John Berryman Leapt Here
- Drop here, with honor due, my trunk and brain
among the passioning of my countrymen
unable to read, rich, proud of their tags,
and proud of me. Assemble all my bags!
bury me in a hole, and give a cheer,
near Cedar on Lake Street, where the used cars live!
--John Berryman, "The Poet's Final Instructions"
At the University of Minnesota, John [Berryman] and I shared an office in a temporary wooden structure to the north of the School of Mines. From the window we saw a gully, a parking lot, and many disheartening cars. Scorched theology books from a fire sale lined one of the walls. These volumes of Barth and Brunner looked as if they had gone through hell. We had no particular interest in them, but they helped to furnish forth a mental life in the city of Minneapolis. Minneapolis was the home of Honeywell, of heart surgery, of Pillsbury, of the Multiphasic test, but it was not celebrated as the home of poems and novels. John and I strolled sometimes, about a pond, through a park, and then up Lake Street, 'where the used cars live!' What on earth were we doing here?
--Saul Bellow, from the introduction to John Berryman's Recovery
It's curious. The Twin Cities guides and maps in any local bookstore contain myriad fine-dining options, paeans to quaint bed and breakfasts, and tributes to barons of industry and the Summit Avenue shells they once inhabited. Absent amid the pages of testimonials to the region's quality of life, however, is any suggestion of a literary history. Which prompts the question: What's missing? And from where exactly is it missing: the cities or the map? If it's true, as Saul Bellow insisted, that the Twin Cities are not celebrated as the home of poems and novels, does that leave room for the notion that they--these poems and novels--are out there somewhere nonetheless, lost, neglected, languishing in obscurity?
The relationship between writers and cities is virtually always symbiotic. Writers find refuge, community, and inspiration in the places they call home, and cities claim and celebrate these writers and their works as part of their cultural identity and shared history. A sort of incorporation takes place, an inspired process of osmosis whereby a city becomes a place both real and imagined. This is, fundamentally, the chemistry of romance, the alchemy by which a city transcends its quotidian realities and becomes the province of dreams, drama, and art.
The history, character, and mythos of a great city is always shaped and elevated by the literature it inspires, by the writers and poets who immortalize its streets, neighborhoods, and institutions. Over time, in fact, cities come to be defined, and to define themselves, through the long (and wide) lens of their literary portraits and histories. London is now synonymous with the city of Dickens's imagination, Dublin with the stories and novels of James Joyce. The geography and culture of Paris sometimes seem as much the creation of such writers as Stendhal, Balzac, and Victor Hugo, as of Louis XIV, Napoleon III, or Baron Haussmann. The whole world knows the teeming romance and squalor of New York through its innumerable literary chroniclers, from Henry James, Edith Wharton, Claude McKay, Dorothy Parker, and Joseph Mitchell to Tom Wolfe, Paul Auster, and even Candace Bushnell. Chicago also has a large and celebrated literary history and identity, its hard-nosed, no-nonsense reputation cemented in the works of, among others, Frank Norris, Upton Sinclair, Carl Sandburg, Ben Hecht, and James Farrell.
The literary landscapes of all of the cities mentioned above have been scrupulously mapped, annotated, and acknowledged; walking their streets, you have the inescapable sense that you are moving through the pages of books. And for the truly curious there are maps and guidebooks to steer you to the various literary landmarks, from the places where writers lived and worked, to the saloons, bookstores, and neighborhoods where they congregated and where the ideas for their poems, stories, and books were hatched.
It says something--it says a lot, actually--about the Twin Cities and their notoriously short-sighted institutional and cultural memory that there is so little sense here of a literary history. The average Twin Cities resident perhaps knows that F. Scott Fitzgerald was born in St. Paul. There is some recollection, diminishing every year, that the poet John Berryman jumped to his death from the Washington Avenue Bridge on the University of Minnesota campus. There's A Prairie Home Companion, of course, and the wide recognition and acclaim accorded Garrison Keillor and his fictional creation Lake Wobegon. But what else is there? What else do you know? Could you, for instance, name a definitive Twin Cities novel, one book that has defined these cities to the world outside our borders? Not much comes to mind.
Some of the blame for that must lie with the writers--and they have always been plentiful, including many legendary names--who have lived and worked among us. Many of the most widely recognized Minnesota novelists have written evocative and celebrated (and often enough bitterly satiric) portraits of outstate life, from Nobel laureate and Sauk Centre native Sinclair Lewis's harsh examinations of small-town hypocrisy to the provincial novels and stories of Jon Hassler, Keillor, and J.F. Powers. Others were born here or went to college here, only to make their reputation elsewhere. There have been a handful of mystery and suspense novelists, mostly in recent years, who have explored the actual terrain of the Twin Cities. Most notable might be a number of the late Thomas Gifford's thrillers (Windchill Factor, etc.), the crime novels of John Sandford and Steve Thayer, and the oddball capers of Pete Hautman, whose work has featured such distinctive Twin Cities settings as the State Fair (The Mortal Nuts).
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.
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.
The first of Minnesota's literary titans, Sauk Centre's SINCLAIR LEWIS, made his first trip to the Twin Cities to take his college entrance exams in 1901. While here Lewis stayed at the CLARENDON HOTEL on FIFTH AND WABASHA (SINCE RAZED) IN DOWNTOWN ST. PAUL, and struck up a relationship with poet ARTHUR WHEELOCK UPSON, who became a mentor to the younger writer. Upson was the author of volumes of verse with such titles as Octaves in an Oxford Garden and West Wind Songs, and Lewis visited him in his home at 1217 FIRST AVE. S. in Minneapolis . When Upson drowned in Lake Bemidji in 1908, Lewis was reportedly grief-stricken and wrote "Adonais is dead" in his notebook.
Like a lot of other literary figures associated with Minnesota and the Twin Cities, Lewis came and went throughout his career, retreating back to his home state when he was down on his luck or in need of a quiet place to work. After graduating from Yale and traveling and working in New York for a number of years, Lewis returned to St. Paul with his wife and infant child in 1917, where he rented a house at 516 SUMMIT AVE. S. that he called "The Lemon Meringue Pie." Lewis collaborated with Danny Reed of the LITTLE THEATER ASSOCIATION (RAMSEY AND PLEASANT, ST. PAUL) on the play Hobohemia. The next winter Lewis took up residence across the river, taking a house at 1801 JAMES AVE. S., where he worked at his novel Free Air and continued to talk about and outline Main Street. By the spring of 1919 he was gone again, and with the publication of Main Street in 1920 he would begin his string of commercially and critically successful satires of Mid-American hypocrisy, conformity, and failed ambition that would bring him the Nobel Prize for literature in 1930.
By 1942 Lewis's career was on a downward slide, and he once more returned to the Twin Cities to take a teaching job at the University of Minnesota and an office (301 FOLWELL HALL, 9 PLEASANT ST. SE) on campus. Writing in his diary shortly after his return, Lewis noted, "At first sight, Minneapolis is so ugly...no planning in a public mind--no soul...no style." Lewis was a wealthy man by this time, and he moved into a large house at 1500 MOUNT CURVE AVE. atop Lowry Hill, where every Sunday evening from five until the wee hours his students were invited to stop by to discuss their work.
Mark Schorer's 1961 biography of Lewis includes this merciless entry from the diary of Eva Holmquist, one of the humbled Nobel laureate's students at the time: "He is a most astonishing man, extremely ugly, with his very high and broad forehead tapering down to a narrow face to a sharp chin--red scarred complexion--ugly buck teeth, many filled and missing--ugly eyes peering out from over the top of his glasses."
THE UNIVERSITY'S ENGLISH DEPARTMENT, under the direction of JOSEPH WARREN BEACH, was in its heyday at this time, and the Twin Cities literary scene was as lively as it had ever been, invigorated by the socialist politics of the period and a confluence of colorful characters.
ROBERT PENN WARREN had come aboard in the department at about the same time as Sinclair Lewis, and had moved into an apartment (NUMBER 405) AT 3124 W. CALHOUN BLVD.. Lewis and Penn Warren, who was then a rising star, apparently regarded each other warily, and they seldom socialized. The much younger Penn Warren would publish All the King's Men (and win the Pulitzer Prize) during his time at the university. Another Nobel laureate, SAUL BELLOW, would teach in the English department at the tail end of Penn Warren's stay; Bellow was an assistant professor from 1948 to 1949, and an associate professor from 1954 to 1959.
The home of BEACH, the longtime English-department head, at 1801 UNIVERSITY AVE. SE, was a lively focal point of the local literary scene during his many years at the university, and the site of countless parties with colorful guests and plentiful liquor.
St. Paul's most celebrated literary export, F. SCOTT FITZGERALD, left a trail of landmarks all over the capital city, beginning with the three-story brick apartment building at 481 LAUREL AVE. where he was born on September 24, 1896. Fitzgerald attended ST. PAUL ACADEMY (1712 RANDOLPH AVE.), where he was a debate star and published his first story, "The Mystery of the Raymond Mortgage" in Now and Then, the school paper. He was generally described as an indifferent student, and his small stature thwarted his athletic aspirations.
During Fitzgerald's school years, his family seemed to be constantly on the move, shuttling around to various apartments and houses in the same basic neighborhood. From September 1909 through September 1911, the family lived at three different addresses on the same street--499, 509, AND 514 HOLLY AVE.. Fitzgerald took dancing classes at RAMALEY HALL (664-668 GRAND AVE.), and he wrote four plays for schoolmate Elizabeth Magoffin's Elizabethan Dramatic Club, including "The Captured Shadow," which was produced at MRS. BACKUS'S SCHOOL FOR GIRLS (580-90 HOLLY AVE.). The "Basil Duke Lee" stories were inspired by Fitzgerald's adolescence and the family's social circle among St. Paul's Summit Avenue community. He also attended frequent sledding parties and other social events at the TOWN AND COUNTRY CLUB (2279 MARSHALL AVE.), where in 1915 he met Ginerva King, the first love of his life. Fitzgerald kept every letter King ever wrote him, and he had them typed and bound. According to John Koblas in F. Scott Fitzgerald in St. Paul, "until the end of his days the thought of her could bring tears to his eyes."
In 1919, after Zelda broke off their engagement, Fitzgerald retreated to his parents' home at 599 SUMMIT AVE., where he finished his first novel, This Side of Paradise, which was accepted by Maxwell Perkins at Scribner's in September 1919. Fitzgerald's St. Paul social life revolved around W. A. FROST'S PHARMACY at 374 SELBY AVE., where he would retreat for cigarettes and caffeine, and KILMARNOCK BOOKS at 84 E. FOURTH ST.. Kilmarnock was owned by writers THOMAS AND PEGGY BOYD. Thomas Boyd, a World War I veteran, was the author of Through the Wheat, which Fitzgerald called the "best war book since Red Badge of Courage." Boyd was also the literary editor at the St. Paul Daily News, and his downtown bookstore was the longtime meeting place for local and visiting literary figures, including Sinclair Lewis.
MARY MCCARTHY spent many of her formative years in Minneapolis, and they were largely unhappy ones. In 1918, days after the family's arrival by train from Seattle, both of McCarthy's parents died of Spanish influenza, leaving behind four young children. Mary was six at the time, and the oldest child, and she recounts the horrors of those years in Memories of a Catholic Girlhood. After the death of her parents, McCarthy and her siblings were packed off to live with her grandmother's sister, Margaret Shriver, and her abusive husband Myers. The family lived at 2427 BLAISDELL AVE. S. and Mary found refuge at ST. STEPHEN'S CHURCH AND SCHOOL (22ND STREET AND CLINTON AVENUE SOUTH), where she won first prize in a statewide contest for her essay "The Irish in American History." Six years later McCarthy's three brothers were sent away to boarding school and Mary went to Seattle to live with her maternal grandparents. She went on to become a prolific and influential novelist (The Group), critic, and literary celebrity (she was married for a time to writer and critic Edmund Wilson).
"It's easy enough--perhaps too easy--to memorialize the dead," Stephen King wrote in 1981's Danse Macabre. "This book is for six great writers of the macabre who are still alive." Included in that list of very select company, alongside Jorge Luis Borges and Ray Bradbury, was St. Paul's DONALD WANDREI. Master of the occult H.P. Lovecraft called the work of Donald's younger brother HOWARD "the greatest fantastic art ever produced." On and off through much of the 20th Century, the Wandrei brothers lived in the family home at 1152 PORTLAND AVE. in St. Paul, where they produced a sprawling repository of work that stands as a monument to the glory days of weird science and pulp.
Donald, born in 1909, was a year older than his brother, and attended the University of Minnesota, where he served on the editorial board of the Minnesota Daily and published his first story, "The Red Brain," in Weird Tales. He continued to publish in all the influential pulp magazines of the time--Astounding Stories, Argosy, and Black Mask, among others--and also produced volumes of poetry, screenplays, and collaborations with his brother. Howard was convicted of burglary--he was allegedly doing research for a writing project of his own--and spent three years in the St. Cloud Reformatory (1928-1930), where he took extension classes through the university and worked on his art. In 1939, along with August Derleth, Donald founded Arkham House, the first publishing company in the country devoted solely to fantasy, with the purpose of publishing the works of Lovecraft.
The brothers left behind thousands of pages of letters, drafts, contracts, report cards, grocery lists, circus programs, receipts, greeting cards, legal papers--they kept everything, it seems, and the Minnesota Historical Society archive contains an irresistible trove that reveals two of the most fascinating and eccentric characters in the annals of literature. In a classic case of profiling, Donald's University of Minnesota report cards show an A-and-B student who nonetheless received a C in physical education and a D in hygiene. Howard was a clock repairer, alley scrounger, and mushroom obsessive, whose usual breakfast, he reveals in one letter, consisted of dill pickles and milk. Included in Donald's papers at the Historical Society is the handwritten manuscript of a story detailing a sexual union between six eunuchs and a giantess, and later between a woman and a lascivious pony named Snowman.
The unsolved murder of his father haunts the work of writer GERALD VIZENOR, who studied at the University of Minnesota and was the director of the AMERICAN INDIAN EMPLOYMENT AND GUIDANCE CENTER in the 1960s. Vizenor won the American Book Award for his novel, Griever: An American Monkey King in China, but he has returned to his father's 1936 murder often in his poems and writings. On June 28, 1936, CLEMENT VIZENOR was murdered in AN ALLEY BEHIND A BUILDING AT 425 WASHINGTON AVE. S. in downtown Minneapolis (now, apparently, the site of a large parking garage). The death certificate lists Vizenor's race as white, and his occupation as "wallpaper hanger." The cause of death, as recorded by coroner Gilbert Seashore, was "homicide--deep laceration of throat."
In Interior Landscapes: Autobiographical Myths and Metaphors, Gerald Vizenor writes of his father's death: "He was a house painter who told trickster stories, pursued women, and laughed most of his time on earth. He was murdered in a narrow street in downtown Minneapolis."
During the university's literary glory days of the 1940s, cartoonist CHARLES SCHULZ was studying art at the FEDERAL SCHOOL (later the ART INSTRUCTION SCHOOL) at 500 S. FOURTH ST. in Minneapolis. Schulz grew up in St. Paul, where he attended CENTRAL HIGH SCHOOL (AT LEXINGTON AND MARSHALL) and started building the chip on his shoulder that would later fuel the psychodynamics of his Peanuts comic strip. Rejection drove the young cartoonist, and he had plenty; his illustrations were rejected for the Celisean, the school annual and, later, his comic strip was turned down by the St. Paul Pioneer Press.
It was while he was an instructor at the Art Instruction School, in 1948, that he met Donna Wold, a secretary in the accounting department who would provide the inspiration for "The Little Red-Haired Girl" of Charlie Brown's dreams. Schulz wooed Wold for a time, but was crushed when she broke off their relationship to marry another man. Schulz would long recall, down to the last detail, a June 24, 1950 date in which he accompanied Wold to the HIGHLAND THEATER (760 CLEVELAND AVE., ST. PAUL) to see My Foolish Heart, starring Dana Andrews and Susan Hayward. "I think about it now, or hear the score, and it just about breaks my heart," he would tell an interviewer decades later.
No writer ever cut so wide a swath of self-destruction across the landscape of the Twin Cities as Pulitzer Prize-winning poet JOHN BERRYMAN. From Berryman's first night in town, October 3, 1954, when he had dinner with fellow poet and university professor ALLEN TATE at the RAINBOW CAFÉ (LAKE AND HENNEPIN), his sad orbit took him through a series of apartments, houses, classrooms, bars, hospitals, and treatment centers until that fateful day--January 7, 1972--when he jumped to his death from the WASHINGTON AVENUE BRIDGE. Berryman's first Minneapolis apartment was at 2509 HUMBOLDT AVE. S., near Lake of the Isles. He would live in nearly a dozen different apartments and houses around Minneapolis, but perhaps the most significant among the locations associated with Berryman are the bars and hospitals where he sought refuge on a regular basis. THE BRASS RAIL (422 HENNEPIN AVE.) was a favorite haunt, as was the now gone WAIKIKI ROOM (235 HENNEPIN AVE.). Between binges he endured frequent hospitalizations--which would provide the glum inspiration for his novel, Recovery--at ABBOTT (110 E. 18TH ST.), ST. MARY'S (2417 S. SEVENTH ST.), GLENWOOD HILLS, and HAZELDEN. The most beleaguered man in the Twin Cities during Berryman's time here was undoubtedly his personal physician, DR. BOYD THOMES, who is credited with saving the poet's life on innumerable occasions. Thomes's office was number 411 IN THE DOCTOR'S BUILDING at 90 S. NINTH ST..
"In hospitals he found his society," Berryman's peer Saul Bellow wrote in the introduction to Recovery. "University colleagues were often more philistine, less tolerant of poets than were alcoholics or suicidal girls."
Berryman's funeral services were held at ST. FRANCES CABRINI (1500 FRANKLIN AVE. SE), and he is buried in RESURRECTION CEMETERY in Mendota Heights (2101 LEXINGTON AVE. S.).
In the 1929 St. Paul city directory, author, filmmaker, composer, and photographer GORDON PARKS is listed as a porter living at 702 OLD RONDO. During his formative years in the Twin Cities, Parks worked as a busboy at the LOWRY HOTEL ("St. Paul's Largest") at FOURTH AND WABASHA, and also at the MINNESOTA CLUB (WASHINGTON AND FOURTH). He also hung out and played piano at JIM WILLIAMS'S POOL HALL (560 ST. ANTHONY AVE.), and at CARVER'S PLACE, a juke joint/ whorehouse in a farmhouse on the outskirts of the city. Parks got his first big break as a fashion photographer for FRANK MURPHY'S women's clothing store (FIFTH AND ST. PETER) in downtown St. Paul.
When SIR TYRONE GUTHRIE first visited the Twin Cities in search of a site for his repertory theater, he was wined and dined by the local gentry, including publisher JOHN COWLES and lawyer PIERCE BUTLER. In his 1964 book A New Theatre, Guthrie recalls a gathering "in an upper chamber at the newspaper office, where Cowles had invited a distinguished and influential group to meet us. We made our pitch. The group expressed polite but guarded interest."
What sealed the deal, apparently, was a later gathering at a local watering hole, which Guthrie describes with great relish: "We assembled in one of those slightly sinful-looking bars which are prevalent in the upper Midwest, with very dim emerald green lighting like the Tunnel of Fear at a fun fair, a décor which flits uneasily between Tahiti (rattan chair and plastic orchids) and France (naughty murals in primary colors) and a staff of talkative, crew-cut teenagers earning money for 'further education.'" No one in the Twin Cities--including a few of the parties allegedly in attendance--seems to recall this particular klatch, but it's possible Guthrie was recalling Berryman's old haunt, THE WAIKIKI ROOM, or the NANKIN.
For a man making his first visit to Minneapolis, Guthrie proved remarkably prescient in another of his observations. It seems that more than 40 years ago the old sage had his eye on a future site for the theater of his dreams. "The river itself was what most charmed and amazed us," Guthrie wrote. "It had not yet frozen over and was flowing with a lively sparkle through winding gorges which are still beautiful, although here, as everywhere else, the convenience of the waterway has been exploited in the interests of trade. The banks are the usual mess of factories, coal dumps, freight yards, gas works, and power stations. Of course, it will not always be so. Eventually the Twin Cities will realize that their river can be, and ought to be, a wonderful and life-giving amenity without losing any of its utility."
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.
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).
The Twin Cities were a presence in the work of Wright in particular; several of the poems in his volume Shall We Gather at the River provide a clear-eyed and frequently bleak look at the Minneapolis landscape, with acknowledgments of recognizable landmarks, ranging from the Mississippi to the Walker Art Center. In "The Minneapolis Poem," he writes:
By Nicollet Island I gaze down at the dark water
So beautifully slow.
And I wish my brothers good luck
And a warm grave.
MACALESTER COLLEGE (1600 GRAND AVE.)--the St. Paul bastion of liberalism that is indebted to the beneficence of that journal of radical consciousness Reader's Digest for its endowment--produced novelists TIM O'BRIEN and CHARLES BAXTER. O'Brien, a Worthington native, was a 1968 Macalester graduate, and was the senior student-body president. He was drafted into the army out of college, and his Vietnam experience would provide the very raw material for a number of his most celebrated and memorable novels, most notably 1978's National Book Award-winning Going After Cacciato.
Baxter (The Feast of Love) grew up in Excelsior and had a high school job at ABBOTT HOSPITAL, where he once tended to John Berryman during one of the poet's numerous stays there. Baxter attended public school in Mound and graduated from Macalester in 1969. His first two collections of poetry, Chameleon and South Dakota Guidebook, were published by C.W. Truesdale's NEW RIVERS PRESS (then located on SELBY AVENUE IN ST. PAUL), which was the first publisher in the country to obtain nonprofit status.
The mother of St. Paul writer PATRICIA HAMPL--the recipient of a MacArthur Foundation genius grant--was also a onetime librarian at Macalester.
The man who stole one of Jack Kerouac's many ill-contented girlfriends in The Subterraneans, GREGORY CORSO, ended his tour of the world in the Twin Cities at NORTH MEMORIAL HOSPITAL (3300 OAKDALE AVE. N.) in Robbinsdale. He died of cancer on January 17, 2001. Corso had moved to the Twin Cities to live with his daughter after falling into convalescence.
Minneapolis native BRENDA UELAND, whose If You Want to Write has been a primer for aspiring writers for generations, spent much of her life amid what Sinclair Lewis called the "white trash" of Linden Hills, at 3820 W. CALHOUN BLVD.. She is likely the only writer on the Twin Cities literary map who was knighted by the King of Norway, and she also set an international swimming record while in her 80s. She died at the age of 93 in 1985.
In the early part of the 20th Century, Wayzata's CHUTE SISTERS were the closest thing we may ever have to a Minnesota version of the Brontës. MARCHETTE CHUTE was a prolific writer of literary biographies and biblical histories; she was also a Shakespeare scholar of international renown (Shakespeare of London and Stories From Shakespeare are a couple of her titles). Her sisters ELIZABETH and B.J. were also writers. B.J., under the cloak of her sexually ambiguous nom de plume, wrote dozens of popular sports and adventure stories for boys, and she also penned the novel on which Frank Loesser's musical Greenwillow was based.
LAKE STREET has doubtless provided inspiration to scads of writers over the years, most obviously and memorably in actor and playwright KEVIN KLING'S 21A, set aboard the MTC bus that travels the route daily.
We can only speculate at this point, because the details remain so sketchy and much of the evidence has disappeared, but it seems likely that more than a fair share of Twin Cities writers of the not-so-distant past sought entertainment and amusement of a sort in any number of Lake Street's vanished porn theaters. It's certainly possible that it was there, in the RIALTO THEATER (735 E. LAKE ST.), perhaps, or in the AVALON (1500 E. LAKE ST.) that poet and memoirist DAVID MURA saw such storied smut classics of the genre as Behind the Green Door and cultivated the sex addiction that would result in 1987's wrenching public exorcism, A Male Grief: Notes on Pornography and Addiction. The book seems to have vanished mysteriously from the collections of every library and bookstore--both new and used--in recent years.
Among the celebrated writers who are honored with themed rooms at the Sylvia Beach Hotel on the coast of Oregon--from Ernest Hemingway and Herman Melville to Jane Austen and Emily Dickinson--virtually every one would be familiar to even the most casually literate Minnesotan, with the probable exception of the one writer with a Minnesota connection, MERIDEL LESUEUR. LeSueur was a firebrand whose life and works reflected a lifelong commitment to leftist causes ranging from workers' and women's rights to the environment. A former actor and stuntwoman as well as a union organizer, LeSueur wrote prolifically for most of her long life, producing newspaper columns, novels, poetry, and essays. She lived at 2521 HARRIET AVE. S., and her work is being carried on even today at the MERIDEL LESUEUR PEACE AND JUSTICE CENTER (1929 FIFTH ST. S., IN MINNEAPOLIS).
Born Frederick Feikema, FREDERICK MANFRED was a huge and hugely prolific writer. He spent many of his younger years traveling and hitchhiking across America before taking a job as a sports reporter at the MINNEAPOLIS JOURNAL (427 SIXTH AVE. S.) in 1937, but he was eventually fired, allegedly over union organizing. Manfred later worked as a campaign manager during Hubert Humphrey's bid for Minneapolis mayor. From the mid-Forties on, he devoted his time to writing, and he produced a series of novels--including Lord Grizzly--that dealt with frontier and prairie life and history. It has been claimed that he was nominated for the Nobel Prize on several occasions. He lived for a number of years at 1076 18TH ST. SE in Minneapolis (now the site of a large, nondescript apartment building).
THE NICOLLET ISLAND INN on the river in Minneapolis was the site of a bit of accidental history in 1995 when author CAROL SHIELDS, lunching with a group of Twin Cities literati and a Canadian consulate official, received the telephone call informing her that she had won the Pulitzer Prize for her novel Stone Diaries.
The Twin Cities' diverse and perpetually endangered independent bookstores have long been justly celebrated...and, sadly, just as often fondly remembered by the same folks whose patronage might have kept them alive. Foremost among the dozens of excellent stores that have been--and still are--is the godfather of indie survivors, David Unowsky's St. Paul monument, the HUNGRY MIND (now Ruminator Books), at 1648 GRAND AVE.. For decades the institution has been the focal point of the local book community, hosting visiting writers, supporting local presses and authors, and generally agitating for all things independent. The place has a rich anecdotal history all its own and over the years has spawned an influential book review and burgeoning small press. The offices of the now RUMINATOR REVIEW, behind the store, at 1653 LINCOLN AVE., have also been the site of historic and just plain odd convergences, such as the time that dandy QUENTIN CRISP showed up unannounced at the office one morning at ten o'clock and requested a glass of Guinness.
Among the other notable survival stories is that of AMAZON BOOKS (CURRENTLY AT 4432 CHICAGO AVE. S., MINNEAPOLIS), the worker-owned cooperative that has endured litigation (with the Internet behemoth that stole their name) and relocation to become the oldest independent feminist bookstore in the country.
SAVRAN'S BOOKS, at 301 CEDAR AVE. in Minneapolis, was a classic alternative, independent bookstore from 1965 to 1986, attracting students, professors, and West Bank regulars on a daily basis. Memorable events included an early reading by LOUISE ERDRICH and a late-Sixties appearance by poet and rocker PATTI SMITH.
Dinkytown, on the university campus, also had its share of legendary bookstores, from MELVIN MCCOSH's cluttered treasure trove of used tomes (at 1404 FOURTH ST. SE) to RUSOFF AND CO. BOOKS at 1302 FOURTH ST. SE. It was above Rusoff's that proprietor MARLY RUSOFF, along with Patricia Hampl and poet JIM MOORE, launched the original incarnation of the LOFT LITERARY CENTER. THE BOOK HOUSE (429 14TH AVE. SE) is another survivor, and a prototypical warren of wonders, an archaeological dig masquerading as an incomparable used bookstore.
GRINGOLET BOOKS, in St. Anthony Main, was a classy place with a first-rate knowledgeable staff and a world-class selection. And ONCE UPON A CRIME (mysteries) (604 W. 26TH ST., MINNEAPOLIS), UNCLE HUGO'S (science-fiction and fantasy) and UNCLE EDGAR'S (mysteries) (BOTH AT 2864 CHICAGO AVE. S. IN MINNEAPOLIS) are all survivors of long standing. Over the years Once Upon a Crime has played host to a who's who of the mystery field, from P.D. James and Elmore Leonard to Mary Higgins Clark and Sara Paretsky.
In the early 1980s, Argentine writer JORGE LUIS BORGES visited the Twin Cities as part of the Walker Art Center's reading series. That season the Walker's lineup included Nobel laureates TONI MORRISON and JOSEPH BRODSKY, as well as W.S. MERWIN and GREGORY CORSO. Accompanied by Minneapolis photographer STUART KLIPPER, Borges, who was blind, toured the Twin Cities lakes and ventured to MINNEHAHA PARK, where he was keen to visit the falls and the then-rundown home (since restored, at 46TH AND MINNEHAHA) that the eccentric Robert Fish Jones had built as a replica of Longfellow's Cambridge mansion. In its day the Fish Jones house included a full-scale zoological park, botanical gardens, and miniature railroad.
Klipper, who shot memorable photos of Borges during his stay in the Twin Cities, recalls the writer singing an Argentine Milonga in his ear, and--perhaps under the spell of Hiawatha's "dancing waters"--dancing a tango alone in Minnehaha Park.
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