Commentary: Walking 'Ink Trails'

Aug 24, 2012

Normally at this time of day I talk to you about some current political or economic shenanigans. And I could talk today about the continuing election-rigging scandal in Grand Rapids, or about the rising unemployment rate across the state.

Well, there will be lots to say about those and many other problems before long. But it’s the last weekend before the final Labor Day holiday. The weather may even be nice enough to go sit on the beach and avoid political ads.

So I am going to depart from my usual practice and suggest you think about reading a marvelous little book that’s just come out. It is called Ink Trails: Michigan’s Famous and Forgotten Authors, by two brothers who are fine writers in their own right. Dave Dempsey is the author of five books including an acclaimed biography of former Governor Bill Milliken. His brother Jack Dempsey, no relation to the famous heavyweight fighter, is an attorney and also the author of a fine book called Michigan and the Civil War.

Now, they’ve teamed up to produce a book of short vignettes about famous authors who lived in Michigan. The essays are fascinating, well done, and some of them are bound to surprise you. Incidentally, they leave out Ernest Hemingway.

That may startle you, but my guess is that they figured that pretty much anyone who reads knows about Hemingway’s Michigan boyhood, and that topic has been covered in a slew of books.

But I’ll bet that the average reader didn’t know that Carl Sandburg wrote his famous, Pulitzer Prize winning biography, “Abraham Lincoln, the War Years,” in a garret in a town called Harbert, on the shore of Lake Michigan.

Sandburg moved to Michigan after something of an emotional breakdown in Chicago, and the authors credit the move with perhaps saving his life. Even if you knew that, you may not have known that while the famous poet and biographer wrote, his wife raised goats.

Eventually, they had so many goats they ended up moving to North Carolina for “bigger and more year-round pastures.” Now, that’s a unique reason for leaving the state.

Sandburg was far from the only poet to flourish here. Jane Kenyon’s tragically short life began in Ann Arbor, and she,  Robert Frost and Arthur Miller were all heavily influenced by the time they spent at the University of Michigan.

If you’ve ever wanted to know more about the crusty backwoods prosecutor who wrote Anatomy of a Murder, it’s here. If you grew up reading the children’s books of Holling Clancy Holling or Gwen Frostic, their stories are here too.

My favorite chapter, however, is the one about one of my favorite authors, Bruce Catton, another Pulitzer Prize winner, still perhaps the nation’s most popular Civil War historian, and who wrote his books in a cabin in Frankfort during the summers. There are others I haven’t had time to mention, and one nice thing is that this entire book, just published by Michigan State University Press, is less than two hundred pages long. It is sometimes easy to forget all the good things this state has going for it. This lovely little book is a excellent reminder that Michigan is a lot more than some of its parts.