The Great Plains has produced many wonderful authors and inspired countless others. In much of the literature we see reoccuring myths such as the American Garden, the Great American Desert, and the closed frontier, as well as themes such as Manifest Destiny. This section introduces some well known authors and their work.
John Berryman was actually born John Smith in McAlester, Oklahoma, in 1914. He attended Columbia College and Cambridge University, then went on to teach at Wayne State. His younger work was published in a volume and has influences of many Irish and British poets. In his mid 40s he received greater recognition for his works and became known as a “bold and innovative” poet. He received a Pulitzer prize for his poetry collection titled 77 Dream Songs. Berryman passed away in 1972 when he threw himself from a bridge in Minneapolis.
Writings: Mistress Bradstreet, Five Young American Poets, 77 Dream Songs
Gwendolyn Brooks was born in Topeka, Kansas, in 1917. In her career she has written over 20 poetry collections and numerous books. In 1968 she was named Poet Laureate for the state of Illinois. She has received various awards for her writing and was appointed Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress.
Writings: Children Coming Home, Blacks, To Disembark, The Near-Johannesburg Boy and Other Poems, Riot, The Bean Eaters
Novels: Maud Martha, Report from Part One: An Autobiography
William Burroughs was born February 5, 1914, in St. Louis, Missouri. He was a novelist, short story writer, essayist, painter, and performer. He wrote 18 novels, six collections of short stories, and four collections of essays.He attended Harvard University and later attended medical school in Vienna. After being turned down to serve in World War II he dropped out of medical school and became addicted to a drug that would affect him the rest of his life. Burroughs also got into stealing and selling stolen goods and later in life would be charged in Mexico City for killing his wife.
Writings: Junk, William Lee: Confessions of an Unredeemed Drug Addict, Naked Lunch, Deposition: Testimony Concerning a Sickness
Willa Sibert Cather was born on December 7, 1873, in Back Creek Valley, Virginia. She spent the first ten years of her life there before moving west with her family, landing in Webster County, Nebraska, in the year 1883. The Cather family settled in with Willa's grandparents on their farm before moving to the community of Red Cloud, where Willa's father, Charles, started in the insurance and real estate business. In 1891 Willa set her sights on furthering her education at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. She decided to study science, but this lasted only a short time before she reevaluated her career path. She began writing and getting involved with plays at the university and after graduation moved to Pittsburgh to work as an editor for a newspaper. She later became a high school English teacher in Pennslyvania before moving to New York as a writer. She spent the later part of her life writing many different novels. Willa Cather died on April 24, 1947, in New York City.
Novels: Alexander's Bridge, O Pioneers, My Antonia, The Professor's House, Lucy Gayheart, Shadows on the Rock, Death Comes for the Archbishop, A Lost Lady, One of Ours, The Song of the Lark
Short Fiction: The Troll Garden, Obscure Destinies, Willa Cather's Collected Short Fiction
Poetry: April Twilights
Louise Erdrich was born in Little Falls, Minnesota, in 1954. She is half Chippewa Indian, which is why she explores Native American themes in her works. She has traveled back to her native homeland to research for her Indian writings. She grew up in North Dakota and later attended Dartmouth College. She spent the majority of her life traveling and returning to Dartmouth where she wrote novels, poems, and studied Native American history.
Writings: Jacklight, Baptism of Desire, Original Fire: New and Selected Poems, Love Medicine, The Beet Queen
William H. Gass
William H. Gass was born on July 30, 1924, in Fargo, North Dakota. He was an American novelist, teacher, critic, and short story writer. He did not have the best childhood because of a father who abused and mistreated him. Gass attended Wesleyan University and then served in the military. He received his A.B. in philosophy from Kenyon College and later his Ph.D in philosophy from Cornell. He taught at multiple colleges, some of which include Purdue and Washington Universities. He has received many honors including the Rockefeller Foundation, Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, and numerous teaching awards.
Writings: Omensetter’s Luck, In the Heart of the Heart of the Country, Willie Master’s Lonesome Wife, The First Winter of My Married Life, Culp, and The Tunnel
Linda Hogan was born in 1947 in Denver, Colorado. She is a Chickasaw poet, storyteller, academic, playwright, novelist, environmentalist, and writer of short stories. She began teaching at the University of Minnesota in American Indian Studies and American Studies. Later she became a professor of Creative Writing at the University of Colorado and also taught at the University of Oklahoma. Currently she is a Writer in Residence of the Chickasaw Nation.
Writings: Calling Myself Home, The Book of Medicines, Rounding the Human Corners
L. Ron Hubbard
L. Ron Hubbard was born on March 13, 1911, in Tilden, Nebraska. He attended George Washington University but dropped out in 1932. He established a career as a writer and became known for his science fiction and fantasy stories. He died from a stroke at the age of 74 in Creston, California, in 1986.
Writings: Dianetics: The Modern Science of Mental Health, Battlefield Earth,
James Langston Hughes was born February 1, 1902, in Joplin, Missouri. After his parents divorced he lived with his grandmother until he later moved in with his mother and stepfather in Cleveland, Ohio. It was not until he moved to Lincoln, Illinois, that he began writing poetry. After living in Mexico for a year and attending Columbia University for a year he graduated from Lincoln University three years later. Along with poetry he also wrote plays, short stories, and novels. His writings are known for their portrayals of black life in America from the 1920s to the 1960s. He wanted his stories to represent his actual culture, the suffering, love for jazz, laughter, and language.
Writings: “Montage of a Dream Defered,” “The Weary Blues,” Not Without Laughter
Inge was born in Independence, Missouri, on May 3, 1913. His literary works often reflect his youth growing up in Kansas. William was fascinated with theater and as a child often attended performances in Kansas City thanks to his Boy Scout Troop. The city of Independence had great influence on his opinion of human behavior. Many of his plays feature characters of small towns. He attended the University of Kansas with the goal of being on Broadway. He ended up working as a news announcer and then taught high school English.
Writings: The Glass Menagerie, Farther Off from Heaven, Come Back, Little Sheba, Picnic
Ted Kooser was born in Ames, Iowa, in 1939. He studied at the University of Iowa State and received his Masters in English from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. He is a poet with a voice for rural and small town America and is the first Poet Laureate chosen from the Great Plains. Kooser has received many honors including two NEA fellowships in poetry, a Pushcart Prize, the Stanley Kunitz Prize from Columbia, the Boatwright Prize from Shenandoah, the Pulitzer Prize, and an appointment as U.S. Poet Laurate.
Writings: Flying at Nights, Delights and Shadows, Braided Creek: A Conversation in Poetry, One World at a Time, Sure Signs
Louis L’Amour was born on March 22, 1908 in Jamestown, North Dakota. This farming community served as his home for the first 15 years of his life. Ranchers, such as his uncles, were the ones who first got Louis interested in books. His family was forced to move so his father could find work. His family traveled to Texas, where his father began working in mines and mills around the area. Through all of the moving Louis met many people who eventually became characters in his writing. Before becoming a famous writer, Louis had a short, choppy career as a boxer. He left school early but always had a drive for knowledge. It is estimated he read more than 150 books a year. He died in June of 1988 but not before publishing many books, short stories, and poetry, over one hundred and twenty million copies of his books have been sold.
Writings: “Yondering,” “Off the Mangrove Coast,” “West from Singapore,” “Night over the Solomons,” Beyond the Great Snow Mountains,” “Down the Long Hills,” “Hondo,” and “Flint.”
Rose Wilder Lane
Rose Wilder Lane was born on December 5, 1886 in De Smet, South Dakota. She moved a few times during her childhood, once to Mansfield, Missouri, and once to Crowley, Louisiana. She spent much of her life traveling the world and had a short marriage, and a child who died at birth. She wrote many pieces about her travel experiences. She died on October 30th, 1968 in Connecticut on a world tour trip.
Writings: Let the Hurricane Roar, Old Home Town, Faces at the Window, Home Over Saturday, and Free Land
N. Scott Momaday
Navarro Scott Momaday was born in Lawton, Oklahoma in 1934. He is a Kiowa Indian and grew up in close contact with the Navajo and San Carlos Apache communities. He attended the University of New Mexico then went on to attend Stanford. His poetry has won numerous awards not only in the United States but in Italy as well. He has written novels, poetry, children’s books, and plays. Momaday is a founding Trustee of the National Museum of the American Indian and sits in on various boards. He currently is at the University of Arizona where he is a Regents professor of humanities.
Writings: In The Bear’s House, In the Presence of the Sun: Stories and Poems, The Gourd Dancer, Circle of Wonder
Wright Morris was born January 6, 1910 in Central City, Nebraska. His mother passed away a few days after he was born, and his father was known to be a wanderer. Wright was often left in the care of his neighbors. He jumped around various towns in Nebraska before finally settling in Omaha. His novels tend to show the disapproval and respect he had for his father. He attended Pacific Union College and Pomona College both for a short while. After college he spent a year traveling Europe and writing more novels.
Writings: “Will’s Boy,” “The Home Place,” “The World in the Attic,” “My Uncle Dudley,” “Cause for Wonder”
Bill Moyers was born on June 5, 1934 in Hugo, Oklahoma. He was an American journalist and public commentator who studied at North Texas State College. He also served as White House Press Secretary while Lyndon B. Johnson was in office. He has worked on television and in the media and collected numerous awards for his works. He also was a Baptist pastor and was ordained in 1954. North Texas was not his only stop during his educational career. He transferred to the University of Texas where he worked with The Daily Texan newspaper.
Writings: Newsday, Bill Moyers’ Journal on PBS, CBS News, The Power of Myth series, The Secret Government: The Constitution in Crisis, In Search of the Constitution, NBC News, and Faith and Reason.
John G. Neihardt
John Gneisenau Neihardt was born in 1881 near Sharpsburg, Illinois in a one-room cabin. Later his family moved to Kansas City where his father eventually left the family. The Neihardt’s then moved to Wayne, Nebraska. It was here in Wayne that he remembers wanting to become a poet. He graduated from Nebraska Normal College, present day Wayne State. After graduation, he worked as an Indian trader, published poetry, later worked for the Bureau of Indian Affairs, and taught Epic America at the University of Missouri. At 88 years old he moved back to Lincoln where he eventually died at the age of 92.
Writings: “The River and I,” “A Cycle of the West,” “Black Elk Speaks,” “Eagle Voice Remembers,” “All Is But a Beginning”
Diane Quantic, a Kansas native, has been a professor of English and the Wichita State University since 1973. In 1986 she was a Fulbright Scholar in Bulgaria. She has served as President of the Western Literature Association and Vice President of the Mari Sandoz Heritage Society. In 2001 she was a visiting scholar at Chadron State College.
Writings: “The Nature of the Place: A Study of Great Plains Fiction,” “A Great Plains Reader,” and various reference works for Great Plains literature.
Mary Sandoz was at Sandoz Post Office on Mirage Flats, Running Water Precinct, Sheridan County Nebraska on May 11, 1896. She spent the majority of her life in the Sand hills of Nebraska. She graduated eighth grade and took the rural teachers’ exam and passed. She taught in nearby schools and got married but was divorced shortly after. She enrolled in the University of Nebraska Business College despite her lack of diploma. She began writing and moved to New York where she eventually died of bone cancer in 1966.
Writings: Old Jules, Crazy Horse, The Buffalo Hunters, The Cattlemen, The Beaver Men.
Nicholas Sparks was born December 31, 1965 in Omaha, Nebraska. As a American novelist and screenwriter he has published 17 novels and eight of these have been made into movies. He attended the University of Notre Dame on a track and field scholarship. It was at Notre Dame that he began his writing career. After college, he tried to get books published or attend Law School but got turned down by both. Currently, Sparks and his wife donate money back to his high school and have donated close to $10 million to start a private, Christian, college-prep school.
Writings: The Notebook, Message in a Bottle, A Walk to Remember, The Rescue, Safe Haven, Dear John, The Wedding
Luther Standing Bear
Chief Luther Standing Bear was born in 1868 on the Great Plains. Born Ota Kte, he discovered his name “Luther” in the Carlisle Indian Industrial School from pointing out symbols on the wall. In 1921 he moved to South Dakota where he taught day school. After being injured in Bill’s Wild West Show he moved to California and premiered in several movies such as: Ramona, The Santa Fe Trail, and Circle of Death. Besides for being a successful actor Chief is also known for his writings about the Sioux.
Writings: “My People, The Sioux,” “My Indian Boyhood,” “Land of the Spotted Eagle,” and “Stories of the Sioux”
William Stafford was born in Hutchinson, Kansas on January 17, 1914. During the Depression his family moved around for his father to find work. William helped the family by delivering papers, working in the fields, raising vegetables, and as an electrician’s mate. He graduated high school in Liberal, Kansas and went on to attend Garden City and El Dorado junior colleges and later graduated from University of Kansas in 1937. He was drafted into World War II before obtaining his masters degree. After the war he became a teacher both at the high school level and college level. He died in Lake Oswego, Oregon, on August 28, 1993.
Writings: “Traveling Through the Dark,” “West of Your City,” “The Rescued Year,” “The Other Alone,” “Down in My Heart”
Samuel Langhorne Clemens, later known as Mark Twain, was born on November 30, 1835 in a small town in Florida, Mo. His family eventually moved to Hannibal, Mo on the banks of the Mississippi River. He entered school as a boy but dropped out shortly after his father passes away of pneumonia. He became a printer’s apprentice, which led to a printing job in St. Louis. When he was in St. Louis he became a river pilot’s apprentice, which is where he became Mark Twain. “Mark Twain” means that the water is safe to navigate. Clemens married and had four children, three of which died before the age of 25. Mark Twain passed away on April 21, 1910.
Writings: “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calavaras County,” “The Innocents Abroad,” “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn”
Zitkala-Sa (Gertrude Simmons Bonnin)
Zitkala-Sa was born in 1876 on a Sioux Indian reservation in South Dakota. She lived most of her life in a tipi on the Missouri River. When she was 12 she attended a Quaker missionary school for Indians. She attended boarding school and three years later returned to her family neither a wild Indian nor a tame one. The school had changed her and she later described this experience in her piece titled “ The School Days of an Indian Girl”. Zitkala-Sa attended and graduated from Earlham College with her degree in teaching. She continued her life as a teacher, musician, political activist and helping people as a leader everywhere. She died on January 26th 1938 in Washington D.C.
Writings: “Old Indian Legends” “American Indian Stories” “Dreams and Thunder: Stories, Poems, and The Sun Dance Opera”