WHEN The Stricklands appeared in March of 1939, its publisher, Little Brown, was confident it had a bestseller on its hands. Lanham had already written four well-regarded novels, and his fifth was poised to be his breakout book. Early reviewers acclaimed his latest work, calling it Lanham''s "finest novel to date and one of the surest on the contemporary American scene."1 Set in the lean Depression years, it tells the story of two brothers, one a farmer's union organizer and the other an oil-field worker turned outlaw, facing environmental hardships readers would have found as topical as the evening newspaper. A decade earlier, Edna Ferber had proven Oklahoma to be reliable literary terrain when Cimarron finished 1930 as the nation's number-one bestseller (and supplied the story for the 1931 movie of the same title that won the Academy Award for best picture). Ferber's tale, which included a larger-than-life account of the famous 1889 land run, was set in the rowdy days surrounding statehood. Nonetheless, despite a thirteen-day state tour to research her subject, Cimarron was, to her surprise, criticized for its less-than-accurate recreation of the region's history by pioneers who had lived through it. Ferber produced a novel that state historian Angie Debo would dismiss as "rooted in nowhere."2
In contrast, The Stricklands is steeped in authentic regional detail. As a period piece, it not only recreates, with map-like clarity, the feel of the landscape in Oklahoma's hardscrabble Cookson Hills region but also captures the undertones of despair felt by the era's least prosperous classes. Immersed in a national farm emergency, as well as labor and race tensions, Lanham's Oklahoma is a land in crisis. The story is, in the largest sense, a familiar Depression tale. It dramatizes what happens when the institutions that individuals once believed in have failed them. Hardworking folk have lost faith in the ability of banks, the press, law enforcement, and local and national government to improve their lives. What remains is a contested territory of social negotiations and pressures among competing groups of poor and rich whites, African Americans, and Cherokee, Creek, and Choctaw Indians, who together reflect the rich range of Oklahoma's distinctive cultural mix. While, as one character says, "The red man and the black man both got a grudge against the white man", they all share a grudge against the rich man.
The attention that Lanham gives to examining the relationships among these groups is almost unprecedented in American fiction. A tangled web of vested interests complicates all their interactions. A WPA dam-building project that will put five hundred unemployed laborers to work will also flood out the Stricklands' and others' homesteads in order to create a recreation area for the wealthy. Despite having the strongest legal claim on the area, the Indians of the Five Civilized Tribes remain the region's "forgotten men". The same white workers who elicit our sympathies in their daily class struggles are also racist and refuse to join the Southern Tenant Farmers' Union because it admits blacks. As such tensions suggest, Lanham's racial landscape extends well beyond a simplified account of black/white division. Indeed, the author's three-dimensional view of race is one of the novel's most compelling features. Writing in The Saturday Review of Literature, Oliver LaFarge celebrated The Stricklands as "built out of the very soil of the Oklahoma hills. Hillbillies, share-croppers, Indians, Negroes, politicians, all the strange new melange that makes Oklahoma the strangest and most interesting of states, are genetically part of the story." Sensing a literary sensation in the making, he pronounced it "a good bet for the Pulitzer Prize." 3
And, indeed, Oklahoma would become the staging ground for the novel of the year. But in an almost tragic instance of ill timing, that novel would not be The Stricklands. Within days of its publication, John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath was released, and as quickly as Steinbeck's already bright critical star continued to ascend, The Stricklands receded from view. A fine novel was eclipsed by a national sensation. The two share some conspicuous similarities. They both commence in the identical eastern pocket of the state. They express comparable radical political sympathies for displaced tenant farmers and come to the same familiar conclusions about the farming crisis, collectively rooting its causes in drought, poor crop management, low commodity prices, and, especially, nefarious corporate and banking farm practices. Echoing a Joad-like tenuousness, a character in The Stricklands observes: "There's only seven inches of soil between us and starvation." Most notably, Steinbeck and Lanham share a thematic interest in dignifying the daily struggles of the man and woman furthest down. Such mutual sympathies are best embodied in the outlaw mystique accorded to Tom Joad and Pat Strickland. Both become multiple murderers, yet their crimes reflect less the acts of wrongdoers than those of men with laudable intentions driven to extremes by the pressures of their respective worlds. Sharing a similar faith in a morality borne of individual conscience, both authors thus draw a firm opposition between justice proper and the law.
The Grapes of Wrath and The Stricklands are, nonetheless, hardly the same novel. Where Steinbeck realizes the epic, even biblical, dimensions of a poor family journeying to California, Lanham devotes himself to the farm population who stayed behind. In this way, The Stricklands offers a useful corrective to Steinbeck's mythically powerful but historically problematic account of Depression-era Oklahoma. Unlike the Texas-born Lanham, Steinbeck's milieu was California, not the Southwest. Where Lanham had spent time in his setting and knew it like a local, Steinbeck had journeyed once along Route 66 and talked to some Oklahoma migrants. When Steinbeck famously turned the tree-covered Ozark hills in Sequoyah County into the Dust Bowl and the state into an arid wasteland radiating outward from a single highway, he created enough regional furor to lead Representative Lyle Boren to denounce The Grapes of Wrath on the U.S. House floor as a "dirty, lying, filthy manuscript."4 By contrast, Lanham's setting is convincingly etched amid "crusty limbs of blackjack oaks", the "slow malignant waters of the Canadian", a Cherokee stomp dance, and hills filled with men who are "mean because they don't git enough to eat". If Boren's real frustration was Steinbeck's failure to represent Oklahoma in its best light, The Stricklands offers no soothing corrective. However, if as the son of a tenant farmer Boren's indignation arose from seeing an entire state population encapsulated into a single derogatory "Okie" label, he would recognize in The Stricklands an essential appreciation on Lanham's part for creating a heterogeneous mix of characters that are convincing products of the Oklahoma soil.
the criticism that greeted Steinbeck and Ferber suggested, Lanham's
ability to condense the essence of Oklahoma
A full appreciation of Lanham's impressive command of his setting relies on comprehending a crucial division in Oklahoma geography. Drawing a line on a state map from the upper right corner in the northeast to the bottom left in the southwest (thereby creating two triangles with the panhandle attached on the west) sets out a rough estimation of two altogether different cultural and geographic regions. The western and more northern part is plains country, defined, like other western states, by sparse vegetation, aridity, distance, and rugged frontier values. Phrased more lyrically, this part of Oklahoma is a place "where habits learned in humid areas are bound to fail."10 In contrast, the southeast section, through which the action of The Stricklands moves, retains the title "Little Dixie" by virtue of natural features and Confederate sympathies. The area's topography is heavily forested, hilly, irregular, and prone to erosion. It is generally unpromising agricultural land. As Lanham worked on his novel, this region had the highest tenancy rate in the country, nearly 70 percent in the Depression. (The pattern of tenancy had been established while the area was under Indian rule and allowed no white ownership.) Three quarters of its farms were under one hundred acres. Per capita income hovered around two hundred dollars per year (a little more than half the national average). Subsistence tenant farmers like Jay Strickland were the norm. By such measures, it was a suitable setting for one of the novel's major strands, Jay's fight to create the Southern Tenant Farmers' Union.11
The difficulties that Jay faces in trying to organize the union mirror the near collapse of political radicalism in Oklahoma by the Depression. During the intense partisan bickering that preceded the application for statehood, the territory's farmers' union, by cooperating with organized labor, was able to exert significant influence at the constitutional convention. During early statehood, the Oklahoma Socialist party had the largest membership in the country relative to its population, peaking at 11,000 in 1914.12 Its primary constituents were tenant farmers who saw in the party an organized means of combating landlords and creditors. What the small landholders sought was, in effect, identical to that which Jay Strickland calls for in a speech to attract new members: he wants to organize "to better conditions, to git long-time land tenure and in the end to git every tenant a piece of land of his own". The utopian idealism underlying Jay's demands was no less in evidence in the real world of Oklahoma politics. But a mix of naiveté and systematic suppression by opponents and an unpopular antiwar platform by the socialists effectively ended the party's state reign by the late teens. While not countering this historical reality directly, Lanham's willingness to leave open the possibility that better things await the Jay Stricklands of the world suggests his powerful belief in the capacity of individual sacrifice and toil to rectify the world's inequalities.
Jay seeks advancement through organized, communal, and racially equitable means. He represents, in this sense, a progressive, modern approach to combating the ills of poverty thereby symbolizing the best hope of the future for Oklahoma's exploited classes. As a bank robber, his brother Pat represents a contrasting, if more dramatic approach. The details surrounding Pat's flight from justice, his escape from jail, and a series of events too significant to give away in an introduction may lack the social relevance underpinning Jay's labor fight, but Pat's story is not without its own symbolic weight. Representing a rapidly fading set of values out of the old West, he is a lone individual driven by good motives who through a combination of violence and will battles a system that seeks to contain him. He is thus a reminder of the untamed earlier days of Oklahoma and Indian Territory. His fate, compared to that of his brother, tells us much about the region's transition from a bandit-filled territory at the edge of civilization into a modern state with a full claim to cultural citizenship. His trajectory is noticeably akin to that of real-life outlaw and fellow eastern Oklahoma son of a bootlegger, Charles Arthur Floyd. Dubbed "Pretty Boy" by the press, Floyd became a folk hero for robbing the same country banks that were foreclosing on farmers. Made the subject of a song by Woody Guthrie and eulogized in The Grapes of Wrath, he emblematized an exhilarating if short lived triumph of the have-nots over the haves. After Floyd was shot by FBI field agents in October 1934, as many as forty thousand people converged on a cemetery near Sallisaw to attend the largest funeral in Oklahoma history. In modeling Pat on Floyd, Lanham not only smartly tapped into the insatiable public thirst for tales, fictional and otherwise, of the era's most notoriously misunderstood badman, he also created one of the few radical novels that can claim to be a page-turner.13
a farm novel, The Stricklands was unusual in its radical sentiment.
However, in The Stricklands' celebration of the essential dignity
of people of the soil and the general appeal of farm life, it joined
a surprisingly large array of other novels that focused on farming.
One study has identified over 140 such novels set in the Midwest that
were written between 1890 and 1962.14 The most familiar among
these include Willa Cather's My Antonia (1918) and Ole Rolvaag's
Giants of the Earth (1927). Other Oklahoma farm novels appearing
alongside The Stricklands include John Milton Oskison's Black
Jack Davy (1926) and Brothers Three (1935), Nola Henderson's
This Much Is Mine (1934), Dora Aydelotte's Long Furrows
(1935), William Cunningham's Green Corn Rebellion (1935), and
Alice Lent Covert's Return to Dust (1939) and Months of
Rain (1941). Set in and among the institutions that surround farm
life—rural churches, schools, Sunday picnics, small-town main
streets—these novels cluster around similar themes reflecting
the capriciousness of the environment and the virtue of labor. Their
early biography is hardly one that presaged either the subtle craftsmanship
that characterizes all of his fiction or
Nonetheless, like so many American writers, his abundant talent could not always pay the bills. Divorced and remarried by the 1940s, he supplemented his novel writing with work as a journalist. His writing took a fresh turn after the mid-forties as he began contributing large numbers of short stories to both popular magazines like Saturday Evening Post and to mystery journals. He followed with a number of well-received murder mysteries, which made him a favorite of the pulp fiction crowd. When Lanham died in 1979 at the age of seventy-four, his contemporary reputation hinged almost entirely on his stature as a mystery writer.
Reprinting The Stricklands thus not only offers the opportunity to revive a less familiar period of Lanham's career, it also makes available one of the most powerful regional novels of its day. Such a claim, however, both points to its merit while also limiting its scope. Despite Flannery O'Connor's contention that "the best American fiction has always been regional," in American literary quarters, identifying a work as "regional" has tended to confer on it substandard stature, whereby a label like "local color" suggests a fascination with quaint, out-of-the-way settings apart from a real world somewhere else (a farm, for example, versus the city). By such measures, despite whatever a Hawthorne, Twain, or Faulkner may reveal about the essential spirits of their respective regions, their novels are more celebrated for articulating universal values than for bringing local cultures to life. Finally, a similar claim can be made for The Stricklands, even as it merits notice for its regional authenticity. It takes on universally relevant themes about the means by which individuals seek to overcome their powerlessness.
Read the first chapter of Edwin Lanham's The Stricklands
1. Stanley Young, "Edwin Lanham's Vigorous Western Saga," New York Times, 5 March 1939, 7.
2. Angie Debo, "Realizing Oklahoma's Literary Potential," Oklahoma Libraries, 16 July 1966, 72.
3. Oliver LaFarge, "Men Alone and Men Together," Saturday Review of Literature, 4 March 1939, 19.
4 . Quoted in Warren French, A Companion to The Grapes of Wrath (New York: Viking, 1963), 125.
5. Arrell Morgan Gibson, Oklahoma: A History of Five Centuries (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1981), 3.
6. Murray R. Wickert, Contested Territory: Whites, Native Americans, and African Americans in Oklahoma, 1865-1907 (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2000), xi.
7. Gibson, Oklahoma, 3.
8. Alice Marriott and Carol K. Rachlin, Oklahoma: The Forty-Sixth Star (Garden City NY Doubleday, 1973), 16.
9. Merrill Jenson, ed., Regionalism in America (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1951), 101. The best overview of Oklahoma's environmental diversity is Gary L. Thompson's "Green on Red: Oklahoma Landscapes," in The Culture of Oklahoma, ed. Howard F. Stein and Robert F. Hill (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1993), 3-28.
10. Peter Wild, ed., The Desert Reader (Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 1991), 2.
11. Information on farm statistics and state labor history has been culled from sources that include: Robert Lee Maril, Waltzing with the Ghost of Tom Joad: Poverty, Myth, and Low-Wage Labor in Oklahoma (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2000); Jim Bissett, Agrarian Socialism in America: Marx, Jefferson, and Jesus in the Oklahoma Countryside, 1904-1920 (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1999); Sheila Manes, "Pioneers and Survivors: Oklahoma's Landless Farmers," in Oklahoma: New Views of the Forty-Sixth State, ed. H. Wayne Morgan and Anne Hodges Morgan (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1982), 93-132; James R. Scales and Danney Goble, Oklahoma Politics: A History (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1982); and Kenny L. Brown, "Progressivism in Oklahoma Politics, 1900-13: A Reinterpretation," in "An Oklahoma I Had Never Seen Before": Alternative Views of Oklahoma History, ed. Davis D. Joyce (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1994), 27-61.
12. Manes, "Pioneers and Survivors," 113.
13. Information on Floyd can by found in Michael Wallis's Pretty Boy: The Life and Times of Charles Arthur Floyd (New York: St. Martin's, 1992); and "When Outlaw Died, Outpouring of Respect Overwhelmed Town," Kansas City Star, 30 October 1998, 30.
14. Roy W Meyer, The Middle Western Farm Novel in the Twentieth Century (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1965).
15. My biographical information was drawn from three main sources: David Sours, "Edwin Lanham," in American Writers in Paris, 1920-1939, ed. Karen Lane Rood, vol. 4 of Dictionary of Literary Biography (Detroit: Gale Research, 1980), 244-46; Robert McAlmon, Being Geniuses Together, 1920-30 (New York: Doubleday, 1968); and "Lanham, Edwin Moultrie, Jr." in The Handbook of Texas Online.
Read the first chapter of Edwin Lanham's The Stricklands
Return to The Stricklands Links