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The Plainsman

Early on in the greatest novel ever written about life on the Great Plains of North America, My Antonia, Ms. Cather’s narrator and her protagonist agree on something: they concur that people who grew up on the prairies shared a “kind of freemasonry.” Such folk possessed common experiences and attitudes that made them something like a secret society.

Now we have this new work of history, Grasslands Grown, by a daughter of the prairie, Molly Rozum of South Dakota--born and raised in Mitchell, now on the faculty at the university in Vermillion. She expands greatly, with impressive research and a bale of footnotes, on the nature of the experience of prairie girlhood and boyhood. Her prairie girls and boys grew up with a powerful sense of place, which came together to produce a regional identity: the Great Plains. Her emphasis is on the northern plains of the US and Canada.

Born and raised in western Kansas, living my whole life on the plains, and devoting it mostly to discovering the folklore and history of the prairies, I feel this sense of place to the bone and expound on it like a preacher. Among the sort of people Cather and Rozum talk about, one plainsman did more than any other plainsperson to define the region they felt and talked about: Walter Prescott Webb, of Texas.

Webb, the author of The Great Plains (1931), defines the Great Plains by saying the Great Plains define us. The level, treeless, semiarid environment of the plains, he says, shapes everything about us, the way the soil shapes the characteristic terroir of a vintage. Webb’s ideas are a bit out of fashion now. Environmental determinism, as his line of thought is called, has some bad baggage. Still, if you are on the plains right now, are you going to argue that the environment is not central to our conversations and wellbeing?

All this is getting around to my real subject this week: the publication of the long-lost autobiography of Walter Prescott Webb, entitled A Texan’s Story, edited by Michael L. Collins and published by University of Oklahoma Press. I don’t know how such a work lay lost for most of a century in the University of Texas libraries, but here it is now. The story reveals Webb as just the sort of person Cather and Rozum talked about.

Webb’s parents moved the family out west of the Cross Timbers and west of the Hundredth Meridian. His father farmed and taught school. Webb did, too. He roamed the countryside with a dog, picked cotton, threw calves, displayed a peculiar predilection for books, and was socially awkward. Why does all this seem so familiar?

Webb got himself a teaching certificate, but after a few years teaching, because he wanted to be a writer, decided he needed more education. Not qualified for admission to the university at Austin, he got in by the grace of a friend of his father. From Texas he went on for graduate work toward a PhD at the University of Chicago, where he flunked his oral exams. Returning to teach at Texas, Webb wrote his master work, The Great Plains--which since 1931 has never been out of print. Texas then gave him a PhD for the work.

For it was a book of tremendous consequence, up and down the Great Plains. In North Dakota, two generations of college students read their past in Elwyn Robinson’s history of their state; Robinson was heavily influenced by Webb. In my native state of Kansas, for a generation just about every schoolchild had to read (or at least pretend to read) the history of the Jayhawk State that I co-authored. That book, too, bore the marks and brands of Walter Webb.

Once I sneaked upstairs in Webb’s residence (now a realty office) in Austin so I could sit at his desk. I have visited his grave in the Texas State Cemetery. He lies right beside Fred Gipson, the author of Old Yeller.

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