Central Missouri

Central Missouri
I have to come to look upon the Missouri as more than a river. To me it is an epic....haunted with great memories. Perhaps never before in the history of the world has a river been the thoroughfare of a movement so tremendously epic in its relation to the development of man.---John Neihardt

Some of the earliest writers to chronicle Missouri life lived in the center of the state, haveing followed the Missouri River to what was then a frontier. Alphonso Wetmore, according to historian Charles van Ravenswaay, was "the first writer to depict Missouri in terms of Missourians." As an army paymaster stationed in New Franklin in 1820's, he wrote under the name "Aurora Borealis." HisGazetteer of the State of Missouri, published in 1837, included sketches and anecdotes and concluded with a series of short stories. John Beauchamp Jones published Western Scenes and The Western Merchant while living in Arrow Rock in the 1830s.

Emile Paillou grew up in Boonville and after moving to St. Louis published Home Town Sketches, a collection of more than 200 short "pen portraits," describing life as he had known it in Boonville in the years following the Civil War.

As in St. Louis, newspaper reporters and editors in mid-Missouri contributed to the literary scene of their times. H.H. Hutchison of Boonville, editor of theBoonville Weekly Advertiser, published Old Nick Abroad and Other Poems. George T. Ferrel, whose admirers called him the "poet laureate of Missouri," worked on theBoonville Eagle and the Advertiser, as well as on Sedalia, Kansas City, and other papers. Walter Williams, a Boonville native and a noted journalist, was instrumental in founding the world's first school of journalism at the University of Missouri in Columbia.

The Missouri Writers Guild, one of the oldest writers organizations in the United States, was founded in Columbia in 1915, incorporated in 1925, and now has chapters throughout the state.


Cultural historian Charles van Ravenswaay, a native of Boonville, began his career as editor of Missouri: A Guide to the Show-Me State, one of the most respected of the WPA state guides. In his later works, he developed in more detail the ideas and concepts first explored in the Guide. His St. Louis: An Informal History of the City and Its People 1764-1865 was published in 1991, after his death, by the Missouri Historical Society.

Jack Conroy, a native of Moberly, became famous for his realistic fiction and nonfiction works about the lives of American workers. The Disinherited, Conroy's powerful depiction of labor unrest and class conflict, is set in the Monkey Nest Coal Camp near Moberly. His distinguished career as a writer and editor, which included close associations with other writers such as the poet Gwendolyn Brooks, was the subject of a 1994 award-winning biography, Worker-Writer in America, by Douglas Wixon, a former University of Missouri-Rolla professor. Conroy's personal library is preserved in a special room at Moberly Area Community College.

Moberly was also home to Elizabeth Seifert, author of 86 novels, many dealing with the lives of doctors and nurses. During her long career, Seifert was honored both in the U.S. and abroad; her books were translated into many languages and sold in more than 30 countries.

The small town of Fulton, Missouri, has gained fame from the visits of world statesmen, including Winston Churchill and Mikhail Gorbachev, to Westminster College, but was knwon earlier from the success of native son Henry Bellamann's novel, King's Row, which was made into a film in 1942 starring Ronald Reagan. Interest in both the film and the novel revived during Reagan's presidency, bringing new attention to Fulton. 


Lincoln University, the University of Missouri, Columbia College, and Stephens College have brought many writers to central Missouri. Lorenzo Greene taught history at Lincoln University from 1933 until his retirement in 1972. His book, Missouri’s Black Heritage, written with Antonio Holland and Gary Kremer, is a pioneering work on the African American experience in Missouri, and some of his early diaries and notes on his work with Carter Woodson, the father of black history, have been edited by Arvarh Strickland in Selling Black History for Carter G. Woodson, published by the University of Missouri Press.

Ward Dorrance, a native of Jefferson City and a cultural historian, essayist, and novelist, taught French at the University of Missouri. He captured the flavor and beauty of Missouri in Three Ozark Streams, We're From Missouri, and Where Rivers Meet. Frank Luther Mott, dean of the School of Journalism at the University of Missouri, wrote a five-volume History of Amreican Magazines, which won the Pulitzer and Bancroft prizes, and Golden Multitudes, a history of best sellers.


John Neihardt, novelist, short story writer, and poet of the Native American experience, lived in Branson and Columbia, where he taught at the University of Missouri. His Black Elk Speaks is an influential record of the life of a Sioux holy man, and his major work was the epic poem Cycle of the West, which portrays the struggle for the frontier.

The State Historical Society of Missouri and the University of Missouri in Columbia drew many eminent historians to central Missouri, among them Floyd Shoemaker and Lewis Atherton. Richard Brownlee, who followed Floyd Shoemaker as director of the State Historical Society, was a prominent Civil War historian.

William Peden, a Virginia native who has spent many years in Columbia, is the author of Twilight at Monticello, a novel, and many short stories. He founded the University of Missouri Press, which today publishes about 60 books a year, including many by Missouri authors. Margaret Sayers Peden, emerita professor of Romance languages is an award-winning translator of Latin American writers including the works of Carlos Fuentes, Isabel Allende and Pablo Neruda

William Trogdon, best known by his literary name, William Least Heat-Moon, travels across America to create works such as Blue Highways and Prairyerth, but maintains his home near Columbia, where he studied and taught at the University of Missouri and Stephens College.


he University of Missouri continues to attract writers to Columbia. Speer Morgan, author of Belle Starr and other fictional works, edits The Missouri Review, the award-winning literary journal published at the university. Biographer and essayist Steve Weinberg is a member of the editorial faculty of the university’s School of Journalism.

Historians Arvarh Strickland, Noble Cunningham, and Kerby Miller are on the university faculty as are biographers William Holtz and Mary Lago. The university’s English department is home to the poets Sherod Santos, Lynne McMahon, Leslie Ullman, Pamela McClure, and Catherine Parke, who is also a biographer and essayist. Fiction writers Trudy Lewis and Gladys Swan are also associated with the university.

Many writers have taught at Columbia’s Stephens College; William Inge and Jean Stafford are among the more famous figures. Novelists Andrew Jolly, who wrote A Time ofSoldiers, and Betty Littleton, who wrote In Samson’s Eye, and poets Ed Miller and Tracy Montminy taught there, as well as younger writers such as Marcia Southwick, Jonathan Holden, Heather McHugh, Jaimy Gordon, and Fred Pfeil. Historians John Crighton and Alan Havig have published on mid-Missouri’s social and cultural history. Retired English teacher Jack LaZebnik, himself a poet and dramatist, can point to three sons who have achieved success as writers of television scripts and screenplays. 

Other writers lending diversity to the central Missouri literary scence are historian and poet Bob Dyer of Boonville, an authority on Civil War history and songs; storyteller Mitch Jayne of Columbia, author of Old Fish Hawk and other novels set in the Ozarks; poets Betty Cook Rottmann of Columbia and Walter Bargen of Ahsland; and mystery writer Polly Whitney, who divides her time between Columbia and New York.


Jefferson City is also home to many writers. Sharon Kinney Hanson writes nonfiction and developed Sheba Review Press, which has published the work of many Missouri writers and the first anthology of Missouri women writers. Historians Gary Kremer and Antonio Holland are co-authors of Missouri’s Black Heritage and teach at William Woods University and Lincoln University, respectively. Journalist Terry Ganey has had several best-selling nonfiction worksJames F. Keefe and Joel Vance write about conservation and the outdoors; Catherine Palmer and Charlotte Hubbard write romance novels; and Bob Priddy writes about Missouri history. Missouri state archivist Ken Winn plays an important role in promoting the state’s heritage and is the author of several historical works. Lynn Morrow, who heads the state’s local records program, has edited two significant works relating to early Missouri and Ozarks history.

No mention of mid-Missouri literary culture is complete without reference to the American Audio Prose Library of Columbia, founded and directed by Kay Bonetti Callison. Since 1980, Callison has conducted more that 100 interviews with important prose writers and made these tapes available to booklovers throughout the United States. Her interviews are aired on radio stations across the country and have won three national broadcasting awards.