Book Excerpt: Anna Clark on Writers 'Who Explored Life in Michigan' And Invigorate Us

April 22, 2015, 7:11 AM

This excerpt from the preface to "Michigan Literary Luminaries" is the second of two articles. At the end are eight book recommendations. Part One is an interview with the author.

By Anna Clark

From tiny towns necklacing the Great Lakes to towering old cities, the landscape of the two peninsulas has stirred more than a century of the nation’s greatest writers.

Jeffrey Eugenides, a Detroit native who grew up in Grosse Pointe, is one of them. In "Middlesex," his Oprah-approved, Pulitzer-winning novel, he follows Cal, an intersex narrator of Greek descent who grows up in Detroit in the 1960s and ’70s. "Middlesex" is a sprawling and exuberant multigenerational saga that explores gender identity alongside explosive race and ethnic dynamics. A busy novel that draws from Greek mythology, "Middlesex" also finds Cal’s grandmother working for the Nation of Islam, which was founded in Detroit, and Cal in a relationship with someone called Obscure Object, which references the film "That Obscure Object of Desire." Like Cal, this is a novel that refuses to be pigeonholed. It is neither this nor that.

Anna Clark: "Nearly all are male and white. That certainly is not a reflection of how talent is distributed."
(Photo by Michelle and Chris Gerard)

There is also poet and novelist Laura Kasischke of Chelsea. She grew up in Grand Rapids and practically swept the Hopwood writing awards as a University of Michigan student; later, she won a National Book Critics Circle award for poetry.

Among Kasischke’s many books is "Eden Springs," which brings an imaginative spin to one of the strangest of true Michigan stories. In the early 20th century, a utopian community called the House of David chose the lush land of Benton Harbor to build a village and await an eternal life lived not in the spirit, but in the flesh. The community was trademarked by its famed amusement park, semipro baseball team, uncut hair, white clothing and its handsome, charismatic founder. Kasischke’s story situates itself in the spring of 1923, shortly before scandal breaks at the House of David. Built like a collage — photos, legal documents, court testimony and news clippings sit aside fictional vignettes — "Eden Springs" manages to evoke both suspense and prophecy.

'Kissing the Stream'

And then there is Ben King, a popular poet born in 1857 in St. Joseph, my own hometown on the Lake Michigan shore.

“He existed as the welcome and mirthful shadow of conventional and tiresome things,” wrote John McGovern of the Chicago Press Club in the introduction to an 1894 collection of King’s verse. Admired for his abilities as a satirist, often set to theatrical piano playing, he was a favorite performer at church fairs, banquets and Elks Club socials. He also wrote sentimental lyrics published in newspapers, which brimmed with love for the “old River St. Joe,” which flows into Lake Michigan.

How oft on its banks I have sunk in a dream.
Where the willows bent over me kissing the stream. 

But just as his star was rising, while on performance tour, he was found dead in a hotel room in Bowling Green, Ky. Only the night before, he had been carried out of the theater on the shoulders of an adoring audience. He was not 40 years old, and it was not clear what caused his death.

“But when Ben King died, St. Joseph became more widely known in one day than hundreds of excursions and a thousand orchards had served to advertise it in the past,” wrote humorist Opie Read in "Ben King’s Verse." It was Read, who had been on tour with King, who had found him in the hotel room.

King was so beloved that 30 years after his death, community leaders raised money for a bronze bust of him, set upon a granite base carved with lines from his poetry. Today, the bust stands in St. Joseph’s Lake Bluff Park, among dozens of monuments to soldiers and firefighters. It is a rare tangible testament to how a community once cherished an artist as a hero.

A Labor of Love

This is a book is for the storytellers. With equal parts reportage, literary criticism and history, "Michigan Literary Luminaries" was created as a labor of love. It is best understood as a collection of linked essays, a peek into the wealth of contemporary and classic literature that is unified by its sense of place in the North Country. It is by no means comprehensive, nor is it a ranking of the state’s “best” writers.

Michigan has more than its share of literary talent, and there are 10,000 storytellers who I regret not including here. Chris Van Allsburg, Pearl Cleage, Jamaal May, francine j. harris, Marge Piercy, Vievee Francis, Matthew Olzmann, Terry Blackhawk, Terry McMillan, Christopher Paul Curtis, David Small, Sarah Stewart, Naomi Long Madgett, Toi Derricotte, Jane Kenyon, Donald Hall, Jim Daniels, Jack Driscoll, Thomas Lynch, Ring Lardner, Dominique Morisseau, Charles Baxter — this is only a handful of others who are worthy of the greatest attention.

It also does not escape my notice that of the writers featured in this book, nearly all are male and white. That certainly is not a reflection of how talent is distributed among Michigan writers — but it does reflect the distorted opportunities over the 20th century for women and people of color to practice their art. Our challenge is to write a new script for the next hundred years, one where strong public and private systems support a more diverse literary culture. The stories of too many artistic geniuses are left stunted. That diminishes us all.

This book focuses on fiction writers and poets who explored life in Michigan in their work: our feeling for nature, hard work, community, social class and the uncertainty that comes with not having enough and of having too much. From Elmore Leonard to Robert Hayden, their writing is idiosyncratic and ambitious, at once surreal and worldly-wise. Their work invigorated the public imagination with intelligence, honesty and grace. By questioning the myth of the American Dream, they themselves wrote new myths.

The 160-page paperback, Clark's first solo book, comes out May 4.
© 2015, The History Press

Pre-order 'Michigan Literary Luminaries':

  • Pages Bookshop: $19.99 and $1.20 state t'ax (free shipping), or pick up after May 4 at 19560 Grand River Ave., Detroit
  • Amazon: $19.99 and shipping
  • Barnes and Noble: $19.99 and $3.99 shipping
  • Rakuten: $12.57 and $2.90 shipping

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