Where Writers Grow

Marked by diversity, Michigan’s rich literary heritage is rooted to place. | Illustrations by Gary W. Odmark

The following excerpts from “Ink Trails: Michigan’s Famous and Forgotten Authors” (2012) by brothers Dave Dempsey and Jack Dempsey — an historic trek across the state of places 18 literary talents lived and worked — are edited and published by Michigan BLUE with permission of Michigan State University Press (msupress.msu.edu).

Owasso Castle
Conservationist and outdoorsman James Oliver Curwood (1878-1927) wrote many of his novels in a castle tailored to his wishes beside his beloved Shiawassee River in Owasso (224 Curwood Castle Drive).


As far back as I can remember (Dave Dempsey shares in his Introduction for “Ink Wells”), books owned me.

By the time I was five, I was regularly accompanying my family to a Dearborn library, checking out the maximum number of books — which I remember as four. As I read books, I wanted to create them, and I wondered how it was done. I wondered who the people were who could call themselves “authors.”

I’m not conscious of thinking specifically about any authors related to Michigan — until I picked up a series of books on the Civil War that my father and older brother, Jack, had already read. Bruce Cattan wrote with such grace and dramatic flair! Who was this man and what had made him such a good writer?

I gained a hint of the answer simply by riding through, and later driving through, and sometimes even stopping in, the small town of Benzonia.

Cattan and his hometown is, for me, the genesis of “Ink Trails.”

Ernest Hemingway was a later, acquired taste, more difficult to love but no more difficult to admire. Northern Michigan touched Hemingway and touched Cattan, but with remarkably different results. Perhaps that’s in part because a small, secure village helped Cattan in a benign world of fixed truths, while a moody lake and second-growth woods extracted the wildness within Hemingway. Michigan contains those contrasts.

But a multitude of other explanations make equal or greater sense.

As an environmental advocate (who now prefers to call himself a conservationist), I am most struck by the thought that Michigan’s forests, dunes, farmland and water were the cradle of creativity for almost all of the authors Jack and I profiled in “Ink Trails.” For those most influenced by their Michigan towns or cities, I like to think something in their communities, as small as the village green or vast as the sky, helped foster their art.

In the end, of course, the truth is place.

Place is where we first become conscious of a world outside ourselves, then outside the family, then outside the community. Place is where we draw our first and last breath. Place either smothers our spirits, or liberates it.

A startlingly beautiful and varied place like Michigan most often frees the spirit. In doing so, it is parent to creativity — sometimes everlasting art.

To those who see bare branches —
and know they hold the buds of spring

to those who see stars falling
in the heavens
and know the constellations
will remain forever

to those who see long lines of geese
fade far beyond —
and know they come back again to nest

to those who see with wonder in their hearts
and know — what glories there can be

for those who see…

Gwen Frostic (“Contemplate,” 1973)

Gwen Frostic's rustic custom built studio
East of Frankfort on the road to Benzonia, Gwen Frostic’s rustic custom-built studio and shop along the Betsie River represents the full expression of her creativity (5140 River Rd., Beulah).

A Literary Landscape

Marked by diversity in gender and geography, fiction and non-fiction, prose and poetry, the state’s literary heritage is rich indeed, notes Jack Dempsey in his “Ink Wells” preface. Some writing has merited Pulitzers, National Book Awards and honorary degrees; some perched for months at the top of bestseller lists. Other books found a different kind of reader, embraced by a family tradition of passing a careworn volume down through the generations.

All were fashioned by hands of artists influenced by Michigan, maddened by Michigan, heartbroken over Michigan, in love with Michigan.

I have long been in love with books, likely as long as I have been fascinated by history. As a student of the American Civil War from youth, I cherish anything written by Bruce Cattan. A 1970s course at Michigan State University linked Ernest Hemingway’s “The Nick Adams Stories” to reminiscences of summer weeks at Camp Michigana on Walloon Lake across from his family cabin. A career as an attorney makes me fond of anything by John Voelker. These names I knew, but mapping other Michigan-author places yielded surprises.

A trip to Marquette meant an encounter with “Dandelion Cottage”* — and discovery back home that it was a friend’s family heirloom. My Civil War library had long contained Carl Sandburg’s Lincoln biography, but I had overlooked the reference in its foreward to the Chickaming Goat Farm. The Civil War — and so much more — appears in (William McKendree) Carleton and (Dudley Felker) Randall. And then there was Holling Clancy Holling…

James Oliver CurwoodI remembered his “Paddle-to-the-Sea” from a children’s television show and the picture book borrowed from my Redford elementary school library. Research pointed to Holling Corners, Mich. as his birthplace. There, people in Jackson County finally pinpointed the origin of a creative genius who paddled his own canoe through the Great Lakes and ultimately steered his life to America’s left coast. His final wish was to be returned home to Michigan, to the tiny rural graveyard on a gently sloping hill, with a marker aptly inscribed: “Part of him lives on in his books.”

The work of these authors should live on; the Michigan sources of their inspiration should be known. I am grateful for the privilege of walking the trail with these writers, and with my brother, Dave, a Michigan notable author in his own right.

I gained a greater appreciation for the role of this place in shaping its literature. I have come to know better the landscapes and writing retreats of some of the state’s most interesting talents. Each deserves a marker of recognition — and to be cherished for their relationships to places that are pure Michigan.

*This childhood classic by Carroll W. Rankin, first published in 1904, tells the simple, charming story of four young girls and their adventures in the pioneer town of Marquette, Mich. The story begins when the girls pull all of the dandelions from the lawn of the cottage behind the local church and obtain the right to use the cottage as their playhouse for the summer. A wholesome tale that has withstood the test of time, the real-life Dandelion Cottage on which the story is based still exists in Marquette. — amazon.com

Once Upon a Place

“Ink Trails: Michigan’s Famous and Forgotten Authors” by Dave Dempsey and Jack Dempsey highlights these writers in the following regions:

Southeast Michigan

George Mathew Adams
Jane Kenyon, Robert Frost and Arthur Miller
Dudley Felker Randall

Central/South Central Michigan

William McKendree Carleton
James Oliver Curwood
Marguerite de Angeli
Holling Clancy Holling
Theodore Huebner Roethke
Maritta Wolff

Southwest Michigan

Liberty Hyde Bailey
Ringgold Wilmer Lardner
Carl Sandburg

Northern Lower Michigan

Charles Bruce Cattan
Sara Gwendolyn Frostic
Eugene Ruggles

Upper Peninsula

Caroll Watson Rankin
John Donald Voelker

Dave Dempsey is the writer and co-author of five nonfiction books and was named Michigan Author of the Year in 2009. Jack Dempsey is an attorney, history advocate and author.

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