In a recent survey by National Public Radio, literary experts and listeners were asked to the name books that best represent each of the 50 states. Local poet Laura Apol suggested two of her favorite books: “Poetry in Michigan/Michigan in Poetry, “edited by William Olsen and Jack Ridl, and “The Collected Poems of Theodore Roethke.”
I herewith offer my own take on authors and books that represent the vastness and greatness of Michigan. And I ask our readers to submit their own favorite books by Michigan authors or books about Michigan. (Send them to email@example.com.)
At the top of my list is “The Nick Adams Stories,” Ernest Hemingway’s semi-autographical collection of short stories, Set in northern Michigan, the saga follows the life a youthful, Hemingwayesque character who is coming of age in and around the Petoskey area at the turn of the 20st century.
Jeffrey Eugenides’ 2002 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel “Middlesex” weaves the history of Detroit into a groundbreaking exploration of gender identity through the eyes of three generations of Greek immigrants.
In “Waiting for the Morning Train,” Bruce Catton details his coming of age in the early 1900s in northern Michigan. Catton’s early experiences growing up in Benzonia, and his encounters with former Civil War soldiers piqued his interest in the Civil War. He would go on to write several volumes on the conflict and win the Pulitzer Prize in 1954 for his book “A Stillness at Appomattox.”
“The Autobiography of Malcolm X,” cowritten by “Roots” author Alex Haley, was published in 1965, following the assassination of Malcolm X. The book, still a worldwide best seller, details the life of Malcolm X as he grows up in Lansing and Mason and rises to become a leading Black nationalist in the 1960s. The book contains a strong redemptive narrative that speaks directly to the reader. Recently, an unpublished chapter was discovered and was purchased by New York’s Schomberg Center for Research in Black Culture before being sold at auction. Plans to publish an update of the original remain sketchy.
“Anatomy of a Murder,” by former Michigan Supreme Court Justice John D. Voelker (writing as Robert Traver) dominated The New York Times’ bestsellers list in 1958 and 1959 for 65 weeks before a movie of the same name was shot in Marquette and Dollar Bay, Michigan. The movie included an all-star cast, including Jimmy Stewart, Lee Remick, Ben Gazzarra, Eve Arden and George C. Scott. Today, the book is considered a classic courtroom thriller.If you are ever in the Marquette area, be sure to take the driving tour of the important sites shown in the movie. The plot revolves around a real murder and the subsequent trial, which saw Voelker as the lawyer for the defense, using temporary insanity as a defense.
Jane Johnston Schoolcraft is considered the first Native American to become a literary writer. She was the spouse of Henry Schoolcraft, the local Indian agent in Sault Ste Marie, Michigan, in the 1820s. Some of her writing is preserved in a “Literary Journal” published by her husband. It is widely accepted that Henry Wadsworth Longfellow borrowed extensively from Schoolcraft’s works for his book “The Song of Hiawatha.” The biography of Schoolcraft, “The Sound the Stars Make Rushing Through the Sky: The Writings of Jane Johnston Schoolcraft,” written by Robert Dale Parker, contains the most complete record of her writing, including a vast trove of unpublished manuscripts. The book won a Michigan Notable Book Award in 2008.
Maritta Wolff had barely graduated from the University of Michigan when her novel “Whistle Stop” was published in 1941. The manuscript had already won the coveted Hopwood writing award when Wolff was still a senior. The novel was perceived as seamy for 1941, especially since it was written by a woman. The book came to the attention of movie moguls and was made into a movie of the same name, starring George Raft and Ava Gardner. Wolff’s second novel, “Night Shift,” was acclaimed by critics and also became a major movie. Mysteriously, Wolff stopped writing by 1972.
Finally, no list would be complete without one of the creations of Elmore Leonard, who used Detroit and its nearby environs for several of his crime books. “City Primeval” is considered one of Leonard’s best, classic noir from one of the best crime writers ever. Leonard’s lean writing has become a standard for young crime writers, and his novels are studied for their ability to drive a dense plot over a rainbow-colored oil slick of dialogue.
From the inner city to the deep woods, from shore to sandy shore, Michigan’s rich literary heritage spans a diverse, complex and fascinating state. What are your favorites?
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