Road Trip through the Literary Midwest

American Road Trips — By on January 30, 2011 at 3:48 pm
Mark Twain

Mark Twain's boyhood home is in Hannibal, Missouri.

Ernest Hemingway, Mark Twain, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Kurt Vonnegut, Laura Ingalls Wilder. These writers all have something in common, namely that they each hail from the American heartland. If you love literature and have a desire to spend some time in the Midwestern United States, you could do a lot worse than to craft a literary road trip through the homes and hometowns of these and other American writers.

We’ve previously looked at literary road trips through New England and California, so here is a third journey to the homes of great writers to add to your travel list.

Mark Twain’s Hannibal

The Mississippi River town of Hannibal, Missouri is as good a place as any to begin your journey. Mark Twain may be the quintessential American writer and several of his works, notably The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, owe a great deal to his boyhood in Hannibal. Today, this town has an entire tourist industry dedicated to Twain’s life and his books. The Mark Twain Boyhood Home & Museum is the main attraction, but visitors can also see the Huck Finn House, Becky Thatcher House and Grant’s Drug Store, as well as wander through the Mark Twain Cave or cruise the Mississippi on the Mark Twain Riverboat.  There is no better place to get a glimpse of the young Samuel Clemens than in Hannibal.

Laura Ingalls Wilder in Missouri, South Dakota and beyond

Laura Ingalls Wilder’s family moved a lot during her childhood and there are sites that memorialize her in six different states across the Midwest. One of the best of these destinations is the Laura Ingalls Wilder Historic Home and Museum near Mansfield, Missouri. It was here, on Rocky Ridge Farm, where Laura and her husband Almanzo settled permanently and raised a family. It is also where she wrote the Little House series of books that made her famous. The home is now a museum with memorabilia from her life and writing career.

Just across the border, in southeastern Kansas, is an historic site where Laura’s family lived for a brief time when she was very young. This is the Kansas location of the “Little House on the Prairie” and there is a replica of the Ingalls’ home on the site. There are similar destinations commemorating Wilder at other childhood homes in Walnut Grove, Minnesota; Pepin, Wisconsin, and Burr Oak, Iowa. All of these sites can easily be visited on this road trip.

Aside from her adult home in Missouri, though, the other prime Wilder location is in De Smet, South Dakota. This is where Laura grew into an adult, became a schoolteacher and got married. At Laura Ingalls Wilder Historic Homes in De Smet, visitors can do a driving or walking tour that includes, among other places, two of the Ingalls family homes, a replica of the schoolhouse where Laura taught, and the town cemetery where her parents and other relatives are laid to rest.

Willa Cather and Nebraska

In between your visits to the Wilder homes in Missouri and South Dakota, you can drive through Red Cloud, Nebraska, where Willa Cather spent her formative years. The early 20th century author of O Pioneers!, My Antonia and other works, Cather credited her Nebraska childhood for providing rich material for her fiction. You can visit Cather’s childhood home, as well as do a walking tour of Red Cloud, which inspired much of her later writing.

Minnesota homes of F. Scott Fitzgerald and Sinclair Lewis

Minnesota happens to be the home of two of America’s most celebrated 20th century writers.  F. Scott Fitzgerald, the Jazz Age writer of The Great Gatsby and other works, has roots in St. Paul, Minnesota. Although the houses that were important to Fitzgerald’s life are privately owned, you can conduct an interesting walking tour that takes in the home where he was born, the place he lived while working on his first novel and other nearby sites that influenced his life and work.

Sinclair Lewis, meanwhile, who was the first American winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1930, was born and raised in Sauk Centre, Minnesota. Some of his most well known novels, such as Main Street and Babbitt, were about small town life in the Midwest and were somewhat based on his childhood in Sauk Centre. Today, Lewis’ boyhood home has been turned into a museum dedicated to his literary career and his family.

Iowa City and Literature

Although the next author’s home is in Illinois, you should consider stopping along the way in Iowa City, which has been designated by UNESCO as a City of Literature. The only U.S. city thus far honored in this way, Iowa City was praised for its commitment to literary culture through such programs as the Iowa Writer’s Workshop and the Summer Writing Festival. But even if you’re not planning to participate in a writing workshop, you can still soak in the vibes at the University of Iowa campus, or at least wander through the famed Prairie Lights bookstore, which has hosted talks and readings by numerous nationally known writers.

Ernest Hemingway and Carl Sandburg in Illinois

From Iowa City, it’s not very far to Galesburg, Illinois, the birthplace of Carl Sandburg, a Pulitzer Prize winner both for his poetry and for his biographies of Abraham Lincoln. The Carl Sandburg Historic Site includes his boyhood home, a museum and a small theater for lectures and videos.

A bit further east in Illinois is the Ernest Hemingway Birthplace Home. Hemingway won the 1954 Nobel Prize for Literature for such works as The Sun Also Rises and A Farewell to Arms. Although he became famous while living in such places as Paris and Key West, his roots are in the Chicago suburb of Oak Park. His birthplace home is open to visitors, as is a nearby museum with artifacts from his life and his writings.

Kurt Vonnegut in Indianapolis

Finally, southeast of Chicago is the city of Indianapolis, which is home to the Midwest’s newest literary landmark. The Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library opened in 2010 in the author’s Indiana hometown. The author of such 1960s and 1970s novels as Slaughterhouse Five and Cat’s Cradle, Vonnegut lived much of his adult life outside of the Midwest but always claimed that his work was tied to his Indianapolis upbringing. The museum has a replica of his writing studio, a collection of his drawings, his Purple Heart for service during World War II and other Vonnegut memorabilia.

Map and directions

Here is a map of this road trip. If you click on the “literary Midwest” link, it will take you to a larger map and more detailed information about the journey.

View Literary Midwest in a larger map

Photo credit: Public domain photo via Wikimedia Commons.

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  1. Great road trip, Bob. I’m glad you connected the dots for us here.

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