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On the Dirty Plate Trail

On the Dirty Plate Trail

Edited with Introduction and Commentaries by Douglas Wixson
Copyright Date: 2007
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  • Book Info
    On the Dirty Plate Trail
    Book Description:

    The 1930s exodus of "Okies" dispossessed by repeated droughts and failed crop prices was a relatively brief interlude in the history of migrant agricultural labor. Yet it attracted wide attention through the publication of John Steinbeck'sThe Grapes of Wrath(1939) and the images of Farm Security Administration photographers such as Dorothea Lange and Arthur Rothstein. Ironically, their work risked sublimating the subjects-real people and actual experience-into aesthetic artifacts, icons of suffering, deprivation, and despair. Working for the Farm Security Administration in California's migrant labor camps in 1938-39, Sanora Babb, a young journalist and short story writer, together with her sister Dorothy, a gifted amateur photographer, entered the intimacy of the dispossessed farmers' lives as insiders, evidenced in the immediacy and accuracy of their writings and photos. Born in Oklahoma and raised on a dryland farm, the Babb sisters had unparalleled access to the day-by-day harsh reality of field labor and family life.

    This book presents a vivid, firsthand account of the Dust Bowl refugees, the migrant labor camps, and the growth of labor activism among Anglo and Mexican farm workers in California's agricultural valleys linked by the "Dirty Plate Trail" (Highway 99). It draws upon the detailed field notes that Sanora Babb wrote while in the camps, as well as on published articles and short stories about the migrant workers and an excerpt from her Dust Bowl novel,Whose Names Are Unknown. Like Sanora's writing, Dorothy's photos reveal an unmediated, personal encounter with the migrants, portraying the social and emotional realities of their actual living and working conditions, together with their efforts to organize and to seek temporary recreation. An authority in working-class literature and history, volume editor Douglas Wixson places the Babb sisters' work in relevant historical and social-political contexts, examining their role in reconfiguring the Dust Bowl exodus as a site of memory in the national consciousness.

    Focusing on the material conditions of everyday existence among the Dust Bowl refugees, the words and images of these two perceptive young women clearly show that, contrary to stereotype, the "Okies" were a widely diverse people, including not only Steinbeck's sharecropper "Joads" but also literate, independent farmers who, in the democracy of the FSA camps, found effective ways to rebuild lives and create communities.

    eISBN: 978-0-292-79525-9
    Subjects: History
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Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents (pp. vii-viii)
  3. LIST OF ILLUSTRATIONS (pp. ix-xi)
  4. MIGRANT FARMER (pp. xii-xiv)
  5. PREFACE (pp. xv-xviii)
  6. ACKNOWLEDGMENTS (pp. xix-xxiv)
  7. INTRODUCTION: The Babb Sisters (pp. 1-10)

    Returning home from Denver and Leadville in 1879, Walt Whitman remarked that the plains of eastern Colorado and western Kansas impressed him more than the grandeur of the Rocky Mountains. He predicted a populous future for the region.¹ The Great Plains, Whitman wrote soon after the trip, would become “A newer garden of creation, no primal solitude, / Dense, joyous, modern, populous millions, cities and farms / With iron interlaced, composite, tied, many in one.” Similarly, William Cullen Bryant’s “The Prairies” (1850) envisions an “advancing multitude / Which soon shall fill these deserts.” Early travelers responded diversely to the Great...

  8. 1 THE DIRTY PLATE TRAIL Workers of the Western Valleys (pp. 11-46)

    For nearly a century farmers and villagers in Mexico have left their homes for “el norte” to pick peas, cotton, and grapes and gather oranges from citrus trees in California’s Imperial and Central Valleys. Of the estimated 5.3 million unauthorized Hispanic workers living in the United States (in 2004), a number increasing yearly by about 500,000, many have become legal residents as a result of periodic amnesties such as the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Bill. Without counting their families, about 1.2 million of 2.5 million wage-earning farmworkers reside in California at present.¹ Across the nation a labor army of...

  9. 2 FIELD NOTES (pp. 47-90)

    In spring 1934 Sanora traveled from Los Angeles to visit her mother, Jennie Parks Babb, in Garden City, Kansas, where she had apprenticed as a journalist on theGarden City Telegram. For many of the literary radicals of the 1930s journalism was preparation for literary work, as it had been for Stephen Crane, Theodore Dreiser, Ernest Hemingway, Sherwood Anderson, Katherine Anne Porter, Martha Gellhorn, Willa Cather, Edna Ferber, Zona Gale, and others. The Depression era needed writers who were able to record its tumultuous events and tragic human exigencies.

    A terrible drought afflicted the High Plains in 1934. For fifty-eight...

  10. 3 REPORTAGE (pp. 91-130)

    Sanora Babb’s apprenticeship as a writer began in the typesetting room of theForgan Enterprise(Oklahoma), where at age twelve she worked as a printer’s devil. Her next job was cub reporter for theGarden City Herald(Kansas) before moving to Los Angeles in 1929. There her hopes of finding a newspaper job evaporated with the layoffs of the early Depression. After a period of unemployment she found work writing radio scripts for Warner Brothers’ radio station kfwb. Her newspaper career was cut short, but she had opportunities to use her journalist’s skills while reporting on labor conditions at the...

  11. 4 DUST BOWL TALES (pp. 131-150)

    Their early years and adolescence left lasting impressions on the literary imaginations of the Great Plains writers Willa Cather, Mari Sandoz, and Sanora Babb. Long after leaving home the three women returned to their early memories as material for their novels. Each displayed an extraordinary sensitivity to the environment—the land and its soil, weather, and visual textures. Babb’s High Plains confronts ecological conditions quite different from Cather’s Webster County, where the average elevation is 1,900 feet, the annual rainfall more than thirty inches, and the soil a rich prairie loess. Sandoz’s upper Niobrara River region of northwestern Nebraska, called...

  12. 5 THE DUST BOWL AS SITE OF MEMORY (pp. 151-156)

    Drought is a natural and frequent event on the High Plains. Yet it was not until the droughts of the 1930s that the region attracted the nation’s attention. The Depression situated the droughts in a human tragedy of broad political dimensions whose tableaus of dispossession and migration lodged deep in the public consciousness. The consequences stretched well beyond the afflicted region; the Dust Bowl catastrophe focused the nation on deeply rooted political and cultural questions having to do with traditional notions of success and failure in a society that customarily counts failure as a risk one must absorb in pursuing...

  13. 6 EPILOGUE: Letters from the Fields (pp. 157-160)

    Tensions between field workers and growers erupted in impromptu strike activity spreading throughout Kern County cotton fields in the fall of 1938. Migrant workers, many of whom were unfamiliar with or hostile to unions, participated in the cotton strikes. Understaffed labor organizers attempted to channel the anger and frustration of the workers into unified action. It appeared for a time that some great awakening, long hoped for, was finally underway. The d.f. groups in the government camps, Tom Collins wrote Sanora, had paved the way for the informal workers’ councils and collective initiatives that the ucapawa hoped to consolidate into...

  14. NOTES (pp. 161-164)
  15. BIBLIOGRAPHY (pp. 165-172)
  16. INDEX (pp. 173-184)