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Wednesday, July 25,2012

Castles and goat farms

'Ink Trails' follows famous and not-so-famous Michigan writers

by Bill Castanier

They hailed from Benzonia, Elk Rapids, Saline, Hudson, Harbert, Grass Lake and numerous other whistle stops between Marquette and Monroe.

It’s likely you’ve never heard of many of the writers extolled in “Ink Trails,” the new book by Jack and Dave Dempsey, published by the MSU Press. The Dempseys, brothers who are both Michigan Notable Book writers, hope readers will connect in more ways than one with the 19 authors covered in the fascinating book. For avid readers who dig a pilgrimage, they cite a physical location for each author that can be visited.

Dave Dempsey, whose biography of Gov. William G. Milliken won a 2009 Michigan Notable Book Award, said his research for “Ink Trails” led him to “a wealth of [Michigan] writers who are totally forgotten.”

Among the liveliest is Maritta Wolff, who was born in Grass Lake, went to college down the road in Ann Arbor and, at 23, published the blockbuster novel “Whistle Stop,” which was labeled “vulgar” by many critics of the time. It was just right for the movies, though, and George Raft and Ava Gardner starred in the noirish screen version of the novel.

Jack Dempsey, author of “Michigan and the Civil War,” said that in selecting the authors for the omnibus book, “some were immediately obvious,” such as Civil War scholar Bruce Catton, who won the 1954 Pulitzer prize for “A Stillness at Appomattox.” Catton was born and lived in Benzonia most of his life. Other subjects were quietly waiting for the Dempseys to stumble upon. Carroll Watson Rankin was born in Marquette at the end of the Civil War and became a prolific writer of stories for young people. Her “Dandelion Cottage,” written in 1906, follows four young girls in a northern Michigan town as they seek their dreams. The book is still in print.

Few people know that the three-time Pulitzer-winning poet and Lincoln biographer Carl Sandburg spent nearly two decades living and writing in Michigan. Sandburg wrote the culmination of his Lincoln biography (“Abraham Lincoln: the War Years”) in Harbert, a little Lake Michigan resort city near the Indiana border. In the foreword to the 1940 Pulitzer book, Sandburg indicated it had originated from “Chikaming Goat Farm, Harbert, Michigan.” You’ll have to read “Ink Trails” to learn the significance of the goats.

The hardest part of writing the book was deciding whom to leave out. The Dempseys first decided the list would not include anyone living — Jim Harrison or Jeffrey Eugenides, say — but would also include authors like Sandburg, who were not born in Michigan, but lived there. 

The co-authors agree that several themes emerged in the writings and lives of the authors they profiled. Among these were a concern with the natural environment and the “tortured” lives which many of them led.

One chapter details the life of Owosso author James Oliver Curwood, who in the early 1900s became a famed writer of adventure and outdoor stories, often with a romantic tone. The Dempseys discovered that Curwood was so popular he may have become the first author to make a million dollars a year from his writing. About 40 of his books became movies, including the 1988 “Grizzly King.”

Curwood did well enough to build a small castle on the banks of the Shiawassee River, which served him as a writing room. Curwood Castle still stands today and is the site of an annual festival honoring Curwood. Later in life, Curwood became an ardent environmentalist and a member of the state’s Conservation Commission. He died from a spider bite suffered in Florida during one of his many adventure trips.

The Dempseys didn’t leave Michigan’s most famous writer out by accident. So much has been written about Ernest Hemingway’s time in Michigan that is was easy for them to skip Papa in favor of lesser known authors who called Michigan home.

However, another famous Michiganian author, Ringgold Wilmer Lardner, could not be overlooked. Known as “Ring,” Lardner was born in Niles and became one of the nation’s best known short story writers. Most often, he wrote about baseball in a voice that was down to earth and influenced Hemingway, according to the Dempseys. Lardner spent much of his time covering baseball for Chicago newspapers. While still a teen, he wrote the poem “How Do You Get Your Shirt So Black” about Lansing’s Vic Saier, a reckless base stealer for the Chicago Cubs.

Maybe it was the Cubs, or maybe it was his close friendship with drinking buddy F. Scott Fitzgerald, but Lardner is one example of the tortured-writer theme which emerges in “Ink Trails.”

Another is National Book Award and Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Theodore Roethke, who hailed from Saginaw. Noted for his poems about the natural world, Roethke was a graduate of the University of Michigan and taught for a while at MSU until he was fired for self medicating his depression with alcohol.

The authors are already plotting a second volume of “Ink Trails” and lining up favorites. 

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