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Picturing Minnesota

Posted byPat Coleman on 15 Jul 2009 | Tagged as: 150 Best Minnesota Books

ElevatorsBrown County Fair

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.

Father and Son, Red LakeGrand Marais, MNBloomington, MN

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.

Grave yards

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…Zen Again

Posted byPat Coleman on 04 Jun 2009 | Tagged as: 150 Best Minnesota Books


We joked awhile ago that any Minnesota author or book to make the cover of Time Magazine is automatically on our list. Let’s say the same thing for any Minnesota author or book the makes it into the Guinness Book of World Records.

Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry into Values. New York: Morrow, 1974.

Pirsig’s philosophical/autobiographical novel is listed in Guinness as the bestseller most rejected by publishers; 121 to be exact. When Morrow accepted the manuscript they were either very lucky or smart enough to know what Pirsig knew, that after the decade of the Sixties society and our culture was aching for just this philosophical discussion. It was time for what Pirsig called his “culture-bearing book.” For Morrow’s $3,000 they got a book that sold over 4 million copies and the sales of rights to translate ZMM into 27 languages. If you were around in 1974 you know what a publishing phenomena the book became. It went into the back pocket of almost every pair of torn jeans on campus.

The book is still a valuable and worthwhile read as its many anniversary editions attest and it is only slightly dated. I did cringe every time the word “groovy” was used.

The meat of the book is an attempt to unify the seeming rift – exacerbated by the political and cultural conflict of the 1960s – between the classic and romantic [or square and hip; technological and humanistic; Lori and Pat] ways of looking at the world. Quality, he concludes, is what those word views have in common.

Noting that it is difficult to jump into the middle of this book without the author’s careful set up, here is a sample of his prose:

…care and Quality are internal and external aspects of the same thing. A person who sees Quality and feels it as he works is a person who cares. A person who cares about what he sees and does is a person who’s bound to have some characteristics of Quality.

Thus, if the problem of technological hopelessness is caused by absence of care, both by technologists and anti-technologists; and if care and Quality are external and internal aspects of the same thing, then it follows logically that what really causes technological hopeless is absence of the perception of Quality in technology by both technologists and anti- technologists.

Mercifully the philosophy is broken up by the bones of the story, a 1968 motorcycle road trip Pirsig took with his son Chris, two friends and a ghost named Phaedrus, who is Pirsig’s pre electro-shock therapy self.

One note: ZMM contains two sentences that could or should be the motto of our book blog:

“What’s new?” is an interesting and broadening eternal question, but one which, if pursued exclusively, results only in an endless parade of trivia and fashion, the silt of tomorrow. I would like instead, to be concerned with the question “What is best?,” a question which cuts deeply rather than broadly, a question whose answers tend to move the silt downstream.

One complaint: I read ZMM in the 1984 “A Bantam New Age Book” edition (note the silly logo from the back cover), painfully slogging through terrible quality printing ironically reading hundreds of pages of discourse on the theme of “Quality.” At times the book is almost illegible. The letters in this edition bleed together and the ink is not even uniformly distributed on the same page. It drove me crazy! I hope these New Age publishers come back in their next life as Harp seals in Newfoundland.

The only thing good about this particular edition is the “Afterword” by the author with his heartbreaking account of Chris’s death outside the Zen Center in San Francisco in 1979.

Zen paperZen paper back

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A Working Class Poet Is Something to Be

Posted byPat Coleman on 15 May 2009 | Tagged as: 150 Best Minnesota Books

First I’ll begin with an apology to the faithful readers of this blog. It has been too long between entries and I promise that will not happen again. There was an unusual confluence of good news leading me to rest on my laurels and bad news resulting in a furlough here at the MHS. [Op-ed: Please feel free to contact your elected officials to lobby for the resources necessary to maintain the high quality of the Historical Society.]

We also apologize for missing National Poetry Month and will make up for that by nominating an extraordinary work that qualifies for our canon; for anyone’s canon.

Thomas McGrath. Letter to an Imaginary Friend. Denver: Alan Swallow, 1962.

Born in North Dakota in 1916, McGrath became our Walt Whitman with the publication of his “pseudo-autobiography,” Letters. McGrath was a working class, radical, political poet, which usually damns one to obscurity, and this may explain why his work is not better known. But most critics agree that McGrath’s politics do not interfere with his art and in fact his experience as a farm boy, logger, rider of rails, shipyard welder, labor organizer, and soldier (as well as Rhodes Scholar) provide him with the raw material to write work that is as historic as it is insightful. The work is sensual, lusty, and manly (just in case you, dear male reader, might be poetry adverse). “Love and hunger!-that is my whole story” is a line from the book. Nature also plays an important part in McGrath’s poetry as it did in his life.

Sometimes at evening with the dusk sifting down through the
And the trees like a smudge on the white hills and the hills
Into the hushed light, into the huge, the looming, holy
Night:–sometimes, then, in the pause and balance
Between dark and day, with the noise of our labor stilled,
And still in ourselves we felt our kinship, our commune
Against the cold.

McGrath would go on to add parts II, III, and, in 1985, part IV to this narrative epic poem. All four parts were published in a definitive text edition by Copper Canyon Press in 1997, seven years after the poet’s death in Minneapolis.

To further entice you to read McGrath see the article about him from the New York Times Review of Books.

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Populist Moment?

Posted byPat Coleman on 24 Mar 2009 | Tagged as: 150 Best Minnesota Books

“If you put a banker, a lawyer and a capitalist in a barrel and roll it down a hill, no matter where it stops there will always be a son-of-a-bitch on top.”    Saying from the Farmer’s Movement

An article in the New York Times this week suggested that, given the bad economy [there I go again], and the pitchfork and torch level of anger to lavish bonuses paid to those who may have been responsible for it, we may be looking at resurgent political populism. If the Times pundits are correct we should hear a variation of the above quote emanating from the halls of congress soon. For further inspiration, I suggest they look to Minnesota history and literature, especially one of Minnesota’s best books…

Edmund Boisgilbert, MD (Ignatius Donnelly) Caesar’s Column: a Story of the Twentieth Century. Chicago: Schulte and Company, 1890.

I know you are familiar with Edward Bellamy’s 1890 utopian novel, Looking Backward. It was a bestseller at a time when the public was hungry to hear that all the social and economic strife would be amicably resolved and a just society would result. An alternative dystopian view came from Minnesota’s voice of the people, Ignatius Donnelly. Donnelly was a key figure in the Greenback Party, the Farmer’s Alliance Party, and the People’s Party. In his first novel, Caesar’s Column, he explored what would happen if the combined nineteenth century trends of corruption and concentration of wealth in the hands of a powerful few continued unabated until 1988. In other words, what would happen if his reform movements failed? The populists answer was that this would lead to barbarism and an unprecedented bloody revolution in America.

Two years after its publication Donnelly penned the preamble to the People’s Party platform and it read just like Caesar’s Column. “From the same prolific womb of governmental injustice we breed two great classes – paupers and millionaires… A vast conspiracy against mankind has been organized on two continents and is taking possession of the world. If not met and overthrown at once it forebodes terrible social convulsions, the destruction of civilization, or the establishment of an absolute despotism.”

Yes, the novel is melodramatic, especially to the modern reader’s ear, but contemporary readers were not bothered by the tone. Word of mouth created a publishing sensation. The first printing of two hundred copies was published under Donnelly’s pseudonym and sold out quickly. By the end of 1890 the book was selling 1,000 copies a week. By the end of the century it had sold almost a quarter of a million copies in the US and twice that many in Europe. Donnelly’s dystopia was as popular as Bellamy’s utopia. Harvard reprinted the book in 1960 and it is still in print today.

Martin Ridge’s biography of this renaissance man of Minnesota, Ignatius Donnelly: Portrait of a Politician, was awarded “Best Book” by the American Historical Association when it was published. The MHS has kept the book in print.

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An Arts Job is a Job!

Posted byPat Coleman on 23 Feb 2009 | Tagged as: 150 Best Minnesota Books

Strike me dead if I don’t stop beginning every conversation with the words “the economy” but we were just talking about the last time we were in such a pickle. It reminded me both of another of Minnesota’s greatest books and a successful model for government to support the arts and mitigate the recession.

Minnesota: A State Guide. Compiled and Written by the Federal Writers’ Project of the Works Progress Administration… New York: Viking Press, 1938.

When Mabel Ulrich became director of the newly established Minnesota Writers’ Project she believed that there weren’t any “mute inglorious authors” in the state but soon found out how wrong she was. She ended up hiring 120 promising writers from virtually every walk of life who were unemployed and in desperate need of the paycheck the feds were offering. Some of these writers were as well known as Meridel Le Sueur. The end result was a lovely publication which kept a lot of people off the dole and stimulated tourism which helped the local economy. Not to mention a book great enough to make our list 70 years later.

My experience with the WPA guide was probably typical. My family drove around the state quite a bit [a Vista Cruiser full of kids strikes me now as a silly form of recreation] and kept the Guide in the glove box. When we drove into Esko, for example, my father would hand the book back to me and I would begin reading aloud.

The Finns are a clannish people who cling to their Old World manners and customs, and to a stranger may sometimes seem unfriendly. At one time a suspicious farmer accused them of practicing magic and of worshiping pagan deities. Entire families, he claimed, wrapped themselves in white sheets and retreated to a small square building set apart from the dwellings and worshipped their gods calling upon them to bring rain and good harvest to the Finns, and wrath upon their neighbors. On investigation, however, it was discovered that although they did wrap themselves in sheets and visit these “shrines” almost daily, it was not in the zeal of religion but for the purpose of taking baths. The Finns here are almost fanatical advocates of cleanliness, and each has his own “sauna” or steam bathhouse.

Because of the WPA Writers project a whole lot of writers owed their livelihoods to the Federal government. I owe them my love of Minnesota and its history!

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A Dark Chapter in Minnesota’s Political History

Posted byPat Coleman on 20 Jan 2009 | Tagged as: 150 Best Minnesota Books

The last time the economy sucked this bad and left wing of the political spectrum was in the ascendency, the right wing used every possible trick to bring them down. In the 1938 gubernatorial race a book was published that was so repugnant that it makes our list of 150 best books.

Ray P. Chase. Are They Communists or Catspaws: A Red Baiting Article. Anoka: N. p., 1938.

Chase was an Anoka publisher who had run for governor in 1930 and served one term in Congress from 1933 -1935. In the heated Governor’s race between Farmer-Labor incumbent Elmer Benson and “boy wonder” Harold Stassen, Chase wrote and published a small book trying to prove a link between the current administration and the Communist Party. The five examples he used, however, were all Jewish. This was a blatant introduction of anti-Semitism into Minnesota politics. Some of Chase’s examples were not even that close to Gov. Benson and seem to have been chosen simply because they looked so Jewish. In response the Farmer-Labor party produced a leaflet saying that this “expensively gotten up book” “smack[ed] of the tactics of the fascists of Europe” They demonstrated that Chase’s book altered photos to smear the Governor.

Chase embraced the pejorative term “red baiting” saying “radicals bait America and everything American”. The term “catspaws” refer to people who are manipulated by Communists. Chase disingenuously writes that “Communists are entitled to respect for their courage. Catspaws who accept their support and deny their acquaintance are entitled to somewhat less respect”.

Epilogue: Catspaws helped defeat Benson but the “silver lining” was that it prompted the organization, Jewish Community Relations Council, to combat local anti-Semitism like this. They have been doing good work for the last 80 years.

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Merry Christmas from Minnesota’s Best Books

Posted byPat Coleman on 18 Dec 2008 | Tagged as: 150 Best Minnesota Books

“Were you trying to lose my job for me? Ruin me?”
“I knew the little pup,” said French. “He’s a thief. I did what I had to do.”
“Since when did you start passing judgment on children?”
“Since I became Santa Claus.”
“And next summer, if you’re still Staggerford’s Indian? You’ll pass judgment on the tourist kids?”
French chuckled at himself in the mirror. “An Indian doesn’t pass judgment. That’s Santa’s job.”

Getting tired of the same old Christmas stories? Both Jon Hassler and J. F. Powers [see the last blog] wrote Christmas stories for the Minnesota Center for the Book Arts [MCBA], series of “Winter Books”. Hassler’s 1988 Staggerford’s Indian is the tale of French, a down and out Indian with PTSD, who gets a job as Santa in the town’s department store. It was the MCBA’s first Winter Book. Power’s The Old Bird: A Love Story, a sweet –not saccharin- story of an old man who gets a job near the holidays, was the 1991 Winter Book.

Like all the books in this series these titles are as beautiful as artifacts as they are as literature. For the most part, they are hand printed on hand made paper, illustrated, and very elegantly bound. The Minnesota Historical Society Library has a complete run of the MCBA Winter Books and I would encourage you to come take a look.

Other Minnesota Christmas stories we should hear about?

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Minnesota’s Humanity in Print

Posted byPat Coleman on 04 Dec 2008 | Tagged as: 150 Best Minnesota Books

Barbara Tuchman coined the phrase, “Books are humanity in print,” and nowhere is this more obvious than the work of two of Minnesota’s literary giants, J. F. Powers and Jon Hassler. So our next two best Minnesota books are…

J. F. Powers. Morte D’Urban. New York: Doubleday and Company, Inc., 1962.

Jon Hassler. Staggerford. New York: Atheneum, 1977.

Powers and Hassler have much in common so it seems appropriate to mention them together. Both ended up at St. John’s University after interesting starts to their careers and both are thought of as “Catholic” writers although the term seems ridiculously limiting to me. As a bit of trivia, of interest only to a few of us here at the MHS, Powers earliest job was working for the WPA Historic Records Survey in Chicago. When World War II broke out Powers tried for, and was denied, status as a Conscientious Objector. He came to Minnesota to serve time in the Federal prison at Sandstone. He had the Irish penchant for writing short stories [read his "Lions, Harts, Leaping Does"] but became famous with his National Book Award winning novel of a priest in Stearns County, Mort D’Urban. Powers was married to writer Betty Wahl (Rafferty and Co.) who he met at St. Ben’s.

Jon Hassler came to Minnesota in a more traditional way, birth, and experienced life in the southern, urban, and northern parts of the state. He didn’t start writing until he was in his mid forties and Staggerford was his first novel for adults. It concerns life in a fictionalized Park Rapids and introduces characters that turn up in his subsequent work.  His recognizably Minnesota characters, like Powers, are wrought with foibles and pettiness and problems but are likable if not lovable in spite of their shortcomings. One of the smartest things that has been said about Hassler’s writings was from a reviewer who pointed out the unusual ability he has of “making good people interesting” [take that Jonathan Franzen].

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Professional (i.e. successful) Explorers

Posted byPat Coleman on 10 Nov 2008 | Tagged as: 150 Best Minnesota Books

Well, I got my wrist slapped for snottily suggesting that Pike was not the gold standard for either an explorer or a diplomat. To avoid sounding critical of iconic Minnesota figures I’m sticking to the undisputed success stories with the next two nominations for Minnesota’s 150 best books.

Detail of Nicollet's Map of the Hydrographical Basin of the Upper Mississippi River

Henry R. Schoolcraft. Narrative of an Expedition Through the Upper Mississippi to Itasca Lake, the Actual Source of this River; Embracing an Exploratory Trip Through the St. Croix and Burntwood (or Broule) Rivers. New York: Harper, 1834.

J[oseph] N. Nicollet. Report Intended to Illustrate a Map of the Hydrographical Basin of the Upper Mississippi River, Made by I.[sic]N. Nicollet, While in the Employ Under the Bureau of the Corps of Topographical Engineers. Washington: …. 1843.

Schoolcraft’s 1821 A Narrative Journal of Travels… to the Source of the Mississippi River documented his earlier expedition with Lewis Cass, on which he was the geologist. That trip incorrectly identified Cass Lake as the river’s head. When Schoolcraft went back in 1832 to settle conflicts between the Ojibwe and Dakota, he took the opportunity do further explorations and create an accurate map of the region west of Lake Superior. At long last he correctly identified the veritas caput (“true head”) of the Mississippi. Although Schoolcraft deserves great credit for his work, an Indian named Oza Windib, or Yellow Head, led him directly to Lake Itasca. God forbid Indians ever get credit for discoveries, so it has recently been suggested that Oza Windib was the first Swede in Minnesota. I suspect that Schoolcraft would have noticed that small fact.

Yet another Frenchman figures prominently in our history. Over the course of three expeditions to this region, Joseph Nicollet, with Carver’s Narrative in hand, completed the first scientific measurement of the upper Mississippi territory correcting some of Pike and Schoolcraft’s distortions along the way.

I admit to being prone to hyperbole, but it is difficult to overstate the importance of Nicollet’s map. It was so accurate and complete, with careful attention to both the original and European place names, that it was copied for decades and is still useful to researchers. Unfortunately, Nicollet did not live to see his map published. He died of a stomach ailment shortly before the U. S. Senate document was printed. The House printed the same report two years later. There are also two known copies of a wall map version of Nicollet. It breaks my heart to report that the MHS was an unsuccessful bidder on that map in 2006 when it sold at auction for $64,000.

Detail of Nicollet's Map of the Hydrographical Basin of the Upper Mississippi River

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The City Beautiful

Posted byPat Coleman on 09 Oct 2008 | Tagged as: 150 Best Minnesota Books

Another one of those beautiful “must have” Minnesota books is:
Edward H. Bennett. Plan of Minneapolis: Prepared Under the Direction of the Civic Commission… Edited and Written by Andrew Wright Crawford. Minneapolis: Civic Commission, 1917.

In 1909, Daniel Burnham [chief architect for the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition and the subject of the 2003 bestseller, The Devil in the White City] and Edward Bennett published their Plan of Chicago. It was dubbed “Paris on the Prairie” by wags who couldn’t help but notice the influence of the École des Beaux-Arts where Bennett studied from 1895-1902. Also in 1909, a Civic Commission was formed to discuss a city plan for Minneapolis, consisting of a dozen Minneapolis organizations from the Woman’s Club to the Trades and Labor Assembly. They hired Bennett, who as Chicago’s chief proponent of The City Beautiful Movement believed that cities could be “White” like the Columbian Exposition and that people would be uplifted through their contact with art and beauty and order.

The author and editor of this work, Crawford, always gets short shrift so let me rectify that. He was a lawyer and art connoisseur who is most often associated with his hometown Philadelphia. Crawford was civically active with a strong interest in city planning and in the development of city parks. His interests made him the perfect choice to author Bennett’s Plan of Minneapolis. Crawford’s avocational interest in architecture earned him an honorary membership in the American Institute of Architects. For a bit of his prose and the rationale for the plan, let me present a few lines from Chapter 1 “The Coming Metropolis:”

  • Minneapolis is the commercial and officially designated financial capitol of an empire greater in size than Great Brittan, Germany, Belgium, Holland, Denmark and Switzerland combined.
  • Minneapolis is now a large city. The greater city that the future is so surely and so swiftly bringing must be a more economic, a more convenient, a happier and a more generally beautiful city.
  • City planning is the exercise of municipal imagination. It is the scientific and expert vision of inevitable city growth, and the preparation of plans to provide for that growth. It is municipal prevision, municipal prevention and municipal preparedness. (bloggers note: The 3MP’s of planners?)

Ultimately very little of the Plan [of which 1,000 were printed and distributed] could be implemented because, in spite of the emphasis on science and imagination, none of the planners anticipated the most important shaper of 20th century American municipalities: the automobile. Still, it seems to me that they anticipated a refocus on the riverfront by 70 years and had countless other ideas that we might wish had been implemented.

I hate giving this much attention to Minneapolis, so allow me to mention the less grandious but 11 years earlier St. Paul eqivilant, Report of the Capitol Approaches Commission to the Common Council of the City of St. Paul, 1906. This would be another fine addition to a complete Minnesota book collection but at 31 pages we can not nominate it for our list of best books.

I would love to hear from architects, city planners, and the Met Council on our selection of Bennett’s work for our greatest Minnesota books list. Does anyone think about the issuses raised by the Plan? Know about this book? Study it? Still look at it from time to time? Click on “Comment” and let us know.

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