Explore Kansas Literature
Overview of Kansas Literature
Kansas literature reflects the uniqueness of the state itself. Geography, politics and the historical framework of Kansas’ entry into the Union make the Sunflower State of great importance to the United States.
Kansas was the destination of the first European explorer, Coronado (1541), to venture north into what is now the United States. The Spaniard’s inability to see Kansas for what it was, blinded instead by his search for Cibola, the Seven Cities of Gold, has become part of the commentary of Kansas writers, who often celebrate a landscape overlooked by those who dismiss the Midwest as “Flyover Country.”
Kansas was part of the Louisiana Purchase (1803) and its northeast corner, defined by the Missouri River, was traversed by the Lewis & Clark expedition of 1804. Other early explorers crossed the state: Zebulon Pike (1806), Stephen Long (1819) and John Fremont (1842). Long’s map, drawn after his explorations, labeled much of western Kansas as part of the Great American Desert, and the image of “desert,” to contrast with early promotions of Kansas as “garden,” is a dichotomy that has its presence in Kansas literature to this day.
Later, via Westport (currently in Kansas City, Missouri), Kansas became the first leg of the Santa Fe Trail, surveyed in 1825, and patrolled and protected by soldiers from Fort Leavenworth, Fort Larned and others. These forts, along with Fort Riley and Fort Hays, situated along the Butterfield/California Trail, were instrumental in the prosecution of the Indian Wars of the post-Civil War era.
In 1830, Kansas was the forced destination of Native American tribes relocated through the Federal policy of Indian Removal. Reservations for such tribes as the Potawatomie, Ottawa, Kickapoo, Shawnee and Delaware replaced the territories of such indigenous tribes as the Kansa, Osage and Pawnee.
By 1854, when Kansas was opened as a territory, the United States was on the verge of its civil eruption over slavery. Those settling in Kansas were given “squatter sovereignty,” the right to decide for themselves whether Kansas would enter the Union as a Free or as a Slave state. Abolitionists flocked to Kansas under the auspices of the New England Emigrant Aid Company. John Brown followed his sons to a farm near Osawatomie. Free State towns—Topeka, Lawrence, Manhattan—sprang up, as did the Pro-Slavery towns of Tecumseh, Lecompton, and Atchison. The legacy of territorial struggle continues even into contemporary Kansas literature. Kansas entered the Union as a Free State in 1861 and gave more troops per capita to the Union cause than any other state.
After the Civil-war, Kansas was settled predominantly by Union Army veterans, and hence Republicans. Kansas has been dominated by that political party ever since, and for that reason. But 19th Century Republicanism supported all kinds of reform, and writers analyzing the state remarked on Kansas as a bellwether: Carl Becker (1873-1945), in his 1910 essay, “Kansas,” noted that, “The Kansas spirit is the American spirit double-distilled.” William Allen White (1868-1944), noted that, “When anything is going to happen in this country, it happens first in Kansas.” He mentions Abolition, Prohibition, Populism and various other reform movements, including Woman’s Suffrage.
Unfortunately, much of what happened in Kansas might be said to reinforce the state motto, Ad Astra Per Aspera, “To the Stars Through Difficulties.” Eastern Kansas was settled primarily before the Civil War, and the difficulties were political. The central third of Kansas was settled from the late 1860s through the 1870s. Plagued by economic depression (1873), drought (mid-1870s) and grasshopper invasion (1874), those Kansans often felt like one of the characters in John Ise’s Sod and Stubble, who said, “When we have rain and crops, we don’t want to go, and when there ain’t no crops we’re too poor to go; so I reckon we’ll just stay here till we starve to death.” Western Kansas, on the High Plains, saw the most difficulties. The 160-acre claims of the Homestead Act of 1862 were simply insufficient to sustain life in such a dry climate. Those who did well on an Eastern Kansas claim, where a settler could count on over 30 inches of rain each year, struggled where rainfall rarely exceeded 15 inches per year. Frank Baker, who wrote “The Lane County Bachelor,” settled in that far Western Kansas county, and lamented: “How happy am I on my government claim,/ For I’ve nothing to lose nor I’ve nothing to gain./ I’ve nothing to eat and I’ve nothing to wear,/ And nothing from nothing is honest and fair.” He left his claim in the early 1890s. Compare that to the words of Dr. Brewster Higley, who wrote “My Western Home,” which became the popular “Home on the Range”: “I would not exchange, my home here/ to range forever in azure so bright.” As a result of these geographical differences, the farm literature of Eastern and Central Kansas tends to focus on stories of success, while those set in the Western third of the state often end in failure. That Western Kansas story—coupled with the devastating effects of the Dust Bowl, the Dirty Thirties with its seven-year drought—makes for some bleak literature.
Out of Western Kansas struggles came the most viable third party movement in U.S. history, Populism. Together with the Democrats, the Populists nominated William Jennings Bryan to run against William McKinley in the 1896 presidential election. Kansas had already elected a third party governor, a U.S. Congressman and a U.S. Senator, and a Populist Kansas House of Representatives (although that election was greatly contested in what became known as the Legislative War of 1893). A body of political poetry rose from this movement.
Kansas settlement and development was tied closely to the railroads, particularly the Union Pacific and Santa Fe. As a result, by 1868, when the Kansas Pacific reached Abilene, Joseph McCoy saw the opportunity to drive Texas cattle to the railhead there and make good profits feeding a beef-starved, post-Civil War America. Out of the cattle industry, with cattle towns gradually moving south and west (to Wichita and Caldwell, to Ellsworth and Dodge City), comes a whole genre of literature, not only the cowboy—song, poetry, legend—but the outlaw/rustler, the settler/townsman who sees agriculture as the future, and the lawman charged with maintaining order in towns wide open to gambling, prostitution and saloons. No wonder that Prohibition passed the Kansas Legislature in 1881, just before the last cattle drives to Dodge City in 1882.
20th Century Kansas literature is dominated by the rebellion against the small town, the hardships and survival during the Dust Bowl, the rise of corporate farming after World War II, and the rediscovery of the state’s subtle landscape, coupled with environmental awareness, from the 1970s forward.