Book of essays highlights writers of Midwest literature

Elby Adamson

By A Contributor

These essays will add to Low’s legacy as a Kansas writer and as a Kansas teacher of writing. This is a book for teachers of literature, students of literature and those who want to know more about the literature of Kansas and the greater Midwest.

One essay in this collection is titled “William Stafford’s ‘Small Legacy’ to Writers (And Readers.)”  Low corresponded at length with Stafford and while Stafford might not be viewed by some as a writer of the Midwest, Low and others see his Kansas upbringing and the time he lived here as formative for his writing. 

Stafford was born in Hutchinson and earned both a bachelor’s and a master’s of art from KU. His doctorate was from the University of Iowa and while he moved to Oregon where he taught at Lewis and Clark College until he retired in 1980. Although he lived on the west coast, Stafford’s work is infused with a sense of the land, of nature and of place and that place is often the Midwest.

As Low says, “Stafford delighted in the subtle landscape of his homeland. In an interview with Nicholas O’Connell, Stafford describes Kansas as a proper setting for an unassuming narrator: ‘In some ways, let me say, the most minimal scenery is my kind of scenery. This [Oregon] is too busy a place. I stand it very well. It doesn’t make me nervous. It’s just that it is superfluous. Any Kansan knows Oregon is a little too lavish.’”

Low comments that Stafford described himself as “an Osage orange, hedgewood Kansan.”  She asserts that Stafford’s portrayal of himself as a “simple country boy” is belied by the complexity of his work, poetry that appears simple but contains underlying moral visions of great depth. His is a poetics that create its own cosmos, Low says.

There can be little doubt that Low’s insights and understanding of Stafford’s work are infused by her own reactions to hearing him read his work and by her correspondence with him.

Similarly, Low’s personal heritage-she has Delaware/Lenape roots — and her teaching experience at Haskell Indian Nations University provide a perspective on the works of writers such as Adrian C. Louis, N. Scott Momaday and Leslie Marmon Silko not available to someone with less knowledge and experience with the oral and written traditions of indigenous peoples.

Of Momaday, Low says, he deals with the “transformative power of language itself,” a power, Bennett recognized when many critics did not, that transformed Momaday’s novel into a “creation hymn.” 

Moreover, Low, herself, is first and foremost a writer of place, that place being Kansas and by extension the Midwest. For Low place incorporates history and heritage. When she writes about Midwest writers whose works deal with the Wounded Knee Massacre, Dee Brown, Conger Beasley or Adrian C. Louis, Low incorporates the cultural distance or cultural relationship of the writer to the historical event and the people involved as part of her comments on and analysis of the writing.

Many, but not all, of the writers Low deals with in this book are country writers, rural and more in touch with the land and its natural rhythms than are writers whose experiences are limited to cities. Concern for the land, for nature, place and enduring heritage compose “Natural Theologies.”

Low says of the Midwest, that it has “vast stretches of undisturbed land, and when turned to agriculture rather than urbanization, the landscape is minimally altered from its original state. Writers have the chance to observe the created world without hindrance.”

Those observations provide Midwestern literature with a spiritual dimension refined and distilled in the experience of place.

She doesn’t dismiss Midwest writers whose work is set in cities but she looks for their personal roots set in Midwestern soil. It is the spirituality that arises from the awareness of place, of land, of natural forces shaping humanity in these places. 

Elby Adamson is an educator and writer living near Clay Center.

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