Liberty Opinion: 29 January 2009
It's a day to celebrate cranks and crazies and Carrie Nation. It's Kansas Day. Caleb Stegall welcomes you to the middle of the country, where, if you're sane, you're completely surrounded by people who aren't, and have no plans to be soon.
The 10th Muse
Be thou the tenth Muse, ten times more in worth
Than those old nine which rhymers invocate
- Shakespeare, Sonnet 38
The history of our fair state is replete with references to its near Biblical stature as a promised land and all that implies: a land of milk and honey, enormous crops and near Edenic fertility; a land swarming with prophets, zealots and gunslingers; crackpots and crooks; cranks and kooks. Kansas held out the promise of riches and destitution, fresh starts and bad ends, boom or bust, plague and famine and pestilence, flood and drought, cyclones, blizzards, rolling prairie fire and the hand of God.
Kansas was the first and last state founded expressly on a political ideal and the blood spilled to achieve it. A vast inland prairie sea that drove men mad with longing for the horizon, the future, and always, endless possibility—a tabula rasa writ large on which men with gumption might scratch themselves into history or be swallowed up trying; a place where well-water has been said to boil and the sun is blotted out with clouds of insects and John Brown, Carrie Nation, Bat Masterson, Sockless Jerry, Susan Anthony, Wild Bill, Wyatt Earp, Mary Ellen Lease, the Dalton Gang and Harry Kemp the tramp poet of Kansas stride the landscape with hot blood pounding their ears and wild, googly eyes.
A place where the only two required beliefs were in free silver and a hot hereafter, and the only three sure resources were said to be sunshine, sunflowers and sons-of-bitches. Reactionaries and radicals and eternal optimism; Bleeding Kansas and blowing dirt; red and black—the apocryphal state.
One early travelogue written for ladies’ drawing rooms in Boston and New York opined that “Kansas is, and always has been, a State of freaks and wonders, of strange contrasts, of individualities strong and sometimes weird, of ideas and ideals, and of apocryphal occurrences. ... A State like nothing so much as some scriptural Kingdom. ... It has a more American population, greater wealth, more women running for office, more religious conservatism, more political radicalism, … more individualism, and more nasal voices than any other State.”
Enough to send a shiver through any socialite, to be sure.
One early 20th century observer speculated that Kansas’s apocryphal character could be explained by its peculiar combination of pioneering spirit and Puritanical commitment to freedom: “Even the very young men and women of Kansas are not far removed from pioneer forefathers, and it must be remembered that the Kansas pioneer differed from some others in that he possessed a strain of that Puritan love of freedom which not only brought his forefathers to Plymouth, but brought him overland to Kansas, as has been said, to cast his vote for abolition. Naturally, then, the zeal which fired him and his ancestors is reflected in his children and his grandchildren. And that, I think, is one reason why Kansas has developed ‘cranks.’”
Colonel Nelson, the eminent Kansas City man and founder of the Kansas City Star, railed against the unproductive East: “New York is running the big gambling house and show house for the country. It doesn’t produce anything. It doesn’t take any more interest in where the money comes from than a gambler cares where you get the money you put into his game. Kansas is the greatest state in the Union. It thinks. It produces things. Among other things, it produces crazy people. It is a great thing to have a few crazy people around! The men who started the Revolution [were crazy].”
Cranks and crazies—long may they endure. And by and large, they have, here in Kansas, pushing the leading edge of everything from civil rights to the culture wars. And there are even still some here who, as it was noted of the early settlers, “will stand in the wind, eating the dirt that blows into their mouths, and tell you what good soil it is.”
In 1922, the great Kansan William Allen White wrote that “Kansas is a state of the Union, but it is also a state of mind, a neurotic condition, a psychological phase, a symptom, indeed, something undreamt of in your philosophy, an inferiority complex against the tricks and manners of plutocracy social, political, and economic. Kansas is the Mother Shipton, the Madam Thebes, the Witch of Endor, and the low barometer of the nation. When anything is going to happen in this country, it happens first in Kansas. … Kansas, fair, fat, and sixty-one last month, is the nation’s tenth muse, the muse of prophecy.”
In one of my favorite exchanges in all of literature, the Scarecrow tells Dorothy that he cannot understand why she should want to leave the beautiful Land of Oz to return to the admittedly dusty plains of Kansas. “That is because you have no brains,” says Dorothy. “No matter how dreary and gray our homes are, we people of flesh and blood would rather live there than in any other country, be it ever so beautiful.”
The Scarecrow concedes: “Of course I cannot understand it. If your heads were stuffed with straw, like mine, you would probably all live in the beautiful places, and then Kansas would have no people at all. It is fortunate for Kansas that you have brains.”
Here, Frank Baum captures perfectly the prairie populist’s eye-twinkling, slightly self-deprecating sense of the superiority of humbly standing on one’s own two feet in one’s own country, the devil take the rest.
I suspect that with the economic ju-jitsu that has been inflicted on us by panderers and thieves, bankers and lawyers, gilded tricksters and mendicants all, Kansans may return to these roots and once again take up the fight against all the brainless, straw-headed Technicolor razzle-dazzle men who attack and threaten our homes, hearths and posterity.
So if you start to feel a little bit crazy, your eyes a little googly, a bit like a prophet, mad as a march hare, cheer up, for you are a true son or daughter of the prairie. The pansies and delicate flowers in the sophisticate, go-along-to-get-along crowd aren’t worthy to taste the soil and call it good.
On this Kansas Day, let us remember that the prairie is our country, and wake the 10th muse.
Kansas Liberty columnist Caleb Stegall is a lawyer and writer in Perry, Kansas. His book on the history of prairie populism in Kansas is forthcoming from ISI Books in 2009.