The Top 20 Best-Selling Titles… #16

16. The Contested Plains: Indians, Goldseekers, and the Rush to Colorado by Elliott West

“This book will change the way the history of the West is taught and understood forever.” —Publishers Weekly

In his 1998 book, Elliot West tells the history of Native Americans and their battles with the incoming white settlers. West highlights the environmental, social, military, and political ramifications of these events in our history, weaving together the threads of society at that time. West discusses the California Gold Rush as a key event in American history, Native American history, and the reformation of the Great Plains. In the 1800’s, thousands of people rushed to California in search of gold, which drastically changed the course of the tribes of people living there and the environment itself.

Through his storytelling and integration of facts and history, West weaves together an important part of this countries past. His book has received high praise across the board. Glenda Riley from the American Historical Review writes, “In a way, Elliot West tells a familiar tale: that of Indians, goldseekers, and the ensuing conflict. But in this case, West is the first to assess the cataclysmic changes that the Colorado gold rush brought to the Great Plains. In addition, rather than casting the story in the usual terms of heartless aggressors and hapless victims, West supplies a large and insightful interpretation that at once softens and increases our understanding of the Anglo disruption of Plains Indian cultures. To understand where western history is now, and is likely to go in the future, one must read this book.”

Exciting and enormously engaging, The Contested Plains is the first book to examine the Colorado gold rush as the key event in the modern transformation of the central great plains. It also exemplifies a kind of history that respects more fully our rich and ambiguous past—a past in which there are many actors but no simple lessons.

The Contested Plains by Elliot West won the Caroline Bancroft Prize, Caughey Award, PEN Center USA West Literary Award in Research Nonfiction, Francis Parkman Prize, and the Ray Allen Billington Prize Choice Outstanding Title.

20. The Philippine War, 1899-1902 by Brian McAllister Linn

19. The Sable Arm by Dudley Cornish

18. Haunted Kansas: Ghost Stories and Other Eerie Tales by Lisa Hefner Heitz

17. More True Tales of Old-Time Kansas by David Dary

Why the University Press of Kansas Matters

About a year ago, the University Press of Kansas was in turmoil. Our Board of Regents had proposed budget cuts that threatened the future of our press. When word of the potential closure leaked, dozens and dozens of friends came to our defense. In the crowd of our authors and readers, one of the loudest voices came from our friend Danny Caine, owner of The Raven Bookstore here in Lawrence. In February, Danny wrote a moving piece for the Kansas Reflector about why university presses matter and we are proud to share it here…

Here at the Raven Book Store in Lawrence, we felt a sense of deep pride that “Petroglyphs of the Kansas Smoky Hills” was a huge in-house bestseller. We sold hundreds of copies of this lush coffee table book that artfully illuminates forgotten elements of our state’s history, treating indigenous stories with care and reverence.

Too often when people think “publisher,” they imagine one of a shrinking number of New York City mega-corporations. Fortunately, there’s an alternative to corporate publishing and its ills: the university press. Here in Lawrence, we’re lucky to have one of the best, University Press of Kansas, publishing 50-60 books a year and maintaining a strong sense of scholarly rigor. They publish books that push disciplines forward, and books that tell the history of our region in vital ways — like “Petroglyphs of the Kansas Smoky Hills.”

Amid KU’s financial crisis, the University Press of Kansas may end up on the budgetary chopping block. Readers and thinkers of Kansas: We cannot stand for this.

A shelf of books published by the University Press of Kansas at the Raven Book Store. (Submitted)

University presses operate on a model different from corporate publishers, and therein lies their value. They are editorially independent of any corporate oversight; these presses operate as nonprofits, and their books are published only after withstanding rigorous peer review. Even their distribution escapes corporate publishing’s reach; many university presses team up to do their own distribution through consortia.

University Press of Kansas takes that independence one step further and distributes its books itself, from a warehouse on the KU campus, creating publishing jobs in a state hundreds of miles from the corporate book world headquarters in NYC. The independence of the university press from corporate oversight, profits and shareholders means their publishing decisions are driven by scholarship above all.

When universities face difficult budget decisions, university presses end up in the crosshairs. After all, the making and distributing of books is increasingly pricey work. But cutting university press budgets is largely symbolic: University Press of Kansas has just 13 full-time employees, and their allocation of funding from the state hasn’t increased in 10 years. Despite operating on a shoestring, university presses are one of the best examples of actually doing the work of the university.

In just the 10 years since they’ve gotten a raise from the state, UPK has published some of the most important books about Kansas ever written. As a Kansas bookseller, I know — many of these books are perennial bestsellers at my store, beloved by booksellers and customers alike. Take “No Place Like Home,” C.J. Janovy’s history of LGBTQ activism in a state that’s unfairly derided as Trump Country in national media. Take “Kansas Trail Guide,” the single best resource for Kansans looking to engage with our state’s natural beauty. Take the sheer mountain of invaluable scholarship about the pre-Civil War era that shaped this state. Nobody has told this story with more nuance and responsibility than the authors of the University Press of Kansas.

I shudder to think what outsiders would make of our Kansas story if it were up to them alone to tell it. Corporate publishing has long held a coastal bias — just count the number of literary novels set in Brooklyn, or just look where the big five publishers (soon to be four) have their offices. The disappearance of the University Press of Kansas would leave a void where there once was a dedicated group of publishing professionals, right here in our state, creating true, important, and nuanced portraits of our region.

We feel a sense of dismay when we see people like Josh Hawley or any number of Trump enablers getting big book deals. Many nonfiction books from big publishers aren’t even fact-checked, and this parade of dangerous books makes us ever more thankful for university presses. These books won’t make national bestseller lists, but they will tell nuanced stories with a scholarly rigor absent in so much corporate nonfiction. This is vital work, and we’d mourn the day it ceases.

Just to drive home the point of how University Press of Kansas serves readers and the greater Kansas community: In Spring 2020, Meg Heriford shut down her Ladybird Diner in downtown Lawrence and converted it into a food pantry serving 200 free meals a day. She wanted to write a book to help fund the free meals. She needed it done fast; people were still hungry and the diner was running out of funds. It would’ve taken years for her to see a cent from a corporate publisher. Within two months of finishing the manuscript, she had books in hand, because the University Press of Kansas printed the book for her.

You guessed it: It was the Raven’s bestselling book of 2021.


Ramsey Clark: A Model of Independence and Commitment to the Law

by Alexander Wohl, author of Father, Son, and Constitution: How Justice Tom Clark and Attorney General Ramsey Clark Shaped American Democracy

As part of the research for my dual biography on Supreme Court justice Tom Clark and his son, US attorney general Ramsey Clark, I had the opportunity to spend many hours interviewing Ramsey in his Greenwich Village apartment.

So it was with special sadness that I learned of Ramsey’s death earlier this year at age ninety-three. Through my discussions with him, I was able to go on a fascinating tour through history, and get to know this gracious and pleasant man whose deep commitment to the rule of law and individual rights had shaped his life and the nation.

Clark was the last surviving member of President Lyndon Johnson’s cabinet, so his death marked the end of an era. But, more important, perhaps, it also serves as a reminder of the role the attorney general of the United States can and should play in upholding our nation’s commitment to the rule of law. That approach stands in sharp contrast to the actions taken by the president during the last four years of Clark’s life, and the men who held the office of attorney general during Donald Trump’s presidency, each of whom used the office primarily to advance the president’s political agenda while undermining the independence of the office and weakening or eliminating protections of the law for those who most depend on them.

As attorney general from 1966–1968, as well as in his prior Department of Justice positions in both the Johnson and Kennedy administrations, Clark generally rejected the partisan aspects of the job, even as he understood the enormous political baggage that accompanied it. It was a conflict amplified by the turmoil of the times in which he served and the personality of the president who appointed him.

Lyndon Johnson, the ultimate political animal, at times found Clark’s impractical idealism frustrating. He was particularly confounded by the differences with Ramsey’s father, the more conservative and pragmatic Supreme Court justice Tom Clark, a longtime Johnson friend.

The younger Clark was well aware of the irritation he caused the president (and others). During a meeting with Johnson about a controversial judicial nomination, for example, the frustrated president leaned over to his attorney general and told him, “I wish you could be more like your daddy.” To which Ramsey quickly responded, “Mr. President, a lot of people say that.” Nevertheless, though Clark could exasperate Johnson, the president also greatly respected his attorney general’s intelligence, integrity, and, most of the time, his advice.

But Clark and his father were more similar than their politics revealed on the surface. As I explored in my book, while their political leanings were different—Tom Clark was a conservative who became somewhat more moderate during his lifetime, while Ramsey was a liberal who became more radical—they shared a strong appreciation for, and commitment to, the rule of 1aw.

During his time in government, some of Clark’s colleagues gave him the nickname “the Preacher” due to his expansive theorizing on legal issues and his continuing search for the “right” answer that might combine legal and moral principles.

In both his role as attorney general and in prior positions at the Department of Justice, Clark found those answers in positions he believed represented basic principles of justice. This included opposition to wiretapping and the death penalty as well as fervent advocacy for racial equality—including key official roles in the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, government actions to protect the civil rights marchers from Selma to Montgomery, and the desegregation of the University of Mississippi.

As attorney general he also worked to prioritize the development of well-trained police forces and community involvement in policing, issues that remain important today. And, often to his discomfort, his adherence to the rule of law at times led him to enforce or defend government policies that curtailed individual rights, such as the prosecution of Draft protesters or approving surveillance of certain radical groups.

It was largely in his post-government career that Clark gained his more radical reputation as a principled advocate in defense of human rights and the rule of law. He practiced law on the local, national, and international stages, using his standing as a former attorney general to become an outspoken advocate for causes involving equality and justice.

He spoke out against the Vietnam War and supported civil disobedience. One of the first places he embraced this new freedom after leaving the confines of his government position was in the testimony he sought to give during the 1969 trial of the Chicago Seven, a role captured in the recent movie of the same name. (Ramsey also ran twice for the US Senate from New York, something for which his idealistic, uncompromising approach was totally unsuited.)

He continued to move further to the left, gravitating to the outer reaches on the individual rights–government power spectrum and providing defense to a list that included Lyndon LaRouche and dictators such as Saddam Hussein and Slobodan Milosevic, work that often confounded many of his former colleagues and allies. But Clark viewed this activity as entirely consistent with his earlier work, with both focused on what he described as helping to avert the distortion of the justice system by preventing government abuse of its extraordinary powers.

The focus of both Ramsey Clark’s and his father’s work during their nearly century-long tagteam in American law and policy involved constant evaluation and balancing of the government’s role in ensuring our democratic freedoms and individual liberties against the protections it should provide for the most vulnerable citizens. It is a debate that continues to be a central source of conflict in our society.

We may disagree with the path that Ramsey Clark took or, for that matter, the positions of many of his clients. For many the approach taken by his more conservative father is equally unsatisfying.

And yet the battles they engaged in involving some of the toughest legal questions of their day are a reminder that the struggle to uphold the rule of law and to support our democratic system and the constitutional standards that underpin our society require an adherence to principle over politics.

At a time when far too many have embraced the January 6 siege on the US Capitol as a legitimate action and continue to use social media to spread the lies (big and little) and disinformation that support it, this message, and the work and lives of the Clarks, has special resonance.

Alexander Wohl is the author of Father, Son, and Constitution: How Justice Tom Clark and Attorney General Ramsey Clark Shaped American Democracy (University Press of Kansas, 2013).