Per capita, few communities boast as much homegrown literary talent as Austin, Minnesota. Local standouts include National Book Award winner Tim O’Brien and bestselling YA novelist Amanda Hocking. Austin also lays claim to Minnesota’s newest Literary Landmark honoree, world-renowned poet Richard G. Eberhart.
What is a Literary Landmark?
If you are new to MALF, you may be unfamiliar with the term. In short, a Literary Landmark is a site with some strong historical connection to a prominent and influential American author. They are identified and dedicated through a joint partnership between United for Libraries and local affiliates like the Minnesota Association of Library Friends.
Examples range widely, from the birthplaces of Walt Whitman and Ernest Hemmingway, to a Mississippi church that inspired the writings of playwright Tennessee Williams, to the final resting place of illustrator Randolph Caldecott (namesake of literature’s Caldecott Medal).
In total, there are currently over 160 such sites across the country. Minnesota claims seven, thanks in large part to MALF. Recent additions include the boyhood home of Sinclair Lewis in Sauk Centre, and Vermilion Community College, home of conservationist Sigurd Olson. (You can find a complete list on our website, mnlibraryfriends.org.)
Richard Eberhart: 2017 Honoree
Mower County’s famous native son is a worthy addition to these esteemed ranks. Born in Austin in 1904, Eberhart spent his formative years at the family’s 40-acre estate just outside of town. While he enjoyed a privileged and happy childhood, financial setbacks and the unexpected death of his mother marred his later adolescence.
As fans of Eberhart’s work are quick to point out, much of his Pulitzer Prize- and National Book Award-winning poetry is inspired by both the highlights and travails of this childhood in Austin. Particularly evident are his lifelong fascination with nature, exploration of fate, and fixation with the mysteries of death. Given this focus, contemporary and modern critics alike compare Eberhart – usually quite favorably – to William Wordsworth and the other nineteenth-century English masters of Romanticism.
Eberhart’s journey to worldwide acclaim took him from Minnesota first to Dartmouth College (his future academic home) and later to Cambridge. After completing his coursework, Eberhart visited exotic locales (including most notably Siam, where he spent 1930 as personal tutor to the son of King Prajadhipok). Once back statewide, he quickly made a name for himself as a thoughtful teacher of English and poetry – and an up-and-coming poet in his own right.
After an interlude during which Eberhart served as a lieutenant in the U.S. Navy, Dartmouth appointment him poet-in-residence. He would remain with the institution, in some capacity, until his death in 2005 at the ripe old age of 101. At various times, Eberhart also doubled as poet laureate for the state of New Hampshire, official poet consultant for the Library of Congress, and a member of important federal advisory committees dedicated to the arts.
Over this long and fruitful academic career, Eberhart found time to publish a dozen books of poetry. Standouts include Burr Oak (1947), named after his childhood estate in Austin; Selected Poems, 1930-1965, winner of the 1966 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry; and Collected Poems, 1930-1976, winner of the National Book Award.
Poems held in particularly high regard today include “The Groundhog,” a rumination on mortality and the uniqueness of human consciousness, and "The Fury of Aerial Bombardment," an ode to wartime loss inspired by his own WWII experiences.
In partnership with the Friends of the Austin Library, MALF will christen Eberhart’s hometown as America’s newest Literary Landmark on Monday, April 17. That official dedication will include a special program and the unveiling of a commemorative plaque. Literary Landmark events are free and open to the public, and we would love to see you there. Please stay tuned for further details!
Next summer, the Minnesota Association of Library Friends (MALF) and Listening Point Foundation – in partnership with the Friends of the Ely Public Library, the Ely-Winton Historical Society, and Vermilion Community College – will dedicate Vermillion Community College, the academic home of conservationist Sigurd F. Olson, as Minnesota’s newest “Literary Landmark.”
Literary Landmarks are sites with a strong historical connection to prominent American authors and recognized through a joint partnership between United for Libraries’ Literary Landmarks Association and local affiliates. To date, there are over 150 such sites across the country, and Minnesota is home to five. (These include the boyhood homestead of Sinclair Lewis in Sauk Centre and the Jon Hassler Library in Brainerd, dedicated by MALF in 2013 and 2014.)
The Sigurd Olson dedication ceremony will be held Friday, June 5, 2015, on the grounds of Vermillion Community College. The event is free, open to the public, and will begin at 4 p.m. Light refreshments will be available courtesy of the Friends of the Ely Public Library.
In conjunction with the dedication ceremony, the Listening Point Foundation will conduct tours of Olson’s cabin retreat on June 6, and the Ely Winton Historical Society (conveniently located on the Vermillion Community College campus) will host a small exhibit on the author’s life and work.
Stay tuned! Other exciting tie-in activities are still in the works. Further program details will be available in early spring 2015.
Who is Sigurd Olson?
The Midwest boasts more than its fair share of environmentalist luminaries and famous nature writers. While household names like Aldo Leopold, Gaylord Nelson, and John Muir rank near the top of that list, none has left a more indelible mark on Minnesota than native son Sigurd Olson.
Olson is best remembered today for championing wilderness conservation through nine bestselling books, beginning with The Singing Wilderness in 1956 and his seminal Listening Point in 1958. The latter is named for Olson’s personal retreat, located on scenic Burntside Lake just outside of Ely, Minnesota. Olson and wife Elizabeth lived in the Ely area most of their adult lives.
Sigurd Olson’s corpus of work struck a chord with the American public thanks to his approachable, unpretentious writing style, coupled with an ability to speak from a position of authority. Olson held advanced degrees in geology, botany and agriculture, and taught for many years at Ely Community College (now Vermilion Community College). He rounded out his academic career with stints as science department chair and dean of that Ely institution, before retiring from academia to write full time in 1947.
In truth, retirement proved something of a misnomer, as Olson took the opportunity to redouble his conservation efforts. He served as vice-president and then president of the National Parks Association (1951-1959), as vice-president and then president of the Wilderness Society (1963-1971), and as a special advisor to both the Secretary of the Interior and the National Park Service (1959-1971). His efforts played a direct role in the establishment of national preserves ranging from the Arctic Wildlife Refuge in Alaska to Point Reyes National Seashore in California.
Closer to home, Olson’s advocacy also proved instrumental to the legislation that created Voyageurs National Park and the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness in northern Minnesota.
Olson’s tireless efforts garnered him national praise and honors in his lifetime, including the highest award bestowed by four of the five leading conservation organizations in the U.S. He died in 1982, but his legacy lives on at Listening Point – now on the National Register of Historic Places and managed by a wilderness education foundation of the same name.
Writers like Sinclair Lewis and, more recently, Garrison Keillor, have gained national renown for their portrayals of life in small-town Minnesota. However, no author’s depictions have resonated quite as strongly with native Minnesotans as those of the inimitable Jon Hassler.
Jon Hassler, a teacher by training, burst onto the writing scene in a big way in 1977 with the publication of his first novel, the perennial bestseller Staggerford. The debut garnered Hassler accolades from all corners – for a strong narrative voice, engaging plot devices, and, above all, a refreshingly authentic look at town dynamics in a small Midwestern town.
Over the next three decades, Hassler contributed another dozen novels to the corpus of Minnesota literature, in addition to several well-received nonfiction works, short stories anthologies, and children’s books.
While this high level of productivity is an achievement in its own right, it is all the more impressive for the fact that Hassler never gave up his “day job.” Far from leaving academia, he moved through the ranks – from a high school teacher, to a college professor at Bemidji State University and Brainerd’s Central Lakes College, to Writer in Residence and Regent’s Professor at St. John's University in Collegeville, Minn.
Hassler’s real-life experiences infused his fiction writing, with teachers (like Staggerford’s Agatha McGee) accounting for several of his most beloved characters.
Hassler passed away in 2008, at age 74, after a long and courageous battle with a Parkinson’s-like disease.
While his pluck and candor gained him famous fans in life, including Hillary Clinton and Angela Lansbury, no one mourned Hassler more in death than the small Minnesota communities that figure so prominently in his fiction. In September 2008, in recognition of this fact, Central Lakes College renamed its library the "Jon Hassler Library" in his honor.
MALF Will Recognize Hassler, Formally Dedicate a “Literary Landmark” in May 2014
Next May, the Minnesota Association of Library Friends (MALF) will honor Hassler’s life and work by dedicating the Jon Hassler Library as Minnesota’s fourth and newest Literary Landmark.
Literary Landmarks are sites with a strong historical connection to prominent American authors, recognized through a joint partnership between ALA/United for Libraries’ Literary Landmarks Association and local affiliates.
While several hundred sites across the United States have been recognized in this way, Minnesota, to date, is home to only four. These include the Sinclair Lewis Boyhood Home in Sauk Centre, Minn., which MALF sponsored and dedicated last July.
The Jon Hassler Library is a strong contender. It was during Hassler’s tenure at Central Lakes College (then Brainerd Community College) that he penned Staggerford. Moreover, the facility is home to many of the author’s personal effects, including a number of original writings.
Stay tuned for more information on the upcoming dedication ceremony in Brainerd. We will pass along a date and details early in calendar year 2014.
What do F. Scott Fitzgerald’s St. Paul birthplace and Willa Cather’s beloved Nebraska prairie home have in common with a corner tavern in New York, a cemetery in Virginia, and a courthouse in Michigan?** All are Literary Landmarks, sites with a strong historical connection to prominent American authors recognized through a joint partnership between United for Libraries’s Literary Landmarks Association and a local affiliate.
This summer, the Minnesota Association of Library Friends (MALF), along with the Sinclair Lewis Foundation and other local partners, is thrilled to be such a sponsor and to add the Sinclair Lewis House in Sauk Centre, Minn. to the esteemed and growing list.
Harry Sinclair Lewis is perhaps best known for penning the great American novels Main Street, Babbit, Arrowsmith, and Dodsworth, and for being the first writer from the United States to receive the Nobel Prize in Literature (1930).
On July 16 (4:00 p.m.), MALF and the Sinclair Lewis Foundation will dedicate a custom plaque at the homestead acknowledging both the books and the man – in particular “his vigorous and graphic art of description and his ability to create, with wit and humor, new types of characters.” The ceremony will be one of the lynchpin events at Sauk Centre’s “Sinclair Lewis Days”, an annual, week-long festival celebrating the community and its most famous native son.
Mark your calendars, and stay tuned to the MALF Blog and Twitter account (@MNLibraryFriend) for more details!
**You may still be asking yourself: “How is it that a tavern, a cemetery, and a courthouse are significant to the history of American literature?” New York City’s Pete’s Tavern was a favorite haunt of author O. Henry. Bland Cemetery in Jordan’s Point, Virginia, is the final resting place of Revolutionary War patriot and pamphleteer Richard Bland. The Marquette County Courthouse in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula was the workplace inspiration for Judge John D. Voelker’s bestselling mystery and detective novels. You can read more about the nearly 150 Literary Landmarks by clicking here. You can jump straight to the Fitzgerald house and other Minnesota landmarks by clicking here.