Missouri Literary Heritage

Copyright 1996
  Missouri Center for the Book
  All rights reserved.

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

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).



What is one thing that Laura Ingalls Wilder, T.S. Eliot, Marianne Moore, Langston Hughes, Sara Teasdale, Robert Heinlein, Fannie Hurst, Jack Conroy, Kate Chopin, and Tennessee Williams have in common with Mark Twain?

All of them lived in Missouri. All are part of Missouri's literary heritage.

Centuries before these writers were born, the mystery and majesty of the Mississippi and Missouri rivers drew explorers who recorded their discoveries in journals and letters. Soon after the founding of St. Louis in 1764, word of the vast western prairies and the Ozarks wilderness brought travelers to the lands beyond the Mississippi. Later, reports and letters sent back east or across the Atlantic described frontier St. Louis, pioneer settlements along the Missouri River, and wagon trails west. Throughout the 19th century, European and American writers visited Missouri and often found inspiration in the life of the frontier. From its earliest days, Missouri has captured the imaginations of writers drawn to its natural and cultural landscape.

For present-day travelers, superhighways stretch across Missouri, linking major cities and rural towns. State and county roads, the kind forever symbolized by Missouri writer William Least Heat-Moon as "blue highways," lead to smaller cities and towns, past the farms, lakes, and wild places that make up the beauty and variety of the Show-Me State. 

A traveler can experience Missouri by following its trails, roads, and highways or by reading the printed words of its writers. Stories, poems, histories, biographies, and essays by authors from every region of the state show us Missouri or take us beyond the state to worlds real or imagined. The writings that make up Missouri's literary heritage give us unique and irreplaceable ways to look into our past and present and to explore imagined future worlds.

Hannibal, Missouri, on the Mississippi River, is known throughout the world as Mark Twain's literary homeland--the place from which his fictional world emerged. Hannibal is Missouri's famous literary landmark, but Jack Conroy's Moberly, Harold Bell Wright's Ozarks hill country, the Eugene Field Museum in St. Louis, and the Mansfield home of Laura Ingalls Wilder also draw travelers and readers to Missouri.

Today, writers from all parts of the state continue to inspire, inform, and entertain readers everywhere. Some work to document or interpret the Missouri experience for friends, neighbors, and travelers. Others have gained national and international publication, recognition, and acclaim. This booklet highlights some of those writers who celebrate Missouri life and some whose vision encompasses the world.

St. Louis

St. Louis Area

Missouri and the Mississippi have made a deeper impression on me than any other part of the world. T.S. Eiliot
The literary history of St. Louis is rich and ongoing. The city has been home or a stopping place for writers from its beginnings, and both early citizens and visitors recorded their impressions of life in St. Louis or wrote of the world to the east or the west. The History of the Expedition under the Command of Captains Lewis and Clark looked to the far west, while the writings of Thomas Hart Benton, who served as senator from Missouri from statehood until 1850, included a 16-volume Abridgement of Debates of Congress from 1789-1856.Senator Benton also wrote Thirty Years' View, an autobiography. Benton's daughter, Jessie Benton Fremont, followed in his literary footsteps, working with her husband, John Charles Fremont, to prepare his Report of the Expedition to the Rocky Mountains in 1843 and, two years later, the report of his expedition to Oregon and North California. Her Story of the Guard is an autobiographical account of the Civil War. Other books followed, and after her husband's death left her in poverty, she reached back into her memory to write of her early days in St. Louis and Washington.

The St. Louis Philosophical Society, organized by William Harris, along with important 19th century German and English newspapers and journals, brought national attention to the St. Louis intellectual and literary scene. The Journal of Speculative Science published contributions from distinguished European and American thinkers. German immigrant Carl Schurz settled in St. Louis after the Civil War as editor of the influential Westliche Post and became active in local and national politics. He was elected senator from Missouri in 1869, and later served as secretary of the interior, distinguishing himself by his concern for Native Americans and the environment. He wrote his reminiscences, a biography of Henry Clay, and other works, leaving a legacy of speeches, correspondence, and political papers.

Joseph Pulitzer, who had been a reporter for the Westliche Post, purchased theSt. Louis Dispatch and Post and united them to form the Post-Dispatch, which became one of the leading newspapers in the West. He later bought the New York World, and in his will established the prestigious Pulitzer Prizes to recognize outstanding writers.

The Civil War inspired hundreds of poems, songs, stories, and remembrances, and two of its most noted generals, Ulysses S. Grant and William Tecumseh Sherman, wrote most of their memoris in St. Louis.

Eugene Field

Eugene Field, author of “Wynken, Blynken, and Nod” and other well-loved children’s verse, was born in St. Louis in 1850. His long career as a journalist began at the St. Joseph Gazette, and he also worked on the editorial staffs of Kansas City and St. Louis newspapers.

As the 19th century drew to a close, St. Louis could claim a diverse and talented group of novelists, poets, and playwrights who were to bring fame to the city of their birth. 

Kate Chopin returned to her native St. Louis after the death of her husband in 1882 and continued to write, although the storm of criticism that followed the publication of The Awakening in 1899 almost ended her career. Winston Churchill, the Missouri-born writer, spent many years in New Englad, but his novels The Crisis and The Crossing drew on his St. Louis background.

In the early 20th century, William Marion Reedy’s Mirror introduced the work of such St. Louis-based writers as Fannie Hurst, Zoe Akins, and Sara Teasdale to the nation. An authority on poetry, Reedy served on the committee to select the first winner of the Poetry Award that later became the Pulitzer Prize in Poetry. 

 Sara Teasdale won the 1918 Columbia University Poetry Prize for Love Songs, published the previous year.

Two of the best-known poets of the 20th century, Marianne Moore and Thomas Stearns Eliot, had early ties to St. Louis.

Marianne Moore was born in Kirkwood, a St. Louis suburb, and spent her childhood there. She attended Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania, and later moved to New York. In the 1920's, she edited The Dial, an important literary journal. Moore's work was honored throughout her life, earning her every major literary award, from the Pulitzer and Bollingen prizes to the National Book Award, as well as election to the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters.

Generally acknowledged to have been the most influential literary figure of the the first half of the 20th century, T.S. Eliot's poetry included "The Waste Land" and Four Quartets. He left St. Louis for New England and a Harvard education, then emigrated to England in 1914, where he became a British subject. He won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1948.

In addition to these eminent modernist poets, St. Louis has been home to many other well-known and popular writers. Fannie Hurst, a short story writer, novelist, playwright, and screenwriter, attended high school in St. Louis, graduated from Washington University, and taught for a while before moving to New York. During the 1920's, she became the highest-paid short story writer in the world. Josephine Winslow Johnson was educated at Washignton University and spent most of her life on a farm in St. Louis County. She won the 1935 Pulitzer Prize in Fiction for Now in November when she was 24. Tennessee Williams lived for a time in St. Louis, and his play "The Glass Menagerie" evokes the mood and atmosphere of the city in the early part of the century. Sally Benson's autobiographical novel, Meet Me in St. Louis, was made into a the popular 1944 movie starring Judy Garland; Benson was also known for her short stories, book reviews, contributions to The New Yorker, and many screenplays such as "Anna and the King of Siam," "Bus Stop," and "National Velvet." Shirley Seifert wrote historical novels; many of her 17 books had Missouri settings. 

In recent times, such institutions as Washington University have attracted outstanding writers like philosopher and novelist William Gass, who directs the International Writers Center. An exceptional prose stylist, Gass has received wide recognition for his novels, short stories, criticism, and essays. He is a member of the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters, and his bookHabitations of the World: Essays won the National Book Critics Circle Award for Criticism in 1985. His novel The Tunnel was published in 1995 to critical acclaim. 

Writers closely associated with Washington University include the late Stanley Elkin, winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award for George Mills and Mrs. Ted Bliss, and the late Howard Nemerov, U.S. Poet Laureate from 1988 to 1990 and winner of the Bollingen Prize in Poetry and the Pulitzer Prize for his Collected Poems. Mona Van Duyn, a long-time Washington University faculty member, was U.S. Poet Laureate in 1992-1993, the first woman to be named to the post. Among her many awards are the Bollingen Prize in Poetry, the National Book Award, the Pulitzer Prize for Near Changes, and election to the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters. Van Duyn and her husband, writer and editor Jarvis Thurston, founded Perspective: A Quarterly of Literature.
Also associated with Wasington University are Wayne Fields, author of the well-received nonfiction work What the River Knows: An Angler in Mid Stream; Eric Pankey, a recipient of the Walt Whitman Award from the Academy of American Poets; the poets Donald Finkel and Carl Phillips; and Gerald Early, who won a National Book Critics Circle Award in 1991 for The Culture of Bruising: Essays on Prizefighting, Literature and Modern American Culture. Early has also won the Whiting Writer's Award.

Charles Guenther, a widely published St. Louis poet, has translated the works of some of the world's great poets; Father William Barnaby Faherty has explored many aspects of St. Louis and Catholic history; Harry James Cargas, a philospher, has written extensively on the Holocaust; and former U.S. Senator Thomas F. Eagleton has written books on politics and government.

Jan Garden Castro, who wrote an outstanding biography of Georgia O'Keefe, was one of the founders of the literary journal River Styx. Glenn Savan's popular books include White Palace and Goldman's Anatomy. Peter Bernhardt is the author of the widely acclaimed Natural Affairs: A Botanist Looks at the Attachments Between Plants and People. Bob Broeg is a respected sports writer, and Eddy L. Harris writes provocative travel literature, including Native Strangerand A Ride Through Slavery's Old Back Yard. Constance Levy and Arielle North Olson write books for children, Levy in poetry and Olson in fiction. Bobbie Smith Walton has sold more than three million of her romance novels.

Other St. Louis-area writers have received prestigious national awards: Patricia and Fredrick McKissack, with their books for young people, especially their historical works and biographies of important African Americans, have won the Coretta Scott King Award, and Newbery and Caldecott honor awards. The poet David Clewell has won the I.B. Lavan Award from the Academy of American Poets, and his work was a selection of the 1991 Poetry Series. The novelist and short story writer T.M. McMally received the Flannery O'Connor Award for Short Fiction. John Lutz, author of mystery and suspense novels, has won the Edgar Award, given by the Mystery Writers of America, and twice won the Shamus Award, given by the Private Eye Writers of America. Romance writers Eileen Dreyer and Barbara A. Scott have won awards for their work. Dreyer also writes mysteries, many with a St. Louis setting. Jan Greenberg has won national awards for her books for young people, among them works on contemporary art such as The Painter's Eye and The Sculptor's Eye. Peter Wolfe, who teaches English at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, is a renowned literary critic, the author of many books, and an authority on America's detective fiction. He was awarded the University of Missouri System's 1995 Presidential Award for Research and Creativity. Senator Bill Bradley, a native of Crystal City, is the author of four books, one an utobiography and the others on political issues.

Although no longer St. Louis residents, Maya Angelou, William Burroughs, Ntozake Shange, and Quincy Troupe have ties to the City. Angelou, Burroughs, and Troupe were born in St. Louis, and Shange lived in the city during her youth. The author of more than a dozen books of poetry and prose, Angelou explores themes of racial and sexual oppression in her works. Her autobiographical I know Why the Caged Bird Sings is a modern classic. Burroughs became famous for his experimental novels and his influence on the Beat Movement writers. The multi-talented Shange writes fiction, nonfiction, plays, and poetry. St. Louis plays an important role in two of her well-known works: the autobiographical novelBetsey Brown and the innovative play "For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow Is Enuf." Troupe writes poetry and prose and has won two American Book Awards.

St. Louis' intellectual and literary tradition continues today with active writers organizations, writers forums and workshops, author/lecture series, prose and poetry readings, radio programs, book exhibits, literary coffeehouses, and associations like the T.S. Eliot Society, which holds its annual conference in St. Louis each year. Local bookstores and libraries sponsor book discussion groups and a variety of book-related activities. The Missouri Historical Society, a venerable St. Louis institution, has an active publishing program, issuing books on the region's history and culture. The International Writers Center at Washington University sponsors creative writing seminars, conferences, and other events which have attracted some of the world's most distinguished authors.

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.

Northern Missouri

Northern Missouri
I like a good story well told. That is the reason I am sometimes forced to tell them myself.-Mark Twain

From Mark Twain's Hannibal to Kirksville, from Maryville to St. Joseph, communities in the northern part of the state have their own literary heritage. Always sparsely populated, northern Missouri has nevertheless produced its share of distinguished writers.

It has been said that the American novel begins with Mark Twain, and Twain's hometown exerted a powerful influence on his work. Twain dealt with the social conflicts of his time in many of his books and was able to combine appealing characters and perceptive commentary in stories that have given pleasure to readers around the world. His acerbic and witty essays in books such as Letters from the Earth provoke laughter and outrage, and his views still generate controversy.


Mary Alicia Owen, a member of a remarkable St. Joseph family, brought international fame to Missouri with her pioneering collection of African American and Native American folklore. Rupert Hughes, a popular novelist and short story writer, was born at Lancaster in 1872; he is best known for What Will People Say?

John R. Musick of Kirksville wrote 26 novels in the late 19th century, including a 12-volume series of historical novels. His niece, Ruth Ann Musick, who grew up in Kirksville, became a well-known folklorist with many books to her credit. Edgar Watson Howe, author of Plain People and Story of a Country Town
Dale Carnegie (Maryville Public Library)

spent his boyhood in Gallatin and drew on nearby Bethany for his “Country Town.” Dale Carnegie, author of the perenially popular How to Win Friends and Influence People, was born and spent his early years in Maryville. Homer Croy, who wrote many works of fiction during the 1920s and 1930s, lived in Maryville.

Lester Dent, who lived a good part of his life in LaPlata, was a giant of the pulp magazine era. He sold millions of his Doc Savage and other adventure stories in the 1930s and 40s. The books were reissued in the early 1960s, again sold in the millions, and continue to be popular in the U.S. and abroad. Doc Savage was the prototype for Superman and Batman.


The poet Jim Barnes lives and writes in Kirksville and has edited and published small magazines, most notably The Chariton Review. Ben Bennani, also of Kirksville, is the founder and editor of Paintbrush: A Journal of Poetry, Translations and Letters. John Gilgun, who writes both poetry and fiction, lives in Maryville, as does the poet William Trowbridge.

Nationally known journalist Walter Cronkite and novelist and essayist Ron Powers were born in St. Joseph and Hannibal, respectively. In addition to his television work, Cronkite has written several books on politics and the press. Powers wrote about his hometown in White Town Drowsing: Journeys to Hannibal.Universities in Kirksville and Maryville, colleges in St. Joseph and Canton, and junior colleges in Trenton, Moberly, and other towns sponsor a variety of literary programs and research activities. These institutions also collect the works of writers associated with the region.

Southern Missouri

Southern Missouri

Another funny thing about the Ozark Mountain country is the fact that there aren't any mountains there. Just a lot of little green hills, with trees on them, and big rocks. Some of the hills look taller than anything in the Adirondacks, but are really little more than two thousand feet above sea level. --Vance Randolph

Early explorers such as Timothy Flint and Henry Rowe Schoolcraft visted Missouri and reported on Native American life, mining operations, and pioneer living conditions. Schoolcraft's journal from his travels in southern Missouri and northern Arkansas documents the natural and cultural history of the Ozarks in the early 19th century. Historian and railroad builder Louis Houck, author of The History of Missouri, published in 1908, made Cape Girardeau his home for many years.

In the 1930s and 1940s, Thad Snow, a Charleston farmer and political activist, described the problems of Missouri's Delta area in From Missouri and countless letters to and columns for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Leonard Hall, who lived near Caledonia, wrote lyrically of life and nature in the eastern Ozarks in Journal of the Seasons on an Ozark Farm and other works.

The southeast Missouri town of Sikeston is the home of Robert Vaughan, well known for his historical fiction and screenplays. Vaughan has more than 250 books to his credit and uses some 30 pen names. His "American Chronicles" series is a fictional decade-by-decade account of the 20th century. He also wrote the sceenplay for "Andersonville," the acclaimed television production.

Rush Limbaugh, a popular and controversial radio talk show host, hails from Cape Girardeau, and his books on contemporary politics and culture have been phenomenal best sellers.


The Missouri Ozarks have fostered a rich literary tradition, which draws upon the oral and folk culture of the southern part of the state. Vance Randolph, who lived in Pineville and Galena, became one of the country’s greatest collectors of folktales and folk music, helping to preserve the oral tradition of the Missouri Ozarks. The Ozarks: An American Survival of Primitive Society was only one of Randolph’s many books on Ozark cultural traditions.

Among the most famous writers of the Ozarks, Harold Bell Wright helped create a local industry with his story, The Shepherd of the Hills, but he lived in the area only briefly. Ralph McCanse wrote a long narrative poem, "The Road to Hollister," protesting Ozarks stereotyping, and Elmo Ingenthron, a teacher, wrote Indians of the Ozarks Plateau, The Land of Taney and Borderland Rebellion. Many Elizabeth mahnkey was known as the "poet laureate of the Ozarks." She wrote a column for the newspaper in Forsyth for more than 40 years, and received an award from a national magazine as the "best rural newspaper correspondent in the nation.

Laura Ingalls Wilder, famous for the "Little House" books, lived in Mansfield and wrote her novels at the urging of her daughter, Rose Wilder Lane, also a well-known writer. Wilder spen 12 years writing articles for The Missouri Ruralistbefore she published her first book at age 65. Her beloved "Little House" books capture in striking detail her experiences of life on the prairie at the turn of the century.


Langston Hughes, a native of Joplin, describes his childhood in Missouri in his autobiography, The Big Sea. Hughes won lasting fame during the Harlem Renaissance and continued as one of the most revered and influential African American writers. He published poetry and journalism — including his widely syndicated “Simple” columns, which described daily life and changing attitudes among African Americans — until his death in 1967.

While many writers now live in southern Missouri, perhaps the most famous is Janet Dailey, who lives in Branson and writes historical fiction and romances. Dailey is the best-selling female author in America; more than 100 million of her books have been sold. She is a strong supporter of literacy efforts in the Ozarks and has written novels for adult new readers.

Ellen Gray Massey has edited two collections from Bittersweet, the Ozarks quarterly she established and published with the help of her students at Lebanon High School. Bittersweet Country and Bittersweet Earth preserve many Ozarks cultural traditions, and Massey continues to write fiction and nonfiction relating to the Ozarks.


Charlie Farmer of Ozark has written books about conservation and thousands of articles and columns for newspapers and magazines. His works highlight the unique beauty and importance of the Ozarks’ natural resources. Jim Hamilton of Buffalo writes of his experiences as a small-town journalist. Jim Bogan of Rolla is a poet, anthologist, and filmmaker whose documentaries have won national awards, and Daniel Woodrell of West Plains has received critical praise for his novels. Springfield is home to Duane G. Meyer, one of Missouri’s most respected historians; Milton D. Rafferty and Russel Gerlach, who have written about Missouri geography; Larry Rottmann, who has written fiction, poetry, and nonfiction about the Vietnam War; and Sandy Asher, who writes novels for children and young adults.

Sue Hubbell, whose A Country Year, A Book of Bees, and other works evoke the seasons of rural life, spends part of the year on an Ozarks farm. Jory Sherman of Branson has written more than 100 novels; he has won numerous awards for his novels of the West. Sherman’s wife, Charlotte Sherman, writes westerns and romances. Suzann Ledbetter of Nixa writes biographies, westerns, and humorous essays on suburban life. Resa Willis of Springfield and Edith McCall of Hollister have written important biographical works. Lois Kleinsasser of Hollister and Lori Copeland of Springfield are popular romance novelists. Joan Banks of Joplin writes mystery and suspense novels. Robert K. Gilmore of Reeds Springs and Phyllis Rossiter of Theodosia have written about Ozarks history and folkways. Robert C. Lee of Warsaw, who writes for children, is known for It’s a Mile From Here to Glory. David L. Harrison of Springfield has written more than 40 books for children in several genres. Harrison has also has been a prime mover in “The Write Stuff,” an organization that promotes the importance of writing to young people.

The beauty of sourthern Missouri has drawn many writers and artists from other parts of the state and the nation, who join native writers in contributing to the area's literary output. Writers groups such as the Ozarks Writers League flourish in southern Missouri, and several events for writers and readers have become well established, among them children's literature festivals in Cape Girardeau, Springfield, and Fort Leonard Wood, and the annual Heartland Writers Guild conference. The university towns of Springfield and Cape Girardeau offer a varied schedule of literary events as do the region's private colleges. The Writers Hall of Fame was founded by a group of Springfield authors and civic leaders. Each year it honors four authors for their literary achievements, awards scholarships to area studnets, and sponsors a writing camp for students and a writers retreat for seniors. 

Kansas City

Kansas City Area
Come, Kansas City, make your story brief. Here stands a city built on bread and beef.--C.L. Edson

Its past is rooted in the legends of the nation's great westward movement, and Missouri's big city to the west still has the vitality of its frontier days. Today Kansas City's writers have opened new literary frontiers with the variety and energy of their works. 

Perhaps the region's best-known literary figure is Robert Heinlein, who was born in Butler and had a 40-year, award-filled career. Heinlein moved to Kansas City in his youth, was educated in the city's public schools, and worked as a page at the Kansas City Public Library. He later attended Annapolis. Heinlein's novels and short stories are considered by many critics as defining the golden age of science fiction. His Stranger in a Strange Land was one of the first science fiction best sellers, and he was the first author to sell young adult science fiction to a major publishing house. He won four Hugo awards and the Nebula Grand Master Award for Lifetime Achievement.

Kansas City native Edgar Snow wrote 11 books, but he is best known for Red Star Over China, the first book to describe the China of the 1930s and the emergence of Communism.


Thomas Hart Benton, although born in Neosho, moved to Kansas City in 1935 and lived there until his death in 1975. Benton wrote his autobiography, An Artist in America, in Kansas City. This work presents Benton’s view of America and the role of the artist in the mid-20th century.

The novelist Evan S. Connell, Jr. lived in Kansas City long enough to capture the essence of upper-middle class Kansas City life in his brilliant novel Mrs. Bridge and its companion, Mr. Bridge. Richard Rhodes, author of novels and nonfiction, spent six years on a Missouri farm during his youth, and later returned for a stay on a farm to write Farm: A Year in the Life of an American Farmer. Rhodes won the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award, and the National Book Critics Circle Award for The Making of the Atomic Bomb. Calvin Trillin has referred to his hometown, Kansas City, or the Midwest in many of his works. C.W. Gusewelle, a Kansas City Star columnist, has become a widely known and respected essayist. Lucille Bluford, editor and publisher of The Kansas City Call, continues to be an important civil rights leader.

Kansas City has an abundance of outstanding poets, many of whom have been associated with award-winning literary journals. Gloria Vando Hickok, a founder of Helicon Nine, one of the country's leading small magazines published from 1979 to 1989, is also one of the founders of the The Writers Place, a center for literary activity in the Kansas City area. Dan Jaffe co-founded the BkMk Press of the University of Missouri-Kansas City, which publishes poetry, short fiction, and world literature. Barbara Loots, one of Hallmark Cards' top writers, is also knows for her poetry, published by both small literary presses and major publishing houses. The work of poet and fiction writer G.S. Sharat Chandra has received international acclaim, and he has given readings throughtout the world. Stanley E. Banks' poetry reflects African American pride; he promotes poetry jams at various Kansas City clubs and bookstores and leads discussion groups on poetry.

James McKinley edits New Letters,, an outstanding literary magazine, and theNew Letters Review of Books. Robin Wayne Bailey is well known for Shadowdanceand other fantasy novels; Conger Beasley, Jr. writes novels, short fiction, nonfiction, and poetry; John Mort has described the Vietnam experience in his widely praised short stories; and Shifra Stein's many books feature her excellent travel and food essays. 

Like St. Louis, Kansas City has a vibrant literary scene offering activities such as book festivals, reading and discussion groups, author programs, writing classes, literary conferences, open mike poetry readings, and other public programs. "New Letters on the Air," a nationally known radio program from the University of Missouri-Kansas City, features interviews with and readings of prose and poetry by U.S. and international writers. Rockhurst College hosts the popular Midwest Poets Series. Kansas City's libraries, both public and school, sponsor author visits, book groups, and literary workshops. The Writers Place serves as a literary community center and a sponsor of workshops, symposia, exhibits, and cooperative programs with local schools.

Early Kansas City journalist and historian John N. Edwards wrote extensively on the Civil War in the West and his articles and editorials did much to elevate Jesse james into a folk hero. Rhoda Wooldridge, who lived on a farm in western Missouri, and Gertrude Bell of Liberty wrote carefully researched historical novels for children describing frontier life, the Civil War, and the westward movement. 

Writers in the university town of Warrensburg have made important contributions to the state's literary history. The late children's author and playwright Cena Christopher Draper set many of her books in the Warrensburg area. William Foley, author of The Genesis of Missouri and other histories, is editor-in-chief of the Missouri Biography Series, published by the University of Missouri Press. Perry McCandless also writes about Missouri history. Arthur McClure has written many books on American film history.

Warrensburg hosts the annual Children's Literature Festival, which began in 1968 and has been under the direction of Philip Sadler since that time. Each year, the festival brings thousands of children to Central Missouri State University where they have the opportunity to meet their favorite authors. 

W.L. Ripley of Knob Noster has written several well-received mystereis; Carol Lee Sanchez of Hughesville publishes poetry dealing with Native American and women's issues; and Vicki Grove of Ionia writes books for young readers. June Rae Wood of Windsor won the 1995 Mark Twain Award for The Man who Loved Clowns, a book for young adults.

Books by Missouri authors can be found in libraries, bookstores, and schools across the state and throughout the world, attesting to the diversity of talent in the Show-Me State. We hope this brief and necessarily incomplete overview of Missouri's literary heritage will encourage readers of all ages, backgrounds, and interests to explore the exciting literary legacy of Missouri's native and adopted writers, past and present. 

Literary Landmarks

Eugene Field House and
Toy Museum

643 S. Broadway
St. Louis, MO 63102

Built in 1845, the house features a large collection of antique toys and dolls as well as furnishings and personal belongings of Eugene Field. This was also the home of Roswell M. Field, Eugene’s father and the lawyer who represented the slave Dred Scott when he sued for his freedom.

St. Louis Walk of Fame
6200 to 6600 Delmar Boulevard
St. Louis, MO 63130

Brass stars and bronze plaques set permanently into the sidewalks of the University City Loop in metropolitan St. Louis. They honor individuals “who either were born in the St. Louis area or spent their formative or creative years in the area and made a major national contribution to our national heritage.” Each star bears the name of an honoree; an accompanying plaque contains a summary of the honoree’s accomplishments. Among the writers included on the walk are Maya Angelou, William Burroughs, Kate Chopin, T.S. Eliot, Stanley Elkin, Eugene Field, Howard Nemerov, Mona Van Duyn, and Tennessee Williams.

Laura Ingalls Wilder–
Rose Wilder Lane
Museum and Home

Route 1, Box 24
Mansfield, MO 65704

Home in the Ozarks where the “Little House” series of books was written; museum houses artifacts mentioned in the books plus family memorabilia.

Mark Twain Boyhood Home and Museum
208 Hill Street
Hannibal, MO 63401

 Twain was four when his family moved to Hannibal from the nearby town of Florida, Missouri. The house in which Twain spent his youth is the model for the home of Tom Sawyer. Visitors can see the home as it appeared in the mid-1800s. Next to the home is a museum which displays memorabilia such as first editions of Twain’s works, one of his signature white suits, and Norman Rockwell paintings used for editions of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn.

The Writers Place
3607 Pennsylvania
Kansas City, MO 64111

Founded in 1992, The Writers Place offers a variety of literary programs, houses a library, publishes a calendar of area literary events, and hosts an annual Festival of the Book.