Wilma Elizabeth McDaniel was born in Lincoln County, Oklahoma on December 22, 1918. Daughter of a sharecropper, she was the fourth of eight children of Benjamin and Anna McDaniel. Wilma was dubbed the “Dust Bowl Poet” in California and was named Poet Laureate of Tulare in the 1970s. Born to be a writer, she was encouraged early on by one of her Oklahoma country school teachers.
The 1930s were hard times in Oklahoma and the McDaniels could not make a living or produce the food they needed. They had relatives in California and thought about leaving. The opportunity arose in 1936 when Wilma was seventeen years old. A man from Missouri with a nice used Pierce Arrow automobile came to her father and was looking to trade the car for a truck. The Pierce Arrow had just enough seats for the McDaniel family. Wilma’s father made the trade, and then he, her mother, and six of the children packed up and migrated to California, to join two of the sons who had already left Oklahoma. Along the way, the McDaniels stopped in Arizona to pick lettuce.
The McDaniels were more fortunate than some migrants, because they did have relatives who could help them make a new start. Anna McDaniel was a Finster and she had family in Merced County. An uncle, Jeremiah Finster, helped the McDaniels at first and was able to secure jobs for Benjamin, and one of the brothers with the Merced Irrigation District. Some Californians were resentful that the McDaniels were hired instead of Californians, and the Okie family endured prejudices common in that time. Wilma picked grapes for her Uncle Jeremiah Finster’s vineyard as well as other crops. Bob Cooper was another relative who helped the family. Wilma also worked for a time as a housekeeper. Ten years after migrating to California, Benjamin McDaniel passed away. Wilma, who never married, lived with and took care of her mother until her death in 1983 and her sister Opal until her death in 1992.
In 1971, when Wilma was in her 50s, she took a shoebox full of poems to Tom Hennion, the Tulare Advance-Register newspaper editor, to see if he could possibly use them for his newspaper. He did not traditionally publish poetry but was amazed with her insight and ability and began publishing her work. This led to her eventually publishing 49 chapbooks of poetry and stories. She was a prolific writer and her works were also published in numerous poetry and arts publications. Several of her works have been published posthumously. Her close publisher friend James Chlebda, Back40Publishing, is a good source of information about Wilma.
Wilma left Oklahoma before graduating high school; however she passed her high school equivalency exam in California. Her formal education consisted of a few college classes, but her passion for reading, inquisitive mind, eye for detail, and poet’s love of language stood her in good stead for her chosen career. Her love for the written word and learning led to her outstanding self-education. She references classical, Biblical, religious, and Native American literature in her writing. Her poetry is free verse; her writing style is easy and approachable by anyone, but the simplicity belies the depth of meaning within. She understood human nature.
Wilma’s writing is noted for its succinct depiction of people, places and time and its universal themes. She loved Oklahoma deeply and returned time and again to her native state in her writing, conveying her feelings about the land and the people. She frequently wrote of her Dust Bowl experience, depicting the migration and assimilation from an adolescent and young person’s point of view. Wilma grew to love California, too, and she resigned herself to her new home and accepted her fate. She felt rooted in both places as her poem, “A Pair of Rivers” attests.
Her writing is classified with working class literature. She found beauty in everyday common people and experiences. She wrote of family, agriculture, hard work, religion, music, nature, social class, migration and assimilation. Her social conscience was strong. As an Okie migrant, she knew what it felt like to be an outsider. An inclusive person, she accepted the diversity of people and cultures before society encouraged it. Wilma was a devout Catholic and an active laywoman in the Third Order of St. Francis. She devoted her life to serving others and to her writing.
In addition to her poetry and stories, McDaniel left a rich legacy of correspondence which provides additional insight into her life. She wrote letters on scraps of paper and often sent handwritten copies of her poetry and newspaper clippings of her columns and interviews to her friends. Her correspondence included people she never actually met face-to-face but they, and she, would attest that they knew each other.
A Pair of Rivers
Everyone should have
and I had two of them
now locked in memory
it was the lazy Cimarron
with orange water
and huge catfish
the color of mud
I found an other
in far-off California
a tumbling crystal river
with the holy name Merced
—Wilma Elizabeth McDaniel, from A River They Call Merced, (1991), self-published
Poem courtesy the estate of Wilma Elizabeth McDaniel; from the poet’s personal collection.
Copyright protected. Permission to publish or reproduce is required from the copyright owner.
Essay written by Karen Neurohr, OSU Librarian, 2009.
Funding for this project is provided in part by a grant from the Oklahoma Humanities Council (OHC) and the We the People initiative of the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH). Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this website do not necessarily represent those of OHC or NEH. Unless otherwise noted, photographs, select correspondence, handwritten poems, and other items, are Courtesy the estate of Wilma Elizabeth McDaniel; from the poet’s personal collection. Copyright protected. Permission to publish or reproduce is required from the copyright owner.