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Release: Sept. 18, 2001

New UI Libraries exhibit features Iowa author

IOWA CITY, Iowa -- The University of Iowa Libraries department of special collections has opened a new exhibit that highlights the career of Charles Leland Sonnichsen, whose work is part of the Iowa Authors Collection. The free exhibit, "Grassroots Historian: An Exhibition," is open to the public now through October in the special collections department, located on the third floor of the main library.

Sonnichsen of Fonda, Iowa, in Pocahontas County, was a self-described "grassroots historian," and he defined the term as a sort of "conversational dentistry, every fact wrenched out by the roots." Almost all of the books in this exhibition are from the UI Libraries Authors Collection. Exhibit titles on display include "Roy Bean, Law West of the Pecos," (1943); "Cowboy and Cattle Kings: Life on the Range Today" (1950); and "I'll Die Before I'll Run: The Story of the Great Feuds of Texas" (1951).

After taking a teaching position at the University of Texas in 1931, Sonnichsen became interested in the folklore of the border country and in Western literature. In "Alias Billy the Kid" (1955) he explored the assertions of Brushy Bill Roberts who, in 1949 at age 90, claimed to be the real outlaw Billy the Kid. Sonnichsen found the testimony interesting enough to write a book, although Robert's story has never been confirmed. He also published writing manuals such as "The Ambidextrous Historian, Historical Writers and Writing in the American West" (1981), and "The Grave of John Wesley Hardin, Three Essays on Grassroots History" (1979).

Sonnichsen died in 1991 at age 89. He grew up in rural Minnesota and graduated from the University of Minnesota in 1924 where he earned an M.A. in 1927. He later earned a Ph.D. in literature from Harvard University. In 1931, he began teaching at the University of Texas, El Paso.

The exhibition can be viewed in the special collections department Monday through Friday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. and from the public access ways during regular Libraries weekday and weekend hours. For additional information, contact the department of special collections at (319) 335-5921.