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The secret life of rural literature in West Central Minnesota

Too good to keep in hiding, Rural Lit RALLY strives to return rural literature to the prominence it once knew, and deserves

Southwest Minnesota State University English Professor David Pichaske used to welcome students to his class on rural and regional literature by quoting Paul Gruchow, who grew up on a farm outside of Montevideo in the 1950s.

Gruchow wrote how he went through 12 years of English instruction without ever learning about Robert Bly, an award-winning poet who lived only 30 miles down the road. “The countryside was full of writers,’’ Gruchow lamented, but he had never been introduced to them, including during his studies at the University of Minnesota.

Pichaske enjoyed telling his students: “This is the course that you can’t get at the University of Minnesota.’’

Now, it’s also the course you can’t get at Southwest Minnesota State University. Budget cuts led to the elimination of the regional and rural studies program.

It has not quashed the determination of Pichaske to introduce others to the works of rural writers. Pichaske was joined by Dr. Paul Theobald, Dean of Dducation at Buena Vista University in Storm Lake, Iowa, at the Minnesota Machinery Museum in Hanley Falls on July 8.

They are both part of an organization known as the Rural Lit RALLY Initiative, or reinvigorating American life and learning through literature of yesteryear. Its mission is to renew interest in rural and regional literature and to make it accessible to a new audience.

They opened an exhibit to showcase the works of rural writers, especially those with ties to this region. Paul Gruchow of Montevideo, Carol and Robert Bly of Madison, Bill Holm of Minnesota, Frederick Manfred of Luverne, Howard Morh of Cottonwood and Joseph Amato of Marshall are just a small sampling of the talented authors with their roots in the prairie soils of Southwestern Minnesota,

Theobald, who once taught at the Fairfax High School, said it is becoming increasingly difficult to discover rural literature. Many works are out-of-print, and few publishers are willing to re-issue them. Even many University presses are reluctant. “They’re pushed to be self-supporting and make a profit, so they’re scrutinized on everything they do,’’ said Theobald.

There are cultural challenges to introducing people to rural literature too. We’re fascinated today by all things urban and suburban, said Theobald.

Rural youth grow up in a world touting urban values and lifestyles.

“They are told they should find out what they are not. They’re not really told they should find out what they are,’’ said Pichaske.

He also believes we are in a post-modernist era in literature, where fiction and even post-apocalypse themes attract more interest than the reality-based themes that are central to rural writing.

There are obstacles in education too, and not just the budget cuts that Pichaske knows. High schools are compelled to adopt standardized curriculum that allows little flexibility in the selection of literature, the two noted.

Ignoring our rural heritage comes at a cost, according to Theobald. He quotes the French philosopher Montesquieu, who greatly shaped the thinking of our country’s founders: “Republics will become less and less efficient as people lose the feel of their history.’’

Rural writers have and continue to speak to issues that are very important to our lives today. The environment, corporatization, and the importance of community are frequent themes. In many ways it has never been more pertinent for the voices of rural authors to be heard, noted Theobald.

And what does it mean for rural students if they cannot discover their own sense of place? “Plant an acorn and you get an oak,’’ said Pichaske. “You are going to be what you were. If you want to understand who the hell you are you’ve got to find out.’’

He pointed out that the country embraced rural works in its past, and there was something of a rural revival in the 1970s and 1980s.

“Now we’re right back in ’53,’’ he said, by way of referring to Gruchow’s lament about the lack of attention to rural writers when he grew up.

“So we’re historians until it comes back,’’ said Pichaske.

The Rural Lit RALLY Initiative is working to promote a new awareness of rural literature in many ways, making the most of a shoestring budget of $1,600 a year.

Theobald said they encourage teachers to incorporate rural literature in their classes.

The organization also publishes works that might otherwise be lost. In the “Bones of Plenty,’’ Lois Phillips Hudson provides a gritty account of the country’s Dust Bowl experience that many feel surpasses John Steinbech’s “The Grapes of Wrath.’’

The estate of the North Dakota-born author recently turned over an unpublished manuscript by the author, “Unrestorable Habitat: Microsoft is my neighbor now.”

The Rural Lit RALLY has made it available on its website.

The Initiative also works with private publishers to issue the works of new authors, and re-issue others. It maintains its own library with more than 100 rare manuscripts from rural authors.

It also offers exhibits at locations across the country like the one now in Hanley Falls. It will remain there through Aug. 3.

To learn more, visit its website:

Tom Cherveny

Tom Cherveny is a regional and outdoor reporter with the West Central Tribune in Willmar, MN.

(320) 214-4335