Reactions to Babb & Baldwin's Works
What is at stake is a sense of legacy. Sanora Babb's work is a triumph that depicts the harsh realities many were facing at the time. Her connection to the people she was living with and working alongside is a marker for authenticity that is confirmed in the pictures that were taken of her during this time. The narrative she created deserves to be heard, now more than ever, in order to ensure that more women are not denied from telling their stories.
Bennett Cerf, a founder of Random House publishing, shelved Whose Names Are Unknown in 1939. Once it was finally published in 2004, one year before Babb's death, it received acclaim from historians and those in the literary world alike. One of the more famous reviews came from Douglas Wixson, who would go on to befriend Babb. Published in the Western American Literature Journal, Wixson praises Babbs' authenticity and empathy for the migrant farmers. Wixson combines the appeal of the lore around this shelved novel and the woman Babb was. He argued that her loci on humanity and connections between economic class and land were a fresh articulation on an often researched topic.
Elaine Woo wrote in the Los Angeles Times that Babb's novel "rivaled Steinbeck's." Woo lays out Babb’s biography and automatically connects to her work with Whose Names Are Unknown to her biography, thereby verifying the authenticity of her fictionalized work. This article establishes Steinbeck did meet with Babb and a message imparted to her by him was that he had not used her notes. After this meeting, Steinbeck’s work was released, resulting in Babb's book being shelved. This review acknowledges the need to listen to a woman whose work is now being lauded as being more accurate than a work awarded a Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.
A different response came from Michael J. Meyer in his writing for the Steinbeck Review. His featuring a book review for a work shelved due to the man at the center of the journal for which he writes is an interesting choice, to say the least. His rhetoric minimizes the effect Babb’s notes had on Steinbeck and asserts a claim that Steinbeck merely “perused” the manuscript and notes when he was given full access. At times the review insinuates, despite the fact that they were writing at the same time, Babb somehow plagiarized Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath. This further shows the landscape that once silenced women and how they navigated to be heard, and then still might ultimately be denied their claims of authenticity.
In October 1955, Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. rejected James Baldwin’s manuscript for Giovanni’s Room. Baldwin continued to pursue options for publishing his novel, and finally, Dial Press publishing company agreed to publish the novel in 1956. Dial Press chose to remove Baldwin’s headshot in the “About the Author” portion of the text, suggesting that the publishing company might have feared that the work ─written by a black man ─ dealt with topics associated with an “all-white” novel, such as homosexuality and heteronormativity.
The critical reception of Giovanni’s Room was mixed, a predictable outcome to the publishing of the novel due to much of the anti-communist and anti-homosexual discourse rampant in mid-1950s America. Some critics' words sound very similar to the language in the Knopf rejection letter just a year earlier. Literary critic Charles Rolo wrote in his review of the novel that while Baldwin is “endowed with exceptional narrative skill… and a sensitive command of language,” the subject of the work “is one that which [Rolo] had [his] fill.” Book critic James Ivy ushered similar thoughts in his early review called, "The Faerie Queenes," remarking that it was disappointing that “so much brilliant writing should be lavished on a relationship that by its nature is bound to be sterile and debasing.”
Other critics complained that the novel did not focus enough on the “black experience,” with critics such as Nathan A. Scott Jr. arguing that while Go Tell It on the Mountain identified Baldwin “with his people,” Giovanni’s Room was a “deflection” and “kind of a detour” from his previous themes and message. He concluded his review by noting that Baldwin’s second novel turned him “away from his African-American culture and heritage.”
It seems that Knopf's initial concerns regarding the themes of the novel alienating Baldwin's audience came largely true, with critiques of the novel like the ones listed previously tallying high in number. One striking reaction to Baldwin and his novel, a 1964 cartoon published in the Chicago Defender called "Color Him Funny," remarked on Baldwin's supposed rejection of Afrocentricism and blackness through his writing of Giovanni's Room. As a sign announces: "Tonight, Jimmy ─ 'The Angry Voice' will read from his latest novel... 'Next Time, the Fire in Giovanni's Room.'" The caption reads: "This is James the writer... He just came back from Europe to help lead you... to Giovanni's pad! Isn't that wonderful? He told some black children, at his alma mater, that they should be proud of slavery and forget about their African past... Is that supposed to be inspiring? That's so ridiculous, that he sounds funny. Don't you think he's funny!... Color him funny, for days."
Baldwin's Giovanni's Room strayed from the racialized demands placed on black authors, despite the attempts by white publishing companies and literary critics to suffocate his authorial voice and restrict him to merely writing on the "black experience." While the novel received widespread critical acclaim, the work also garnered detractors who rejected Baldwin's vision like Knopf Publishing had in 1955.