Shutting the Gate to Eden: Michigan on the Page Part 1

Feb 25, 2011

Welcome to part one of our web exclusive series, “Michigan on the Page.”

Over the following months, we will be talking with writers from all over Michigan about what books they think best represent the state.

Writers, like many of the state’s residents, have all kinds of opinions on what kinds of writing really speak to Michigan and its citizens.

Are there highlights? Tons. Way too many to list. But here’s a short selection of recent and all-time favorites:

*Ernest Hemingway’s “Big Two-Hearted River Parts I&II”

*Detroit-born Robert Hayden’s poetry (including “Those Winter Sundays”)

*Philip Levine’s (who also grow in Detroit) poetry (including “They Feed, They Lion”)

*Jaimy Gordon’s National Book Award-winning novel Lord of Misrule

*Mary Gaitskill’s story “College Town 1980” (which takes place in Ann Arbor) from her most recent collection Don’t Cry

*Charles Baxter's Feast of Love

Poetry and fiction abound, but many important nonfiction pieces have been written in and about the state, also.

As I began working on this series, I reached out to the award-winning poet Keith Taylor and asked him if he knew any writers who might be interested in talking about Michigan books and the state’s rich literary history.

Right away, Mr. Taylor suggested poet Marc Sheehan, a life-long Michigan resident and poet, as someone who cares deeply for and about the state of Michigan.

Mr. Sheehan agreed quickly and enthusiastically to contribute, and I sent him a few questions about Michigan books and his own writing practice, including what book—if he had to choose only one—he felt best represented the state.

Mr. Sheehan chose a memoir by a writer known more for his historical work than for personal narratives:

Most people who know the writer Bruce Catton know him for his Civil War books, notably A Stillness at Appomattox, which won him the Pulitzer Prize.

The Michigan native also wrote one of the great remembrances of growing up in the state, Waiting for the Morning Train. In this memoir, Catton recalls his early years in the small town of Benzonia near the shoreline of Lake Michigan.

As a child, the future historian grew up during the first years of the 20th century as the state’s lumber boom was making its final hurrah. Catton manages to place his personal experience in the context of larger historical and even geological events.

In describing the limited amount of lumber that remained to be felled near the turn of the century he writes, “Obviously, one hundred and sixty billion board feet is an enormous amount of lumber, but the figure is as hard to grasp as the estimate of the age of the pre-Cambrian reefs up in copper country.”

Catton mostly celebrates life during a time and place that was beautiful and elemental, but also recognizes its cultural and religious constraints. (“Halloween was our only Saturnalia.”) The landscape Catton describes was systematically undone for the sake of progress.

That’s one of the myths that Catton re-tells here. Humans were not expelled from Eden. They chopped down the trees, built the gate themselves and closed it behind them before setting off to fight the First World War – a war which Hemingway, in the guise of his character Nick Adams, returned from looking for solace while fishing for trout.

He might have fished for grayling, but, “By 1910 or a little before then, the fish was gone. It was a wilderness fish, and pretty soon there was no more wilderness.”

Nostalgia is a tough emotion to pull off on the page, and Catton does it as well as anyone. Waiting for the Morning Train may be elegiac, but ultimately it is not sad, only wise.

For people looking for other great Michigan books, Mr. Sheehan also suggested Ben Hamper’s Rivethead (another memoir), Robert Traver’s Anatomy of a Murder, and Loren Estlemen’s Amos Walker series of hard-boiled detective novels.

As for the effect of the state on his own creative process, Sheehan has this to say:

As a life-long Michiganian (Michigander?  I’m still unsure where I stand in this controversy), the state’s geography and history are a part of who I am. 

Most of the writers I am drawn to are grounded in a particular place and make that place universal.  Michigan writers as different as the poet Theodore Roethke and novelist/poet/non-fiction writer Jim Harrison have done that. 

Day-to-day the challenge is, paraphrasing William Blake, to see the world in a grain of Great Lakes sand.

Marc Sheehan is the author of two books of poetry, Vengeful Hymns and Greatest Hits. Among the honors he has received include grants from the Michigan Council for the Arts and Humanities, and the National Endowment for the Arts.

-Brian Short, Michigan Radio News