Wednesday, November 23, 2022

When Sunflowers Bloomed Red: Kansas and the Rise of Socialism in America by R. Alton Lee and Steven Cox

A history of radical Kansas
Most people think of Kansas as a conservative “red state,” which may be true today, but historically the Sunflower State has demonstrated markedly progressive and, dare I say, radical tendencies in its political leanings. The cleverly titled When Sunflowers Bloomed Red, published in 2020, is a history of Socialism in the state of Kansas. (Let’s not forget that red was originally the worldwide color of Socialism, before some American TV news executive in the 1980s decided to assign the color to the Republican Party.) The book was written by R. Alton Lee, a historian who has published much on Kansas history, and Steven Cox, archivist at Pittsburg State University, located in the Southeastern and historically reddest corner of the state. The scope of the book spans roughly from the 1890s up to World War II.

In the book’s introduction, the authors state flatly, “This is not a definitive history of socialism in Kansas.” That’s disappointing because, given the title, one would expect it would be, and if this isn’t it, what is? Rather than relating Kansas’s socialist history in a chronological narrative, the authors have divided their study into thematic chapters focusing on particular people or movements. One chapter, for example, focuses on the highly successful publishing operations of J. A. Wayland and Emmanuel Haldeman-Julius in Girard, Kansas. The former founded America’s most widely circulated socialist newspaper, the Appeal to Reason, while the latter sold millions of copies of his Little Blue Books. Another chapter covers union organizing among miners, while another is devoted specifically to prominent women socialists in Kansas. The activities of the International Workers of the World (IWW, or “Wobblies”) and the Nonpartisan League in Kansas are also discussed at length. Presidential candidate Eugene V. Debs, perhaps the most famous socialist in U.S. history, was not a Kansan, but he was an active campaigner in the state, and the elections in which he figured are frequently mentioned throughout the book.

I already had an interest in this subject before I discovered this book, so I would consider myself predisposed to a favorable reaction. Although the authors deliver much informative content, however, the writing is difficult to get excited about. As confirmed by the notes, almost every paragraph is a summary of a newspaper article, and reads like one. These follow one another in chronological order, amounting to a rapid-fire delivery of names, places, and facts but with little attempt to connect the dots and assemble a cohesive narrative. The text is heavy on election statistics, when tables might have been a better way to impart that data. The thematic arrangement also leads to further confusion with a lot of jumping back and forth in time and repetition of events. The result is a book that would probably serve better as a reference volume for historians than as an enlightening read for the curious general reader. Those in the latter category, like myself, may find themselves so exhausted by the blow-by-blow commentary on policy debates that the more violent incidents of class struggle actually come as a refreshing relief. When Sunflowers Bloomed Red contains a lot of valuable information, but its relentless barrage of detail makes it hard to see the forest for the trees and never really brings this history or the personalities of its prominent activists to life.

Compiling a one-volume socialist history of Kansas is surely a difficult task, since so many of the characters who played a part in that history lived lives that could merit a book of their own. Talkin’ Socialism by Elliott Shore, a biography of J. A. Wayland and the Appeal to Reason, is one commendable example. R. Alton Lee also wrote a book that focuses exclusively on Emanuel Haldeman-Julius, Publisher for the Masses, which I look forward to reading.

No comments:

Post a Comment