The Edwin Lanham (1904-1979) novel The Stricklands (1939) explored the plight of eastern Oklahomans in the Great Depression of the 1930s. Contemporaneous with John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath (1939), Lanham's book offers another view of the Depression-afflicted poor of the Sooner State. In fact, Little, Brown and Company published The Stricklands a few months before Steinbeck's book, a tale of Okies migrating to California, stole the spotlight.
Lanham's story explores the life of an eastern Oklahoma farm family and centers around two brothers, Jay and Pat Strickland. Jay Strickland worked to organize the Southern Tenant Farmers' Union (STFU) in Oklahoma. The real organization, created earlier in Arkansas, accepted whites, African Americans, and American Indians into its protective fold. Jay, who has many of the characteristics of Oklahoma's early STFU organizer Odis Sweeden, diligently devotes himself to improving the life of his brethren. Brother Pat Strickland turns to crime, specifically bank robbing, to provide for his wife, Belle. The Texas-born Lanham describes 1930s Oklahoma in a well-researched, more detailed account than Steinbeck's. Lanham describes specific Oklahoma cultural phenomena, including a large stomp dance, manipulative Little Dixie politicians, and All-Black towns. Another interesting aside describes a WPA-sponsored project that created a large recreational lake to boost the economy but angered the locals by forcing them to sell their land.
Pat's Texas crime spree and escape to Oklahoma interferes with Jay's union drive. Mehuska (a weak pseudonym for Muskogee) officials and politicians, already opposed to the organization of tenant farmers, use Pat's escalating reputation to help destroy Jay's work. Another setback occurs when Rock Island Jones, an African American that the national STFU sent to help Jay, is beaten nearly to death as an example to other blacks who might be contemplating union membership. In the course of capturing Pat, the law imposes calamity after calamity on the family, who are forced to sell their ancestral farm to the WPA for the creation of the lake. Out of this struggle to save his brother and organize the poor, Jay loses much but gains a large audience for his message of "Land for the Landless."
Many critics applauded The Stricklands, and it received good reviews in the New Yorker, The Nation, and the New York Times. The Times's Stanley Young closed his review with the statement, "One of the surest [novels] on the contemporary American scene this reviewer has read." Oliver La Farge of the Saturday Review of Literature considered it a good bet for a Pulitzer Prize. Ironically, one of the few negative reviews came from George Milburn, a writer who focused much of his work on eastern Oklahoma. In a review in the New Republic he praised Lanham's attention to Oklahoma as a subject but asserted that the author's good intentions had not overcome bad writing. Milburn compared the book to "a newspaper feature story, turgid with adjectives." Still finding an audience, in 2002 The Stricklands was reprinted by the University of Oklahoma Press.
Other selected books that examine 1930s Oklahomans in similar contexts are Alice Lent Covert's Return to Dust (1939), which hauntingly depicts the plight of farmers in the Oklahoma Panhandle during the Dust Bowl period, and The Months of Rain, which describes the Depression in eastern Oklahoma. The latter novel does not lay open the underbelly of small town life as well as Milburn does in Oklahoma Town (1931), Catalogue (1936), and Flannigan's Folly (1947). In his fictional novel Pretty Boy (1936), William Cunningham focuses on Pretty Boy Floyd and the Robin Hood quality attributed to him by Oklahomans. A collection of short stories by William Humphrey titled A Time and a Place (1969) also exposed Oklahoma's attraction to outlaws. All the stories in this book are set in 1930s Oklahoma and Texas, primarily in the Red River Valley, and tell of tenants, oil booms, and con men. Humphrey's formative years were spent in Clarksville, Texas, just south of the Red River, and his stories reflect the remembrances of his childhood.
BIBLIOGRAPHY: Bert Almon, William Humphrey: Destroyer of Myths, Texas Writer's Series No. 6 (Denton: University of North Texas Press, 1998). Mary Hays Marable and Elaine Boylan, A Handbook of Oklahoma Writers (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1939). Ann Hodges Morgan, "Oklahoma in Literature," in Oklahoma: New Views of the Forty-Sixth State, ed. Ann Hodges Morgan and H. Wayne Morgan (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1982).
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