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Michael’s Musings

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Some updates regarding "Zenith City: Stories from Duluth. At noon on Saturday, April 12 I'll be Stan Turner's guest on KLBB AM. You may listen to the hour-long discussion online. On the 14th, two appearances in Duluth: 1 PM at Lake Superior College, and 4 PM at the University of Minnesota, Duluth. On April 16, a reading and signing at Subtext Books on Grand Avenue in St. Paul at 7 PM.

The following blog also appears on the University of Minnesota's Blog Page

You Can Go Home Again

For all the notoriety surrounding Thomas Wolfe's 1940 posthumous novel You Can't Go Home Again, the title had it wrong. We can go home again.

And in truth, we never leave, because home permanently inhabits our souls. Home is more than place—it is personal, foundational, and it defines us.

I was born in Duluth, Minnesota, on May 31, 1939, where I was raised and educated until leaving the city at age twenty-five to attend graduate school at Kent State University in Ohio. I would never live in Duluth again. Yet, five decades later, I am Duluthian to the core.

While at Kent, I was encouraged to write down stories shared with colleagues about having been a folk singer in Duluth. One piece was finally published in a now defunct magazine, but this experience kindled a writing career that for me has resulted in nine published books, countless articles and essays, more than 50 short stories, and a handful of poems. None of this would have happened if not for my early and formative quarter-century in the two-story house at 918 North Tenth Avenue East in the central hillside neighborhood.

There, I was surrounded by first- and second-generation Swedes, Germans, Finns, and several Jewish families. My father was the only Italian resident. I was immersed in these cultural influences; many of the dialects and vernacular would later infuse the conversations of my characters. The ethnic quiddities of Italians and Swedes, Jews and Finns, as well as their customs, foods, and religions would become building blocks to the writerly existence that emerged long after my egress.

My new book, Zenith City: Stories From Duluth, contains 30+ stories grounded in Duluth—its characters, its landmarks, Lake Superior. These pieces span 40+ years, and comprise nearly half of all my essays and stories.

When taking stock of a lifetime of writing, I'm amazed by how much of my work has been rooted in the city where I was raised. In contrast, I'm also amazed by how little of my other writings have been connected to any physical “place.” Throughout my extended Duluth residency, I overheard conversations and noted observations that continue to resonate. Though absent 50 years, a plurality of my published oeuvre has coalesced in Duluth.

In the book's introduction, I ponder whether there is something about the city that drives creative endeavor. A cluster of notables have for varying lengths of time made Duluth their dwelling, including Nobel Laureate Sinclair Lewis, jazz pianist Sadik Hakim, 1950s song lyricist Sammy Gallop, actor/singer/songwriter/television writer/voice of Garfield Lorenzo Music, and even Kojack star Telly Savalas. Of course, there was Bob Dylan, though his family left for Hibbing when he was a tyke. But his awareness of the lynching of three black circus workers on June 15, 1920, from a downtown Duluth streetlamp is the cornerstone of his classic song “Desolation Row.” (I later documented this tragedy in the book The Lynchings in Duluth.)

Since departing Duluth, those years of habitation continue to be processed in my work. I recall how several friends and I often felt at odds with our upbringing. The culture in which we grew up didn't seem to nurture the writer I would become. I don't recall hearing the the cliched encouragement “you can accomplish anything you set your mind to.” Our people sought stability, steady employment, a life absent of risk. I still find myself a bit risk-averse about sending manuscripts to The New Yorker or The Atlantic. But I can't blame Duluth for that. Instead, I sought the comfortable, fitting in with the mainstream, believing instead a high school teacher's admonition that we should be modest, because we had a lot to be modest about.

Despite frequent adolescent irritations with the city—especially late spring snowfalls that canceled ball games and brought despair to this baseball-addled boy—I am grateful to Duluth, my family, the old neighborhood, and the lifelong friends for supplying so many rich anecdotes and characters that have truly shaped and sustained the writer I have become.

Though some may quibble with this, Zenith City: Stories From Duluth, is a love letter to my hometown, which as its stories reveal, I have never quite left.

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