Sanora Babb

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Sanora Babb
Sanora Babb.jpg
Born(1907-04-21)April 21, 1907
Red Rock, Oklahoma, U.S.[1]
DiedDecember 31, 2005(2005-12-31) (aged 98)
Hollywood Hills, California, U.S.
Pen nameSylvester Davis[2]
OccupationNovelist, editor, poet
Alma materUniversity of Kansas
Garden City Community College
Notable worksAn Owl on Every Post
Whose Names Are Unknown
SpouseJames Wong Howe

Sanora Babb (April 21, 1907 – December 31, 2005) was an American novelist, poet, and literary editor. She was the wife of Chinese American cinematographer James Wong Howe.


Babb with her husband, James Wong Howe

Sanora Babb was born in Otoe territory in what is now Oklahoma, though neither her mother nor father was of the Otoe group of native Americans.[1] Her father, Walter,[3] a professional gambler, moved Sanora and her sister Dorothy to a one-room dugout on a broomcorn farm settled by her grandfather near Lamar, Colorado.[4]

Her experiences were fictionalized in her novels An Owl on Every Post and The Lost Traveler. She did not start attending school until she was 11, and she graduated from high school as valedictorian.[1] She began studying at the University of Kansas [3] but she could not afford to continue there and after one year transferred to the Junior College in Garden City, Kansas.[1] Her first work in journalism was with the Garden City Herald,[1] and several of her articles were reprinted by the Associated Press. She moved to Los Angeles in 1929 to work for the Los Angeles Times, but due to the U.S. stock market crash of 1929 the newspaper retracted its offer. She was occasionally homeless through the Depression, sleeping in Lafayette Park. She eventually found secretarial work with Warner Brothers and wrote scripts for radio station KFWB. She joined the John Reed Club and was a member of the US Communist Party for 11 years,[5] visiting the Soviet Union in 1936, but she dropped out of the party due to the authoritarian structure and in-fighting.[1]

In 1938 she returned to California to work for the Farm Security Administration.[6] While with FSA, she kept detailed notes on the tent camps of the Dust Bowl migrants to California,[6] that were loaned to John Steinbeck by her supervisor Tom Collins.[7] She turned the stories she collected into her novel, Whose Names Are Unknown. Bennett Cerf planned to publish the novel with Random House, but the appearance of Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath caused publication to be shelved in 1939.[8] Her novel was not published until 2004.

Babb had a long friendship with writer William Saroyan starting in 1932 that grew into an unrequited love affair on Saroyan's part.[9] She also had an affair with Ralph Ellison.[10]

She met her future husband, the Chinese-American cinematographer James Wong Howe, before World War II. They traveled to Paris in 1937 to marry,[11] but their marriage was not recognized in California, due to California's anti-miscegenation law (which prohibited marriage between people of different races).[6] Howe would not cohabit with Babb while they were legally unwed, due to his traditional Chinese views, so they maintained separate apartments in the same building.[12] Howe's studio contract "morals clause" also prohibited him from publicly acknowledging their marriage.

In 1948, plaintiffs Andrea Perez (white) and Sylvester Davis (black) brought a lawsuit (Perez v. Sharp) in state supreme court, which overturned the prohibition.[13] It took Howe and Babb another three days to find a judge who would agree to marry them. Even then, the judge reportedly remarked, "She looks old enough. If she wants to marry a chink, that's her business."[14] Coincidentally, in 1939 Babb had used the pseudonym Sylvester Davis,[2] the same name as that of the husband in Perez v. Sharp.[13]

In the early 1940s Babb was West Coast secretary of the League of American Writers. She edited the literary magazine The Clipper and its successor The California Quarterly, helping to introduce the work of Ray Bradbury and B. Traven, as well as running a Chinese restaurant owned by Howe.

During the early years of the HUAC hearings, Babb was blacklisted,[11] and moved to Mexico City to protect the "graylisted" Howe from further harassment.[3]

Babb resumed publishing books in 1958 with the novel, The Lost Traveler, followed in 1970 with her memoir, An Owl on Every Post. Babb's shelved novel, Whose Names Are Unknown, was released by the University of Oklahoma Press in 2004. [15]


  • The Lost Traveler, 1958
  • An Owl on Every Post, 1970
  • The Killer Instinct and Other Stories from the Great Depression, 1987
  • Cry of the Tinamou, 1997
  • Told in the Seed, 1998
  • Whose Names Are Unknown, 2004
  • On the Dirty Plate Trail: Remembering the Dust Bowl Refugee Camps, 2007


  1. ^ a b c d e f Babb, Sanora; photographs by Dorothy Babb; commentaries by Douglas Wixson (2007). On the dirty plate trail remembering the Dust Bowl refugee camps (1st ed.). Austin: University of Texas Press. p. 28. ISBN 978-0-292-71445-8.
  2. ^ a b "Sanora Babb: An Inventory of Her Papers in the Manuscript Collection at the Harry Ransom Center". University of Texas. Retrieved 3 April 2013. The Photography of James Wong Howe, notes and photocopy of published article by Sylvester Davis, pseudonym used by Sanora Babb (published in California Arts and Architecture, 1939)
  3. ^ a b c Biography at the Harry Ransom Center
  4. ^ editor, Mildred Laughlin, regional (1980). The Rocky Mountains. Chicago: American Library Association. p. 64. ISBN 978-0-8389-0296-7. the age of seven, Sonora Babb found herself beginning a new life...
  5. ^ Horne, Gerald (2001). Class struggle in Hollywood, 1930–1950 : moguls, mobsters, stars, Reds, & trade unionists (1st ed.). Austin: University of Texas Press. p. 89. ISBN 978-0-292-73138-7. a party member of 11 years
  6. ^ a b c Elaine Woo, Sanora Babb, 98; novelist's masterpiece rivaled Steinbeck's, Los Angeles Times, 21 January 2006
  7. ^ "The Dust Bowl – Sanora Babb biography". PBS. Retrieved 21 November 2012. Unbeknownst to Babb, Collins was sharing her reports with writer John Steinbeck. Some of this reporting informed Steinbeck's 1936 series of articles The Harvest Gypsies. By the time she was ready to publish her work, in the winter of 1939, Steinbeck had come out with his own Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, The Grapes of Wrath. Steinbeck's book was dedicated to Tom Collins and was an immediate best-seller—such a hit, New York editors told Babb, that the market could not bear another on the same subject.
  8. ^ Novelist and Poet Sanora Babb, The Washington Post, 9 January 2006
  9. ^ Balakian, Nona (1998). The World of William Saroyan (2. print. ed.). Lewisburg, [Pa.]: Bucknell University Press. pp. 273–75. ISBN 978-0-8387-5368-2. I have never stopped thinking of you as somebody rare and extraordinary and fine and wonderful and truly beautiful.
  10. ^ Jackson, Lawrence (2007). Ralph Ellison : emergence of genius. Athens: University of Georgia Press. pp. 215–16. ISBN 978-0-8203-2993-2. Retrieved 30 March 2011.
  11. ^ a b editor, Gordon H. Chang, senior editor ; Mark Dean Johnson, principal editor; Paul J. Karlstrom, consulting editor; Sharon Spain, managing (2008). Asian American art : a history, 1850-1970. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press. p. 333. ISBN 978-0-8047-5752-2.
  12. ^ See, Lisa (2009). On Gold Mountain. Rosetta Books. pp. 214–15. ISBN 978-0-7953-0496-5. Retrieved 29 March 2011.
  13. ^ a b 32 Cal. 2d 711, 198 P. 2d 17 (Cal. 1948).
  14. ^ Lee, Richard Francis James. "Master DP James Wong Howe A Relative's Perspective". Retrieved 21 November 2012. When the miscegenation laws were repealed, it took them three days to find a judge who would marry them. When they finally did, the judge remarked, "She looks old enough. If she wants to marry a chink, that's her business."
  15. ^ Lanzendorfer, Joy (May 23, 2016). "The Forgotten Dust Bowl Novel That Rivaled "The Grapes of Wrath"". Smithsonian Magazine.

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