Literary Kansas: Real and Imaginary

by John Pecoraro,  Assistant Director,  Manhattan Public Library

In anticipation of the Kansas Book Festival, scheduled in Topeka on September 7, it’s time to consider a few well-known Kansas writers.

Spanish Bit Saga 19Fans of western and historical fiction will be familiar with the works of Don Coldsmith. Born in Iola, Kansas, Coldsmith trained as a family doctor, practicing medicine in Emporia until 1988, when he decided to concentrate on his writing full-time. Coldsmith’s most popular work was the “Spanish Bit Saga.” This series of 28 novels chronicles the moment in history when the horse was introduced to the Plains Indians by Spanish explorers. The adventures and experiences of the explorers’ Spanish-Indian descendants make up the bulk of the Spanish Bit series in titles including “Trail of the Spanish Bit,” and “Follow the Wind.”

Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright William Inge hailed from Independence, and was a former high school English and Drama teacher in Columbus, Kansas. With his portraits of small-town life and settings rooted in the American heartland, Inge became known as the “Playwright of the Midwest.” Several of Inge’s plays, including “Come Back Little Sheba,” “Picnic,” and “Bus Stop,” were made into motion pictures.

Love a good mystery? Rex Stout moved with his family to Kansas as an infant. He went on to finish high school in Topeka and attended the University of Kansas. Stout created the popular character Nero Wolfe in 1934, and subsequently published dozens of titles featuring the corpulent detective. Titles include “Might as Well be Dead,” “Please Pass the Guilt,” and “The Hand in the Glove.”

Manhattan’s own Damon Runyon was best known for his short stories celebrating the world of New York City’s Broadway. Twenty Runyon stories became motion pictures. The best known was “Guys and Dolls,” but other movies based on Runyon stories included “Pocketful of Miracles” with Bette Davis, and “Little Miss Marker,” the movie that made Shirley Temple. Sample some of Runyon’s finest in “A Treasury of Damon Runyon.”

william allen whiteIs there any writer as recognizably Kansan as William Allen White? White was a native of Emporia, newspaper editor, author, and between 1896 and his death, the iconic spokesman for Middle America. White won the Pulitzer Prize for both journalism and biography, and is the namesake of the William Allen White Children’s Book Award. In addition to his own award-winning autobiography, White wrote biographies of Woodrow Wilson and Calvin Coolidge. White also wrote poetry (“Poetry of William Allen White”), fiction (“The Martial Adventures of Henry and Me,” and “In Our Town”) and political and social commentary (“Forty Years on Main Street”).

You may remember him from News Hour on PBS, but Wichita native Jim Lehrer is also an accomplished novelist. Lehrer’s One-Eyed Mack series, beginning with “Kick the Can,” offers a humorous look at Middle American politics. Other stand-alone novels include “Eureka,” a laugh-out-loud story of a Kansas insurance agent and his midlife crisis, and “Oh, Johnny,” a coming-of-age story that takes us through the Pacific War to professional baseball.

Photographer, musician, writer and film director Gordon Parks came of aglearning treee in Ft. Scott, Kansas. While best remembered for his photographic essays that appeared in “Life magazine,” Parks also wrote “The Learning Tree,” the story of an African-American boy in 1920s rural Kansas who witnesses a murder. In addition, Parks wrote poetry and memoirs.

There are many other writers with Kansas connections. Edgar Lee Masters, author of “Spoon River Anthology,” was born and lived briefly in Garnett, Kansas. Harlem Renaissance writer, Langston Hughes, while born in Joplin, Missouri, was raised by his grandmother in Lawrence. Romance novelist Julie Garwood (“Sweet Talk,” “The Ideal Man”) lives in Leawood, Kansas. Toward the end of his life, Beat writer William Burroughs (“Naked Lunch”) lived in Lawrence. Pulitzer Prize winning poet Gwendolyn Brooks was born in Topeka, but moved to Chicago as an infant.

supermanKansans also abound in the realm of fictional characters. Dennis the Menace lived in Wichita, Matt Dillon was marshal of Dodge City, Dorothy Gale lived on a farm in Kansas with Uncle Henry and Aunt Em, and Mary Ann Summers of Gilligan’s Island hailed from Winfield. Don’t forget Clark Kent, and Manhattan’s own Johnny Kaw. OK, so Clark Kent was actually born on the planet Krypton, but his adopted home was Smallville, Kansas, of all places.

Posted in: For Adults, Mercury Column

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