Return to Kansas Map
For specific kinds of Kansas literature, see:
Children and Young Adult
Crime and Outlaw
Mystery and Detective
Race and Immigrant
Small Towns in Kansas Novels
E. W. Howe (1853-1937), editor of the Atchison Globe, published The Story of a Country Town (1883) to much critical acclaim. Although he did not start the rush of literature that skewers the American small town (Sinclair Lewis’ Main Street is probably the best-known and most lasting example of that vitriol), he was certainly important. Like his friend H.L. Mencken, Howe did not have a high opinion of humanity, and his later novels, including The Mystery of the Locks (1885), A Man Story (1888) and An Ante-Mortem Statement (1891) are pessimistic, misogynistic, and downright depressing to read. Howe’s daughter, Mateel Howe Farnham (1883-1957), followed in her father’s footsteps, and her first novel, Rebellion (1927), is about the difficulties of a daughter living with a depressed, authoritative and demanding father. The book was published to critical acclaim, and admired by E.W. Howe himself, yet right after its publication, he cut Mateel from his will.
Joseph Stanley Pennell (1903-1963), whose family settled Junction City, wrote The History of Rome Hanks and Kindred Matters (1944) set in the fictional Fork City. His scathing indictment: “But what sort of people squatted in Fork City anyway? They all sold each other wheat and bacon and corn and beef and farm machinery and squeaky shoes; they all talked in the same Goddamned flat, nasal voice about the same Goddamned trivial things day-in-day-out year-after-year …” He followed this book with The History of Nora Beckham, A Museum of Home Life (1948).
Salt of the Earth (1941), by Kenneth Kitch (pseud. Victor Holmes, b. 1907), with an introduction by William Allen White, treats small town Grand City from the point of view of a country editor who writes about its denizens—preacher, lawyer, doctor, bum—in the early part of the 20th century.
William Motter Inge (1913-1973), Independence, captures small town life in the 1920s in his four plays set in the region. (See DRAMA)
Kenneth S. Davis (1912-1999), in The Year of the Pilgrimage (1948) and Morning in Kansas (1952), dives beneath the surface of the small towns he calls Beecher and New Boston. This is a watered down, early 20th century Kansas: “But the blood of Kansas is thin now, water of an indifferent kidney, too feeble to serve as seed for any church. The wild-eyed idealists are dead now and their inheritance is dissipated among the earnest advocates of petty prohibitions. The shriveled carcasses of mighty dreams have been shoveled under the sunflowers by Alf of the Balanced Budget and King Arthur of the Farm Bloc, yes, and the Topeka Bureau of the Kansas City Star (not a newspaper, by God, but an institution).” Davis and others often acknowledge the vivid past of Kansas, even use it to criticize the present. Yet the bland present always seems to hold Faulkner-esque secrets, deformities and passions.
Harveyville, Kansas, during the Depression and Dust Bowl forms the backdrop of The Persian Pickle Club (1995) by Sandra Dallas (b. 1939). A murder has occurred, and it takes the persistence and community of a club of women to solve the case.
Daryl Henderson (b. 1941), in Ditch Valley (1972), writes a series of interconnected stories set from the 1930s to the 1970s and centered on a single mother trying to leave the small town, with its narrow attitudes and ideas. Henderson, from Ashland, attended the University of Iowa Writers Workshop.
Edwin Moses (c. 1945), in One Smart Kid (1982) captures 1950s Kansas. When a stranger comes to Fox Creek, Kansas, suspicions abound, even about Marvin Hollowell, the novel's thirteen year-old narrator. The book dramatizes the troubles that ensue when McCarthy-ism strikes the heart of America.
Jim Lehrer (b. 1934), finds charm in the Kansas small town. His Kick the Can (1988) is about One-Eyed Mack, who, blinded by a childhood game of Kick the Can, is unable to pursue his dream of following his father's profession to be a state trooper. Instead, he opts for more wayward adventure. This picaresque by PBS news anchor and Kansas native, Jim Lehrer, explores the sensibilities and politics of the Midwest during the 1950s.
Max Yoho (b. 1934), both humorous and insightful, was voted a favorite Kansas read by the Kansas Center for the Book. His The Revival (2001) takes a look at small-town religion, his Moon Butter Route (2006) a look at the Kansas love-hate relationship to its years and years of Prohibition.
Scott Heim (b. 1966) grew up in Hutchinson and went to the University of Kansas. His Mysterious Skin (1995) is the only novel of growing up homosexual in Kansas, and provides a view of what it means to be unique in sexual preference, neighborhood, taste and experience in a state so often seen as quintessentially, even relentlessly “normal.”
The Slow Air of Ewan MacPherson (2003), by Thomas Fox Averill (b. 1949) brings Scotland to Kansas in the small town of Glasgow during the 1970s and ‘80s Part coming of age, part love story, part tale of immigration, the novel shows the best and worst of the Kansas small town.
Laura Moriarty (b. 1970), in The Center of Everything (2003), captures the small town of the 1980s, not only the difficulties it presents for a single mother, but the hope of young people in education to find opportunities outside the narrow choices allowed in the small town environment.
The novel of education, most often set in the small town, has a long tradition. Two important contributions, discussed in Race and Immigrant Literature, are: Not Without Laughter, by Langston Hughes, and The Learning Tree, by Gordon Parks.