John Berryman Leapt Here

Mapping the literary landmarks of the Twin Cities

Still, you would be hard-pressed to name a major writer who has celebrated either St. Paul or Minneapolis, or who has brought its culture and character fully to life in the pages of a book. If the writers share some of the blame, then the cities themselves must also take their lumps. The same thing is as true of large cities as it is of actors and musicians: It is very difficult to be discovered if you are not, in fact, a discovery. The Twin Cities have always been hospitable places for writers, with their scores of universities and cultural institutions and the vast beneficence of state arts boards and private foundations. They have not, however, done a very good job of fostering cultural community or of preserving and promoting their own history and diversity. The Twin Cities literary community also has a longstanding reputation for being staid, homogeneous, and deadly earnest. As Sinclair Lewis wrote nearly 60 years ago, "a state like this needs more eccentrics and more Jews."

All that said, however, there is a long and rich literary history in the Twin Cities, much of it underground and unexplored. If you're willing to look hard enough, you can find it, spread out all over the map of the cities and out into the suburbs. But much of what you'll discover must be pieced together from the index minutiae of biographies, the scant anecdotal record provided by newspaper accounts and the occasional memoir, and the exhaustive microfilm collection of the Minnesota Historical Society and various libraries. What follows, then, is a too brief but long overdue tour of some of the literary landmarks of Minneapolis and St. Paul.

The pages that follow offer short biographical descriptions of the literary personages who left a footprint here. In the interest of making those footprints easier to find--the Twin Cities lacking a Hollywood Boulevard--a boldfaced number next to each address matches a number on one of three maps, one of Minneapolis and the other two of St. Paul. Many of the buildings the writers would have known are gone now; and so the illustrations at the top of each item depict whatever stands there today.

John Vogt

This literary map is admittedly only a starting point and doubtless misses much of merit and significance. It's also a largely personal selection, driven completely by curiosity and the constant, interesting dead ends, retreats, and happy accidents of the research process. All the same, it does succeed in a modest way in revealing a thrilling secret city--or secret cities--within our midst, with all the stuff of any great literary history: romance, aspiration, success, eccentricity, virtuous obscurity, suffering, alcoholism, and suicide.

Take the tour, and please feel free to fill in your own landmarks.


In June of 1861, when he was 43 years old, HENRY DAVID THOREAU ventured to Minnesota in search of a tuberculosis cure. Traveling from Concord, Massachusetts, with the 17-year-old son of legendary educator Horace Mann, Thoreau spent 33 days in the state, nine of them in MRS. HAMILTON'S BOARDING HOUSE on the SOUTHEASTERN EDGE OF LAKE CALHOUN. Thoreau was seriously ill at the time, and his journal entries from the trip are remarkably terse: "Lake Calhoun. Loons said to nest on old muskrat houses. Found a cluster of wild crabapple trees."

The young HORACE MANN JR., an aspiring naturalist, was more expansive in a letter home to his mother, describing at some length Lake Calhoun and its environs: "It is a beautiful sheet of water....It has an outlet by which it empties itself into Lake Harriet, which lies a little ways to the SE of here, and that again into the Minnehaha and goes over the falls. We are staying at the house of Mrs. Hamilton, a widow, and one of the first settlers near this lake. The house is surrounded with very thick woods which is full of great mosquitoes, so when you walk in them, particularly near twilight, they swarm around you in such a cloud that you can hardly see through them. There are also a great many pigeons in the woods, back of the house (though I should hardly know them from a mosquito here by size)." Thoreau did not live to see Calhoun Square. Less than a year later, back home in Massachusetts, the great deadbeat moralist and philosopher would die of tuberculosis.

A short time later in the 19th Century, DR. CHARLES EASTMAN, a Sioux Indian who had grown up on the Santee Reservation in northern Minnesota and had received his M.D. degree from Boston University, set up a medical practice out of his home in St. Paul, at 227 E. TENTH ST.. Despite being fully qualified and licensed, Eastman was constantly harassed by local authorities and charged with running an illegal practice; he eventually left the city and resumed his practice on a reservation in South Dakota. N. Scott Momaday has called Eastman "one of the first Indians to assume the white man's identity." In 1890 Eastman was the only doctor available to treat the injuries of survivors at Wounded Knee, and he was also an influential early Native American writer, penning numerous popular Indian stories and folktales, histories, and biographies, including his 1936 memoir, From the Deep Woods to Civilization: Chapters in the Autobiography of an Indian.

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