Kansas History - Autumn 2016
(Volume 39, Number 3)
Vanessa Steinroetter, “Walt Whitman in the Early Kansas Press.”
In 1879 Walt Whitman left his home in Camden and embarked on a trip that would take him through Missouri, Kansas, and on to Colorado. This trip left a deep impression on Whitman and influenced his literary work. As this article shows, Kansans, and the Kansas press in particular, reciprocated this interest, printing and discussing selected poems, parodies, and satirical pieces related to Whitman in the contexts of nineteenth-century discourses on Kansas and the West. Closer study of Whitman’s reception in the Kansas press from the 1870s through the 1890s reveals that editors enlisted him as a cultural figure in negotiating a specific identity distinct from that of cultural centers in the East. In the pages of these periodicals, Whitman was set up as both hero and counterpoint to the West. These seemingly contradictory attitudes, suggests Professor Steinroetter, reflect some of the contradictory aspects of the state’s image that publications such as the Kansas Magazine sought to portray. Not only did Kansas newspapers and magazines know of and engage with Whitman’s work and public image, then, but they made unique and illuminating contributions to Whitman’s larger national reception during the poet’s lifetime.
Chris Rein, “Kansas Bomber: An Environmental History of the B-29 and the Sunflower State.”
Kansas and the B-29 Superfortress have historically enjoyed a special relationship—the Boeing facility in Wichita built more B-29s than any other factory and airfields across the state hosted the majority of the B-29’s aircrew training and preparation for overseas deployment. Historian Chris Rein examines the environmental factors that made Kansas a hub for aircraft production and how both Kansans and Americans perceived some of these potentially negative factors as virtues. At the same time, he challenges the celebratory tale of B-29 production and training in Kansas with a more nuanced appraisal of some of the less-desirable aspects—from imminent domain seizures of farms and fields, to urban sprawl as a result of tremendous, and often unplanned and unwanted growth, and the environmental legacy of some Kansas places becoming “national sacrifice zones” due to environmental damage that persisted into the Cold War and beyond. While not minimizing the incredible accomplishments of the women and men who built and flew the B-29, the author broadens our understanding of the state’s role in creating one of the most destructive weapons in the military’s World War II inventory and some of the unintended consequences of that effort that linger to this day.
Jay M. Price and Keith Sprunger, “Sacred Simplicity: Postwar Mennonite 'Church' Architecture in Kansas.”
From the 1940s through the 1960s, Mennonites joined the great religious building boom, constructing scores of new houses of worship and adapting others. Finding an appropriate architectural language for this construction was a challenge, however, as congregations tried to maintain the distinctive elements of Anabaptist meeting house architecture in the face of larger architectural trends. With one of the largest concentrations of Mennonites on the Great Plains and home to a number of important institutions and journals, Kansas stood out as an especially visible location where theologians, clergy, architects, and others wrestled with finding the right balance. At first, the challenge was with Gothic Revival designs that seemed to embody the very institutional religion that Mennonites struggled to reject. Later on, modern, functional designs offered a different approach that in some ways was more in keeping with meeting house construction but also presented its own issues. The building program of the Mennonites of Kansas, therefore, provides a window into how this ethnic/religious community tried to preserve a unique identity while still remaining part of larger social trends.
Thomas Fox Averill, “Writing (from) Kansas History.”
Historical fiction, like history itself, must be based on historical fact, and research is key to both. Having just finished a novel manuscript, Found: Documents from the life of Nell Johnson Doerr, set in Kansas from 1854-1889, Professor Thomas Fox Averill explores the pleasure in historical research—the inspirations, the corroborations, discoveries, the rich contact with a world other than our own. Research can also be fact-checking at its most basic, all those details checked and double-checked. The author traveled to collections across the state researching a diversity of subjects and moments in Kansas history: Lawrence territorial history, including the sacking by Sheriff Samuel Jones in 1856; Lincoln’s address at Leavenworth in 1859; the Civil War in Kansas, with Quantrill’s Raid and its aftermath; and, finally, the history of early science and scientists in Kansas, with a particular emphasis on invertebrate (bryozoan) fossils. “Writing (from) Kansas history” also means reading and being inspired by books set in the time period, and Averill discusses this important relationship as well.