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Four decades after he died, Oklahoma novelist George Milburn has been largely forgotten


Sarah Denton July 22nd, 2010

There was a time when George Milburn's name could be found in such magazines as The Saturday Evening Post, Harper's and Vanity Fair. Most anyone with a finger on the pulse of U.S. literature during th...

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There was a time when George Milburn's name could be found in such magazines as The Saturday Evening Post, Harper's and Vanity Fair. Most anyone with a finger on the pulse of U.S. literature during that era knew of the wise-cracking wordsmith from Coweta.

But time has a way of misplacing remarkable people within the dusty crannies of history. Milburn is one of those forsaken treasures " especially for Oklahoma " whose life's work deserves excavation and a thorough dusting.

Born in 1906, in Oklahoma's western Ozarks, Milburn began his writing career at age 17 as a correspondent for The Tulsa Tribune. After dropping out of college, he spent the mid-1920s hopping freights, hitchhiking and writing the "Little Blue Book" series, including "The Best Hobo Jokes," "How to Tie All Kinds of Knots" and "The Best Jokes about Drunks."

His transiency brought him to New Orleans in 1927. There, Milburn began penning the tales that would later make up his first short-story collection, "Oklahoma Town."

He returned to Oklahoma in 1929, enrolled at the University of Oklahoma and wrote for The Oklahoma Daily. His reputation as a writer began to pick up after B.A. Botkin, noted OU professor and folklorist, published some of Milburn's stories in his magazine, Folk-Say. John McClure, OU alumnus and New Orleans book editor, read Milburn's work and recommended him to H.L. Mencken, an author, critic and editor of American Mercury. Impressed, Mencken bought and printed more of Milburn's stories, launching his career. 

Milburn left Oklahoma in 1932 and never returned. In the next two years, he moved around the Northeast, with his wife and young daughter in tow, before receiving a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1934 and leaving for Europe. It was during his time abroad that he began work on his first novel, "Catalogue," a tale about an Oklahoma town full of discontented residents whose lives and dreams are negatively influenced by items in mail-order catalogues.  

In 1935, he returned to the U.S., purchased a farm in the Missouri Ozarks, and began a gradual descent, struggling with the pressures of earning enough to support his family while still reserving time to produce quality writing. Despite his efforts, his second novel, "Flannigan's Folly," about an Oklahoma farmer, was received indifferently, as was his last novel, "Julie," from 1956.  

By the time of his death, he had been largely forgotten, especially by those in his home state. He died of heart disease and liver cancer on Sept. 22, 1966, in New York. 

Local writer, playwright, editor and Milburn aficionado Frank Parman said he first heard of the Oklahoma author from people who didn't know Milburn's name, but spoke of a certain Milburn book kept behind a counter at a bookstore. Its contents were seen as controversial and were treated "like pornography."

"Milburn was sort of a bad boy," Parman said. "He liked to write about things people didn't want to acknowledge."

Like racism. 

Parman said that Milburn was one of the only Oklahoma writers who actually wrote about violent racial conflicts during early statehood. His short story "The Nigger-Lover" concerns a liberal white lawyer who defends blacks, much to the small-minded white population's displeasure. The plot ends in a tragic race riot, partially analogous to the Tulsa Race Riot in 1921. Its topic, as well as Milburn's empathy for the lawyer and the young, victimized black male in the story, exhibits his social consciousness and his compassion toward the mistreated and the disadvantaged.  

However, few Oklahomans complimented Milburn on his candid societal observations. 

Oklahoma historian Angie Debo once wrote: "Nearly all (Milburn's) settings are of rural and small-town Oklahoma " to him very unpleasant places filled with disagreeable people. Naturally, he is not loved in his home state."

However, if one reads his work, especially his earlier works, one notices that the settings aren't "unpleasant," but descriptive of budding Oklahoma towns populated by people who had run out of luck elsewhere. Moreover, not all the characters are "disagreeable." Some are very respectable and charming.

Milburn managed to gain some real enemies, however, with his 1946 essay "Oklahoma," published in The Yale Review, in which he declares that his home state was a "concentration camp" for Native Americans and that "Oklahoma" (a Choctaw word) "figuratively means honorable, square-dealing, or distinguished. The irony of its being applied to stolen territory just being parceled out to the offscourings of white civilization must have been deliberate."

The article only further incensed those who despised his work, like society columnist Edith Johnson, who published a tirade in her Oklahoman column on July 12, 1946: "For 15 years and more Milburn has been criticizing, ridiculing and misrepresenting Oklahoma. "¦ Are we also in Mr. Milburn's opinion a lot of morons unable to defend ourselves against his lashings? Does he expect us to take them lying down?" 

To those blessed with a sense of humor, the "Oklahoma" essay is a funny, informative and historically accurate piece. Davis D. Joyce, author, editor and professor emeritus of history at East Central University in Ada, selected Milburn's essay as the first to be listed in "An Oklahoma I Had Never Seen Before," a noteworthy collection of essays that provides alternative views of Oklahoma history. 

It's important to note that Milburn's fiction is as historically worthwhile as his nonfiction. One can almost "hear" voices from the past when reading his work. Because his characters' dialogue is so rich and genuine, reading one of his tales is very much like traveling back to Oklahoma in its formative years and experiencing a population that history textbooks only vaguely and often blandly describe.

Overall, Milburn's ability to capture both the unsettling and comical details of our state's history and culture, in speech and in spirit, provides Oklahomans with something valuable that should not be misplaced: a candid account of Oklahoma in its youth and, concurrently, a trustworthy foundation upon which to ponder its complex evolution.

Editor's note: This analysis was written by Sarah Denton, a student of University of Oklahoma history professor William W. Savage Jr., while she was completing her master's degree in professional writing.
 
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