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Strolling down Michigan's literary trails

Apr 29, 2016

I’m well aware that the Flint crisis is still going on, that the roads aren’t fixed and that while things are better in Detroit, the city still has too few jobs and too much blight.

  And I’m sure I will talk about some or all of those problems next week. However, it’s the start of a weekend in Michigan, and it might just be warm enough to sit on the porch and read something that isn’t about failure, incompetence or corruption.

So I’ve got a marvelous little book to recommend. It is called Ink Trails II, by the brothers Dempsey, Dave and Jack. Dave is a full-time professional writer; he has written eight books, including an excellent biography of Governor Milliken.

Jack is a lawyer who passionately cares about history, and who has written several fine books himself, including one on Michigan during the Civil War. Four years ago they teamed up to write Ink Trails, which was a collection of short and entertaining biographies of what they called

“Michigan’s Famous and Forgotten Authors.”

I picked it up skeptically back then – and was soon captivated. The world doesn’t often think of Michigan as a literary place, but we’ve in fact produced more than our share of authors, some who were born here; others who did their best work in the state.

Volume One included Carl Sandburg, the poet and Lincoln biographer; Ring Lardner, the prose poet laureate of early baseball, Gwen Frostic, the one-woman publishing industry; Bruce Catton, the famous popular Civil War historian, and John Voelker, the state supreme court justice who wrote the best-selling novel turned movie, Anatomy of a Murder, plus a dozen more who are less well known, but ARE as or more fascinating.

I loved the book, but when I heard they were doing a second Ink Trails, I wondered whether it could possibly be as good as the first. Well, in some ways Ink Trails II may be better.

It includes the best eight-page vignette I’ve ever read of the early life and summers a boy and a teenager spent a century ago on Walloon Lake and Horton’s Bay, a kid named Ernest Hemingway.

There’s an enormous new 600 page biography out now about Russell Kirk, the brilliant intellectual who helped spark the present conservative movement from his home in Mecosta.

If you’ve always wanted to know more about him, you could spend a month reading it – or get an overview of his importance and his Michigan toots from the eleven pages here.

The brothers Dempsey also devote part of a chapter to Julia A. Moore, a woman who in her time was known as the “sweet singer of Michigan,” and who my friend, the Dearborn literary critic Dave Good, has long believed – correctly -- to be among the worst poets in history.

There’s also a powerful chapter on Donald Goings, a pimp, heroin addict, and absolutely brilliant novelist of ghetto street life in Detroit until he was blown away at age 35.

In other words, this is an equally fascinating book. I haven’t read all the chapters yet; I plan on saving them for when I need a little diversion this summer. Jack Dempsey told me this winter he has material enough for several more Ink Trails books.

Eat your heart out, Manhattan Literary Scene.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio's political analyst. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.