Saturday, April 08, 2006

The Great Kansas Novel

Jonathan Holden, appointed Kansas' first poet laureate on July 1, 2005, has been recognized as one of America's foremost poets. He is a University Distinguished Professor of English and Poet-in-Residence at Kansas State University, Manhattan, Kansas. He recommended several interesting contenders for The Great Kansas Novel.

First up is the nonfiction PrairyErth, a Deep Map by William Least Heat-Moon.

Paul Theroux praised it in the New York Times. Read an excerpt here, and read the author’s interview with here. From the publisher:
Bill McKibben has called this book "the deepest map anyone ever made of an American place"--a majestic survey of land and time and people in a single county of the Kansas plains. It takes the author--by car, on foot, and in mind--into the core of our continent and backward and forward through a brilliant spectrum of time and place. There is no other book like it.
Holden also suggested two books (again, neither a novel) by William Stafford. His memoir, Down in My Heart, chronicles his experiences as a conscientious objector during World War II. From the publisher:
From 1942 to 1945, William Stafford was interned in camps for conscientious objectors in Arkansas and California for his refusal to be inducted into the U.S. Army. Down in My Heart is an account of the relationships among the men in the camps and their day-to-day activities -- fighting forest fires, building trails and roads, restoring eroded lands -- and their earnest pursuit of a social morality rooted in religious and secular pacifist ideals.
Or maybe the great Kansas book is Stafford’s 1963 National Book Award-winning poetry collection, Traveling Through the Dark. Read Stafford's acceptance speech here and read the title poem here.

Or maybe the Great Kansas Novel is Holden’s own, Brilliant Kids (University of Utah Press, 1992), though it's not set in Kansas but in Chautauqua, New York.

Perhaps the most famous story set in Kansas (although written by a native New Yorker who learned about life on the plains while living in South Dakota) is the children’s book, The Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum. You can read the novel online here or download it here. There are actually thirteen Oz books.

Yet Holden’s bottom line for The Great Kansas Novel is the genre-bending nonfiction novel, In Cold Blood by Truman Capote. From the publisher:

On November 15, 1959, in the small town of Holcomb, Kansas, four members of the Clutter family were savagely murdered by blasts from a shotgun held a few inches from their faces. There was no apparent motive for the crime, and there were almost no clues.

Five years, four months and twenty-nine days later, on April 14, 1965, Richard Eugene Hickock, aged thirty-three, and Perry Edward Smith, aged thirty-six, were hanged for the crime on a gallows in a warehouse in the Kansas State Penitentiary in Lansing, Kansas.

In Cold Blood is the story of the lives and deaths of these six people.

"One Night on a Kansas Farm," the 1966 review in the New York Times by Conrad Knickerbocker, is well worth reading. Also, click here to read a very thoughtful appreciation of the novel by Amy Standen.

Patti Hill interviewed Capote in 1957 for The Paris Review. You may read the whole thing here, but I can't resist printing this excerpt:

INTERVIEWER Did you have much encouragement [of your writing] in [your] early days, and if so, by whom?

CAPOTE Good Lord! I’m afraid you’ve let yourself in for quite a saga. . . . I was thought somewhat eccentric, which was fair enough, and stupid, which I suitably resented. . . . Well, finally, I guess I was around twelve, the principal at the school I was attending paid a call on my family, and told them that in his opinion, and in the opinion of the faculty, I was “subnormal.” He thought it would be sensible, the humane action, to send me to some special school equipped to handle backward brats. Whatever they may have privately felt, my family as a whole took official umbrage, and in an effort to prove I wasn’t subnormal, pronto packed me off to a psychiatric study clinic at a university in the East where I had my I.Q. inspected. I enjoyed it thoroughly and—guess what—came home a genius, so proclaimed by science. I don’t know who was the more appalled: my former teachers, who refused to believe it, or my family, who didn’t want to believe it—they’d just hoped to be told I was a nice normal boy.

Thanks to Jon Holden for the suggestions.

--Marshal Zeringue

For The Great Alaska Novel, click here.
For The Great Texas Novel, part 2 click here.
For The Great New York (City) Novel, click here.
For The Great Florida Novel, click here.
For The Great Illinois Novel, click here.
For The Great Michigan Novel, click here.
For The Great California Novel, click here.
For The Great Oregon Novel, click here.
For The Great Texas Novel, part1, click here.
For The Great Louisiana Novel, click here.