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Missouriana—The Literary Legacy of the Show-Me State

Missouri, Missoura—it's all the same on the page. The Show-Me State may not be the first place that comes to mind when considering hubs of literary output, but Missouri has been home to legendary and pioneering authors for well over a century. This list details just a handful of books and writers with a link to Missouri, from the 19th century to the digital era; from Twain to Twitter. Skeptical of Missouri's literary significance? In keeping with our state motto, allow me to Show-You.

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain
No account of Missourian literature would be complete without mention of Samuel Langhorne Clemens, better known by his pen name, Mark Twain. While Twain enjoyed a prolific career (the effort of constructing a complete bibliography of his works continues over a century after his death), he is best remembered for his 1884 novel The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Ostensibly a children's novel, this story of the friendship and adventures of abused runaway Huck Finn and escaped slave Jim as they travel down the Mississippi River to freedom touches on issues of morality, identity, and race, and remains influential (if not controversial) to this day.

The Awakening, and Selected Stories of Kate Chopin by Kate Chopin
Despite much of her fiction being set in New Orleans, early feminist author Kate Chopin is often and proudly claimed by her hometown, St. Louis, where she published much of her work and is now buried. Condemned and criticized upon its publication for its depiction of adultery and its critique of the expectations placed upon mothers and wives, The Awakening is now recognized as a pioneering piece of psychologically complex and socially conscious fiction. Chopin's lyrical and atmospheric portrayal of Edna Pontellier's journey of self-discovery continues to enchant readers today.

The Waste Land and Other Poems by T. S. Eliot
T.S. Eliot is widely considered one of the most important poets of the 20th century and a pioneer of literary modernism. Although his most famous poem, "The Waste Land," mentions many cities–Jerusalem, Athens, Alexandria, Vienna, London–it is St. Louis, his boyhood home, that had the greatest impact on him. Eliot wrote in a letter to a friend: "Missouri and the Mississippi have made a deeper impact on me than any other part of the world." Apart from "The Waste Land," Eliot's literary contributions include several stage plays, essays on literary criticism, and a collection of poems ("Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats") which serves as the basis for Andrew Lloyd Webber's 1981 stage musical, Cats.

The Weary Blues by Langston Hughes
While Langston Hughes is more often (and correctly) remembered as a central figure of the Harlem Renaissance, he began his life in Joplin, Missouri. Growing up in various midwestern towns and cities, Hughes found an escape in literature and in writing about the experiences of socially marginalized African-Americans. First published in The Crisis, the official magazine of the NAACP, Hughes's poem "The Negro Speaks of Rivers" (included in this collection) propelled him to celebrity status within the literary milieu of Harlem. Hughes would continue to write poems, novels, plays, and non-fiction until his death in 1967.

Naked Lunch by William S. Burroughs
Born in St. Louis in 1914, writer and artist William S. Burroughs lived a life studded with visionary success as well as controversy and tragedy. After receiving a disability discharge from the military due to mental illness, Burroughs became involved with Beat Generation writers and poets such as Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg, and soon after began writing novels himself. Naked Lunch is a semi-autobiographical series of vignettes concerned largely with drug use and dependence (Burroughs having struggled with heroin addiction for much of his life). The novel was originally unpublishable in the United States due to obscenity laws and was highly controversial due to its graphic content and language, resulting in obscenity trials and brief bans in various states. Nonetheless, Burroughs and Naked Lunch are held in high esteem by critics, with Norman Mailer calling him "the only American writer who may be conceivably possessed by genius."

Stoner by John Edward Williams
John Edward Williams was an author, editor, and professor whose novel Stoner, despite receiving little attention during William's life, has recently been reappraised as one of the finest American writers of grounded, realistic fiction. A Texan by birth, Williams attended the University of Missouri in pursuit of his Ph.D. in English literature, all the while working as a professor. While Williams did not remain in Missouri after completing his degree, the university would later become the setting for Stoner, a novel which details the life of an unsatisfied and scarcely notable University of Missouri English professor as he navigates his career in academia and his difficult marriage. Stoner initially sold less than 2,000 copies upon publication, but contemporary re-examination of the novel by authors such as Bret Easton Ellis and Ian McEwan has granted the novel greater recognition, with critics lauding its style and thoughtful treatment of its subject matter.

Winter's Bone by Daniel Woodrell
Writer of novels and short stories Daniel Woodrell was born in Springfield and now resides in West Plains with his wife, who is also a novelist. Despite some initial misgivings about setting fiction in the Ozarks, Woodrell is now widely known as a "country noir" writer who specializes in socially-conscious crime fiction set in the Missouri Ozarks. His most famous novel, Winter's Bone, set in a fictional Ozarks town north of the Arkansas border, depicts the trials of Ree, a teenage girl who must track down her father, who has skipped bail, in order to protect her poverty-stricken family from eviction and further destitution. The 2010 film adaptation of Winter's Bone was filmed in the Ozarks and helped to propel actress Jennifer Lawrence to stardom.

Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn
Born and raised in Kansas City, Gillian Flynn is a novelist, screenwriter, and television showrunner best known for gritty, sardonic crime fiction centered around morally ambiguous characters. Following a 10 year stint writing for Entertainment Weekly, Flynn found success and renown as a writer of novels such as Sharp Objects, Dark Places, and her most famous novel, Gone Girl. Set in a fictional, economically devastated town (based largely on Cape Girardeau), Gone Girl portrays the mysterious disappearance of a wealthy Manhattanite woman and the suspicion that is cast on her husband, a Missourian creative writing professor. The 2014 film adaptation of Gone Girl received numerous accolades, including nominations for its screenplay, also written by Flynn.

Bettyville: a Memoir by George Hodgman
Writer and editor from Paris, Missouri, George Hodgman is best known for his memoir, Bettyville, which records his return from Manhattan to his hometown to care for his elderly mother, who has begun to show signs of dementia. Hodgman's relationship with his mother is complicated by her refusal to accept or even acknowledge her son's identity as a gay man. An honest and moving piece of nonfiction, Bettyville was a best-seller, landing Hodgman a coveted interview with NPR's Terry Gross. After a long struggle with mental illness and substance abuse, Hodgman passed away in 2019. Bettyville lives on, continuing to speak to LGBT people in small-town America.

No One Is Talking About This by Patricia Lockwood
Patricia Lockwood is happy to walk through (or obliterate entirely) any constraints of genre in her writing. A novelist, poet, essayist, and Twitter personality, Lockwood spent much of her childhood in St. Louis, where her father worked as a Catholic priest (detailed in her memoir Priestdaddy). Lockwood began her career submitting poetry to various literary magazines and participating in "Weird Twitter," an online community whose tweets, per the New York Times, aim to "subtly mock the site's corporate and mainstream users." This involvement with social media shines through in her debut novel, No One Is Talking About This, a highly-stylistic autofictional account of the life of a "Twitter-famous" woman as she attempts to work through the collective psychoses of the digital age, all the while navigating a painful family crisis. Equal parts James Joyce, Jane Austen, and Internet meme, No One Is Talking About This was one the most reviewed books of 2021 and was shortlisted for the Booker Prize.

 

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