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Cheesehead Lit 101

Illustration by Luke Benson

A bit more than ten years ago, I packed up my belongings and moved from Florida to the beautiful hills of Baraboo to take a job as a professor of English at the University of Wisconsin–Baraboo/Sauk County. In my decade as a Cheesehead (which I consider a term of endearment), I have discovered a rich literary tradition here in Wisconsin, one that I think deserves greater fame. While Minnesota has its indie presses and Iowa its premier writers program, Wisconsin is often overlooked by the literary world—even though we have many great writers producing some impressive literature today.

For my Wisconsin Writers Course at Boo–U (known on campus as Cheesehead Lit 101), one of the fundamental tasks of the class is to determine what makes a distinctly Wisconsin author. The consensus in the class seems to be that an author needs two of three traits to be considered a Wisconsin writer: being from Wisconsin, living in Wisconsin, and/or writing about Wisconsin. Thus, naturalist Aldo Leopold, who was born and raised elsewhere, but lived in and wrote about Wisconsin, qualifies. Sauk City’s August Derleth (surely Wisconsin’s most prolific author, with over a hundred books published) hits all three qualifications. While other authors of his generation left their hometowns for New York or Paris, Derleth knew that his hometown was “the microcosm which reflected the macrocosm of the world.”

“Walk on any street,” Derleth writes in Walden West (1961), “pause anywhere, and listen to the pulse, the heartbeat of Sac Prairie, and a thousand Sac Prairies abroad in the dark.” I love the idea that one can find anything that the world has to offer here in Wisconsin. 

Any reader wishing to find a good introduction to more contemporary authors would be well advised to begin by reading Barnstorm: Contemporary Wisconsin Fiction (University of Wisconsin Press, 2005). This collection of fifteen short stories selected by editor Raphael Kadushin presents a useful cross-section of Wisconsin writers. John Hildebrand’s “Touching Bottom” is a poignant portrait of a man dealing with his personal failures. Anthony Bukoski’s “Mission Work” paints a picture of what it was like growing up in a Polish Catholic community in Superior on the shores of that eponymous lake. “The Jewish Hunter,” by Lorrie Moore (who, sadly, left Madison for Vanderbilt University in 2013), paints a very funny—though sometimes insulting—portrait of an East Coast visiting poet looking for love in the “boonies” of rural Wisconsin.

Barnstorm also includes an excerpt from The Short History of a Prince (1991), by Jane Hamilton. If there’s a better writer in Wisconsin than Hamilton, I don’t know who it is. Hamilton, who has lived for several decades on a Wisconsin apple farm about thirty miles southwest of Milwaukee, writes about pain with tenderness and perception. The novel that might serve as proof of Hamilton’s genius is A Map of the World, published in 1994. Chosen as a 1999 Oprah Book Club selection, A Map of the World focuses primarily on Alice, whose life is forever changed when she fails to keep a close eye on the children under her charge. (These events happen in the first two chapters, so I think the “spoiler” factor is quite low here.) The novel opens:

 

I used to think if you fell from grace it was more likely than not the result of one stupendous error, or else an unfortunate accident. I hadn't learned that it can happen so gradually you don't lose your stomach or hurt yourself in the landing. You don't necessarily sense the motion. I've found it takes at least two and generally three things to alter the course of a life: You slip around the truth once, and then again, and one more time, and there you are, feeling, for a moment, that it was sudden, your arrival at the bottom of the heap.

 

This is stunningly beautiful prose that serves as a worthy model for Wisconsin’s aspiring authors. Hamilton can also be very funny, which she proved in Laura Rider’s Masterpiece (2010), in which she creates a wonderfully absurd and comical situation between a husband who is sexually insatiable, a wife who has had enough, and a Milwaukee Public Radio host whom the two seduce. Laura Rider’s Masterpiece emerges as a more satirical (and sordid) Wisconsin version of Edmond Rostand’s 1897 play Cyrano de Bergerac.

The Wisconsin writer that speaks the most to me is Michael Perry. Like Perry, I am a fiftyish male who was raised in a rural setting with a penchant for words. He writes with humor and heart, and he seems like a guy I wish I had as a friend. I particularly enjoyed Perry’s 2006 memoir Truck: A Love Story. Set in New Auburn (about thirty miles north of Eau Claire), this is indeed (as the title indicates) a love story—love for his truck (a 1951 International L-120), a Spanish teacher named Anneliese, and rural Wisconsin.

Before reading Truck, I was already familiar with Michael Perry, having read Population: 485 (2007) and many of his “Roughneck Grace” columns in the Wisconsin State Journal (as well as listening to Tent Show Radio, the radio variety show that Perry currently hosts); but Truck is the work that revealed how similar we are emotionally. In Truck, Perry writes, “Here lately I weep more easily. There is a sea change happening in my heart. Nothing too dramatic. I rarely blubber or sob, but I tend to well up on short notice and in odd—sometimes ridiculous—context.” Perry says that he’s “homing in on forty.” He continues, “I feel young but pressed for time. I am beginning to get a sense of all I will leave undone in this life. It makes my breath go a little short. I’m not desperate, just hungry to fill the time I am allowed.” As a middle-aged man living in rural Wisconsin, I can certainly relate. 

Another favorite Wisconsin writer is Patrick Rothfuss. Born in Madison, Rothfuss, who looks as if he could play the lead in a Viking saga, is the author of two fantasy novels in a promised trilogy called The Kingkiller Chronicle. The Name of the Wind, published in 2007, sold steadily and reached number eleven on The New York Times best-seller list. The second novel, The Wise Man’s Fear, debuted at number one in 2011.

Rothfuss has enjoyed critical and peer acclaim for his writing. Game of Thrones author George R.R. Martin says, “[The Wise Man’s Fear] was worth the wait. I gulped it down in a day, staying up almost to dawn reading, and I am already itching for the next one. He’s bloody good, this Rothfuss guy.” The Kingkiller Chronicle tells the story of Kvothe, who grows up in a family of nomadic troubadors and, after his family and friends are killed by mysterious forces, develops into a multitalented hero who becomes the stuff of legends.  One delightful element of these novels is the way that Wisconsin seems to flavor Rothfuss’s fantasy world. In the opening chapters of the first book, Rothfuss describes the landscape not far from Kvothe’s tavern: 

 

It was one of those perfect autumn days so common in stories and so rare in the real world. The weather was warm and dry, ideal for ripening a field of wheat or corn. On both sides of the road the trees were changing color. Tall poplars had gone butter yellow while the shrubby sumac encroaching on the road was tinged a violent red. Only the old oaks seemed reluctant to give up the summer, and their leaves remained an even mingling of gold and green.

 

This description certainly sounds like the countryside of south-central Wisconsin, where Rothfuss grew up. There are other Midwest parallels—the gritty port city of Tarbean feels like a medieval version of Chicago, and the area around Trebon sounds a lot like Devil’s Lake. I asked Rothfuss about this a few years ago, and he said, “Well, it’s natural that I would be influenced by the geography of Wisconsin. It’s where I grew up. It’s what’s natural to me. But there are no direct parallels beyond that.”

Though Rothfuss denies direct parallels, his home state seems to bleed through. One caveat about Rothfuss—he writes well, but he takes his time. If you read his first two books, you will join hordes of fans eagerly—and impatiently—awaiting the third. Personally, I’d rather the last novel (reportedly titled The Doors of Stone) be good, rather than fast.

The most controversial choice for inclusion in the Wisconsin Writers class is British fantasy/science fiction author Neil Gaiman. Gaiman, though born and raised in England, has a home near Menomonie. In 2010, I met Gaiman at the celebration of the upcoming ten-year anniversary of the publication of his epic 2001 novel American Gods; I told Gaiman that my students resisted calling him a Wisconsin writer, and he replied gruffly, “I’ve lived here for eighteen years! How long do I have to live here?”

One of the pivotal scenes in American Gods takes place at the House on the Rock in Spring Green, Wisconsin. The House on the Rock is said (in the novel) to be “built by Frank Lloyd Wright's evil twin … Frank Lloyd Wrong.” The protagonist spends much of the novel laying low in Lakeside, a fictional small town in the Northwoods of Wisconsin. Lakeside bears a strong resemblance to Gaiman’s adopted hometown of Menomonie. Like Lakeside, Menomonie has a man-made lake (with a tradition of towing a klunker to the middle of it during winter and taking wagers on when it will break through the ice) and a local bar with the word “Buck” in the name. It is fascinating to see how a British transplant views Wisconsin. 

An exciting new author on the scene is Jennifer Morales, whose collection of interrelated stories Meet Me Halfway: Milwaukee Stories (2015) was recently named Wisconsin Book of the Year at the National Book Festival. Morales, who lived in Milwaukee for more than twenty years, now makes Viroqua her home. Meet Me Halfway defies genre classification, deftly blending traditions of the short story and the novel. As you read, pay attention carefully, because a minor character in one chapter will be the protagonist of a later chapter.

Morales stories provide glimpses into the sometimes-unpleasant realities of urban Wisconsin, where cultures collide. One character in the books says, “Tell me your address and I’ll tell you your color,” illustrating the startling degree to which Milwaukee is segregated along racial lines. Meet Me Halfway blurs those lines by shifting narrative perspectives, encouraging the reader to empathize with characters of different political views, genders, economic levels, races, ages, and sexual identities. This beautiful book brings much-needed diversity to the canon of Wisconsin literature and will be an exciting new addition to my course on Wisconsin authors.

I should note that I have focused on short stories and novels only because I am primarily a scholar of prose literature. Even so, Wisconsin has a rich and vibrant poetry scene as well. In my Wisconsin Writers class, I focus on poets such as Lorine Niedecker, August Derleth, Antler, Bruce Dethlefsen, Ronald Wallace, Margaret Rozga, and Chuck Rybak; these poets write about Wisconsin life, nature, and history with an honesty and skill that sets them apart. Wisconsin poetry would be a good topic for a future article—perhaps by someone more qualified than I. 

Today’s Wisconsin writers truly stand on the shoulders of giants. I spend the first half of the semester guiding my students through their state’s literary history. Three authors in particular stand out: Edna Ferber, Zona Gale, and Aldo Leopold.

Before Edna Ferber became a Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist and playwright—penning So Big (1924), Show Boat (1926), and Giant (1952)—she was a teenage reporter for her hometown Appleton Daily Crescent, and, later, for the Milwaukee Journal. Only after Ferber received national attention for her short stories did she move to New York in 1912. Ferber’s stories about the trials and tribulations of divorcée Emma McChesney and her seventeen-year-old son ran from 1911 to 1915 in The American Magazine and Cosmopolitan, two of the most popular magazines of the day.

Portage author Zona Gale wrote the best-selling novel of 1920, Miss Lulu Bett. Yet few people today have heard of this critically acclaimed work that went on to become a Pulitzer Prize-winning Broadway play and a successful 1921 film released by Paramount Pictures. Gale’s tale of a woman becoming aware of her personhood is especially remarkable in that she composed an alternate ending for the stage adaptation that had her heroine striking out on her own. It was this version of the play that garnered her the Pulitzer Prize, even though the ending was later rewritten again to be more upbeat and compatible with the tastes of 1920s theater-goers.

Most Wisconsinites are familiar with naturalist Aldo Leopold, I suspect, but I wonder how many of them have actually read A Sand County Almanac. With this landmark text (published the year after his 1948 death), Leopold helped birth the American conservation movement. Early in his life Leopold wrote poetry, and the literary world lost a fine poet when he went into forestry. Luckily his prose survives and seems to grow in reputation as a landmark text in environmentalism every year. Everyone who has endured long Wisconsin winters will understand when Leopold writes, “One swallow does not make a summer, but one skein of geese, cleaving the murk of a March thaw, is the spring.” 

Wisconsin can and should take pride in its literary tradition. There’s a lot more to this state than beer, brats, cheese, and football. In fact, there’s more good writing being produced here than I can keep up with. For instance, I can’t wait for Baraboo author Kelly Dwyer (whom I am proud to call a colleague and friend) to finish her next novel. Author of the acclaimed 1999 novel Self-Portrait with Ghosts, Dwyer sets her next one in a small Wisconsin town with a rich circus history; I’ve read the first few chapters, and this fictive town feels like Baraboo, the birthplace of the Ringling Brothers Circus.

Additionally, there’s a long list of books by Wisconsin authors that I know I must read—Nickolas Butler’s Shotgun Lovesongs (2014), Jane Hamilton’s The Excellent Lombards (2016), Chad Harbach’s The Art of Fielding (2011), David Rhodes’s Jewelweed (2013), David Wroblewski’s The Story of Edgar Sawtelle (2008), and so much more. 

In exploring Wisconsin’s literary history, my students learn that their state is richer and more complex than they ever realized; I suspect that anyone who delves deeply into Wisconsin writers will make a similar discovery.

Contributors

Marc Seals is Associate Professor of English at UW–Baraboo where he teaches courses in American literature, composition, and film. Seals is the President of the University of Wisconsin Colleges chapter of the American Association of University Professors.

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