Whew: we're back, and with a big one (in quality if not in numbers): Missouri. I've been underselling the Show-Me State by not mentioning it with some of the other mid-sized literary powerhouses like Massachusetts, New Jersey, and Mississippi, but even a cursory look makes it clear it should be among their ranks: start with one of the all-time greats at the top, who could hardly be more identified with his northern Missouri home, and then add one of the major novelists of our day, who's still working through his suburban St. Louis upbringing, along with classics of Midwest repression and wandering, farmers' memoirs and "country noir" from the Ozarks, a major presidential biography, the writers drawn to Washington University, and great handfuls of Missouri expatriates who helped create, among other things, High Modernist poetry, Beat culture, the Harlem Renaissance, Golden Age science fiction, and the American self-help movement.
You could easily make a star-studded list out of those expatriates alone, who no doubt had Missouri on their minds even when drug-addled in Tangiers or preaching free-love anti-communism in Southern California, but with only 11 spots to choose from, I decided to stick mostly to books that had something to say about Missouri itself. And even so it was painful to cut things off when I had to, and I'll be happy to hear other opinions about where that line should be drawn:
- Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain. Leaving this one off would be like leaving Moby-Dick out of Massachusetts. (Oh, wait--we did that.)
- Life on the Mississippi by Mark Twain. For a bracing antidote to Twain's celebration of the Big Muddy, try one of my all-time favorite American essays, Ben Metcalf's howlingly bitter anti-Mississippi screed "American Heartworm" (variously collected in Best American Essays 1999 and Boob Jubilee): "I used to consider it odd that the word most often called upon by those compelled to describe their feelings for a river that had just washed away their crops, or their homes, or their livestock, or their neighbors, was 'respect,' because to my mind a river worthy of respect put up a fight against the rain, and made some show of absorbing what fell, and did not run its banks at the first sign of darkening clouds and heat lightning."
- The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen: Most of the book may take place in Manhattan, Philadelphia, and a cruise ship, but there's no mistaking that this is a Midwest novel. It's tempting to substitute Franzen's debut, The Twenty-Seventh City, his wild and ambitious attempt to write the Great St. Louis Novel as a political noir starring a mysterious new police chief from Bombay.
- George Mills by Stanley Elkin: At some point, the Stanley Elkin renaissance is going to happen, and this NBCC-award-winning tour-de-force about a St. Louis furniture mover at the end of a thousand-year line of George Millses may be the place to start. Elkin can also stand in on this list for all the long-time Wash. U. profs who have made St. Louis their adopted home over the years: William Gass, Howard Nemerov, Gerald Early, Mona Van Duyn...
- The Waste Land by T.S. Eliot: And on the other side, standing for all the ex-Missourians who made their mark elsewhere, this St. Louis scion who went High Church and High Modernism in England but said "Missouri and the Mississippi have made a deeper impression on me than any other part of the world." And behind him, a remarkable collection of others born-and-bred, including William S. Burroughs, Robert A. Heinlein, Marianne Moore, Langston Hughes, Maya Angelou, Harold Brodkey, Calvin Trillin, Ntozake Shange, and Frederick Seidel.
- Truman by David McCullough: Missouri's only president, once maligned, was already on his way to becoming a touchstone for both parties (and particularly for any president who's having a rough time in the polls) when he got the full McCullough treatment.
- Blue Highways by William Least Heat-Moon: Of course, this out-of-nowhere backroads blockbuster from the '80s covers ground all over the U.S., but Missouri is where the story begins and ends.
- Stoner by John Williams: Brought back into print in 2006 by the saints at NYRB Classics, this 1965 novel has been handed to me more than once in awed tones, and it's true: this modest story about a man quickly forgotten by those who knew him is beautiful and almost witheringly intense. (Look for it on tomorrow's Arkansas list, too.)
- Mrs. Bridge and Mr. Bridge by Evan S. Connell: Connell's pointillist diptych of a chilly Kansas City marriage, two novels so connected that our system thinks they are the same book (if you check out both pages you'll see that they have the same customer reviews).
- A Country Year by Sue Hubbell: Like Least Heat-Moon, Hubbell began to write her first book after the end of a marriage, distilling what were by then 12 years (and have since become two decades more) as a beekeeper and farmer in the Ozarks.
- The Glass Menagerie by Tennessee Williams: Streetcar didn't find a place on the crowded Louisiana list, but Williams's first great success was set in the St. Louis of his youth.
And many more: It was hard not to include something by Kansas City's Trillin, one of the many New Yorker writers who have worn their Midwesternness on their sleeve (see Ohio)--maybe Killings or Messages from My Father. I haven't read any of Daniel Woodrell's self-described "country noir" novels of the Ozarks--they sound good, but I'm not sure where to start: The Ones You Do, Tomato Red, and Winter's Bone all get great support from our reviewers. And along with the many mentioned above, there's Jack Conroy's The Disinherited, Laurell K. Hamilton, A.E. Hotchner, Ron Powers, William Wells Brown, and don't forget what may well be the bestselling American book of all time, How to Win Friends and Influence People, by Maryville's own Dale Carnegie. --Tom
- See all of our state posts
- Read our introduction to The Books of the States: 50 States, 538 Books
- Read our interview with State by State editors Matt Weiland and Sean Wilsey