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Wisconsin Literary Luminaries: From Laura Ingalls Wilder to Ayad Akhtar

Wisconsin Literary Luminaries: From Laura Ingalls Wilder to Ayad Akhtar

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Wisconsin Literary Luminaries: From Laura Ingalls Wilder to Ayad Akhtar

175 pages
2 hours
Apr 3, 2017


From the humble Ingalls family cabin in the woods to Ayad Akhtar's multicultural conflicts, the Badger State's stories and imagery have long inspired. Explore how Aldo Leopold and Lorine Niedecker drew on their close observations of the natural world. Contrast the distinct novels that Jane Hamilton and Larry Watson set on Wisconsin apple orchards. Delve into Thornton Wilder's enduringly popular Our Town and the wild fiction of Ellen Raskin and Cordwainer Smith, who wrote like no one else. Join Jim Higgins for a detailed account of ten notable Wisconsin writers that blends history, literary criticism and fact.
Apr 3, 2017

Despre autor

Jim Higgins is the arts and books editor for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, where he has reported since 1983. Jim was part of the Journal Sentinel writing team that won the Association of Food Journalists 2004 award for special projects for a series on obesity. Higgins is a two-time winner of the Sentinel staff-voted award for humor writing. He is a graduate of Marquette University and lives in Milwaukee County.

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Wisconsin Literary Luminaries - Jim Higgins



Walk through the main entrance into the Milwaukee Public Library’s Central Library. On your right, look up. The Wisconsin Writers Wall of Fame honors people whom the state’s largest public library believes have made strong contributions to American literature.

Browse the list mentally. There are twenty-seven so far, although I could easily think of a dozen more names to add, and I am sure the librarians could, too. Novelists, playwrights, poets, essayists, historians, biographers, journalists—they are writers who speak to the youngest children and to the most learned adults.

No single thread unifies these honored writers beyond their connection to our state by birth, education or residence. Many, but not all, have made some parcel of Wisconsin a subject of their work. Some have explored the natural beauty or wilderness of this former frontier territory. They don’t coalesce into a grand unifying theory of Wisconsin literature. Instead, as a collection they represent, like the library itself, an ecosystem of ideas, approaches and preoccupations.

Like the Wisconsin Writers Wall of Fame, this book pays tribute to a representative sample of both the excellence and the variety of Wisconsin writing. As a Milwaukee journalist who often writes about books, I have been fortunate enough to interview some of the writers included here.

Of the many possible choices both on and off the library’s wall of fame, you might wonder how I picked these writers. After determining that I could reasonably represent ten writers in a book of this size, I decided to concentrate on ones whose work was primarily imaginative rather than biographical/historical. (Wisconsin has a powerful tradition of the latter vein of writing. A person probably couldn’t understand the culture of our state today without reading David Maraniss’s When Pride Still Mattered: A Life of Vince Lombardi; anyone who wanted a feel for the early days of Milwaukee would surely want to read Martha Bergland and Paul G. Hayes’s Studying Wisconsin: The Life of Increase Lapham.)

The Wisconsin Writers Wall of Fame at Milwaukee’s Central Library. Jim Higgins.

Also, as a journalist, I wanted to represent the breadth of books that people actually read, including genre fiction and books for children. This is a book for people who read for pleasure, not a salvo in the canon war of mainstream literature.

The ten writers I chose, organized chronologically here by year of birth, break down into three groups. The book opens with four pillars of state literature: popular novelist Laura Ingalls Wilder, dramatist and novelist Thornton Wilder, essayist Aldo Leopold and poet Lorine Niedecker. It closes with four living writers, each of whom has written at least one classic of our time: novelists Larry Watson and Jane Hamilton, essayist Michael Perry and dramatist Ayad Akhtar.

In between those quartets, I advocate for two wild talents born in Milwaukee who retain strong cult followings and whom I believe deserve a wider audience: novelist (and illustrator) Ellen Raskin and science fiction writer Cordwainer Smith. All ten writers are being read passionately today.

Many alternate versions of this book are possible. (Perhaps in some Borgesian heaven they all exist, and we can meet there one day to debate their merits.) A more historically oriented writer might have chosen pioneers August Derleth and Hamlin Garland. Other readers of contemporary fiction might have selected Lorrie Moore, who taught for many years at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. A science-fiction enthusiast could substitute Clifford D. Simak, whose rural settings and environmental concerns would fit snugly in a book that also features Leopold and Niedecker. Children’s literature fans could lobby for the prolific Madison author-illustrator Kevin Henkes and picture-book master Lois Ehlert. (If extensive color illustrations had been possible for this book, Ehlert would be in it.)

A reader can also look at the list of ten and point out that only one is a writer of color. In a future counterpart to this book, that would probably be different, too.

In picking the lineup for Wisconsin Literary Luminaries, I did not make writing about Wisconsin the top priority, though many of the writers here have done so. In the epilogue, I recommend ten more books that foreground a Wisconsin location as setting or subject.

Now a potential reader might also ask why I wrote this book (a question I put to myself multiple times during the process). Excellent biographies have been written about the Wilders, Leopold and Niedecker; quality scholarship can be found on each of my Wisconsin ten. I don’t pretend to compete with those biographers and scholars on their territory. In fact, I rely on their diligence.

How do I contribute to the public good through this book? In two ways, I hope.

First, as a youth, I was often an anxious or insecure reader. (Sometimes I still am today.) Digging into a new book, especially a literary one, I would sometimes wonder if I was getting it. I became a reader of prefaces, introductions, inside cover–flap copy and related essays, looking for little handholds as I ascended the text. I welcomed the Virgil who could show me around a bit—or the Piglet who would exhort the Pooh-like me to keep trying. In writing Wisconsin Literary Luminaries, I often thought about the student or inexperienced reader who might pick it up.

Second, writers need champions. Reputations ebb and flow. Outside of Shakespeare, perhaps, no writers in English can be certain they’ll be widely or even steadily read in the future. After writers die, their readership tends to fade unless people engage with their books and share them with others. Scholars do some of that work, but so do librarians, booksellers, other writers and readers like you and me.

I cheerfully stipulate to this being a personal, even idiosyncratic book. My experiences and enthusiasm guided me. Some chapters dwell on one or two works by a given writer; others cover more books. In no case do I claim to be infallible. If I arouse your interest in a given writer, I hope you will turn not only to their books but also to more comprehensive works about them. If I move you to read Our Town or The Bridge of San Luis Rey, I hope you will also read Penelope Niven’s biography of Thornton Wilder. If Lorine Niedecker’s poems appeal to you, please take a look at Margot Peters’s biography.

My secret wish is that you’ll pick up this book to read about a writer you know and discover a new one.


Laura Ingalls Wilder

The pristine image of Wisconsin that young Laura Ingalls describes in Little House in the Big Woods was not a realistic depiction even in her time. But it may still be the primal ideal of this state that many people hold in their minds: The great, dark trees of the Big Woods stood all around the house, and beyond them were other trees and beyond them were more trees.…There were only trees and the wild animals who had their homes among them.

Several states can claim Laura Ingalls Wilder, the celebrated novelist of pioneer life, but Wisconsin had her first. She was born on February 6, 1867, seven miles north of Pepin at the western edge of the state, in the Chippewa River Valley, an area that biographer John E. Miller described as rapidly filling up with farmers, lumbermen, merchants, lawyers, and other go-getters.

Wisconsin had just achieved statehood nineteen years before Laura was born. Her mother, Caroline Quiner Ingalls, was the first known settler born in the town of Brookfield, in 1839, when Wisconsin was still a territory. Caroline’s father, Henry N. Quiner, apparently died in a shipwreck on Lake Michigan. Caroline’s widowed mother purchased some government land along the Oconomowoc River in Jefferson County near Concord, where Caroline later met Charles Ingalls. They married in 1860.

As Pamela Smith Hill explains in her biography, Laura Ingalls Wilder: A Writer’s Life, when Charles’s father, Lansford, could not pay his mortgage, the extended Ingalls family moved from the Concord area to Pepin County. Laura’s sister Mary was born there on January 10, 1865, with Laura following two years later. Laura was named after Charles’s mother, Laura Colby Ingalls.

This historical marker honors Caroline Quiner Ingalls as the earliest known settler born in the town of Brookfield. Jim Higgins.

Laura had been interested in writing stories for children at least as far back as her father’s death in 1902. But she began her public writing career with a column about raising Leghorn hens for the St. Louis Star Farmer in 1910. From the beginning, her skill in and enthusiasm for explaining how to do practical things was a feature of her writing. In 1911, drawing on her farm expertise, she began contributing to the Missouri Ruralist, a weekly newspaper. Occasionally, her Ruralist stories foreshadowed her future fiction, such as a column on grinding wheat in a coffee mill during the hard winter of 1880–81, an experience that would also work into her novel The Long Winter (1940).

Her daughter, Rose Wilder Lane, launched her own writing career and later became her mother’s sounding board, coach, goad, unofficial editor and, occasionally, informal agent. It was a complex relationship that scholars are still sorting out. A few have gone so far as to claim that Lane ghostwrote some of her mother’s famous fiction, but to my mind, Hill’s biography, which focuses on Wilder’s development as a writer, scuttles that thesis. However, it is fair to credit Rose with being the literary midwife who helped deliver Little House in the Big Woods, Wilder’s only novel set in Wisconsin.

Not long after the death of her sister Mary in 1928, Wilder began working in earnest on the autobiography she had contemplated for many years. Lane sent a version of Pioneer Girl, Wilder’s autobiography, to her agent in 1930, but the onset of the Great Depression proved to be an inhospitable time for selling this nonfiction manuscript. Lane engaged a new agent who also failed to find a buyer.

But in the meantime, Lane pulled out of Pioneer Girl a short manuscript intended as a picture book for children, initially called When Grandma Was a Little Girl. While Lane’s editorial advice to her mother could often be condescending, heavy-handed and even wrong-headed, in this instance she served both Wilder and posterity well. Hill writes, This adaptation may have been the most significant professional favor Lane bestowed on her mother, for ultimately it launched Wilder’s career as a children’s book writer.

Marion Fiery, a children’s book editor at Knopf, found the material promising, but in addition to other suggestions, she nudged Wilder to target readers in the eight- to ten-year-old

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