150 Best Minnesota Books
Archived Posts from this Category
Archived Posts from this Category
As I was walking down the tiny streets of the Trastevere neighborhood in Rome… What’s that? You didn’t hear me? I said I was walking in the Trastevere a few days ago on a street so narrow Vespas could hardly pass each other. I passed an appropriately little used book store and there on the bargain book shelf outside the store was a copy of a book that stopped me in my tracks. It was facing cover out so I recognized the author’s name but I had never seen the title. It turned out to be the Italian translation of Max Shulman’s “Rally Round the Flag, Boys!” This beautiful copy is the “seconda edizione” and was printed in Italy a year after the first English language edition. I picked it up for 2 Euros for the MHS library although I’ll tell the IRS it is worth much more. 8 Euros at least.
The next day in the older part of Rome I saw several stores selling “Peanuts” related tee shirts, in Italian of course, and thought Romans must be reading our list of 150 best Minnesota books. Blame the thought on jet lag.
I know you know that I have been avoiding discussing genre fiction but …
…down these mean streets a man must go.
First of all I am not the biggest fan of mysteries and secondly we seem to be drowning in a sea of these forgettable novels. Does every Minnesota writer take a class at The Loft on mystery writing? I am not ready or willing to declare any recent book in this category a “best Minnesota book” but I look forward to being educated by readers of this blog on the joy and significance of Minnesota “whodunits.” I can say with some confidence that there are two older outstanding mysteries that are worthy of our list. They are …
Mabel Seeley. The Chuckling Fingers. Garden City N.Y.: Published for the Crime Club by Doubleday, Doran, 1941.
Thomas Gifford. The Wind Chill Factor. New York: Putnam, 1975.
Mabel Seeley, from Herman, Minnesota, was a major figure in the development of the female detective story according to Howard Haycraft, reviewer for The New York Herald. There is a sub-genre of mystery writing called the “had-I-but-known” school and Seeley mastered this. The Chuckling Fingers is introduced by the heroine with this great opening line: “Other people may think they’d like to live their lives over, but not me – not if this last week is going to be in it.” It takes place at a private estate on the North Shore of Lake Superior and Seeley nails the local color of the Arrowhead region in the mid-twentieth century. The book has been reprinted by Afton Historical Society Press with a beautiful dust jacket image by Paul Kramer, but disappointingly without any new introductory or biographical material.
There is a story I love of Mabel’s epiphany. She was almost hit by a car as she crossed the street in front of the Capitol one day. Her one thought in that millisecond was: “My, God, I’m going to die and I have not written any books.”
Gifford’s novel is set in a fictional Taylors Falls, Minnesota and although there are dead librarians and Nazis [is there a “Fourth Reich” sub-genre of mysteries?] the most memorable character may be the cold weather. Cars don’t start, ball point pens don’t write, ears are “whipped cherry red”, wind chews away at bare branches, and snow squeaks underneath your feet. WCF, Gifford’s first book, is a very well told tale and was very well reviewed and received, selling 40,000 hard cover and 750,000 paperback copies. It brought some popular literary recognition to Minnesota. Tell me if I’m wrong but I believe this book jump-started the writing of so many local mysteries like John Camp’s “Prey” series.
Gifford’s book, The Assassini, [a decades pre-Dan Brown look at a secret society of Vatican killers] brought him the most recognition but my personal favorite is Gifford’s second book, The Cavanaugh Quest, which was nominated for the Edgar Award in 1977. WCF is clearly his most locally iconic work and thus makes our list of best books.
Thomas Gifford died too young at the age of 62.
C. C. Andrews. Minnesota and Dacotah: in Letters Descriptive of a Tour Through the North-West, in…1856… Washington: R. Farnham, 1857.
Debates and Proceedings of the Constitutional Convention for the Territory of Minnesota, to Form a State Constitution Preparatory to its Admission…T. F. Andrews, official Reporter to the Convention. St. Paul: G. W. Moore, 1858.
Let me suggest two very different – but fun and interesting – additions to our 150 best Minnesota books list. The only connection between the works is the author’s last name and the time period, which is around the time Minnesota was entering the Union as a state.
Since we have already listed travel narratives from the earliest explorers it is appropriate to list a travel account from the settlement period. Minnesota and Dacotah is an easy call. The author, Christopher Columbus Andrews, was an extraordinary Minnesotan. He may be best known as the state’s first Fire Warden but he was also a lawyer, Civil War soldier, Minister to Sweden and Norway, and the author of about 50 works covering a wide enough range of topics to gain the sobriquet “renaissance man.” He presents a clear and detailed picture of getting to this part of the word in the mid-nineteenth century. He is also clearly and without exaggeration promoting settlement, favorably comparing territorial Minnesota to Greece and Italy. One interesting section that I wish he would have said much more about was a visit to Hole-in-the-day’s home: “… a walk on Boston Common on a summer morning could not seem more quiet and safe than a ramble on horseback among the homes of these Indians.”
Think Minnesota politics is wacky now? It is, one could argue, constitutionally mandated. The United States was coming apart when Minnesota petitioned for statehood and much, including control of Congress, depended on the outcome of our state’s constitutional convention. Without going into excruciating detail, suffice it to say that Democrats and Republicans could not get along well enough to be in the same room and two separate constitutional conventions were held simultaneously. In the end two manuscript copies of the constitution exist and two differing accounts of the convention were printed along with the agreed upon constitution.
T. F. Andrews was a reporter at the convention and recorded the debates as the Republicans heard them. It is mostly dry reading with “I move to strike…” kinda language but it is important and no complete Minnesota bookshelf should be without it. Occasionally the transcription is more interesting and evocative of the mood, as this excerpt of delegate Thomas Galbraith Diogenesionly demonstrates:
“We do not intend to be brow beaten by St. Paul. We are the last men who should cry out: “afraid of St. Paul!” We need no protection from those who rushed in here today, [Democrats] cried out “I move to adjourn,” and then ran out again. – Did they scare us? Let them come on, we are ready to die in our tracks rather than yield. (Applause) We, afraid of St. Paul! Who is St. Paul? (Laughter) Let them come. We have no guns, no pistols, no slung [sic] shots, but we are ready to meet them, and will not be driven from this hall.”
War! Huh Good God y’all
What is it good for?
Finally an answer to Edwin Starr’s sixties anthem- LITERATURE.
It is hard to imagine a more poignant setting or easier access to raw human emotion than a war. Writers are aware of this and have exploited the theme from Homer on. There are already more than 3,500 novels written about the Viet Nam war and I can say with some confidence there is another one being printed as you read this. Minnesota writers are no exception and three books on our list of Minnesota’s 150 greatest cover three different 20th Century conflicts.
Thomas Boyd. Through the Wheat. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1923.
Thomas Heggen. Mister Roberts. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1946.
Tim O’Brien. Going After Cacciato: A Novel. New York: Delacorte Press. 1978.
Thomas Boyd, a World War I doughboy, was awarded the Croix de Guerre for his bravery. His first book was a largely autobiographical novel about his experiences in the French trenches. Scott Fitzgerald helped Boyd edit the manuscript, gave it a critical reading, and pronounced it “the best war book since The Red Badge of Courage.” Boyd’s novel was universally praised for its honest depiction of a soldier’s life and after 87 years it is still a good read. It is also still in print and a 1978 edition, published with an afterward by James Dickey, is readily findable. There is also a new audio version of the title.
After the war Boyd and his wife, Peggy (who wrote under the name Woodward Boyd), became an integral part of the literary scene in St. Paul. He managed the Kilmarnock bookstore, lived in the Summit Hill neighborhood, and made a living writing a few more books and dozens of short stories. With his second book Boyd suffered a sophomore slump, familiar to many writers, but his extended into his junior and senior years. He never had another success like Through the Wheat and became what his biographer dubbed, “the lost author of the lost generation.”
An entirely different kind of book came out of the Second World War. Thomas Heggen’s Mister Roberts focused on the daily life and experiences of the more typical enlisted man. The novel follows a cargo ship “from Tedium to Apathy and back again, with an occasional side trip to Monotony”.
After getting his journalism degree from the U of M (where he had written humorous stories alongside fellow 150 Best Minnesota Books author, Max Shulman, at the “Minnesota Daily”) Heggen enlisted in the navy and served on a ship much like his fictional U.S.S. Reluctant. The book was an immediate success and the characters were so extraordinarily well drawn that Heggen was encouraged, possibly by his cousin Wallace Stegner, to adapt the novel into a play. With the help of Joshua Logan the play was awarded “best play” and “best author” Tonys and was made into a 1955 movie staring Henry Fonda, James Cagney, and Jack Lemmon, who won the Oscar for best supporting actor.
While the movie is far better known, the book is simply far better.
Tragically Heggen was found dead in a bathtub in his New York apartment. He had committed suicide at the age of 29! With the play Heggen had achieved monetary fortune and literary fame (“Attractive women formed an orderly queue outside his bedroom door” according to the Grumpy Old Bookman), but he was expected by everyone to write a sequel. He was haunted – no crippled – by writers block. Heggen couldn’t cope with the prospect of failure and like the hero of his novel died a meaningless death.
A stunningly different kind of war novel, and perhaps the best of the three, is Tim O’Brien’s Going After Cacciato. It won the National Book Award for fiction and if that isn’t criteria enough to automatically get a Minnesota book on our list I don’t know what is.
The story is surreal and likely the product of psychological trauma inflicted by the horror that was the war in Viet Nam. Seemingly happy and stable, Private Cacciato decides he has had enough of the war and that he can just walk away from it. He starts walking west and his squad, including the narrator Paul Berlin, sets out to bring him back but they too are walking away from the war by following him across the world until they take up residence in Paris. Along the way, jumping back in forth in time, some of the horrors of the war are described in disturbing detail like picking up a helmet with the soldiers face still in it. Cacciato just may be the great American novel for the 60’s generation with its underlying theme of responsibility and duty verses freedom and individuality.
While we are on the subject of Tim O’Brien, several of his books are must reads but for his best description of Minnesota I recommend Northern Lights. I have been in mortal danger from hypothermia a couple of times in my life and one of them was from just reading this book.
I only know of one book on our list that was so controversial it required the intervention of the Minnesota Historical Society. It was…
Willard Glazier. Down the Great River: Embracing an Account of the Discovery of the True Source of the Mississippi… Philadelphia: 1887.
Civil War Captain, Willard Glazier, mounted an expedition to the source of the Mississippi in 1881 and claimed to have discovered a lake beyond Lake Itasca that was the true source of the river. He named the new veritas caput “Lake Glazier.” The author and his expedition then continued their journey down the Mississippi stopping to tout Glazier’s discovery at towns along the way.
Glazier’s book Down the Great River was published in 1887 and reprinted in 1888, ’89, ’91, and ’93. Each edition grew as the author added testimonials backing his claim. These came from authorities like the Ex-Mayor of Brainerd, the Postmaster at Leech Lake, and various clergymen.
The controversy became a significant economic issue when a textbook publisher endorsed Glazier’s claim. Another textbook company, not wanting the expense of reprinting their geography, mounted yet another expedition which concluded that Glazier’s lake was in fact “Elk Lake” and had been known since 1803. Nicollet had shown it as an extension of Itasca on his 1836 map.
The Minnesota Historical Society asked the State Legislature to prohibit textbooks from mentioning Willard Glazier’s claim. Legendary politician Ignatius Donnelly successfully shepherded that bill into law. Not satisfied to let the issue die there the MHS hired J. V. Brower to survey and report on the headwaters. Glazier also returned in 1891 to press his lost cause.
The book is a fun read and was lavishly illustrated and beautifully produced in gold embossed decorative bindings of various colors. Collect them all.
I wrongly assumed that I we already had this book on our list of 150 Best Minnesota Books because she was my nominee for inclusion into the MHS’s MN 150 exhibit. Let us rectify this now…
Margaret Culkin Banning. Mesabi. Harper and Row Publishers: New York, 1969.
The title of this blog is a quote from the local literary critic James Gray. I am not sure if he was tweaking her or praising her but since she wrote over 400 short stories and essays for magazines he clearly had a point. Over her sixty year career she also wrote, by my count, 36 novels. Many Minnesotans of her day considered Margaret Banning a much greater literary light than Sinclair Lewis.
Minnesota, Duluth in particular, was always Banning’s home base but she experienced a lot of life from Vasser [where she met Lady Gregory], to a settlement house in Chicago, to London during the Blitz, and to delegate to a Republican National Convention. Her experiences qualified her to write about women in society and how their roles were changing. She even tackled issues like birth control which many Catholic writers might have shied away from.
Mesabi, may not be her most typical book but it is a great one for our list. It is about the city she loved, Duluth, and “one of the men that matter” in that town, Hugh Champlain, the President of Greysolon, the major Iron Range mining company. In a holographic note on the half title of the MHS’s library copy, Banning says that in order to get the novel right it “took three years of research to feel that I was sure of my facts.” She goes on to write that these facts “have not been disputed by men in the mining industry, who like it almost with out exception”. One of those men surely was LeRoy Salsich the president of the Oliver mining company and Banning’s second husband!
Here is what we wanna know from you, dear readers… Have you read any of Banning’s books? Do you have a favorite? How does her work hold up? Was she an inspiration to the modern woman’s movement? Is she too prissy and prudish for today’s readers? Let us hear from you.
A Series of Unfortunate Events…and a fewer number of fortunate ones have prevented me from keeping a timely schedule of announcing more of the 150 Best Minnesota Books. One of the fortunate events was the three day auction of the collection of Floyd Risvold. Floyd lived in Edina and had the greatest collection of American historical manuscripts that have been offered for sale in a generation. Of the 1,300 lots at this sale the Minnesota Historical Society bid on 60 and won 22; see the article in the Minneapolis Tribune if you are curious. All those events are behind us now. Accept my apology as we get back to business.
Max Shulman. The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis. Doubleday: New York, 1951.
Charles Schulz. Happiness is a Warm Puppy. Determined Productions: San Francisco, 1962.
There is so much to say about these entries I hardly know where to begin so I especially look forward to your comments, dear readers. Here goes. These books make our list because Dobie Gillis and Charlie Brown are two iconic fictional Minnesotans who made a significant impact on American life and culture. Shulman and Schultz were two Saint Paulites, sons of immigrants, and served in World War II. They were both slightly subversive humorists, and, I don’t want to press the similarities too far, but both Gillis and Brown are at their core just two guys looking for love in the anxiety filled era of the Cold War.
Shulman’s Dobie Gillis is perhaps better known from the TV series of the same name that ran from 1959 to 1963. Max wrote the scripts for the shows in the first seasons so the characters are consistent from print to film. The Many Love of Dobie Gillis (MLODG) is probably even sexist by the standards of its own time but the references to local people and places will be enjoyable to readers. The book centers on the University of Minnesota (which the author says in a note in the sequel to MLODG “is, of course, wholly imaginary”) and Dobie’s quest for love, learning, and a livelihood. I was tempted to list Shulman’s 1950 Sleep Till Noon because it has this nearly perfect opening sentence; “Bang! Bang! Bang! Bang! Four shots ripped into my groin, and I was off on the biggest adventure of my life . . . But first let me tell you a little about myself.” It would be as impossible to ignore Charles Schulz in this book blog as it is to avoid him in day-to-day life. Even if you missed the six years of “Peanuts on Parade” statues around Saint Paul (or the ceaseless silly debate over whether F. Scott Fitzgerald or Snoopy was more deserving of a place of honor in Rice Park) you still can’t tune out the syndicated cartoon strips, holiday specials and accompanying music, Met life ads, hundreds of books (of which the MHS has cataloged 117 in many languages), and the endless pop psychologizing about Charlie Brown’s depression. Selecting a single title for this list was a difficult, almost paralyzing, choice. There are now complete compilations of all of Shultz’s 18,000 comic strips but HIAWP was Schulz’s first book and made him even more rich (he made over $ 1 billion dollars during his lifetime and was still making $ 35 million a year six years after he died) and famous when it climbed onto the New York Times best seller list.
Finally, remember my pontification many entries ago that a Minnesota author on the cover of “Time Magazine” automatically gets a spot on our list. April 9, 1965 qualifies Shultz.
Wilford (Billy) H. Fawcett returned to Minnesota from World War I with a footlocker full of dirty jokes. On a slow night in 1920 while he was working at the Minneapolis Tribune he sorted through the jokes and put them into a pamphlet he titled “Captain Billy’s Whiz-Bang” [whiz-bang being the sound shells made during the war]. So our next best Minnesota book is:
Captain Billy’s Whiz Bang
The content was loosely organized around Whiz-Bang farm in Robbinsdale, the original Lake Woebegone. Characters included Gus, the hired man; Deacon Callahan, whose daughter, Lizzie’s virtue was always being designed upon; and Pedro the bull who rejected unworthy author submissions. The masthead read “explosion of pedigreed bull.” The jokes were juvenile, sexist, racist, anti-Semitic, and haven’t aged well.
The Girl: “You mustn’t come into my dressing room.”
The Man: “Why not? Am I not good enough?”
The Girl: “You might be worse.”
Or “Harold” said the pretty young teacher, “in the sentence ‘I saw the girl climb the fence’ how many i’s would you use?”
“Bofe of ‘em teacher” replied Harold with a grin.
Fawcett found a printer and enlisted his sons to distribute the press run from their wagons to Minneapolis at baseball games, drugstores and local hotels where the consigned blue humor was held under the counter. Word of mouth fueled sales. The magazine went from an initial press run of 5,000 to half a million once Fawcett created a distribution network that revolutionized the industry. Soon the “Whiz-bang” was in newsstands, hotels, and trains, all over the country.
By the end of the decade Fawcett had twelve magazines. “True Confessions” was the first followed by titles like “Screen Play,” and “Modern Mechanics” [which was sued by "Popular Mechanics" beginning a seemingly never ending series of lawsuits]. Roscoe Fawcett, Billy’s brother, was brought into the business and much of the work during summers was done on Pelican Lake at Fawcett’s Breezy Point Lodge.
When Billy divorced his wife Annette, who he referred to in his publications as the “henna-headed heckler,” she used his money to purchase a competitor of the “Whiz-bang” called the “Eye-Opener” and moved it to Minnesota. For a period of time Minnesota was the capital of indelicate literature.
The company eventually moved to Greenwich, Connecticut and played perhaps an even more important role in dictating literary taste. Fawcett Publication began Whiz Comics, staring Captain Marvel, and a line of original paperback books under the Gold Medal imprint.
The Company kept the same “Whiz-bang” sensibilities. The Gold Medal Books editor in 1964 stated that they were trying to blend the “shoot ‘em up sex novel” with a helping of good literature. When Gold Medal Books editor -in-chief, William Lengel received a scathing review of a manuscript his inclination was to publish it rather than pass on it. One such title was Mandingo a title that sold two million copies in its first five years.
It is hard to understate the impact, for better or worse, Fawcett had on American culture. By the mid 1960’s the Fawcett brothers presided over an empire with $75 million and 200,000 million units in annual sales. CBS bought the company for $50 million in cash in 1977 [$ 160 mil in today's dollars].
The Minnesota Historical Society library has a nearly complete run of “Captain Billy’s Whiz-bang” and has microfilmed it for posterity.
If you have been paying attention to our civic fathers lately you would have heard the news that a Nineteenth Century technology is going to lead us into the bright Green future. Sometime before I die, light rail (formerly known as Street Cars or the Trolley) is on track to whisk us to Minnesota Twins games and high speed rail is promising to take us to see the Chicago Cubs. Because of the significant role railroads played in the development and identity of this state and region, a train book must be on our list. The best work, I believe, is…
Prosser, Richard S. Rails to the North Star. Minneapolis: Dillon Press, 1966.
Prosser’s book is a comprehensive and chronological description of the developments of Minnesota’s transportation landscape. As a reference tool it is indispensable and the maps alone make it worth your shelf space. There are over fifty pages listing railroad companies that built in Minnesota and six pages of companies that incorporated but never built a mile of track.
From Prosser’s last chapter, titled “20/20 Hindsight:”
One hundred years have elapsed since the birth of the original parent of Minnesota railroads, a ten mile stretch of track between St. Paul and St. Anthony over which wheels first turned on June 28, 1862. Growth of Minnesota Population, land cultivation, industry, and trade are all due in some measure to one or another offspring of that pioneer which, whether remembered by the name of William Crooks or St. Paul and Pacific, will be embossed forever in the annals of history. Today, Minnesotans can well be proud of the rails which lead to the North Star, with principal trains second to none – the rails which symbolize wealth and commerce.
The University of Minnesota Press reprinted the book in 2007 with a new forward by noted rail historian, Professor Don Hofsommer, and an uninspired new subtitle, “A Minnesota Railroad Atlas.” Sorry for that little snipe but as long as I am at it, I liked the original cover a lot better than the reprint’s image. Still, kudos to the U of M Press for keeping this available (the colored maps in the book must have given the publisher pause) because for thirty years I have been wishing people “good luck” in finding and affording the original volume of this much sought after work.
This blog has at least one faithful reader. He comments on every entry but insists on privately leaving his criticism off the blog. So in order to protect his anonymity let’s refer to him pseudonymously as TO’S. TO’S noticed that the list was favoring the wordy over the graphic and suggested that the next ten selections have pictures in them. I at least agree that there needs to be more illustrated books on our list of the 150 greatest Minnesota books. So here are two books that no Minnesota library – hell, let’s say no Minnesotan – should be without:
John Szarkowski. The Face of Minnesota. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1958.
Bill Holm (essays) and Bob Firth (photography). Landscape of Ghosts. Stillwater, Minnesota: Voyageur Press, 1993.
The unusually accomplished artist/curator/critic Szarkowski began his professional career at the Walker Art Center after his service in World War II. As Minnesota approached its Centennial he was approached to commemorate the anniversary with this photo project. The result was a wondrous success capturing this place – these people – in a moment in time that words alone could never describe. If your heart doesn’t first swell with pride and then break from nostalgia while perusing this book then I’d say, “You’re not from around here are ya?” Szarkowski’s text is surprisingly interesting and, because the images are so compelling, too often over looked. He does an excellent job of summarizing mid-century understanding of the history and geography and geology of the state. He integrates text from postcards to government reports, one of which, a 1956 “Report of the Governor’s Committee on Higher Education” [see page 186] is as timely now as ever. His photos, shown here, are from Red Lake, pre-yuppified Grand Marais, Bloomington, and the Brown County Fair.
TO’S wisely suggested another book of photographs done 35 years after Szarkowski. Since I wholly agree, and could not say it nearly as well, here is his nomination in his words:
Take a look at Bill Holm and Bob Firth’s LANDSCAPE OF GHOSTS (Voyageur Press, 1993) for my candidate for best MN photo book: fine balance of text and image (not “illustrating” but echoing each other); real depth in Holm’s writing, with the expected humor and attitude and erudition; delicious color plus a slightly quirky sense of composition and subject matter in Firth’s photos that sets them apart from the scenery porn that’s common to photo books; crisp design and right size, good in the hand and on the lap; and a bonus in the poems that Holm sprinkles thru the text, a little anthology of MN prairie writers (Bly and Bly, Philip Dacey, Phoebe Hansen, Mark Vinz) and oh yeah, Walt Whitman and Robinson Jeffers and Willie Yeats to boot. If someone asked me what rural MN or the Midwestern prairie is all about, I’d send him a copy of this. How can you not love a book that starts, “Here is a book full of pictures of stuff nobody wants to look at and of essays on subjects no one wants to read about”?
I prefer the peopled landscape of Szarkowski but this is not a competition so all I will add is that it is especially gratifying to see some themes and images that overlap in both books and encourage you to look at both works side by side.