Race, Immigration, and Ethnicity
Some immigrant and ethnic literature has already been discussed, particularly under the category of farm novels. Sod and Stubble, by John Ise, is decidedly German, as were so many Kansas settlers in the 1870s. Russian-Germans were part of that influx, as previously mentioned. The Mennonite presence in Kansas is also important, making the state the highest per capita in conscientious objectors. Some new young adult literature is being produced by Maynard Knepp & Carol Duerksen, as in their Runaway Buggy (1995).
In Kansas Irish (1946), Charles Driscoll (1885-1951) captured the Kansas experience of the Irish, a group usually associated with the city rather than the prairie.
Mary Molek (b. 1909) wrote Immigrant Woman (1976) in an attempt to capture life as experienced by women like her mother, who came to Pittsburg with the mining industry and lived in “camps” provided by the mining companies.
Bienvenido Santos (1911-1996), was Professor of English and Distinguished Writer-in-Residence at Wichita State University, where he wrote Scent of Apples(1979) about the Pilipino immigrant experience in the United States.
The Territorial literature regarding race/slavery/abolition sets the stage for Kansas attitudes in works set in later periods. John Brown strides through the literature of Kansas Territory (1854-1861), as main and minor character, as catalyst, as villain, as hero and as myth. Early Kansas novels are listed above, but John Brown is such an important American figure that he continues to be a subject for fiction by Kansans and by those attracted to that period in American history. Sons of Strength (1899), by W.R. Lighton (1866-1923), treats Lawrence, John Brown and the Wakarusa War. Free Soil (1920), by Margaret Lynn (c. 1890-1958), is set in the Lawrence where she was a professor of English at the University of Kansas. The epigraph of the novel is typical: “To the ever-loved memory of those men and women who ventured greatly and endured nobly that the new state they were establishing might also be a free state.” Leonard Nathan (b. 1915), who wrote A Wind Like a Bugle (1954) at the centennial of the Kansas Territory, has more distance from Brown, questioning through his characters the methods and madness of the prophetic advocate of bloodshed in the fight against slavery. Pillar of Cloud (1957), by Jackson Burgess (b. c. 1920), is set in the fictional town of Whitaker, Kansas Territory, in 1858. Historical novelist Marguerite Allis (1887-1958) writes an account of settlement in which a Southern Belle learns to become a Kansas woman in Free Soil (1958). Kansas writer Janice Young Brooks (b. 1943), adds to these territorial accounts the novel Seventrees (1981), set at Grinter's Ferry, a crossing on the Kaw (Kansas) River in Bonner Springs, at the Shawnee Methodist Mission (located in the Kansas City, Missouri, suburb of Fairway), and at Chouteau's Four Houses, a tiny trading settlement in Kansas City, Kansas.
Contemporary American novelist Russell Banks (b. 1940) tells the story of John Brown from the perspective of his son in Cloudsplitter (1998). Jane Smiley (b. 1949) became interested in political violence after the Oklahoma City bombing. When she called a historian friend to find out what period in American history saw that same intersection of politics and bloodshed, she was told, “Bleeding Kansas.” Her finely researched novel, set in Lawrence in 1856, is The All-True Travels and Adventures of Lidie Newton (1998).
William C. Quantrill, confederate guerilla who raided Lawrence on August 21, 1863, has spawned such novels as The Dark Command: A Kansas Iliad (1938), by William R. Burnett (1899-1982), and Woe to Live On (also published as Ride with the Devil), by Daniel Woodrell (b. 1953).
In the 20th Century, Kansas has a rich tradition of African-American Literature. The work of Frank Marshall Davis (1905-1987), who chronicled his growing up in Arkansas City in Livin’ the Blues (1992), has seen a renaissance thanks to John Edgar Tidwell (b. 1945), who is currently on the faculty of the University of Kansas and a native of the state as well. Tidwell is also the editor of Davis’ Black Moods: Collected Poems (2002). 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.
Great Bend lays claim to Oscar Micheaux (1884-1951), who is buried in this adopted home town. He, too, though mostly through the medium of film, is a storyteller about race.
Kevin Willmott, a native Kevin Willmott (b. 1958), now on the faculty of the University of Kansas, is both playwright and filmmaker. His work includes Ninth Street (1999), about the demise of the African-American business district that served Junction City and Fort Riley for years. CSA (2003) is a “mock-umentary” that covers the Confederate States of America, assuming that the South won the Civil War.
Because of Kansas history, writers not of African-American descent have always seen race as part of their own integration as human beings.
Edgar Wolfe (1906-1989) was long-time creative teacher at the University of Kansas. His Widow Man (1953) is set in the Argentine district of Kansas City, Kansas. Tom Way, a white man newly widowed by his black wife, must decide whether to move from his mostly black neighborhood, or whether to stay. A courtship with Tunsie, a black neighbor, helps him make up his mind. A short novel, published around the time of Brown v. Board of Education, Widow Man is a remarkably human look at race and class, at segregation and coming together.
Carol Ascher (b. 1941) was also influenced by Brown v. Board in her novel The Flood (1987). Against the backdrop of that desegregation case, and the Flood of 1951, Eva Hoffman is the precocious ten-year-old daughter of a brooding Jewish psychiatrist recently immigrated to Topeka to work at the famous Menninger Clinic. (The Flood might be read as immigrant literature, too). Eva and her family struggle to understand a new country, with its awkward race relations. They are all tested when Eva’s mother takes in a "redneck" family from across the river. Flood, religion and race relations accumulate to make Eva's challenge great, her understanding deep.