John Berryman Leapt Here

Mapping the literary landmarks of the Twin Cities

In the fall of 1960 Anoka native GARRISON KEILLOR entered the UNIVERSITY OF MINNESOTA. During his years at the university Keillor worked at KUOM, the campus radio station, and published his first poem in THE IVORY TOWER, the college newspaper's literary magazine. That poem, "My Child Knew Once Who He Was," was an auspicious debut, including such memorable lines as these:

    My child knew once who he was
    who swept the temple yesterday
    and wept for mangled cats.

THE IVORY TOWER (10 MURPHY HALL, UNIVERSITY OF MINNESOTA, EAST BANK) was a proving ground for a number of well-known Minnesota writers, including PATRICIA HAMPL and ROBERT PIRSIG, the Minnesota native and author of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, who was a coeditor in the 1950s. Pirsig also would later help to found the MINNESOTA ZEN CENTER (425 FIFTH ST. SE) in Minneapolis.

Keillor would become the fiction editor of The Ivory Tower in 1963, and the journal would publish his first short story, "The Man Who Locked Himself In," in October of that year, in effect writing Keillor's own epitaph right out of the blocks.

John Vogt

After leaving the university, Keillor would intern at the newspaper with which he would later have a longstanding feud, the St. Paul Pioneer Press, and would write a short-lived sports column for the old weekly TC Express. He would also sign on with "A Prairie Home Entertainment: Poems, Stories, Small Prose, and Items D'Art," a program that writers/artists Gregory Bitz and Robin Raygor were producing at WALKER ART CENTER (725 VINELAND PL..).

Years later, after Keillor had taken that concept and turned it into a cottage industry qua empire, he would feud with the Pioneer Press over what he saw as overzealous coverage of his personal life. The feud would culminate with the paper publishing the address of his new $300,000, four-bedroom St. Paul home (496 PORTLAND AVE.), after which Keillor temporarily abandoned the city--and the newly renovated FITZGERALD THEATER--for Denmark.

When AUGUST WILSON moved to St. Paul from his native Pittsburgh in 1978 he was still a struggling writer coming to grips with the racially charged subject matter that would shape his work for years to come. In St. Paul he worked for a time as a scriptwriter for the SCIENCE MUSEUM OF MINNESOTA (30 E. TENTH ST., ST. PAUL), cooked at the LITTLE BROTHERS OF THE POOR (1845 E. LAKE ST., MINNEAPOLIS), and received a Jerome fellowship from the PLAYWRIGHTS' CENTER (2301 FRANKLIN AVE. S., MINNEAPOLIS). The PENUMBRA THEATER (270 N. KENT ST., ST. PAUL) staged a production of Black Bart and the Sacred Hills, which Wilson had adapted from a series of stories he had written dealing with black people in the Old West. It was also during his Twin Cities stay that Wilson would write Jitney, the play that would bring him his first acclaim.

After leaving St. Paul, Wilson would go on to international renown (and two Pulitzer Prizes) with such plays as Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, Fences, and The Piano Lesson.

On May 5, 1973, the Minnesota Opera staged the world premiere of Transformations, adapted from the poems of ANNE SEXTON. Sexton, who made a career of blunt, corrosively confessional poetry, wrote the libretto working closely with composer Conrad Susa, and was on hand for the premiere in Minneapolis's CEDAR VILLAGE THEATER (416 CEDAR AVE. S.). Of the production, Sexton told the Minneapolis Star, "The page came alive, and I've never seen that before in my work...I feel I get no credit for this at all. It was just dirt, and they turned it into statues."

A year later Sexton was dead, a suicide at age 46. No connection was established between the Minnesota Opera production of Transformations and her despair.

In the close-but-no-cigar category, we have the story of ERIC BENTLEY, the world-renowned translator, theater scholar, and Bertolt Brecht authority, who while a professor at the University of Minnesota in the 1940s tried repeatedly, with no success, to convince the university to stage a production of Brecht's work. Frustrated, Bentley eventually took his translation of The Caucasian Chalk Circle to CARLETON COLLEGE in NORTHFIELD, where on May 4, 1948 the play had its world premiere in the NOURSE LITTLE THEATER, under the direction of Henry Goodman.

In May 1998, during the Brecht centenary, the University of Minnesota staged a two-day commemoration of the playwright's work, "Revisiting Brecht at the End of the 20th Century," at the RARIG CENTER, 330 21ST AVE. S.). A world Communist uprising did not ensue.

The universities of the Twin Cities have obviously produced more than their fair share of the literary history of the region, turning out writers and providing employment for scores of writers both celebrated and undeservedly obscure. The UNIVERSITY OF MINNESOTA (53) has the most impressive roster of alumni and distinguished professors. Journalist HARRISON SALISBURY was a onetime student and Minnesota Daily editor who was expelled for challenging a campus rule. From the 1930s through the 1960s the university's English and journalism departments were nationally acclaimed, attracting first-class faculty and churning out writers who would go on to make international reputations of their own.

During the Sinclair Lewis and Robert Penn Warren years, GORDON DICKSON and POUL ANDERSON, who would become science-fiction icons, were students at the university and together formed the Minneapolis Fantasy Society. Legendary journalist and Murrow Boy ERIC SEVAREID was a reporter at the Daily, and HARRY REASONER was also a journalism student. MAX SCHULMAN (Barefoot Boy With Cheek) and TOM HEEGEN (Mr. Roberts), two writers who went on to success in films and on Broadway, also passed through the university. Among the other celebrated faculty were poets ALLEN TATE, HOWARD NEMEROV, and JAMES WRIGHT. Tate and Nemerov were both United States poet laureates, as was Penn Warren. Tate lived at 2019 IRVING AVE. S., while Wright made his home in Minneapolis at 2414 COMO AVE. SE (55).

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