What Michael Fedo cheerfully acknowledges as his “happy-go-melancholy personality” looms like a dreary fog over the Aerial Lift Bridge in these reminiscences about growing up in Duluth. The purpose of “Zenith City,” it’s pretty clear, is not to apologize for leaving and is certainly not to provide a retro burnishing of his hometown’s image. Fedo simply wants to tell his “truths” about Duluth. And sometimes the truths hurt.
“I cherish the time in the city and its memories,” writes Fedo, who was born in Duluth in 1939 and left in 1964. He now lives in the Twin Cities suburb of Coon Rapids. But he doesn’t hide his disappointment with the town.
At some point, the reader might say, “Mickey, please — lighten up,” after yet another example of Duluth’s citizenry demonstrating “a kind of self-deprecation about our city and ourselves.” Nowhere is his impatience with the town’s flagging self-image more apparent than in the essay, “Thou Shalt Not Shine,” in which he writes that “our hometown was a city with an inferiority complex. Subservience infused our culture.”
This would be no surprise to folks who live in Duluth. A common tableau: A longtime resident hesitantly asks a newcomer (yes, people actually do choose to move to this city), “So how do you like it here?” When the newcomer says she loves it, the astonished old-timer invariably says, “You do?”
Fedo’s despair hits bottom when he writes of the disappointment that descended upon the Twin Ports after the opening of the St. Lawrence Seaway, in 1959, failed to deliver on its promise of global prominence and prosperity for this inland international seaport on Lake Superior. “We remained what we had always been,” he writes, “a remote community separated from centers of culture and sophistication, generating in those of us who came of age in the 1950s and 1960s an urge to absent ourselves from the old hometown.”
Eventually, he absented himself, too, going off to build a career as a writer. (Fedo is also the author of the nonfiction “The Lynchings of Duluth.”) He took with him a Duluth Pack full of memories and stories, some of which he relates in this book. “More than four decades following my egress,” he writes, “I realized Duluth’s people and places permanently inhabit my soul.”
As the short pieces play out, we begin to see a mellower side of this Fedo fellow. And we see some important moments and people in a young writer’s life. Among them:
• The time he worked up the courage to approach Louis Armstrong for an interview for a story in his high school newspaper. The legendary jazzman, in town for a concert, was kind and generous with his time.
• The weeks that Fedo spent as a student teacher in Cloquet, just down the freeway from Duluth, under the wing of a gifted 11th-grade English teacher who insisted that all children could learn to write — and who proved it every day.
• A Duluth News Tribune publisher, himself a graduate of the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University, who had seen some of the young Fedo’s work and encouraged him to apply for admission to Medill. (When’s the last time a Duluth publisher had a journalism background?)
In recent years, Duluth has reinvented itself as a tourist destination and a city of artists and writers. Fedo’s recollections predate that metamorphosis. His “Zenith City” won’t make you feel warm and fuzzy. But you will learn some truths about Duluth and about one of its too many good ones who got away.
Larry Fortner is among the legion of former editors of the Duluth News Tribune and a freelance writer and editor. He lives in West Duluth.