The Minnesota book community long has prided itself on the quality and diversity of the writers it has produced and the publishing enterprises it has spawned. We hear this sort of thing expressed so often, in fact, that many of us simply accept as received truth the
notion that the state is, and long has been, a hotbed of literature.

But many of the great writers who have lived and worked in the Twin Cities and in the state — F. Scott Fitzgerald, Robert Penn Warren, Saul Bellow, Mary McCarthy, Richard Eberhart and August Wilson, to name just a few — never produced much, if any, work that addressed Minnesota with any sort of specificity of place.

 “Minneapolis was the home of Honeywell, of heart surgery, of Pillsbury, of the Multiphasic test, but it was not celebrated as the home of poems and novels,” wrote Bellow, an associate professor at the University of Minnesota from 1954 to 1959, in his introduction to the 1973 memoir by his university colleague John Berryman.

Bellow’s observation may be withering, but if we’re honest with ourselves we should admit there is truth in it. Yet while Minnesota may not be celebrated as the home of poems and novels — and there’s certainly room for disagreement with Bellow — it has inspired scores of defining books and works of literature: essays celebrating its natural beauty; the luminous poems of James Wright; photo books such as John Szarkowski’s newly reissued landmark, “The Face of Minnesota,” and even mysteries steeped in local character and color.

So here’s a question that folks have been kicking around for years: What books make up the Minnesota canon, if you will — the titles that define the state’s identity to the people who live here, and to the world outside its borders?
With the state celebrating its 150th birthday, and the recent losses of such Minnesota literary icons as Paul Gruchow, Carol Bly and Jon Hassler, it seems an appropriate time to address the question of what we’re left with, both looking backward and going forward.

Voyage into the past

Patrick Coleman, the Minnesota Historical Society’s curator of books, has spent years acquiring Minnesota-related titles for the Historical Society’s library collection and has compiled his own list of the 100 most significant books dealing with every aspect of the state’s history, geography and literature, as well as a fairly exhaustive and annotated list of fictional Minnesota places and the real towns they’re based on, with some entries dating back to the 19th century. (“You could probably read some of these books and never realize they were set in Minnesota,” he acknowledged.)

Coleman’s views on a Minnesota canon are wide-ranging and stretch back to the earliest years of the territory’s exploration. He effuses, for instance, about the significance of an 1834 Henry Schoolcraft book with the title “Narrative of an Expedition Through the Upper Mississippi to Itasca Lake, the Actual Source of This River; Embracing an Exploratory Trip Through the St. Croix and Burntwood (or Broule) Rivers, in 1832.”

He also makes a passionate case for Patricia Hampl’s 1981 memoir, “A Romantic Education” (“I think it has a really
good feel for St. Paul, and I go back to that description of life under the Schmidt Brewery sign again and again”), Tim O’Brien’s 1975 novel “Northern Lights” (“fabulous for its extraordinary descriptions of Northern Minnesota”), and Ole Rolvaag’s monumental “Giants in the Earth,” technically a saga of the Dakota territories but written by a Norwegian immigrant ensconced in Northfield, Minn.

“You won’t find a better description of Minnesota weather than Rolvaag’s,” Coleman said. “That’s one of my big three, and I still find myself reading that ending to out-of-town friends over the phone.”
Minnesota Outdoors Press publisher and author Richard Fred Arey also is a famously obsessive collector of Minnesota books. “I have a difficult time coming up with one truly iconic fiction title beyond the obvious,” Arey said. “And where I really run into trouble is thinking of a single book that really nails the Twin Cities. They talk about how you could rebuild Dublin from the descriptions in Joyce’s 'Ulysses,’ but I can’t think of a book that would allow you to have a really clear picture of even a specific neighborhood in Minneapolis. Maybe some of John Sandford’s books give you that sort of detail about St. Paul, or something like Steve Thayer’s 'Saint Mudd.’”

Arey lobbied for “Canoeing With the Cree,” a 1935 travelogue by former Minnesota Daily reporter and legendary journalist Eric Sevareid, and “The WPA Guide to Minnesota,” originally published in 1938.

Milkweed Editions founder Emilie Buchwald admits that “I get parochial on this subject, because I’ve published a number of the authors and books that immediately come to mind, but I really believe some of Carol Bly’s books, like 'Letters From the Country’ or 'Backbone,’ couldn’t be more Minnesotan in their descriptions and sensibility.

“And in terms of talking about what makes the state what it is, a writer like Paul Gruchow ['Grass Roots: The Universe of Home’; 'The Necessity of Empty Places’] represented the literal grass roots of Minnesota literature. As does Bill Holm, who is a writer with so much intellectual capital and a distinctly Minnesotan voice. And then, of course, there’s Garrison Keillor, but he’s so obvious; he’s kind of like a face on Mount Rushmore.”

A place of mystery

As the former owner of Once Upon a Crime Books in Minneapolis, Steve Stilwell has shelves crowded with candidates.
“For the most part, Minnesota mystery and crime writers tend to set their books here,” he said. “Starting with Mabel Seeley, who wrote a series of books set in Minnesota in the ’30s and ’40s, you have a long list of books with lots of local details. Seeley’s first book, 'The Listening House,’ took place in a St. Paul rooming house, and it’s still considered one of the most important books in the field.”

Fast-forwarding to the end of the 20th century, Stilwell said, “you had Thomas Gifford’s 'Wind Chill Factor’ and 'The Cavanaugh Quest.’ I think John Sandford’s real strength is that he uses and describes his local settings very well. M.D. Lake sets her books on the U of M campus. St. Paul and the weather play huge roles in Steve Thayer’s novels. Jane Lawless, the protagonist in Ellen Hart’s series, is the owner of a restaurant near Lake of the Isles. Pete Hautman’s 'The Mortal Nuts’ takes place at the State Fair. And William Kent Krueger, who I think is the only one of the bunch who’s not actually from Minnesota, sets his novels up north in the town of Iron River, which is essentially Ely.”

In short, there are lots of titles, but very little consensus among Minnesota’s literary community regarding an authoritative state canon (see the list above for a starting point). Only four titles (“Main Street,” “Lake Wobegon Days,” “Staggerford” and “The WPA Guide to Minnesota”) were mentioned by more than three people. And everybody struggled to come up with seminal works of Minnesota fiction, particularly set in the Twin Cities. Which means that the responsibility for such an undertaking lies with the present and future generations of local writers.

In the meantime, the rest of us can take small comfort and pride in the fact that the University of Minnesota campus provided the setting and inspiration for Max Shulman’s immortal 1951 story collection, “The Many Loves of
Dobie Gillis.”

Brad Zellar is a Minneapolis journalist and former bookstore owner who just published the photo book “Suburban World: The Norling Photos.”