Babb and "Whose Names Are Unknown"

A masculine energy hangs over many scholarly pursuits to document, and later, analyze events such as the Dust Bowl and Great Depression. Photographs taken by her sister, Dorothy Babb, show Sanora Babb working in California tent camps with migrant farmers for the Farm Security Administration. Babb is situated squarely at the center of many of these photographs, creating a strong connection of authenticity to her works, primarily, Whose Names Are Unknown. Her writing and her sister’s photography provide the opportunity to understand the trials of women in these tent camps. She documents experiences ranging from their attempts to hold together the seams of their families to the exposed nature and elevated sexual assault risks found in the camps. Famously, the epitomized perspective of this tale has been The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck. Yet, the woman whose notes provided a strong backdrop has remained relatively unknown. 

Sanora Babb & Farmers in California Tent Camp

Babb (center) with migrant farmers in a California tent camp in 1938.

Sanora Babb & Farmers in California Tent Camp

Back of photograph, note explaining the experience of working with Tom Collins.

The framing necessary to understand this problem is that women’s stories are often denied that same visibility in the publishing world. Tom Collins is the one responsible for passing Babb's notes onto Steinbeck. Removing female storytellers from their stories, alters our ability to understand key moments in our history. Published in 2004, it was praised for its accuracy and the level of literary empathy that can only be exhibited from living among people who journeyed to California. Her process for writing was to take the stories she had accumulated during her time working for the FSA and compile them into one epic. The context these photographs lend is the foundation of recognizing the contributions made by Babb. This is not an effort to dismiss work done by Steinbeck, but to offer a deeper understanding of the people both Steinbeck and Babb were writing about. Babb’s insight, as a woman, to a specific and important moment in American history should now be widely recognized and serve as a marker of legitimizing silenced voices in history.

Tom Collins & Sanora Babb Working in Tent Camp

Babb and her supervisor, Tom Collins, working in a tent camp for the Farm Security Administration. 

Tom Collins & Sanora Babb Working in Tent Camp

Describes the location for the photo as being a "migration camp" in either 1938 or 1939.