Monday, April 07, 2008

What's the Matter with Kansas?

At the moment there's nothing the matter with Kansas, as the University of Kansas Jayhawks won the 2008 NCAA Final Four basketball tournament, as, ahem, gloat, gloat, a certain librarian blogger predicted a few weeks ago.
I've been a U of Kansas fan since I visited Lawrence, Kansas (home of the U of K) in the early 1990s. I was visiting a friend doing his PhD at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln and we drove south to Kansas City and then west to Lawrence. Lincoln and Lawrence were my first US "college towns" and I thought the concept was delightful.

Lawrence is a classic college town. Or "latte town" as David Brooks mockingly called them in Bobos in Paradise: The New Upper Class and How They Got There (2000). Boulder, CO. Madison, WI. Missoula, MO. Burlington, VT. Berkeley, CA. University-associated, liberal (or "progressive" as they say in the US) wealthy communities, often surrounded by much more conservative areas. Brooks' book critiqued the aging boomers, bohemians protesting The Man in their youth, but joining the bourgeoisie as they aged, hence "bourgeois bohemians" (bobos). I thought the book was hilarious, but Brooks took a lot of hits for shallowness, glibness etc. And his follow-up book, On Paradise Drive: How We Live Now ..., a love-letter to American suburbia, seemed to place him in the neo-con camp. For a current look at bobo life, check out the wildly popular blog, Stuff White People Like (#95 - Rugby, #81 - Graduate School, #44 - Public Radio).

Author Thomas Frank knows Lawrence. And he remembers it fondly in his book, What's the Matter with Kansas? (2004):
"Today, as the state's politics shift farther and farther to the right, [Lawrence] remains one of the only truly liberal places in Kansas. For my generation, growing up in the churchified suburbs of Kansas City, Lawrence meant bohemian paradise: cheap rent in ramshackle Victorian houses, cheap beer in rickety jerrybuilt bars, secondhand record stores, a place where everyone was in a band."
Frank's book is about his puzzlement at contemporary US politics. How did his home state, known for its radical politics, founded by anti-slavery activists, populated by blue-collar midwesterners, become solidly conservative? Using Kansas as a microcosm of America in general, Frank asks why so many Americans vote against their economic and social interests?

William Least Heat-Moon, in his epic Kansas book, PrairyErth, notes that Americans "know three things about Kansas: it is flat, it has something to do with The Wizard of Oz, and the events of In Cold Blood took place there." PrairyErth shows there is more to Kansas than meets the eye, looking closely at a single, sparsely-populated rural county, Chase County. It sounds dull, but Heat-Moon is a master writer, and the people and history of this obscure piece of land come alive.

When I was in Lawrence I learned about the mythic past of Kansas, having a beer at the Free State Brewery ("Why is Kansas called a "free state" I asked!) Thomas Frank notes that Kansas was founded, at least in part, "to prevent slavery from moving west. Free-soilers ... fought a running guerrilla war with slave owners from Missouri for five years before the start of the Civil War." The University of Kansas team name, the Jayhawks, goes back to this period, called "Bleeding Kansas". "Jayhawkers" were violent abolitionists, armed militias raiding slaveholders along the Missouri border. Violent anti-slavery activist John Brown was a proto-Jayhawker. Opposing them were proslavery guerillas, including the notorious William Quantrill, who led a band of Confederate irregulars into Lawrence in 1863, massacring around 200 men and boys and destroying much of Lawrence.

Frank notes that it is today's Christian fundamentalist conservatives that have co-opted the abolitionist history of Kansas, with anti-abortionists claiming John Brown as one of their own: "If John Brown lived today, he'd be considered a right wing religious maniac." This despite the fact that the abolitionist of 1860 was likely a liberal, college-educated, tea-sipping Yankee!

For an excellent fictional take on John Brown, pick up Russell Bank's epic 1998 novel, Cloudsplitter. John Brown's son, Owen, narrates the novel, recounting his father's life and beliefs from many years after the war.

Thriller writer Sara Paretsky's new book, Bleeding Kansas, is a stand-alone novel, not one of her V.I. Warshawski detective series. Paretsky grew up in rural Kansas, near Lawrence, and her father was the first Jewish professor hired by the University of Kansas. She attended the U of K for her undergrad degree before moving on to the University of Chicago for an MBA and a PhD in American history. For this new novel she draws on both her Kansas childhood and her knowledge of 1850s America. Here's her description of the novel:
The political and social history of the state provides the backdrop for a story set in the Kaw River Valley where I grew up. Three families who have been farming in the Valley since their ancestors came as anti-slavery pioneers in the 1850’s have a long history of feuds and friendship. Two of the families, the Schapens and the Grelliers, are divided on almost every important issue, from the brand of Christianity they practice to the war in Iraq.

When Gina Haring, a young woman who is a lesbian and a Wiccan, rents an abandoned farmhouse close by, she serves as the catalyst for upheaval in all their lives. The Grelliers’ son Chip enlists in the army and goes to Iraq. His death there devastates the Grellier family.

The fundamentalist Schapens find themselves with what looks like a perfect red heifer in their dairy herd. Their belief that the heifer will speed Jesus’ return in glory adds to the turmoil in the valley. Gina’s bonfires, Chip Grellier’s death, the Schapens’ heifer and an exorcism at the Schapens church, combine in an explosive climax on Halloween.

Kirkus called it "Big, ambitious and heartfelt." Certainly worth a look for Kansas fans.

1 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

I graduated from KU and loved the school and the town. It's very relax, easy going, open minded, and liberal place. It's the place that people can think freely, debate, reason, and make judgment based on their own critical thinking. Unfortunately the rest of Kansas is full of idiots, radical right wings, Bible thumpers, corporate slaves, dim wit SUV soccer moms. Kansas is one of the place in the US of A where people believe in the "Intelligent design/creationism" instead of the evolution. In fact, a coffee room of a large aerospace company where I work once has an advertisement for creationism theory, sponsored by some churches. Several people in the work place thought that Bush was correct when he let the people of New Orleans suffer without help after Katrina because (according to their stupid, loony, shallow, selfish, delusional right wing theory) people should be responsible for themselves. They also listen and repeat phrases of the fat, drug addicted Rush Limbaugh as if they are the golden rules. Thus, I watched my school won the NCAA championship on TV from a major city in Kansas and really missed Lawrence. KU is really a good school, and Lawrence is really a very good, beautiful town. However, one of my colleague did not allow his son attending KU only because according to him the school is too liberal. I only wish that I could honestly tell him that I think he is an incompetent, idiotic fool.

10:08 PM  

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