Tuesday, December 9, 2008

A Strange Fascination: Stories of Violent Men on the Prairie

Picture and background information for our current display.

Nebraska opened to legal settlement with the signing of the Kansas-Nebraska Act in May of 1854. The settlement of the territory was shaped by the growing conflict over slavery embodied in that legislation, by waves of immigration, first across the Oregon Trail and then to the state itself, by Indian wars and raids, and then again by new waves of immigration from Central and Eastern Europe. There was much in these origins that could be expected to leave a legacy of violence: Veterans of the Civil War would carry its horrors with them forever. Every wave of immigration included far more young males than women, and gatherings of unmarried young men are a prime source of wildness that may explode into violence. There were conflicts between farmers and ranchers, and there was a new gold rush to the Black Hills just to the north of the state.

In reality, however, the crime rate per capita on the Nebraska frontier was no greater than it was in those same years in the more settled cities of the Eastern United States. The homicide rate was slightly higher, the prevalence of other crimes, especially robbery, rather lower, than in the East. Perhaps those differences reflect the fact that so many men (and some women, too) carried guns.

Sometimes, in Nebraska, violent incidents and violent men are remembered with peculiar intensity. We may speculate about the reasons why this should be so, and perhaps see, in different kinds of fascination, evidence of a changing society. Mari Sandoz thought that after the Civil War, the country was unwilling to give up the emotionalism of the bloodletting, and so, in escapist fashion, the public took special interest in and made heroes of the most irresponsible of men, gunslingers and outlaws.

The killing of David McCanles by James Butler Hickok, at Rock Creek Station near Fairbury in July of 1861 earned Hickock (Fairbury legend says) his famous sobriquet as "Wild Bill." Some say the killing was over a debt that McCanles tried to collect from Hickok, though local legend mentions differences over a wild woman who "was commonly known" as Kate Schell. McCanles was a family man who died in the arms of his nine year old son. He ran a profitable station for the Overland Stage Company, and gained a local reputation as a great practical jokester, albeit one whose high spirited jokes ran into bullying those with whom he had differences. Yet he was also a southerner believed to be keeping his sympathies hidden because his business would suffer. That he was known as a bully and thought a southern sympathizer may help account for Hickok having been acquitted of the killing.

Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show celebrated in some of its most famous scenes a certain version of the settlement of the West and the Indian Wars, part of a struggle that the Poet John Neihardt sometimes compared to the Trojan War in its epic force. The show usually ended with a re-enactment of Custer’s Last Stand. Cody’s Native American employees seemed to enjoy the show as much as anyone, and certainly profited by participating. If his show offered a romantic vision of the Indian Wars and the conquest of the West, Buffalo Bill proved, surprisingly perhaps, to be a defender of Native American rights. He once said "every Indian outbreak that I have ever known has resulted from broken promises and broken treaties by the government."

Doc Middleton—the "travelling name" of outlaw James Riley—was a Sandhills horsethief and sometime killer who made a reputation as a local Robin Hood, while selling horses stolen from Kansas to the Sioux and horses stolen from the Sioux in Kansas. Eventually he made peace with the law, settled down to have a family, and was supposed to win the great 1000 mile Chadron to Chicago horse race in 1893, but his horses gave out, and the anticipated cowboy operetta ending failed.

Finally, not to be overlooked, because present day fascination for him runs so deep (books about him are among the most frequently requested in this library), is mass murderer Charlie Starkweather. His appeal feeds on the sickness of the vacant soul. It manifests the suspicion that the only genuinely gratifying escape from the social and personal dilemmas of modern society is inward, in allowing our anger to make us sick. Interest in Starkweather only deepens the fog in the mind of his spellbound enthusiasts; poor empty headed Charlie had nothing inside worth the time already spent on him. --dsc

Official Poets? Nebraska Perspectives

Pictures and background for a recent display on "Official Poets."

When the Nebraska State Legislature named John G. Neihardt as the State’s Poet Laureate in April of 1921, Nebraska became the first State in the nation to create such a position. Since then some 40 States have made similar appointments. In 2003 New Jersey abolished the office when its holder published a screed widely viewed as tasteless and anti-Semitic in its exaggerated political correctness. By contrast, in 2005, Oregon began the process of reviving its long vacant office. In 2006, in celebration of that effort, visiting U.S. Poet Laureate Ted Kooser gave the invocation at the opening of the Oregon state legislature. By 2007, Oregon had found a new Laureate.

Nebraska Poet Laureate John Neihardt died in 1973. A committee was immediately established to begin the search for a successor. That search took nearly a decade, with Neihardt’s successor, William Kloefkorn, being chosen as State Poet in 1982. The long interregnum revealed conflicts that, while awkward at the time, led to deep reflection about what the office means and how a poet might be chosen for it. In the debate the state’s poets, on the one hand, and the public and its representatives on the other, revealed conflicting understandings of the office.

At the time of Neihardt’s death, Nebraska already possessed such a rich poetic landscape that it was hard to settle on a single candidate. There was talk right away of an impasse between candidates eminently suited to the office. A decade later, someone involved in a renewed search suggested that it might be easier to name three laureates than a single one—for there were by then three very strong candidates, each writing about a contrasting part of Nebraska, a poet for the farms and small towns of the eastern part of the state, one for urban Nebraska, and one for the Sandhills, ranch lands and towns of western Nebraska.

As poet and critic Dana Gioia points out, in our time poetry, once very much part of the mainstream of cultural and intellectual life, seems more isolated, more dependent on academic institutions and a well-educated, elite audience than it used to be. In a word, it is a subculture. Nebraska poets have generally been uncomfortable with that transition, and some have made very notable and successful attempts to reverse it. Still, as a group, Nebraska poets could not help being swept along by the almost irresistible fragmentation of American culture.

Within their subculture Nebraska’s poets know one-another rather well, they give readings together, contribute to the same anthologies, criticize and complement one-another, help each other publish or find teaching posts and get tenure. There arises then, in this continuous association—as Gioia again points out—a belief that poets are the best judge of poetry, and even something of a pecking order, a loose consensus about who is doing the most interesting work. In Nebraska this self-conscious community is both competitive and surprisingly generous. The generosity reflects the character of the real giants of poetry in Nebraska, their very genuine desire to help talent of all sorts and levels find its best expression, and their deep concern for the estate of poetry—for its quality, its audience, its influence in the world.

When, in the wake of Neihardt’s long tenure, it was proposed to name a new laureate, this community of poets grew alarmed. Would it be fair to raise one poet to such a position of eminence above the others? If there are many good poets and many different approaches to writing, might this not actually narrow the general public’s appreciation of poetry? Would poets not named sell fewer books? Was it fair to appoint someone to the position for life? Could a lifetime appointment turn into a curse, one poet wondered, for the writer given the appointment? Writers may be peculiarly sensitive, might not what was intended as an honor in time come to seem a terrible burden? Was the office just an honor, or would there be some expectation that the poet would have duties, however informally defined? Surely a poet could not be a trained seal, expected to produce something on demand for some state banquet or political occasion?

The worry that the office would become a burden led some well known poets, among them Ted Kooser and Don Welch, to withdraw their names from consideration. These fears eventually led eighteen Nebraska poets to sign a petition calling for the office to be abolished. For some, the most troublesome issue—because John Neihardt had lived to the ripe old age of 92 and had borne his office as Laureate for 52 years when he died—was the lifetime appointment. They suggested a shorter term, four years was the popular notion, so the honor or the burden could be spread around a bit more democratically.

In the end, the committee charged with making a recommendation to the legislature decided to keep the office and the lifetime appointment, and made an individual choice whose wisdom has become ever clearer over the years, if it was not already pretty clear at the first. The only concession—if it was a concession—made to the plea for a more democratic office was the determination to leave John Neihardt with the aristocratic title of Nebraska Poet Laureate for all time and call his successor simply "the state poet."

In the disputes that preceded the new appointment, the committee discovered that their own concerns about the position were different from the concerns of the worried poets.
Understandably, the committee, having found its decision difficult, did not want to pass the same task on to others in just a few years. They reasoned that their task was much less concerned with granting a literary honor, than about finding an appropriate voice to symbolize for us or remind us what language is for, what it means to us as human beings, and as a community.

The state poet will, one committee member wrote, "symbolize the importance of the written word, of precise language, and of cultural literacy, not merely as useful skills but as an essentially humane and civilizing endeavor, what Neihardt, in his irrepressible grandiloquence, called in his Laureate Address [the] ‘high adventuring of the human soul.’" That symbol, everyone hoped, might help educate the citizens of the state about our unique heritage, give a living voice to culture on the Great Plains in the work of a contemporary writer, or perhaps, give that writer a place in government for the purpose of furthering the arts.

Government, in its own sphere, often does not contribute much to the clarity or liveliness of language. But the quality of what a people are able to imagine and achieve through self-rule depends greatly on the artfulness, clarity, and honesty of its language. The purpose of naming a Laureate or State Poet is to remind us all of this dependency.

Then too, in the committee’s files, the public response to the poets’ doubts was strikingly negative. "How many ex-poet-laureates do you want hanging around? And who is going to make the choice next time? I believe it would mean the ruin of poetry within the state to turn it over to the poets. Let’s name a laureate…" one distinguished editor wrote in a letter to the committee. Letters to the editor in newspapers around the state excoriated the suggestion that the office be abolished.

This history reveals that the choosing of a poet laureate or state poet was a slow, painstaking, and fragile effort. The office recalls an earlier time, when poetry was a larger part of the literary culture of ordinary people. The choice of the office holder is fraught with the danger of error. Yet Nebraska has been stunningly well served by its poets laureate, and the office lives on in the recognition that the fate of generations to come depends on the quality and accountability of our language. -dsc