During my first career — back when I was teaching — I wanted to develop a college course on Kansas writers. That never happened, but my interest in authors from our state has never waned.
I was reminded of that when fellow columnist Grady Atwater shared a story about the courage and perseverance of Osawatomie pioneer Jane Carruth. What Grady didn’t share was that Jane’s best work may have been giving birth to her son William Herbert Carruth.
The Carruths farmed near Osawatomie, coming here in June, 1856, drawn to this territory by their free-state sympathies. Jane’s husband, James, was a home missionary for the Presbyterian Church. His love of learning and books and Jane’s courage and determination were combined into their youngest child, the fifth of four boys and a girl.
William was born here in 1859, graduated from the University of Kansas in 1880, taught there as an assistant professor and then as Professor of Modern Languages before completing both a Master’s and a Doctorate at Harvard by 1893. He returned to KU as a popular administrator and teacher, skilled primarily in German but with an interest in history and philosophy. He translated several textbooks, wrote about the suffrage movement and literature and began to express himself in poetry.
I came across his works because of his work on Kansas literature. In the early 1900s, he was cited as one of “The Five Best Writers in Kansas.” Others on that early list were E. W. Howe, William Allen White, former Sen. John J. Ingalls and C.M. Harger. I didn’t know the latter, but I had read and appreciated the works of the others. Carruth was in good company.
In 1913, then vice-chancellor of KU, Carruth went to California and a prestigious post at Stanford University. His move, according to the Osawatomie Graphic and Globe, was his response to yet another failure of the state legislature to adequately fund our system of higher education. According to the OGG editor “We lose a man who has been identified with Kansas progress two score years and our boasted educational superiority is swatted a solar plexus wallop.”
Carruth was a Professor of Comparative Literature at Stanford and also the President of the Pacific Coast Conference of the Unitarian Church. He continued to write. His poetry was popularized in the publications of the times and he was a noted public speaker. He died in 1924, but his legacy lives on in the naming of Carruth-O’Leary Hall in Lawrence. Not bad for a boy whose family began life in Kansas living in a tent.
There are many similar literary success stories here in the Sunflower State. We may have to do a bit of hunting to find older ones such as William E. Connelley, E. Haldeman-Julius, Margaret Hill McCarter, William Inge and Charles Sheldon, but more recent ones are being discovered for us. For the last 15 years, the State Library of Kansas has selected 15 “notable” books. I can’t keep up with them.
The 2020 list covers “a wide swath of our Kansas cultural and natural history.” The authors of these books “examine petroglyphs...high seas adventures with pirates, the careers of academics, athletes and aviators, the importance of family to a young Exoduster in the 1880s and a present day small western town.”
These are modern books, chosen to embellish our state’s literary heritage and to foster an interest in reading. But remember this all began with the work of a man from Osawatomie — William Herbert Carruth — who had the mind of a scholar and the heart of a poet and expressed both in his many works.