Southwest Minnesota: The Land and the People

(Crossings Press, 2000)


“This region has more writers per capita than anywhere else in the country,” people told me when I arrived in southwestern Minnesota two decades ago.  “But we have not many capitas.”

They weren’t kidding.  Southwestern Minnesota, Eastern South Dakota, Northwestern Iowa—the territory Frederick Manfred named “Siouxland”—can legitimately claim a disproportionate share of the Midwest’s (and the nation’s) writers, despite a landscape that was underpopulated when I got here and shrinks as I write.  The problem seems to be that writers, like everyone else except farmers and implement salesmen, must escape this region to find themselves and make it in the big world. 

Still, most seem to carry with them the stamp of this hauntingly sparse landscape, and many return to homes once abandoned, to native villages once spurned . . . and to writers’ festivals at Southwest state University.

Early in my life here I conceived the idea of gathering an anthology of Siouxland writers (stretched a bit to include Rolvaag and Keillor, but not, alas, to reach Tom McGrath): the old and the new, the visitors and their hosts, the ancient people, as Meridel LeSueur called them, and the newly come.  That project got sidetracked, as projects do, while the ranks of writers kept expanding.  Meanwhile, perhaps intimidated by the competition and feeling too much the newcomer to pretend deep ties with the territory, I turned gradually from words to photographs: material mostly in a minor key, lone cottonwoods and abandoned machinery, evidence of a depopulation which escapes the attention of Twin City visitors.  There was something honest in a photograph which made it seem less an artistic construct than the essay or story.  Nor that I caught my Southwest Minnesota writer friends in lies or enhancements; it just seemed to me that sometimes, in the words of one of my students, the writers seemed to live in a reality of the imagination.

Another thing I noticed is that people would flip casually through the pages of Bill Holm’s The Music of Failure or my own Poland in Transition, looking mainly at the photos, and say, without having read a single word of text, “nice book.”  I quit kidding myself: a picture is indeed worth a thousand words.  Books need photographs.

So the anthology of Southwest Minnesota writers became a photo-text book, a coffee table kind of book, part of a genre I ceased to dismiss when Paul Gruchow and Gerald Brimacombe produced Travels in Canoe Country, when Bill Holm and Bob Firth produced A Landscape of Ghosts.  I kept reading books and photographing not so much a landscape, but, as Willa Cather puts it, elements of which a landscape might be composed.  Joe Amato and I imagined a photo-text album presenting the region through my images and the words of its best writers, although two are missing, with contextual essays by authorities on the region’s geography and people. 

Because both processes continued independent of each other, the photos were not shot with particular texts in mind.  Nor are photos always matched with texts on the level of illustration.  Photos and texts are intended to complement each other to produce a portrait of southwestern Minnesota’s land and people.  One day perhaps Joe, I, and the region’s writers can offer a second volume focusing on Southwestern Minnesota’s towns and farms . . . and a third volume on the area’s institutions.

I’d like to thank Joe for his help in framing this idea and this book.  And I especially want to thank Angela Arvidson, a remarkable woman wiser than her years, more colleague than student.  Both Joe and Angela kept pushing me when I might have become distracted.  Thanks to Sandy Mosch for help and criticism, and of course to the writers and their publishers for permission to reprint material here.  I hope readers of this book will work their way upstream to the sources of these texts, then buy and read those books, and perhaps share those books with friends.  Maybe even write a fan letter to authors still living.  The landscape nourishes and sustains a writer, but part of that landscape is human, and sustenance comes in the form of audience response. 

Only bad writers write in a placeless vacuum, and you, good reader, must be part of the non-vacuum of Southwestern Minnesota.