The book’s private journey through many hands and homes

The best part of buying a used book is the history that comes with it. Tucked in the pages, one finds photographs and letters used as bookmarks; on the inside cover and in the margins, long inscriptions to, from, about. It’s true the printed text pulls us into the life of the author, but it’s these little discoveries that pull us into the life of the book. Suddenly, the physical paper in our hands is given its own life. We are not its first owners, and as all things come and go, we know we will not be its last. Our shelf is merely one stop on its private journey through many hands and homes.

Charles Bukowski Post Office Marginalia Emily C Frederick

The inscription and obituary of Emily C. Frederick

As someone who’s owned plenty of used books, I’ve come across all kinds of interesting examples of marginalia. For example, a few months ago I purchased from the Book House in Dinkytown a copy of Bukowski’s Post Office (1971). In it was inscribed “WET KISSES,” signed “Emily.” Right above it on faded yellow paper dated May 10, 1983, was her obituary. What I held in my hands was more than a book: at one time, it was a shrine. Continue reading

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“And marked his grave with nameless stones”: William Cullen Bryant’s “The Murdered Traveller”

William Cullen Bryant

William Cullen Bryant

While waiting in a Baltimore hotel lobby, I thumbed through one of its meant-to-be-seen-and-not-read bookshelves. There among old, leather-bound editions of Gibbon’s History of the Decline and Roosevelt’s Naval War of 1812, I found the collected works of William Cullen Bryant. A romantic, Bryant is known primarily for his poetic naturalism (see, e.g., “Thanatopsis“) but he was also a prodigious translator, deciding at the age of 77 to translate Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey. But as this was my first introduction to the poet, I knew none of this. Skimming the volume, I was not very impressed, but then I came across a poem that I stopped to read three times in a row. Its title: “The Murdered Traveller” (copied below).

First published in January 1825 in the United States Literary Gazette (Boston), “The Murdered Traveller” tells of a skeleton discovered in the woods. Emotionless, its discoverers mark the grave with stones and continue on with their own travels, a scene then juxtaposed with the dead’s homeland. As nature reclaimed the body, back home “long they looked, and feared, and wept, / . . . And dreamed, and started as they slept,/ For joy that he was come.” It closes, “Long, long they looked — but never spied/ His welcome step again,/ Nor knew the fearful death he died/ Far down the narrow glen.”

This poem struck me because it reminded me of a story we hear too often: of missing men, women, and children whose families never lose hope that one day their loved one will return. Of course there is the famous case of Jacob Wetterling, but I also thought of when the IMGUR online community came together to identify the 15-year-old cold case of “The Grateful Doe” (a truly amazing story worth reading about). In the appendix, Bryant recounts his own inspiration for the poem: Continue reading

“The Greatest Cartoon the World War Produces is a Photo!”

I’ve posted before about the Great War, including the anniversary of the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand and a sampling of political cartoons from the war’s first year. Recently, while searching the newspaper archives for (and failing to find) a certain Russian-Anarchist-themed comic strip, I discovered the following photograph. Titled WAR, it depicts a Belgian woman—grief-stricken, the features of her face lost in dark shadows. Continue reading

Two translations of Danish writer Ernesto Dalgas

I’ve blogged before about the writing advice Robert Bly once gave me, and since then, I’ve translated pieces by Norwegian poet Julius B. Baumann (1869-1923; here) and Danish writer Ernesto Dalgas (1871-1899). Like Baumann, even though Dalgas is well-recognized in the canon of his country’s literature, none of his work exists in English. So, this is my attempt to fix that. (Let me know what you think!)

Both of these first appeared on my Instagram page, where I tend to accompany writing with my own drawings/illustrations. The story “Milkwort” is from Chronicles and Fairytales (1896), and the “Life and Death” excerpt is from Poems and Drama (1904).

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Senator Allan Spear and the Minnesota Human Rights Act

In 1993 Minnesota became the eighth state in the nation to outlaw gay and lesbian discrimination in housing, education, and employment. Unlike other states, Minnesota even went further to ensure these same protections extended to members of the trans* community. No easy feat, this was the culmination of two decades of legislative maneuvering and grassroots organizing orchestrated by people like Sen. Allan H. Spear, Rep. Karen Clark, Steve Endean, and Scott Dibble. Twenty years later, when the state legalized same-sex marriage in 2013, the story of the Minnesota Human Rights Act was something seasoned activists knew about but of which my generation was oblivious. For those curious about how such legislation could pass at a time when even advocates felt uneasy using the word “gay,” there was little (if anything) to turn to.

Wanting to learn more about this important moment in state history, in 2013 I applied for a Mondale Research Fellowship from the University of Minnesota Humphrey School. Although my historical interests gravitate toward early-20th century politics, I was inspired to study the life of Allan Spear after reading his autobiography Crossing the Barriers. Published posthumously in 2010, it recounts his childhood, his experience as a gay man, and his careers as both an historian and state senator. Unfortunately, given his passing in 2008, the book was never finished–and even worse, since Spear wrote chronologically, the narrative ends abruptly in the 1980s, years short of his greatest legislative achievements. Although the former-state senator Steve Milton wrote a nice afterward, his was the unenviable (and impossible) task of summarizing the last twenty years of a vibrant life in just as many pages.

When I was awarded the Fellowship, then, I set out not only to produce good scholarship on Minnesota’s LGBT nondiscrimination law, but I also wanted to do Sen. Spear’s life justice. As his colleagues on both sides of the aisle would attest, he was a brilliant, caring man, and someone without whom our state would be lesser.

In doing my research, I relied upon the rich archives available at both the Minnesota Historical Society and UMN Elmer L. Andersen Library. Furthermore, I sat down for several one-on-one interviews with Gov. Arne Carlson, Rep. Karen Clark, Sen. Scott Dibble, and the late historian Hy Berman. It took a while to write (life happens) but my paper “Senator Allan Spear and the Minnesota Human Rights Act” was published in the Fall 2016 issue of Minnesota History magazine. (The magazine’s staff even went so far as to make the video trailer posted above!)

Now that this project is behind me (always a strange feeling), I hope readers find some hope in the story of Sen. Allan Spear’s 20-year campaign to pass an LGBT nondiscrimination bill. Especially in this political environment, it is worth remembering that progress is often incremental and that while setbacks can be disheartening, it does not mean the cause is foolish, hopeless, or dead. It just means that there is more work to be done. While we should pause and reevaluate our course in light of history’s lessons, we must keep pushing forward. The struggle is a part of movement building, and building a movement is one of the most-powerful tools we’ve got to make this world a more compassionate and accepting place.

You can buy a copy of Minnesota History here.

John Carter of Minnesota: The “Convict Poet” Who Won His Freedom

Stillwater State Prison c1912

Minnesota State Prison in Stillwater (c. 1912)

“Only the first ten years matter,” a Minnesota State Prison inmate told John Carter, and “[w]hether or not the first ten years are all that matter, there is no doubt that the first six months are by no means six little drops of time.” It was 1905 and as the 19-year-old Carter listened, he settled into his ten year sentence–arrested for burglarizing the station in Karlstad, MN, while hopping trains westward. He’d taken $24 to buy food and shelter.

Not much is known about John Carter—in fact, that’s a penname and the public record’s silent about his personal life. All we know is that he was an Englishman from a well-to-do family, and when he’d failed the family business he was sent to Canada. After he was arrested, like so many who pass through the prison system, Carter was on his way to spending his sentence hidden from the public eye. But this changed as, trying to pass the time, Carter wrote essays and verse, publishing them in the nation’s major magazines. Through his art he won public support and, eventually, even his freedom, leaving the state prison hailed as a brilliant, creative mind.

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The Poems of Julius B. Baumann: Five Translations

Julius Baumann grave marker

Julius Baumann’s grave marker in Cloquet, MN, donated by the “Sons of Norway” in 1926.

Some of the best advice for a young poet is to learn translation. It’s the advice Pound gave to Merwin, and it’s the advice Bly gave to me. So, always one to try new things, in the winter of 2014-15 I began translating the work of Norwegian-American poet Julius B. Baumann (1869-1923). Reading up on the Nordic languages (and relying extensively on digital copies of turn-of-the-century Norwegian-English dictionaries) I translated ten pieces from Baumann’s Fra Vidderne: New Poems (Augsburg Publishing House, 1915; Google Books). As far as I know, this is the first time these poems have appeared in English.

To provide a little background on Julius B. Baumann, in 1869 he was born to a family of fishermen in Vadsø, Norway. At the age of twenty he befriended two emigrants who offered to pay his way to the United States, and it was with the young writer’s yearning for life and experience that he left his native land. As a logger in Wisconsin he saw his first pine forest, and it was later as a farmhand in North Dakota where he first gazed upon plains of prairie and wheat. Working in the timber industry for much of his life, in his later years he moved to Cloquet, MN, where he managed a lumber store and served multiple terms as Carlton County’s register of deeds. Continue reading