An accompanying essay on Missouri's literary heritage by Dr. Ken Winn, former Missouri State Archivist

Defining Missouri's Literary Heritage

by Dr. Kenneth H. Winn
Recently, I happened into the position of serving as a coeditor for a forthcoming Dictionary of Missouri Biography. Dictionaries and encyclopedias of nations, states, and cities, of biographies, of culture, ethnic groups, religion, and so on, are all the rage among publishers right now.

One of the first problems one encounters in such a project, however, is one of inclusion. Using a state boundary to sort people is only partially practical, and often arbitrary. Your subjects, unfortunately, frequently do not respect your organizing principle and tend to move about the country. This is hardly a recent problem----before the Civil War, a man born in North Carolina or Kentucky, who subsequently became governor of Missouri, was likely to die a resident of California or Oregon. Similarly, many others who were born in other states, like Scott Joplin or Dizzy Dean, have come to Missouri, become famous, and then moved on. 

If a person's formative experience was in another state, or country, can he or she ever "really" be a Missourian? Before we answer "no", that these people cannot be Missourians, we need to keep in mind that by this criteria-with the exception of Native Americans-none of those people who settled the state and gave it its place names-Boonslick, Ste. Genevieve, Hermann-could be a "real" Missourian. Yet they were defining what being a Missourian meant. 

By contrast, what should we do about those famous people who were born and raised here, but who, like Josephine Baker and Betty Grable, left to find fame and fortune elsewhere? Are they "real" Missourians?

I can see a logic in excluding these people from the canon of "true" Missourians. On the other hand, there is an inclusive patriotic school of thought that counts just about anybody as a Missourian provided they were famous, crossed the state line, and stayed for more than a night. This standard is often used by the popular press, by politicians, and when I can see an advantage to it, by me. Thus, people like Ulysses Grant, William Tecumseh Sherman, and even Robert E. Lee, who lived for a while in St. Louis, qualify as Missourians. Is, then mere residence sufficient?

Mark Twain Eugene Field House  Langston Hughes  

Writers, even more that other people, tend to be hard to define geographically because they are usually so mobile. Most of the best ones left the state: T.S. Eliot for Harvard and England; Eugene Field for Chicago via Denver; Mark Twain for Connecticut; Langston Hughes for New York; Tennessee Williams for New Orleans and Florida. Drawing a line is hard.  While we probably could not claim William Faulkner or Saul Bellow, three of Hemingway's wives were from St. Lous--surely that must mean something--or should we own-up, be hard-nosed, and say, "Eliot didn't like it here and was interested in European literature"--his well-known borrowing of the name Prufrock from a St. Louis business establishment and the city's yellow smog notwithstanding.

Laura Ingalls Wilder  

What in the end strikes me as the common-sense compromise is that if the subject has had a substantial impact on the state, or if the state has had a substantial impact upon the writer, he or she should be considered a Missouri writer, even understanding that many writers, such as Laura Ingalls Wilder, will justifiably be claimed by more than one state. This would cost us the accidents of birth, the fleeting stays, and maybe some college professors who come here for strictly vocational reasons, but I think we would still legitimately keep Tennessee Williams and autobiographer---and America's first black novelist---William Wells Brown.

We may never relieve ourselves of the grey areas in defining who, historically speaking, is a Missouri writer, but once we settle on a fairly large group of writers, can we discern a Missouri literary tradition? Finding a common thread between T.S. Eliot and proletarian novelist Jack Conroy is difficult work. Much of Missouri's literature, of course, knows no special geographical bounds--love, death, nature, and so on. However, one broad commonality among many writers, I have noticed, is usually a lamentable addiction to writing in dialect that began as early as Alphonso Wetmore's 1821 play, "The Pedlor." (Unfortunately, for every Mark Twain, there is virtually everybody else.) Another commonality is that Missouri literature grew in large part out of a newspaper culture. Twain, fields, Wetmore, and many others, first worked as journalists. A third commonality (frequently found in writers who use dialect) is a general portrayal of rural subjects to be rather rough and uncouth (after that point, writers divide into different camps, depending on the author's political or cultural perspective, some regarding these people as the salt of the earth and good Christian people, some regarding them as bigots a la Sinclair Lewis, while others characterize them as oppressed peasants and proletarians). Despite these broad commonalities, when we look for Missouri's literary tradition, I do not think we should look too hard for something singular as a whole. 

Missouri is a curious state. In the election of 1860, when the nation was polarized between the new Republican party and the States' Rights South, Missouri was the only state to be carried by the moderate candidate for president, Stephen Douglas, who probably would have been elected had the conditions of the previous 40 years prevailed. Most Missourians wanted the Union maintained as fervently as they wanted slavery, and hated extremists on both sides.

Some historians argue that Missouri is the most typical of all the states because the diversity of the nation is represented in its borders. Missourians, at times, do seem to strive to be average, frequently appearing uncomfortable at being good or highly rated about anything. On the other hand, Missourians do not like to be at the bottom, either. Tell them that the state is competing with Mississippi for the dishonor of being last at something and it is a spur to action.

For all of this, I do not find Missouri an average or typical state, other than statistically. The state is diverse but not always well blended. There is a strong sense of regionalism; the Ozarks has produced a veritable literary industry all by itself. There is also a sharp urban/rural split---a Missour-ee/Missour-uh split. Some St. Louisans like to think of themselves as culturally akin to the East, while many Missour-uh-ans would just as soon send them there. Indeed, in St. Louis you can historically find a disproportionately influential nest of New Englanders who produced writers, capitalists and abolitionists--from Timothy Flint to Elijah Lovejoy, Eugene Field, and the Eliot family. In both St. Louis and Kansas City, you can find those who primarily identify with the urban scene or an immigrant group, or a religious affiliation, but even with these commonalities, there is a city/city split.

I think it is accurate to view St. Louis as the last Eastern City, and equally so, to see Kansas city as the first Western one. Curiously, much of the land between--Missouri's Little Dixie--identifies with the South. At the State Archives, I'm surrounded by unreconstructed southern sympathizers who still enjoy fighting the Civil War. In the most southern part of the state, however, are Ozarkers who have some southern sympathies, but were settled by the same sort of people who formed West Virginia rather than have a "bunch of damned aristocratic slaveholders" take them out of the Union.

Given Missouri's multiple identities, it is up to us to decide which Missouri we live in and which of its authors and literary traditions are the ones which "really" represent the state. While we may, with justification, feel ourselves part of a living Missouri heritage, we probably choose the tradition that we find most useful and most comfortable. 

[Dr. Winn is a former board member of the Missouri Center for the Book, former state archivist, and author of Exiles in a Land of Liberty; Mormons in America 1830-1846 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1989).