Harry Ransom CenterThe University of Texas at Austin

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Portrait of Sanora Babb as a young woman. Click to enlarge.

Portrait of Sanora Babb, 1938     

 

Portrait of Dorothy Babb as a young woman. Click to enlarge.

Portrait of Dorothy Babb, ca. 1940     

THE PROMISE OF FREE LAND attracted Anglo settlers at the turn of the 19th century and early 20th to the semi-arid High Plains in a final wave of homesteading. Enduring periodic drought and economic failure settlers clung tenaciously to their dry land farms and small town homes. For some the dream of a new beginning became a nightmare of dispossession and a desperate quest for survival. Among them were Walter and Jennie Babb and their two daughters, Sanora and Dorothy.

The two girls grew up on the High Plains, knowing intimately the aspirations, failed dreams, and struggle for dignity that was the experience of the people living there. Both sisters shared literary interests but Sanora alone succeeded in shaping a career as journalist and novelist. A talented poet and photographer Dorothy was too selfdoubting and reclusive to advance a professional career. Both women suffered privation as children, yet Sanora proved to be the more resilient, turning hardship, as Gorky and Dickens did, into dramas of human struggle that affirm life without prettifying the sordid and painful details of everyday existence.

Content to live in the shadow of Sanora's devotion to writing and political activism, Dorothy offered suggestions and critical insights to her older sister's work. She did, however, leave a remarkable legacy in the form of some 250 photographs documenting the Dust Bowl refugees along the Dirty Plate Trail—old highway 99 in California. The sisters each captured what they saw—one with her camera and one with words. Dorothy and Sanora interpreted the refugees' plight in the context of the makeshift practices that might improve that situation. Central to this recognition was the nature of class relations and social struggles.

Sanora Babb's writings serve to put a human face on what early explorers called "the Great American Desert," the short-grass steppe west of the 100th meridian; they give voice to a people who as a practice leave little written record of their own lives and receive scant individual representation in histories. Babb's early years on the windswept, treeless plains, provided her the experience of the everyday life of the High Plains people that informs her work. Affected by the difficult conditions of her childhood and the natural beauty she perceived in her surroundings Babb was determined to make these the subjects of her writing. Her challenge was to find the aesthetic means to give the unbounded, featureless physical space of the plains artistic expression and to extract from the exigent circumstances of their lives a cultural memory of its people.Next page

 

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