Literary Road Trips

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That writers are drawn to the breeding grounds of their forebears is little wonder. Beyond admiration and a particular tourism, we seek inspiration perhaps. If we drink from Hemingway’s watering hole, maybe, just maybe, we’ll craft a sentence or three that sings with a special melody.

But readers, not writers, are the most suitable literary tourists. For the rewards are found in the work, and in finding clues to its magic in the world that nurtured the work. Though Chicago has certainly housed its share of literary greats, the small towns of the Midwest seem especially fertile in shaping those who’ve shaped our shared imagination. Read the rest of this entry »

Prairie Home: Walking Sinclair Lewis’ “Main Street” in Sauk Centre, Minnesota

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By Brian Hieggelke

America’s first Nobel Prize winner in literature, one of a esteemed oligopoly of letters that includes Faulkner, Hemingway, Steinbeck, O’Neill and Bellow (Pearl S. Buck the odd woman out)—last names only needed—Sinclair Lewis is an American literary giant whose posthumous posture becomes more and more diminutive with time. When I mentioned plans to visit Lewis’ hometown of Sauk Centre, Minnesota to a couple acquaintances, acquaintances who review books mind you, I got responses like, “I tried to read ‘The Jungle’ and never really got into it.” Though some Chicago bias toward the unrelated Upton Sinclair is understandable, this kind of confusion rarely plagues the likes of Lewis’ contemporaries, including most of those named above, as well as Fitzgerald and Dreiser. (Ironically, the young Sinclair Lewis did take a break from undergraduate studies at Yale to work at Upton Sinclair’s cooperative-living  Helicon Home Colony in Englewood, New Jersey.)

For more than thirty years, I’ve passed a sign on the interstate en route to my family’s lake cabin in western Minnesota that reads “Sinclair Lewis Interpretive Center” and, for a minute as we whisked by each year, felt an itch of interest that  finally needed a scratch last summer. Read the rest of this entry »

Tragic Consequences: Fulton, Missouri set the stage for the Henry Bellamann novel “Kings Row” and a future for a young Ronald Reagan

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By Martin Northway

“Kings Row” was a popular 1942 film based on the best-selling novel by Henry Bellamann. It featured a young Ronald Reagan, portraying the sunny rake Drake McHugh, best friend of precocious Parris Mitchell, the thinly veiled alter ego of the author puzzling his way toward maturity in an 1890s mid-American small town.

Drake had set his cap for the daughter of the town’s Dr. Henry Gordon, who does not approve. After a railroad accident, Drake falls into the hands of the sadistic doctor, who unnecessarily amputates Drake’s legs. Awakening from his anesthetic, Drakes rips the covers off the stumps and screams, “Where’s the rest of me?”

The role helped make Reagan a star. He even used the memorable line as the title of a memoir.

While the movie softened the much bolder book for the censors, it remains a pioneering exploration of mental illness, early psychoanalysis, gender relations and small-town secrets and hypocrisies. In the film, the relationship between Parris Mitchell’s enigmatic mentor, Dr. Alexander Tower, and his reclusive daughter, Cassandra, is disturbing but mysterious; in the book, it is incestuous.

“Kings Row” spurred an ongoing controversy in Bellamann’s hometown, Fulton, in central Missouri, about how much of the story was fact and how much fiction, and about whether Bellamann bore some grudge for his birthplace. Read the rest of this entry »

Something Waukegan This Way Comes: Finding Ray Bradbury’s Boyhood Muse

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Ray Bradbury's boyhood home

By Dan Kelly

Chicago’s sci fi pedigree is impeccable. Edgar Rice Burroughs (creator of Tarzan and John Carter: Warlord of Mars) was born in the city and lived in Oak Park, for example, while Weird Tales magazine—publishers of H.P. Lovecraft, Robert E. Howard, Robert Bloch and others—had offices downtown. The real coup, however, is Waukegan, the setting for the birth, boyhood, and books of Ray Bradbury. A short trip to the town revealed that the writer of “Fahrenheit 451” is a prophet with honor, but minimal commemoration, in his hometown.

A Midwestern Proust, Bradbury re-imagined Waukegan as Green Town, Illinois, in several works—most famously in “Something Wicked This Way Comes” and “Dandelion Wine.” Per Bradbury, Waukegan was a charming rural burg of the twenties, rife with sun-dappled fields and pies cooling on windowsills, which happened to be visited by serial killers and evil carny demons. Read the rest of this entry »

Spoon River Anthropology: Tracking the ghosts of Edgar Lee Masters

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By David Witter

Lewistown, Illinois. A sleepy town nestled in the rolling hills of Central Illinois so typical that during World War II they built a German POW camp, Camp Ellis, just to the east. After all, if the prisoners escaped, where would they go?

But in Lewistown’s Oak Hill Cemetery there are gravestones with names and, most of all, stories. Tales of adultery, lust, homosexuality, boredom, malice, avarice and greed. Tales that took the myth of the moral, upright, All-American small town and portrayed it as a cesspool of hypocrisy, faded hopes and corrupted dreams. These stories were told in the form of 244 poems which were published in the “Spoon River Anthology” by Edgar Lee Masters. Read the rest of this entry »