John Miller is a retired professor of History at South Dakota State University. Judging from his work ethic, Miller hasn’t figured out yet that he’s retired. A passion for Midwestern history in general, and South Dakota history in specific, keeps him researching and writing. His latest efforts deserve our attention. Miller asks whether a literary renaissance is occurring in South Dakota.
Miller has been kind enough to send me a preliminary draft of his work and given me permission to write about his tentative conclusions in these pages.
Miller points to the expanded publications by South Dakota State Historical Society Press and the rise of the Festival of Books, sponsored by the South Dakota Humanities Council. E-publishing has made it easier than ever for authors to get their work to the public. Miller notes that such South Dakota authors as Mark Haugen and Joseph Bottum have taken advantage of this method of publishing.
Miller notes some of the figures of South Dakota literary history. L. Frank Baum, Hamlin Garland, Ole Rolvaag, and Laura Ingalls Wilder are perhaps the biggest names, with our Native population also providing many works of note. There are more contemporary authors as well, such as Kathleen Norris and mystery writer Kathleen Taylor.
Not surprisingly, Miller finds that many of the literary efforts of our state, including novels, memoirs, poems and histories, deal with the early days of Dakota settlement. This makes perfect sense. Pioneer stories have a natural drama to them that still evokes wonder from readers. In addition, all of us Dakotans know that the land and weather have great impact on our lives. The stories of settlers fighting the elements (think of Ingalls Wilder’s “The Long Winter”) capture our imagination.
Most regions of our nation have some sort of literary tradition. It would seem that New England and the South have the strongest traditions. New England’s stems from the fact that it was first settled, best educated, and so much of our nation’s founding took place in that region. Producing the likes of Thoreau, Hawthorne, and Fenimore Cooper, it dominated early American literature.
The American South has a unique culture, somewhat based on a slavery history, somewhat on geography, and somewhat on a kind of Christian Stoicism. It produced authors such as William Faulkner, Tennessee Williams, and Walker Percy.
The Midwest is not without its literary tradition. Our neighbors to the east, Minnesota, produced F. Scott Fitzgerald, Sinclair Lewis and, more recently, Jon Hassler. Granted, Lewis mostly wrote with contempt for his fellow Minnesotans, but one cannot deny his impact. One of the 20th century’s greatest novelists, Willa Cather, hailed from Nebraska and wrote many moving tales of prairie life.
A couple years ago, an acquaintance opined that South Dakota had no literary culture because it had no stories worth telling. I couldn’t disagree more. In Cather’s finest novel, My Antonia, the narrator decides, drawing from the Roman poet Virgil, he will be a muse to his country. He will write the story of his prairie town. South Dakota has its stories worth telling, and if John Miller is right, they are starting to be told.
Jon D. Schaff is a professor of political science at Northern State University in Aberdeen. His opinions are his own and do not represent the views of the university.