Touring Nebraska's Literary Heritage

Poet Bill Kloefkorn wrote a poem about the area near Bennet, Nebraska inspired by the area's agricultural heritage. (Photo by Ariana Brocious, NET News)
Kloefkorn's poem "The Exquisite Beauty of Southeastern Nebraska" was inspired by the area around Bennet, Neb. (Photo by Ariana Brocious, NET News)
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April 8, 2016 - 6:45am

Many Nebraska authors took inspiration from the places they lived and traveled in the state. A new tool lets people explore and learn more about Nebraska’s Literary Heritage using their phone.

I read a lot. And I love the way good literature lets you travel in your mind. So when I learned Humanities Nebraska developed an app to explore Nebraska’s literature in person, I decided to give it a try.

I downloaded the Nebraska Literary Tour app to my phone and saw tours sorted by author or region. I looked into the southeast region and found quite a few listings, many tied to former Nebraska state poet Bill Kloefkorn. I decided to do an afternoon tour of a few of the Kloefkorn locations. Sketching them out using the app (which conveniently connects locations to your phone’s mapping app) I hopped in the car and headed south.

Bill Kloefkorn was a well-known poet and author who spent his career teaching at Nebraska Wesleyan University. He had a program on NET Radio for many years until his passing in 2011.

Erika Hamilton, director of literary programs for Humanities Nebraska, said they developed the app following a 2013 literary tour they created with for the Nebraska Passport Program, an initiative of the state tourism department.

“We wanted to keep that information out there in a way so that when people are out traveling in Nebraska, they can access our mobile app, and depending on where they are they can figure out if there's a site nearby that's related to a Nebraska author,” said Hamilton.

On my literary tour, I stopped first at Roca Berry Farm south of Lincoln, where Kloefkorn wrote a poem about the pumpkin patch. Then I continued a few miles east to Bennet, Nebraska where, I learn from the app, the poet was inspired by the area’s agricultural heritage. I found some farmland south of town, pulled up the poem that references this part of the state on my phone, and began reading.


The Exquisite Beauty of Southeastern Nebraska

It is there like a postcard he says,

And means it.

Space for grain and apples, right enough,

And for breathing…

(Excerpt of “The Exquisite Beauty of Southeastern Nebraska,” from Uncertain the Final Run to Winter, published by Wildflower Press, 1971)

Humanities Nebraska worked with students at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and Lincoln City Libraries to develop the app. SheriLynne Hansen of Humanities Nebraska said the library already had a digital map of important sites for Nebraska authors, like Willa Cather’s house and memorial prairie in Red Cloud.

“And our thought was, you could combine our idea of touring the state with their digital map into a mobile application. So it's in someone hand. So when you're in Red Cloud, you're not just looking at these great sites, you can actually pull up a literary excerpt related to the site and it makes your visit even more meaningful because you're getting that background,” said Hansen.

Sarah Polak, director of the Mari Sandoz High Plains Heritage Center, says the app offers the general public a way to explore the breadth of Nebraska authorship across the state.

“Having that kind of a little snapshot, it's a great introduction to get a sense of what their work is. And with Mari Sandoz, with John Neihardt, with all of the Nebraska authors, their work is so tied to place, that to be able to experience the written word in the place they wrote about has great power,” Polak said.

Hamilton of Humanities Nebraska says they began by featuring prominent Nebraska authors of the past, including Cather, Sandoz, Kloefkorn, Bess Streeter Aldrich, Wright Morris, Loren Eiseley, and John Neihardt. Nebraska has a very rich contingent of successful and talented authors, said Hamilton, both in the past and currently writing. They add new authors each year.

“We have been thinking about gender diversity as well as geographic diversity. And genre diversity and what we look for in this is that we want them to be quality authors who had a lot of impact when they were alive,” Hamilton said.

In some cases, she said they’re hoping to reintroduce lesser known authors back to Nebraskans, like Mignon Eberhart.

“We want to introduce her to the state cause she was a very prominent mystery writer back in her day. She was known as America's Agatha Christie,” Hamilton said.

This year they’re adding two new tours: Nellie Snyder Yost, who was a writer from North Platte, and a tour based on the One Book One Nebraska, The Meaning of Names by Karen Shoemaker.

Humanities Nebraska adds new author tours to the app each year.

It’s hard to say how many people have used the app so far. But by making it free and tying it to other literary outreach events, Hansen says they hope the user base will grow.

“A lot of families do the geocaching thing, where they're on a scavenger hunt sort of thing, and this is like a literary version of that. It's a scavenger hunt, and you can read a little poem from Bill Kloefkorn who was our state poet. It's fun,” Hansen said.

As for my tour, I had one final stop.

I arrived at Platte River State Park (halfway between Lincoln and Omaha) in late afternoon. On the app I read a description of the park, the importance of the Platte River and learned that Bill Kloefkorn wrote several poems about the Platte, including “Miracle.”

After walking down the trail to find a suitable spot, I read “Miracle” aloud into the wind, thinking about how this place inspired Kloefkorn to write these words.

Editor's Note: By way of full disclosure, NET receives grant support from Humanities Nebraska.



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