In a world still grappling with the wildfire power of the Internet to topple and disrupt so many vaunted institutions, it’s intriguing to see its extraordinary capacity for collecting and renewing interest in cultural niches that have otherwise fallen from view.
A new multimedia project (an iBook available on Apple devices, a website, a Nebraska public radio series and a host of related links) called “Lost Writers of the Plains” aims to use new media to preserve and celebrate a small part of the last century’s print culture.
The book tells the stories of eight writers from the 20th century — all connected by their publication in the University of Nebraska’s storied literary journal “Prairie Schooner” — who lived and wrote in the Great Plains and whose work remains largely forgotten.
There’s Kansas City’s W. Zolley Lerner, a Polish immigrant who directed at the Jewish Community Center’s Resident Theater and made the jump to Hollywood in 1942, directing movies under the name Thomas Z. Loring. Lerner’s 1932 play “Kaddish,” a “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner”-type story of a young Jewish man bringing his gentile fiancée home to meet his family, illustrates the tensions between old world and new, religion and family.
Margaret Haughawout, a creative writing professor at Pittsburg State in the 1930s and ’40s, kept up longtime correspondences with her former students and published feminist poems, stories and essays.
Many of her letters are reproduced in the book, giving readers a direct, intimate glimpse into the life of a woman who seems so distant from today’s world and yet also quite familiar.
In her poem “Hattie in Greenwich Village,” a young girl tries too hard to be the cool, rebellious big-city girl but can’t quite shake off her pious, Midwestern roots: “Those bred within/These narrow stairs and crooked streets don’t wear/With such éclat what your youth labelled sin.”
The commentaries and excerpts from the “Prairie Schooner” archives show how writers all over the country — not just the ones we still read today — participated in and contributed to the larger themes and trends of American culture.
The book shows a commitment to diversity, including chapters about women, African-American and Jewish writers, rural and urban dwellers, writers of every genre, those who adventured in the Far East and those who stayed at home on the farm. And by keeping the emphasis firmly focused on writers whose work had a significant connection to the Great Plains region, the editors, writers and producers are taking a stance toward establishing a literary history of our own.
“Lost Writers” is not an anthology; the text comprises just eight short biographical essays about the authors. For sheer reading value, a collection of their work might be desirable. But when it comes to demonstrating and exploring the possibilities of new media, the editors succeed.
Excerpts of the authors’ works are present in audio recordings and online archives. The pages of the book contain plenty of embedded goodies, such as letters to and from the subjects, photographs, maps and interview snippets by experts about the authors or their areas of work.
New media are here to stay. But that means, too, that nothing is ever lost. Projects like “Lost Writers,” curated by those with both the access to the old texts and the ability to spread them through new channels, serve as bridges between the old world and the new. It’s important that they continue to be made.
“Lost Writers of the Plains,” edited by Wendy Katz, iBook, NET Foundations for Radio and Television, netnebraska.org/basic-page/learning-services/lost-writers-plains, free