The Eric Hoffer Awards for 2017 were announced yesterday. This is an award designed to recognize exceptional writing from small, academic, or independent publishers that don’t usually get the attention that the big publishing houses get. While Midwest Maize didn’t get the top prize, I was awarded an Honorable Mention, which, given the hundreds of books submitted, is still gratifying.
Category Archives: Literature
In July of last year, I posted about the remarkable rags-to-riches story of Andrew Carnegie and the thousands of libraries he built with the money he made, as a demonstration of his belief that education was vital to success. Iconic, award-winning American fantasy and sci-fi author Ray Bradbury was among the millions who benefited from having a local Carnegie Library.
Born in Waukegan, IL, in 1920, Bradbury had started writing by the time he was eleven. He was an avid reader, and he spent much of his childhood at the Carnegie Library in Waukegan. “Libraries raised me,” Bradbury once said. “I believe in libraries because most students don’t have any money. When I graduated from high school, it was during the Depression, and we had no money. I couldn’t go to college, so I went to the library three days a week for 10 years.”
Bradbury’s family eventually moved to Los Angeles, and Bradbury became incredibly famous, with awards ranging from the Pulitzer to an Oscar. His fans are legion.
Today, the Waukegan Carnegie Library is in disrepair, but efforts have begun to restore and renovate it, not just as a library, but as a memorial to Ray Bradbury. The Ray Bradbury Waukegan Carnegie Library, Inc., has as its goal the creation of a “Theater of the mind,” where one can admire the restored library but also have a memorable “Ray Bradbury experience.”
At this stage, the library is not yet available for visitors, but the organization that is doing the renovation is hoping that they can interest both scholars and donors in contributing to their efforts to bring “Bradbury’s library” to life. To donate or to sign up for their email newsletter, visit http://www.bradburycarnegie.org/ (not just for project updates, but also for information on opportunities, such as tours of Bradbury’s Waukegan or presentations on Bradbury’s work). Of course, if you live nearby, if you’re a fan of Bradbury or Carnegie, they’d be glad to have you join the team.
Life has always changed, but in the last 150 years, the rate of change has steadily increased. Where it once took at least hundreds and often thousands of years for noticeable changes to be witnessed in cultures, societies, or day-to-day life, today, the change seems to be monthly. There are points in time, however, at which there were sudden bursts of change, and the late 1800s represented such a period. In the last decades of the century, we saw the birth of everything from skyscrapers to popcorn poppers to automobiles to department stores. In the U.S., there was also a tremendous surge of people away from farming. Factory jobs offered income not reliant on fickle weather patterns, and big cities offered conveniences not found in the country. These benefits drew people in increasing numbers away from farms. The U.S. changed from a country where most people lived in rural areas and raised crops to a country where city dwellers vastly outnumbered their country cousins. There were also vast numbers who were looking for easy wealth, and they flooded to the world’s gold fields, whether in California, the Yukon Territory, or even in Australia, as noted in the work below. Whatever the draw—reliable income, urban delights, or “easy” wealth—people left the farms in droves during this period.
The following poem was written by a woman named Clara F. Berry during this dynamic period. Published in 1871, it reflects not only these trends but also the sense of loss felt by those who knew that the choices being made were not necessarily better choices, just different.
Don’t Leave the Farm, Boys
Clara F. Berry 1871
Come boys, I have something to tell you,
Come near, I would whisper it low,
You’re thinking of leaving the homestead,
Don’t be in a hurry to go.
The city has many attractions,
But think of the vices and sins,
When once in the vortex of fashion,
How soon the course downward begins.
You talk of the mines of Australia,
They’re wealthy in gold without doubt,
But sh! There is gold on the farm, boys,
If only you’d shovel it out.
The mercantile trade is a hazard,
The goods are first high and then low,
Best risk the old farm a while longer,
Don’t be in a hurry to go.
The great busy west has inducements,
And so has the business mart,
But wealth is not made in a day, boys,
Don’t be in a hurry to start.
The bankers and brokers are wealthy,
They take in their thousand or so,
And think of the frauds and deceptions,
Don’t be in a hurry to go.
The farm is the safest and surest,
The orchards are loaded today,
You’re free as the air of the mountains,
And monarch of all you survey.
Best stay on the farm a while longer,
Though profits come in rather slow,
Remember you’ve nothing to risk boys,
Don’t be in a hurry to go.
I’m happy to relate that my book, Midwest Maize: How Corn Shaped the U.S. Heartland, has been listed as one of the 9 best nonfiction books of 2015 by the Chicago Book Review.
I write to connect with people, as well as to inform, and I am delighted by the realization that the book is connecting with some.
If you’re interested in the list, you can find it here: Chicago Book Review Best of 2015.
I’m not certain why — perhaps we’re nearing the end of the first print run — or maybe it’s because I’ve been getting more newspaper and radio interviews lately, so demand has gone up — who knows — but for some reason, Midwest Maize has been put on sale on Amazon, and the price is so low, if you manage to escape paying shipping, it’s less than what I pay with my author discount.
So if you were thinking about buying the book, this is the time. I have no idea how long the sale will last — maybe just until the 17 books Amazon now says they have on hand are gone. But this would be a good time to get the book if you were thinking about it.
One of the things that delighted me as I researched Midwest Maize was discovering how much literature, especially poetry, celebrates corn, the people who grew it, and the lands where it grew. Of course, I knew about the Carl Sandburg collection, Cornhuskers. But there were so many more wonderful poems written to the grain that built the Heartland. I start each chapter in the book with a book excerpt, quote, or poem about corn, but there were far too many to put them all in the book. So I thought I’d share a few here.
And since, after I saw the Nebraska State Capitol, I met up with friend Jane and we drove across the state to her childhood home of Arapahoe, I thought this was the perfect place to insert a few poems about Nebraska. These are from a collection called Corn Tassels, published in 1897 by William Reed Dunroy. Most of the poems are about the life events one normally associates with poetry — love, sorrow, beauty — but there are a number of Nebraska poem, and the book itself bears the dedication, “To the state I love, NEBRASKA, and to her people.” And I must say, even today, the Nebraska I saw largely reflected what Dunroy describe in his poems.
The Land of Corn
FAR inland from the raging sea,
And its boom and rush and roar,
There lies a land, wide, wide and green,
As flat as a dancing floor—
‘Tis Nebraska, the land of corn.
The sun just seems to love the land,
For it shines the whole year through,
And the skies smile down upon her plains,
Serenely, calm and blue—
O’er Nebraska, the land of corn.
And the prairies are clad for many a mile
With the tossing plumes of corn,
And the fields of wheat wave like a sea
Of green, on a summer morn—
In Nebraska, the land of corn.
A man may wander far way,
From the old Nebraska home,
But his heart will long by night and day
Wherever he dares to roam—
For Nebraska, the land of corn.
We love that land with fervent love,
All we who tread her soil,
And we pray God’s blessing upon the heads
Of the men who live and toil—
In Nebraska, the land of corn. Continue reading
While agriculture was the focus of my research, that didn’t keep me from enjoying all aspects of life, culture, and history that I encountered as I explored. While I roamed about central Illinois, I was delighted to encounter—and even drive on a number of times—pieces of the historic Route 66.
Most Americans have heard of Route 66, the highway that stretched from Chicago to Los Angeles, if only from the song that suggests, “Get your kicks on Route 66.” I’d only previously visited the beginning of the road in downtown Chicago and walked along a short stretch in Albuquerque, New Mexico.
While Route 66 was not the first important road in the country, it was one of the first created for motor vehicles. Approved in 1926, it wasn’t entirely constructed and paved until 1938. Route 66 quickly became a key element of America’s love affair with car travel. The highway connected towns, and new towns grew up along the highway as its importance increased.
Drive-in restaurants, fast food, motor inns, and roadside advertising either had their genesis or came of age along Route 66. It became known as the “Mother Road,” a term John Steinbeck used for it in the Grapes of Wrath, as it became an important escape route for those migrating to California from the Dust Bowl states.
Automobile traffic surged following World War II, as prosperity returned to a country recovering from two wars and the Great Depression. The song mentioned above, written by Bobby Troup and recorded in 1946 by Nat King Cole, became a hit. In 1960, a TV show titled “Route 66” focused on a couple of heroes driving the highway in a Corvette, in search of each week’s adventure. The “Mother Road” was where people wanted to be.
But things change. Small towns slowed down traffic, so highways were routed around those towns—causing considerable hardship for those towns. More traffic, heavier trucks, faster cars called for wider roads and new construction methods that could withstand the onslaught. Today, Route 66 is no longer formally recognized as a U.S. Highway. It is a historic relic cared for by those who value history and the iconic nature of the road. There are segments and stretches that parallel new highways, but they hardly reveal the importance they once had. Still, one is pleased to encounter those segments and stretches—and remember what the highway once meant.
The photo above is of “downtown” Atlanta, Illinois, where Route 66 was once the main street through town. (Note the Route 66 sign on the wall visible over the car’s hood. If you click on the photo, it will enlarge, and the sign will be much clearer.)