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For specific kinds of Kansas literature, see:
Children and Young Adult
Crime and Outlaw
Mystery and Detective
Race and Immigrant
Small Town Novels
For an understanding of Kansas Literature, the following books are of critical importance:
The most iconic books, referenced both in Kansas Literature and American popular culture, have been discussed in the Children and Young Adult section of this entry. The Wizard of Oz and Little House on the Prairie not only define home, but they define the Kansas love of home, in spite of struggle and hardship. Both celebrate American virtues of independence, self-reliance, and determination. Both are about people seeking better worlds at the same time they are seeking or making a home.
Poet William Stafford has been discussed as the most important and most revered of Kansas poets. He echoes the importance of home in the beginning of “One Home”: “Mine was a Midwest home—you can keep your world.” His posthumous collection The Way It Is (1998) is comprised of new and collected poems, including one written on the day of his death. His Down in My Heart, the account of his time spent as a conscientious objector during World War II, was re-issued by The Bench Press in 1985.
But an earlier poet of some note, Kenneth Wiggins Porter, is also seminal. His colloquial style, his deep understanding of place, his celebration of the people and their attitudes while at the same time challenging Kansans to make better use of the environment, are the qualities in his two collections of poems written during the Dust Bowl, The High Plains (1938) and No Rain from These Clouds (1946). Although Porter was trained as an economic historian, his work, with its Christian Socialist leanings, gave a new voice to Kansas poetry, encouraging others to create from place rather than from the traditions of academic verse or English poetry. Certainly Stafford adopted that position, as do later poets of importance to the Kansas tradition.
One of those is Jonathan Holden, who wrote the first critical book about William Stafford (The Mark to Turn, 1976), and who was named the first Poet Laureate of Kansas by the Kansas Arts Commission when that program began in 2005. Another poet important to the Kansas tradition is the second-named Poet Laureate, serving from 2007-2009, Denise Low. Her book Words of a Prairie Alchemist (2006) combines interview, poetry, essay and criticism in its creation of a Prairie aesthetic. Other recent poets who are part of that aesthetic are Steven Hind and Amy Fleury, both discussed in the Poetry section. Harley Elliott (b. 1936), of Salina, is both visual artist and poet, and he brings the painter’s eye and the artist’s heart, as well as a sense of humor, to his poetry about Kansas. For example, in his collection Darkness at Each Elbow (1981), “The Mountain Men of America,” is set in a Laundromat. His “A Brief History of the Osage Orange,” is a typical history lesson about the difference between Native American reverence and Anglo disregard for the environment.
For a book that puts Kansas poetry into detailed context, see The Kansas Experience in Poetry, edited by, and with fine introductions and author biographies by Lorrin Leland.
Kansas Literature is never far from the environment, as the above discussion suggests. The classic pioneering saga, John Ise’s Sod and Stubble, already discussed, was written by neither historian nor novelist, but by the revered economics professor at the University of Kansas. Ise saw pioneering as an economic venture, and any romance in the experience is offset by the punishing cost in human terms. No discussion of the state’s literature could be complete with an understanding of this book, which was brought out in a finely edited and expanded edition, with family documents and photographs, put together by Von Rothenberger and published by the University Press of Kansas in 1996. Another economic portrait of Kansas pioneering, and a critical one at that, was written by Marcet and Emanuel Haldeman-Julius, she the vice-president of a bank, an Episcopalian and the niece of Jane Adams of Hull House in Chicago and he the socialist newspaper editor and founder of the Little Blue Books, a Jew by birth, originally from Philadelphia. Together, they wrote two novels and many short stories. Dust (already discussed), can be read as a critique of capitalism, of treating the land and people and animals solely as commodities.
Since Kansas is a state of many environments, particularly prairie and plains, and hence different occupations (farming on the prairie, ranching on the plains) and attitudes, even cultures, those who understand the differences and tensions are essential to Kansas Literature. William Allen White’s first collection of fiction, The Real Issue (1896), is full of a deep understanding of the several environments of Kansas and the challenges they bring.
Paul I. Wellman (1895-1966), a prolific writer who was one of the best-selling authors from Kansas, starts his saga with Bowl of Brass (1944) set in Southwestern Kansas. From there, he moves east, to Wichita and Kansas City in The Walls of Jericho (1947), The Chain (1949), and Jericho’s Daughters (1957). His Kansas novels will not be lasting literature, but they are essential to anyone hoping to discover the Kansas mindset of the mid-20th Century.
Robert Day (b. 1941), the author of The Last Cattle Drive (1977), has created a rollicking, raucous novel set in 1970s Kansas, narrated by the tenderfoot school teacher Leo, who takes a summer job with a local rancher and ends up on a cattle drive from Gorham/Hays all the way to the Kansas City stockyards. Besides the wonderful humor and the accurate geography, the novel is an excellent introduction to the big differences between Eastern and Western Kansas
Western Kansas was hard hit during the Great Depression and Dust Bowl, the subject of the poetry of Kenneth Porter, as mentioned above. Perhaps the most evocative and darkest of Kansas books to come out of that period is The Narrow Covering (1956), by Julia Ferguson Siebel (b. 1915), who grew up in Colby, in far western Kansas, the daughter of a banker. She understood her town and its surroundings both in human and economic terms.
Race is significant in Kansas, from the “Bleeding Kansas” fight against slavery to the Exoduster movement, that first Black migration out of the South after the failure of Reconstruction, to Brown v. Board of Education, Topeka, which resulted in the landmark Supreme Court decision to desegregate America’s schools. Kansas was the iconic “Free” state. But three Kansas African-American writers take a close look, and show us the reality of the black experience in Kansas.
In Not Without Laughter (1930), Langston Hughes (1902-1967) writes about Stanton (Lawrence), Kansas, around the time of the First World War. Young Sandy Rodgers, who is African-American, comes of age in a time of racial prejudice. He has many influences and philosophies clamoring for attention in his life, and finally he sets out to live up to his grandmother's dream that he will someday become a great man and help the whole black race.
Gordon Parks (1912-2006) wrote The Learning Tree (1963), his "novel from life," at a time of racial unrest. This coming of age story takes place in Cherokee Flats (Fort Scott) between 1924 and 1928. Parks has said he was lucky to survive Kansas, and the violence and racial prejudice in the novel show why he might make that assertion. On the other hand, Kansas is where Newt Winger learns the important lessons of courage, bravery and truth-telling. In Kansas he finds the tools to propel him to a better life after the death of his mother.
Rattlebone (1994), by Maxine Clair (b. 1939), is a group of connected stories of the coming of age of Irene Wilson in the context of her all-black neighborhood, Rattlebone, a part of Kansas City, Kansas, in the 1950s. In the course of the stories, Irene must weather racial prejudice, adulterous parents, death, her own budding sexuality, and challenges to her friendships—all toward realizing her own promise and standing up for herself.
Four writers of differing sensibilities and time periods are nevertheless essential to understanding the Kansas attitude toward social class, rich and poor. Joseph Stanley Pennell has already been discussed along with Laura Moriarty under Village/Small Town Novels. Add to that the Kansas-bred Evan S. Connell, Jr., whose Mrs. Bridge (1959), and later Mr. Bridge (1969) are classic American literature. In these novels, being upper class comes with isolation and loneliness, which can be ruinous psychologically. Though in these books Connell writes mostly of suburban Kansas City, Missouri, he describes well the Kansas territory of the suburbs. Another Kansas City writer in this vein, Whitney Terrell (b. 1967), creates a masterful portrait of suburban Kansas just as whites are fleeing the integration of Kansas City, Missouri, at the time the Interstate highway system will give them a streamlined path on which to flee. His King of King’s County (2005) is essential to understanding class, race and white flight from Missouri into the easternmost reaches of Kansas.
Finally, William Inge, discussed in Drama, came from a poor background, his father a traveling salesman. All of his plays, and his Splendor in the Grass, center on have-nots and the small town prejudices against them.
The short story is typically underrepresented in literature. William Allen White was prolific in the genre. Robert Day is one of the best practitioners, as in Speaking French in Kansas (2004). So is Evan S. Connell, Jr., in The Anatomy Lesson. But one of the most unique writers of short stories was Edythe Squier Draper (1882-1964). As Grass (1994) is comprised of six short stories, set in Southeast Kansas between the world wars, that concern themselves with abused women and neglected children, poor blacks and other people at the fringes of the small towns and communities in which they live. Edythe Draper was well-published and honored as a story writer, and then became the Oswego correspondent to the Parsons Sun in the last part of her life. In her introduction to the Washburn University Center for Kansas Studies edition of Draper’s work, Jeffrey Ann Goudie puts the stories in the context of Draper’s interesting and unusual life. Goudie herself is a long-time columnist in Topeka, as well as book reviewer whose work has appeared in the Kansas City Star, the Women’s Review of Books and the New York Times Book Review.
Contemporary Kansas in all its regions, urban and rural, Western and Eastern, is the setting for Ordinary Genius (2005), by Thomas Fox Averill (b. 1949). These are stories of common people in common places who, as William Stafford would have directed, find a way to see into, and transcend their lives, even if momentarily.