May 7 2014 12:00 AM

Annual symposium celebrates the work of eccentric Michigan author, judge

In his three years as a Michigan Supreme Court judge in the late ‘50s, John D. Voelker wrote an impressive 100 opinions. One of the most titillating was “People v. Hildabridle” in 1959, which involved a Battle Creek-area nudist camp. Voelker, who died in 1991, was decidedly offbeat, said his good friend and fellow fly fisherman and attorney, Frederick Baker.

“It’s that eccentricity that makes Voelker’s decision so noteworthy,” Baker said.
“Most (of his decisions) have a glimmer of the human being who wrote then within the text. You don’t find that anymore. Today the court cranks out monstrosities that are pretentious and scholarly and that want to impose a philosophy.”

The case may have faded into legal oblivion except that Voelker, writing under his pen name Robert Traver, had released his novel, “Anatomy of a Murder,” one year earlier. The book became a New York Times best seller, remaining on the list for 65 weeks — 29 of which in the number one slot — and spawned the hit Jimmy Stewart movie of the same name.

Phil Greasley, a former University of Kentucky English Professor and MSU graduate, will discuss Voelker’s decision and its literary merits with MSU English Professor of James Seaton at 9 a.m. Saturday at the 44th meeting of the Society for the Study of Midwestern Literature. Clothing is required.

The movie in some ways mirrored Voelker’s legal opinion in Hildabridle: Both confronted community standards of decency.

“Anatomy of a Murder” was banned in Chicago for its frank sexual content, and the Hildabridle case was controversial in its views on what constitutes indecent exposure and personal liberty.

“Voelker’s legacy is worth preserving especially as it delves into human thought,” said Greasley by phone from Lexington, Ky. He writes in a shared draft of his presentation that Voelker’s writing emphasizes “life’s moral complexity, the gray areas of law and the ironies and hypocrisies that mark our lives.”

“(Voelker’s legal opinions) reflect the identical values, concerns and principles that are included in his literary writing,” Greasley writes. “(He) consistently sought to maximize personal freedom and to minimize governmental intrusion on private lives.”

Baker said that his favorite line of Voelker’s is, “If eccentricity were a crime, then all of us were felons.” (Baker says he especially likes the double subjunctive.)

Voelker resigned from the Supreme Court to write another literary legal novel, “Laughing Whitefish,” which explores Native American treaty rights and a woman’s real fight to get compensation from iron ore companies. In tendering his resignation to Gov. G. Mennen Williams, Voelker wrote, “While other men can write my legal opinions they can scarcely write my books. I am sorry.”

In addition to his legal novels Voelker wrote several nonfiction books on fishing, including “Anatomy of a Fisherman.”

Also on the program is John Beck from MSU’s School of Human Resources and Labor Relations. His presentation, “Struggle and Tragedy: Recent Fiction and the 1913- ‘14 Michigan Copper Strike,” focuses on a wave of novels published in the last two years that uses the strike as either a focus or backdrop. With its classic fight between a radical trade union and the “benevolent paternalism” practices on the Keweenaw, the story is primed for dramatic retellings. Violence visited both sides in the dispute, culminating in the false cry of fire at a crowded strikers’ Christmas party at Calumet’s Italian Hall that resulted in a stampede that killed 74, most of whom were children.

Many of the novels are by relatively unknown authors; an exception is “Red Jacket” by Joseph Heywood, who departed from his popular contemporary “Woods Cop” series to feature a protagonist who involves himself in the strike.

This year celebrates the 25th anniversary of the establishment of the John D.

Voelker Foundation, which provides scholarships to Native Americans. Baker said Voelker wanted to “live life as his own,” and that’s one reason the native Yooper was drawn back to the Upper Peninsula.

Baker said it was the little things that mattered to Voelker. He recalls a trip to visit Voelker with a mutual friend. Baker said Voelker drove them deep into the woods until they got to a stand of trees, including two birch trees that he described as “being twined together like lovers.”

“They were very important to him,” Baker said. The area was set be clear-cut, and Voelker filed a lawsuit each year to stop the cutting. Baker said Voelker made a promise to file a suit every year until he died.

“They will be alive as long as I am alive,” Voelker told Baker. After Voelker’s death in 1991 at the age of 87, the trees were cleared.

True to his word, he’d kept them alive as long as he could.

Writing the Midwest: A Symposium of Scholars and Writers

The 44th Annual Meeting of the Society for the Study of Midwestern Literature Thursday, May 8–Saturday, May 10 Kellogg Conference Center 219 S. Harrison Road, East Lansing $25