Back in 1939, Random House dropped a book called Whose Names Are Unknown by Sanora Babb, declining because John Steinbeck‘s Grapes of Wrath had swept the market with a similar story about Americans suffering in the Dust Bowl during the Great Depression.
Babb wouldn’t publish her book until 2004, but Ken Burns‘ new Dust Bowl documentary studied the book last night, driving the book up Amazon charts. UPDATE: In the video embedded above, we’ve added a MediabistroTV interview with Burns about his new documentary.
Last month, Babb’s book was ranked No. 32 out of all books on Amazon, while Grapes of Wrath was ranked No. 1,218.
There was not sufficient readership potential, explained Random House editor Bennett Cerf, to justify two novels on a similar topic. While both novels deal with the Dust Bowl exodus, they in fact contrast quite sharply in their interpretation of the tragic events of dispossession and refugee status in the 1930s. Steinbeck created a fable-like novel that uses structurally figurative means to represent the condition of the “Okies.” “They must be an over-essence of people,” he wrote in his notes while preparing the novel. Whose Names Are Unknown, on the other hand, hews close to testimonial witnessing, revealing an immediate, intimate world of human relationships. Her figures are people we might have known as neighbors; indeed, in another time and place, we might have shared with them a similar destiny.
We’ve embedded screenshots from the Amazon pages below…