Reading Missouri: Recommended Books
While the weather is reason to stay indoors, let the Library provide quality reads that helped put Missouri on the cultural map.
William S. Burroughs expanded the possibilities of American literature—both literally and legally—with just one novel. In 1962, Naked Lunch introduced a haphazard narrative style (the forerunner of his cut-up technique) and became the last literary novel ever put on trial for obscenity. His dark outlook first took shape in the St. Louis suburbs where he grew up and helped differentiate Burroughs from the Beat Movement that he fostered.
In the 1960s, readers and critics elevated St. Louis native Kate Chopin from obscurity to literary prominence and named her novel The Awakening (1899) a classic. A proto-feminist, Chopin offended her contemporaries with this depiction of an independent woman who shirks convention in pursuit of self-fulfillment.
Called the “Dean of Kansas City writers,” Evan S. Connell staked his claim in American literature with his episodic first novel, Mrs. Bridge (1959)—the critically heralded story of a housewife living near the Country Club Plaza in search of purpose and acceptance. Together with its sequel Mr. Bridge (1969), Connell grants his seemingly one-dimensional characters a nuanced humanity that still resonates with readers.
The science fiction world would not be the same without Butler native Robert Heinlein, the four-time Hugo Award-winning author of Starship Troopers (1959) and Stranger in a Strange Land (1961). A U.S. Navy engineer, he brought his interest in technology and social mechanics into novels of increasingly grand scope that fuse a unique mythology.
Mark Twain helped define America—both abroad and at home, and Hemingway dubbed Twain the original source of American literature. A humble Twain likened his own works to water while comparing books by the great geniuses to wine—but he also noted that “everyone drinks water.” His native Missouri proved a fertile playground for his most recognized works, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876) and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884).
Described by some as a perfect novel, Stoner (1965) by John Williams takes place on the University of Missouri campus where Williams earned his doctoral degree. The story follows William Stoner, an academic who is transformed by unceasing disappointments into an archetypal American stoic and existential hero. The deft depiction of its protagonist allows this novel to transcend its grounding in academia and achieve universal resonance.
The National Book Foundation named Kansas City author Matthew Eck as one of its top five young writers in 2008 for his book The Farther Shore (2007). This debut novel follows its protagonist soldier and his comrades through an anonymous modern war, yielding a story that draws from the classics as much as the daily headlines.
Jonathan Franzen is the National Book Award-winning author of The Corrections (2001). Long before Oprah selected him for her book club, Franzen got started with The Twenty-Seventh City (1988), which follows a female police chief from India through his native St. Louis. He also wrote about his youth in the autobiographical The Discomfort Zone (2006).
Whitney Terrell writes what he knows. His native Kansas City—as it is and as he imagines it—plays a major role in his first two novels, both works celebrated from coast to coast. The King of Kings County (2005) won the William Rockhill Nelson Award for Fiction in 2007 while The Huntsman (2001) was named a Notable Book by The New York Times in 2001.
William Least Heat-Moon spent 34 weeks on The New York Times bestseller list with Blue Highways (1982), a travelogue that takes a page from John Steinbeck as it chronicles the nation’s back roads and overlooked small towns. The story told in Blue Highways begins and ends in Missouri, while subsequent works by Heat-Moon continue the conservationist ethic first hinted at in his debut.
Blue Highways: 917.3 H43B
As a former editor for National Geographic, Kansas City author Candice Millard is uniquely qualified to tell the story of retired President Teddy Roosevelt’s harrowing expedition down the Amazon River. The River of Doubt (2006) is a riveting blend of high adventure and nature writing that won the William Rockhill Nelson Award for Nonfiction in 2006.
The River of Doubt: 981.1 M64R
A renowned team of black debaters at Kansas City’s Central High School is the subject of Cross-X (2006), the first book by Joe Miller. Though these students are surrounded by poverty, ideas are plentiful and academics offer a better future. A journalist, Miller leaves impartiality behind and gets involved in this emotional struggle of kids straining to fulfill their own promise against debate culture and inner-city obstacles.
Cross-X: 808.53 M64C
The Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Making of the Atomic Bomb (1986), Richard Rhodes is among the most influential contemporary writers —indeed, the first installment of his Making of the Nuclear Age series is considered one of the most important books of the 20th century. He also wrote about his turbulent upbringing in Kansas City in A Hole in the World (1990).
Making of the Atomic Bomb: 623.451 R47M
A Hole in the World: 977.8411 R477Z
As the inheritor of Twain’s unique humor, Calvin Trillin writes with comic consistency about food, politics, or whatever else he sets his sights on. A multi-faceted wordsmith, he can adopt the role of investigative journalist or sincere memoirist and even satiric poet, but in all incarnations he delivers clever observations with the same deft hand recruited by Time, The Nation, and The New Yorker. Trillin combines boyish adoration with unvarnished truth to create an affecting memoir of his father, a Kansas City grocer who could swear off anything, except swearing, in Messages from My Father (1996).
Messages from My Father: 973.92 F828W
Finding inspiration among the turn-of-the-century muckrakers, Kansas City native Thomas Frank combines journalistic skill and a leftist political perspective in producing thought-provoking current affairs page-turners like The Wrecking Crew (2008), an examination of the Washington culture created by Republican governance.
The Wrecking Crew: 973.92 F828W
Tennessee Williams grew up in St. Louis, where he set his breakthrough work The Glass Menagerie (1944)—which established high expectations that would be fulfilled with his two Pulitzer Prize winning works: A Streetcar Named Desire (1947) and Cat on A Hot Tin Roof (1955).
Raised in the Ozarks, Lanford Wilson helped establish the Off-Off-Broadway theater movement in New York City with his first full-length play Balm in Gilead (1965)—and quickly gained critical acceptance, earning the Pulitzer Prize for Drama with Talley’s Folly (1979). Esteemed New York Times drama critic Frank Rich wrote of Wilson: “The voice of [his] rural native Missouri rises like specters from the land.”
A longtime Washington University professor, Mona Van Duyn won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry for her collection Near Changes (1990)—and became the first female U.S. poet laureate in 1992. She adopted formal verse structures in defiance of literary critics, who would later grant her almost every major poetry award.
T.S. Eliot is the first Missouri-born winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature, with his works The Waste Land (1922) and Four Quartets (1943) cementing his legacy. He left his native St. Louis as a teenager, traveling widely and eventually becoming a British citizen. Despite his intense interest in other cultures, Eliot wrote that “Missouri and the Mississippi have made a deeper impression on me than any other part of the world.”
A St. Louis native, Eugene Field developed his humorous writing style at Midwestern newspapers—including the Kansas City Times. Get in touch with your inner kid by reading his American cultural stalwart Wynken, Blynken, and Nod (1889).
Joplin native Langston Hughes defined himself and his career as a poet by writing about the black American experience, so much so that he is often called the poet laureate of the Harlem Renaissance. His Montage of a Dream Deferred (1951) is a landmark collection that draws on bebop jazz structures and focuses on themes of racial inequality that would inspire his future works —which included fiction, nonfiction, and plays.
When named the third U.S. poet laureate some 50 years into his career, Howard Nemerov still defied easy categorization—as Joyce Carol Oates has remarked: “Romantic, realist, comedian, satirist, relentless and indefatigable brooder upon the most ancient mysteries—Nemerov is not to be classified.” Following his arrival at Washington University, he more firmly established his poetic identity, as in Gnomes and Occasions (1973).