Several years ago, I spent seven months in the archive of the writer Sanora Babb, looking for evidence that John Steinbeck ripped her off. I’d heard that Babb’s novel Whose Names Were Unknown went unpublished because Steinbeck stole her notes to write The Grapes of Wrath. The truth was less sensational, though he did steal her thunder: Random House shelved Babb’s book after Steinbeck’s came out, believing that the market wouldn’t welcome another Dust Bowl novel. In a 1975 letter, Babb dispelled the rumors that Steinbeck took her material. She refused to be known for “sour grapes,” as she punningly put it. Whose Names Were Unknown was finally published in 2004, a year before Babb died at the age of 98.
As I progressed with my research, I realized that Babb far exceeds any literary “woman-scorned” narrative. She wrote fiction, poetry, and journalism; edited leftist publications like The Clipper; led an adventurous sex life; took care of her family and friends; and traveled the world. The focus on her relationship to Steinbeck obscures her life for what it was: revolutionary, creative, collaborative, and free.