Saturday, January 29, 2011

150 Years of Beginnings in Kansas


One hundred and fifty years ago today, Kansas entered the United States as the 34th state. Though the violence of Bleeding Kansas had basically come to an end with the triumph of anti-slavery forces and the writing of the Kansas Territory's fourth and final constitution, the Wyandotte Constitution, in 1859, it wasn't until Kansas was formally admitted to the Union (something that only became possible because pro-slavery senators from southern states were vacating their seats as their states seceded, allowing the bill recognizing that constitution as legitimate to pass) that the whole bloody beginning of Kansas truly came to an end. And then, of course, the Civil War officially began a little more than two months later. What a way to start.

There's much debate and not a little controversy over John Steuart Curry's famous mural of John Brown, and his vision of Kansas as a place when began in the midst of violence and strife. Curry was somewhat ambivalent about his status as a "Regionalist" and a "Kansas artist," and those who sponsored Curry as a muralist for the Capitol building didn't care for his employ of violent imagery to express the extremes and strife which Kansas seemed to carry with it right from the start. But the power of his artwork has endured all the same, and now continues to encapsulate the idea that this state is often one of sudden, perplexing, even violent contradictions. At the very least, Curry's work recreates what the rest of the country, as the Civil War began, no doubt thought about Kansas: as a battle ground, or better as a testing ground, out from which the most desperate measures of the struggle over slavery emerged, beginning with John Brown himself.

Kansas has its peaceful, humble, quiet side, of course; in fact, given the state's plain topography and long distances, such quietude is far more frequent than the reverse. We're a state of sunflowers and prairie grasses, of wheat and sorghum and cattle, of Laura Ingall Wilder's Little House on the Prairie and the cowboy song "Home on the Range". We love it here, and others do too. But then, sometimes tornadoes blow though, whether literal or metaphorical. Such storms--such violent contradictions, such passionate clashes--can and do happen everywhere, of course. But it can perhaps be said with some particular historical truth that you need to be especially attentive to them here. We started out that way, and we haven't seemed to have entirely shaken free of that beginning yet.

1 comment:

Mark Brown said...

Cheers, Russell.

This is a fitting tribute to one of my favorite places.

Ad astra per aspera.