The broomcorn boom that attracted a new wave of settlers after a period of depopulation went bust soon after World War I. For weeks on end the Babbs' diet consisted chiefly of boiled Russian thistle with pepper; the family nearly starved. Their itinerant existence in the Otoe town of Red Rock, followed by the dryland farm in Baca County and the family's subsequent moves to Elkhart, Kansas, Forgan, Oklahoma, and finally to Garden City, Kansas, formed the Babb sisters' sensibility and nurtured their compassion for all living things. Sanora's childhood friends remember her as a smart, proud, spirited young girl who endured the humiliation and deprivation of the "dirt poor." They recalled her curiosity, passion for books, and outgoing disposition and were not surprised that she became a writer. Living in what was then known as "no-man's-land" (the Oklahoma Panhandle), Sanora was determined to write of the High Plains people, who at that time were without a literature and too new to the land to create a history.

Ecological disasters occurring on the High Plains are associated in Babb's writings with broken dreams, human tragedies brought about by false expectations, speculation, and the restless demand for land. In this remote, harsh, dry land, Sanora and Dorothy created a life rich in the closely observed detail of nature and everyday existence. "We hung back," Sanora writes in her memoir, An Owl on Every Post (1970), "watching a large anthill, the great red ants hurrying carrying prey, sticks, enormous loads they put down and picked up again, moving in an orderly, inexorable way toward their destruction." The description might have served as a metaphor for the existence of the refugee dryland farmers of the 1930s, picking cotton in California's Central Valley, whose story she tells in Whose Names Are Unknown, a novel written in 1939 but first published in 2004. Like the Brontë sisters sequestered in an English parson's home, the Babb sisters in their dugout home eight miles from Two Buttes, Colorado, imagined fictions that enhanced their lives of narrowed circumstances. Later, as a mature literary journalist, Sanora gave voice to these dryland people displaced from their High Plains homes by the bad times of the 1930s.

In the tradition of writers like Dreiser and Hemingway and contemporaries like Fannie Hurst, Martha Gellhorn, and Katherine Anne Porter, Babb apprenticed her literary career in journalism. In the early 1930s she turned to short stories and sketches published in little magazines that sprouted like seedlings across the country while the overall economy, it seemed, showed no sign of recovery. Through publication in literary magazines Babb became friends with other young writers in Los Angeles, where she had moved in 1929, including William Saroyan, John Fante, Tillie Olsen, Carlos Bulosan, and John Sanford, all of whom published their early work in the same magazines.

Journalistic experience and a compassionate social consciousness were Sanora's preparation for documenting labor conditions in Gallup, New Mexico, and the construction of Boulder Dam, Nevada, in the early 1930s. Her political education had taken root in the Populist-Socialist traditions of Oklahoma and Kansas. In Los Angeles she came into contact with progressives committed to working-class social justice. Returning in 1937 from a trip to the USSR, where she studied theater productions in Moscow and Leningrad and traveled extensively, Sanora rejoined the "dusted out" dryland farmers among whom she had grown up. Forced off their land by dust and low crop prices and bankrupted in their businesses, thousands of the dispossessed from farms and small towns migrated to the western states. Sanora helped to set up and run government-sponsored camps for the refugees, moving with them as they worked the harvests north along the "dirty plate" trail of Highway 99, from early winter pea picking in the Imperial Valley to fruit harvests in the San Joaquin Valley, then farther north to the Feather River, finishing with fall cotton picking in Kern County.

The titles given the refugees and their origins—"Okies" and "Dust Bowl"—were misnomers. The dispossessed came from diverse regions of the Midwest and Southwest and were widely varied in class status, education, and attitudes. Of this diverse population, the High Plains people represented a fractional element of sturdy, independent, literate farmers, most of whom had not known the degraded conditions of sharecropping and hired labor or did not share the religious and racial biases common among the Okies from Arkansas and eastern Oklahoma. They were not, in short, the illiterate, superstitious folk portrayed derisively in the right-wing press or empathetically in Steinbeck's Grapes of Wrath (1939). Fearful of the newcomers' burden on their schools and health facilities, townspeople expressed resentment, fueling exclusion and prompting political action groups intent on curtailing migration. The refugees were stigmatized as outsiders in spite of the fact that they looked like the local people, spoke the same language, shared the same national, religious, and ethnic identity, and observed similar customs. Far from lazy "white trash," most of the refugees were willing to work long hours in order to reestablish themselves and put down roots. Within a few years most were able to establish themselves as permanent settlers in better-paying occupations.

Deeply socialized by the same postfrontier conditions that historically had fostered individualism and conservative politics, Babb reconnected with her childhood and youth in the tent camps and along the dirt roads in California where new arrivals squatted in their cars until they found work. Initiating cooperative arrangements for their children's education and health, organizing labor demonstrations for better conditions, and recording the refugees' stories, she was able to enter the intimacy of the dispossessed farmers' lives and share their experiences. These experiences, together with what she knew of the dryland farmers growing up in the Dust Bowl, furnished material for her novel Whose Names Are Unknown.

The present volume collects Sanora's 1938-1939 field notes, including fragments, reportage, and short stories drawing on the same material. Dorothy, a gifted amateur photographer, recently graduated from the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), visited Sanora in the fields, bringing two cameras with her. Quite by accident amateur photographers sometimes become witnesses to events of historical significance. George Nathanial Nash, a British army lieutenant and amateur photographer, assigned as an interpreter on a British mission to Petrograd in 1917, found himself in the midst of a revolution and recorded it in memorable images. Likewise, Paul Patrick Rogers, visiting Republican-held Spain in 1937 as a member of an international commission, took pictures of the war refugees, comprising an invaluable historical record. On her own initiative Dorothy decided to photograph what she witnessed in the fields and camps of the Central Valley. Nash, Rogers, and Babb were not professional photographers or photojournalists; yet their photographs, accidents of time and place, left an incomparable visual record that does not exist elsewhere.

What distinguishes Dorothy's photos from those of professional photographers hired by the Farm Security Administration is the freshness and immediacy of the images made without self-conscious posing or searching for the decisive moment that might reveal some essential quality of suffering and endurance. Dorothy and Sanora interpreted the refugees' conditions in a process of change, linked to the everyday, makeshift practices employed to transform them. Central to this recognition was the nature of class relations (as in Dorothy's photos of the growers' homes) and the social struggle, which derive from historically specific modes of appropriation and domination. If Sanora, as storyteller, focused on individual personal stories, Dorothy was drawn to imaging not only the people but also the modes of production particular to the system of landownership and agriculture. Together Sanora's writings and Dorothy's photos represent a unique look into the lives and conditions of the refugees quite distinct from either Steinbeck's 1939 novel or the work of the FSA photographers.

The FSA's object in hiring professionals such as Dorothea Lange and Arthur Rothstein was not only to preserve a historical record but also to publicize the conditions afflicting the refugees in the camps, as well the government's work in alleviating their misery. The FSA photographers went much further than documentation and publicity, and, in some notable instances, they created lasting works of art. From the perspective of social documentation, however, they risked sublimating the actual subjects—real people and personal narratives—into aesthetic artifacts, icons of suffering, deprivation, despair. Lange acknowledged that she spent as little as ten minutes with a subject, without learning the person's name or knowing his or her story, taking numerous shots from which a selection was then made. The photos reveal much, at least insofar as they universalize the condition of homelessness and privation. Lange, Rothstein, Russell Lee, Walker Evans, and others created humanistic works of art, testimonies to the human condition, but silent on the actual names and individual histories that might interest social historians or, indeed, writers such as Sanora Babb.

Apart from the film quality, the chief difference between the Babb sisters' documentation of the refugees and the artistic achievements of the FSA photographers has to do with Sanora's artistic vision and, one might say, her personality. Like Sanora's writing, Dorothy's photos reveal an unmediated, personal encounter with her subjects, people with names and individual stories known to both Sanora and Dorothy, who were familiar figures among the refugees. Learning that the two sisters had grown up on a dryland farm on the High Plains, the refugees accepted them like their own, dropping any of the suspicion with which they viewed "outsiders." While it is not a criterion of value in writing or photography to have known one's subject in an experiential way, it represents a difference marking the choice of subject matter and actual recording of image or field note.

Sanora is in the company of writers—Maxim Gorki and Charles Dickens come to mind—shaped by cruelty and hunger and distinguished by their compassionate understanding of the outcasts and the poor. Dorothy fared less well in her life and work than Sanora. Dependent on her older sister, she became semireclusive, lacking the drive to engage her considerable artistic abilities in a professional capacity. A profoundly relational and life-affirming person, Sanora viewed suffering and privation as "here and now" circumstances deserving action rather than as abstract issues presenting spiritual dilemmas. This perspective she shared with many other literary radicals of her generation who wrote about unemployment, strikes, police brutality, homelessness, and dispossession for little magazines and progressive newspapers. All of them wrote, as Richard Wright said, "out of what life gives us in the form of experience."

In the extensive studies of the Great Plains people displaced from their farms, jobs, and businesses in the 1930s, insufficient attention has been given to distinctions among regions, as if the people forced to leave their farms and businesses formed a sole constituency, uniform in their education, origin, social class, and aspirations. Sanora Babb's work underscores important regional differences characterizing the High Plains that reside in climate, soil, occupation, economic class, gender, and race. In giving voice to the voiceless and recording the tragic history of their dispossession, Babb locates a space that is at once physical, emotional, social, political, and temporal and that connects historical event and physical reality. As literature it transcends these limitations, ordering the emptiness, loneliness, and vastness of the High Plains through acts of the imagination. The challenge for a writer is to find the aesthetic means to give the unbounded, featureless physical space of the Great Plains artistic expression. The passionate vision of Willa Cather's Alexandra Bergson wresting wealth from the land in "the Divide" of southeastern Nebraska; the bitter struggle of Mari Sandoz with her tyrannical pioneer father in the upper Niobrara country; the brooding figure of Beret Hansa in O. E. Rölvaag's Giants of the Earth—all situate a distinct space that requires ordering acts of the imagination to evoke.

Each of these writers shapes individual memories into a larger collective memory—indeed, helps to create it—functioning both as cultural history for a community of people linked by the circumstances of place and time and as transmitter of memory to a community of readers unfamiliar with these circumstances. When individuals who experienced events of significance no longer exist to recall them, their words dying with them, when a memory has become a subject for study and the events seem foreign, then writing and photography serve as a means to preserve what otherwise would be lost. Drawing on memories of Baca County and the Oklahoma Panhandle and fusing these with her experiences in the tent camps and fields of California's great valleys, Babb made her notes and fashioned her published work. This work, I argue, is a constituent in constructing the cultural memory of the High Plains people and their migration to the western valleys. As a communicative process it achieves continued evocation through publication and readership.

Cultural memory in turn situates a place by evoking what is significant from the past so that the sum figuratively constitutes a site. Such a site of memory is constituted by the tragedy of the dispossessed farm families in the 1930s, whose collective memories are commemorated in expressions such as "Okie" and "Dust Bowl migration." Commemorative events such as the annual Dust Bowl Days at Weed Patch Camp in California's Central Valley reenact the cultural memory of actual historical events and the people who participated in them.

The artistic legacy of the FSA photographers, Steinbeck's Grapes of Wrath, and the Babb sisters is part of the process of transmission involving repetition and transfer. Dorothy's photographs and Sanora's texts offer an alternative perspective on the iconography of dispossession and migration that is embedded in the national consciousness as the Dust Bowl exodus. Moreover, they serve to reframe and illuminate questions having to do with farm labor and immigration policies today. One clear lesson is the permanence of mass flows of labor as a fundamental constituent of food production in an industrialized agricultural system that increasingly is controlled by corporate ownership.

The economic and environmental conditions that we associate with the Dust Bowl are unlikely to occur again in quite the same way or with the same human cost. Yet our food is still planted and harvested by workers who come from elsewhere, crossing national borders as they did before the great internal migration of the 1930s. This silent army of seasonal laborers from across our southern border has its own storytellers and iconography. We are wise to give them our attention, for their stories too redeem the hopes of the past and inscribe the cultural memory of the future.


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