I am not easily offended. But there are exceptions. One is the post at the Publishers Weekly‘s blog of the “singular” writers for each of the 50 states. South Dakota’s entry? “No one of note. The closest South Dakota has to literary tradition is that Laura Ingalls Wilder’s itinerant childhood stopped through Dakota territory [sic] in 1880.”
The authority for that conclusion? Apparently, a Wikipedia entry. I don’t think I’m being oversensitive or a homer for thinking that is a rather fallacious method of judging a state’s literary tradition and writers. Regardless of whether other sources were used, the statements lack analysis and respect.
First, the list isn’t based on where a writer was born. So why is Wilder Wisconsin’s singular writer? She lived there seven years. In contrast, after arriving here in 1879, Wilder lived, married and taught in Dakota Territory and South Dakota for 11 years. That seems to be more than just a stop along the way. Of course, why let facts get in the way of a smarmy shot at a place you’ve probably never been?
Likewise, it seems the blogger didn’t pay much attention to the people in the Wikipedia entry. They include Vine Deloria, Jr., George McGovern, Frederick Manfred, and Ole Rølvaag. No, there’s certainly no “literary tradition” there.
Is it that you have to live in the state when you write your books? Then what about Kathleen Norris? Even if non-fiction or essays don’t count, she also writes poetry. What about Black Elk? I forgot, Native Americans relied on oral traditions so their philosophy could never be a basis for a literary tradition. If living here at the time isn’t the requirement, how about attending college here? Pete Dexter still returns almost annually to the South Dakota Festival of Books even though he graduated from USD 40 years ago. Or how about your experiences while living here helping form part of the setting for your classic book? Since he didn’t live here as long as Laura Ingalls Wilder, maybe L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz needs to be revised.
Those are just nationally known writers. I doubt the blogger ever read some of our less well known but talented writers, such as John Milton or Linda Hasselstrom. Of course, this is a mere dot in flyover country so a New Yorker wouldn’t need anything more than Wikipedia before deciding South Dakota has no literary tradition or worthy authors. Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that, compared to South Dakota’s cultural destitution, New York emerges from the list as “the unchallenged king of the U.S.” After all, only NYC’s publishing community and literati are brilliant enough to divine literary worth.
The Plains are full of what a friend here calls “good telling stories,” and … our sense of being forgotten by the rest of the world makes it all the more important that we preserve them and pass them on[.]
Kathleen Norris, Dakota: A Spiritual Geography