A Happy Medium

Last week Dan Blank posted an article I’m still trying to wrap my head around. It was about physical media.

His piece begins with an observation: Not long ago, people read physical books, magazines, and newspapers in all kinds of situations, such as when riding the subway; but today, it’s easier to open your phone, access the Web, and grab whatever you want to pay attention to. Just go to Spotify. Or YouTube. Whatever.

Woman reading on couch. Photo by Julia Spranger, licensed under CC BY 3.0

“How people read and listen and watch has evolved a lot in the past decade,” Dan observes. 

That much is obvious. But then, being Dan Blank, he goes off on a different tack. He is not so much concerned with trends of media consumption as dictated by convenience or economics. Dan wants to know how our relationship with media in physical forms—old-fashioned formats, really—affects us in our inner, private existence as human beings. 

“I’ve been thinking about how I can be more intentional in how I experience books, movies, and music,” Dan says. Is it just me, Dear Reader, or does this sound like a thought from outer space?

Only Dan Blank—who does indeed think deeply about such matters—could even formulate that sentence. He goes on to explain that, having eschewed traditional television in his household for many years, he is now setting up a TV room. “It feels old fashioned,” he says, but he’s buying “an immersive experience to lose myself in a movie. To close the shades, turn off the lights, close the door, turn the volume way up, and dive into a film.”

Old TV. Public Domain.

Well: That’s him, and I’m me. 

But it got me wondering how I relate to media in my life. It wouldn’t take a Marshall McLuhan to figure out that Your New Favorite Writer is perhaps a bit . . . eccentric. 

I like a physical book, hardbound or paperback. The ancients entrusted their writings to long, continuous scrolls of papyrus or other materials that had to be unwound with one hand while being rewound with the other. When some genius invented the codex, a stack of rectangular sheets bound along one edge, he or she introduced a device that has lasted ever since. With a codex, very like a modern book, you could easily flip back and forth. You could go back fifty pages to see whether the dagger was mentioned among the items the police found after the murder. 

The modern world was born.

Since that time I have read quite a few books—learning from Peter Drucker, investigating with Dorothy Sayers, and taking the hard falls with Ross Macdonald. There is something about holding a book in my hands, flipping pages, that transports me to a new and exciting place.

With the advent of the mass market paperback, a book became something you could jam into the back pocket of your jeans, get on the bus, and pull out to re-enter the dream world.

When today’s reality (no, thanks) came along, I learned to download e-books and read them on my laptop. But I strongly prefer black ink on white paper, sandwiched between a pair of sturdy covers. 

Now here is my shameful secret, Gentle Reader. Try not to condemn that which you may not understand. Black ink on white paper, or at least the facsimile of same on a laptop screen, is the ONLY way I like to receive information. 

There’s something about my auditory and central nervous systems that makes it hard for me to absorb content by hearing or seeing. I have to READ it. 

This is altogether unlike the stated preference of my high-toned friends who spurn the television news because the New York Times, you know, is so much more accurate and in-depth.

No. This is how it is: If my laptop shows me a TV news story that I can watch as a stream or read as text, I will choose the latter—even if the text is a verbatim transcript of the television clip. If there’s only a TV stream, unaccompanied by written text, I’ll find a different source that does have written text. As Heinlein’s famous Martian would say, I can grok it in its fullness only if it’s in print.

I remember, as a child and even as a young adult, going to see movies in the cinema and enjoying them greatly. It’s a long time since I’ve had that experience. If I want to have it now, I’ll turn on the TV and navigate my way to Turner Classic Movies. That’s because the films they make now are not only too loud, they go too fast for me to understand. 

Partly that’s because of my hearing impairment, but that’s not the whole story.

No matter how fast people talk, I hear slow. I also see slow. I can’t follow the thread of a TV commercial because of the quick cuts. They can present an entire opera in thirty seconds, but I’ll be caught off guard when the fat lady sings.

These effects have increased as I age. It’s gotten to where there’s virtually no point in hearing or seeing anything. 

Just give me a book and a quiet corner. I’ll be happy.

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers

Your New Favorite Writer

Author of Price of Passage—A Tale of Immigration and Liberation.

Price of Passage

Norwegian Farmers and Fugitive Slaves in Pre-Civil War Illinois

(History is not what you thought!)

Publication Day

THE BOOK IS HERE!

Screen grab from video taken when my ship came in.

Today—August 23, 2022—is the official publication date of my historical novel, Price of Passage: A Tale of Immigration and Liberation, from DX Varos Publishing.

I say “official” because many friends who pre-ordered the book have already received their copies, several days before the official date. I know this is so. They send me emails or Facebook comments, rejoicing that their book has arrived. Some even attach a photo of the book cover—as if to offer proof!

This, in turn, makes me rejoice. They are doing this because they are my friends. 

Friends, Not Subjects

They don’t see me as a Big Deal Author, seated on some Olympian cloud bank, cultivating grandeur while a personal assistant screens all messages. 

My friends don’t see me as a remote, magisterial figure, because I’m not. They understand how fallible I am, and they love me anyway.

My friends are real friends. I know them and they know me. 

It thrills me that they invest themselves in my literary success just because it’s something I have set out to do. It’s important to me, so naturally it’s important to them. They become willing co-conspirators in this challenge of entertaining readers with an enlarged historical perspective. 

God bless them all. Everybody should have such friends.

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Writer

Price of Passage

Norwegian Farmers and Fugitive Slaves in Pre-Civil War Illinois

(History is not what you thought!)

Hail! Hail! The Gang’s All Here

Bradford High School

Saturday I attended the 60-year reunion of the Mary D. Bradford High School Class of 1962.

It was a great time. 

I lived in Kenosha, Wisconsin, only a few years, from 1957 to 1962. I arrived as an eighth-grader at Lincoln Junior High. So my friendships among high school classmates were not of the kind that went all the way back to first grade.

But one of the things you learn when you are old, Dear Reader, is that it’s always great to gather with friends you have known for more than half a century. Even if you hardly knew someone way back then, you have so much in common sixty years later! So, at a reunion you can bond closely with someone you hardly knew in days of yore. 

It’s hard to explain, but mere propinquity (as Zelda Gilroy would say) six decades ago can cement a relationship in the here and now.

Our class started with 831 freshpersons and graduated 537 seniors. In those days, there was a lot of attrition. 

At least 147 of our 537 graduates have passed on—a frightful toll, considering that we are only in our late 70s. Of the remaining 390, some are now in poor health, while others live at a great distance. 

Among the 75 classmates who showed up for this year’s reunion, there were many whom I remembered, and who remembered me. None of them were especially good buddies sixty years ago—but they were long-lost pals now!

Wayne Blackmon was there, who used to sing a very suggestive verion of the innocent 1920s song, “Does Your Mother Know You’re Out, Cecilia?” I exchanged greetings with Armand Mattarese, our legendary quarterback, who also shared a beachfront beer-and-bonfire bash with me and a few nice girls on our graduation night. 

Rose Marie Pellegrino, who used to be one of the real spark-plugs of our class, spoke with me of the books she likes to read. She commended Louise Penny’s mysteries to my attention, and I mentioned to her Romain Gary’s excellent 1961 memoir, Promise At Dawn.

I learned of the lives, the trials and triumphs of classmates Sandy Zacho and Lucille Turco. Len Iaquinta put in a good word and followed up with an offer to connect me with a Southeast Wisconsin podcaster. Abby Cohen Schmelling was fascinated to hear I had written a novel based on my family’s genealogy.

Walter Modjelewski had a wonderful long career in the metal castings business and is doing great. We exchanged health info. “I take nothing,” he said. I’m in awe. I think I’m healthy, but I depend on three or four regular pills.

Joyce Sawicki, a beautiful girl then, is still a knockout–and a caring friend.

Some of my Class of ’62 friends even knew about my forthcoming book, said they had pre-ordered it, and wished me good luck. 

But selling books was not the main point of the exercise. Mainly, I was just glad to learn I was not the only survivor.

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Writer

Price of Passage

Norwegian Farmers and Fugitive Slaves in Pre-Civil War Illinois

(History is not what you thought!)

EXTRA! EXTRA! READ ALL ABOUT IT!

All Hands On Deck.

If you’re at all like me, Dear Reader, you want people to know and appreciate the work you do.

More than six years ago, I set out to become a serious writer. If you read this blog regularly, you already know about the ups and downs, the travails and triumphs, of that journey.

A big victory is scheduled for eleven days from now, when my debut historical novel, Price of Passage: A Tale of Immigration and Liberation, will be published. 

It’s hard to express how gratifying that will be. 

Me, an author. Who’d a thunk it?

But that’s only the beginning. 

The Dirty Details

Publishing, Gentle Reader, is a business. It relies on income from books sold to make it all worthwhile. My publisher—Noble Creature though he is!—did not get into it solely for cheap thrills. He is looking to make a profit.

“Profit” is a word that a novice book writer is not justified in breathing. Only established authors, represented by New York agents and published by the Big Four, dare hope to make enough in royalties to cover the cost of incidental writing expenses (conferences and such), let alone repay the time and effort they put into their work. 

Lion. Photo by Kevin Pluck, licensed under CC BY 2.0

I do not fall into the Stephen King category. So you might say this “Literary Lion” thing is a mere ego trip. You might even say that my book, though published under a traditional contract by a traditional publisher, is essentially, in some way, a vanity proposition.

The Pitch

So here’s the deal, Friend: I need your help to make Price of Passage a wildly successful book. Don’t just buy and read it yourself, but also please mention it to every intelligent reader you know. If they enjoy historical fiction, this is an excellent specimen. If they never read historical fiction, this is their perfect introduction to the beauty, and the value, of the genre.

Besides simple word of mouth, I need your help in finding book clubs, book stores, and libraries where I might make a presentation and perhaps sell a few books. I am based in Madison, Wisconsin, but can travel under the right circumstances. Or I can use Zoom to make presentations to distant groups.

In short, Fair Reader, I want you as a willing co-conspirator. I have a newsletter for co-conspirators. It’s called The Haphazard Times because it comes out on no regular schedule—only when there’s important news to pass on. Consider it the official club organ. The Haphazard Times is where you’ll find upcoming events, marching orders, secret codes, etc. It will help you be a good co-conspirator.

Fill out the orange box at the top of this page, and then reply to the confirmation email which will be sent to you. That way you’ll be in on all the fun of a Major Literary Campaign. As a bonus, you’ll receive Steam, Sparks, and Iron—a brief, bite-sized look at a nineteenth-century explosion of new technologies that impacted the characters in Price of Passage

Do it now. 

Thanks for your help.

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Writer

Price of Passage

Norwegian Farmers and Fugitive Slaves in Pre-Civil War Illinois

(History is not what you thought!)

Rome, Rome, Wherefore Art Thou Rome?

All roads lead here, they say.

And I guess it’s true. We stayed a few days in Croatia, Slovenia, and Trieste; a few more days in Venice, a grand old city that’s been falling apart for a thousand years; and then a week at an agriturismo villa in the Tuscan hills. These sojourns gave rich experiences to the grandchildren.

But eventually, we came to Rome. We arrived by train at Roma Termini, one of the world’s great railroad stations. The Number One Great Thing about Termini is getting out of it and finding your way to a cool hotel lobby. 

I already like the Hotel dei Borgognoni—Hotel of the Burgundians! It’s in the heart of Rome, halfway between Trevi Fountain and the Spanish Steps. Its claim to four stars is, one may say, aspirational; but it is a pretty good hotel. The people are friendly, and there is a nice family restaurant nearby.

When we checked in on August 6, the desk clerk noticed from our passports that it was Elsie’s thirteenth birthday. A congratulatory fruit basket appeared in the kids’ room, compliments of the house. It was a nice touch—the kind of thing doting grandparents will not soon forget.

An hour after check-in, we were off on a pre-arranged tour of the Colosseum and the Roman Forum. Virginia, our guide, knew her stuff, but when her planned route led up a long, steep street paved by the ancients with jagged, irregular flagstones, we dropped out. 

Arch of Constantine. Photo by David Jones, licensed under CC BY 2.0.

Virginia went on, escorting Katie, Elsie, and Tristan, while Joelle and I waited by the Arch of Constantine to be picked up and returned to our hotel. Joelle found us a leaning post by a brick wall. The afternoon sun beat down.  

I went scouting for water. Three hundred meters down the street, a vendor held out a bag of half-liter water bottles. 

“How much?” I asked.

“On bottle—two Euro,” said the vendor.

“Give me two. No, three.” 

“Why don’t you just buy out my stock?” He opened his bag to show there were four bottles left.

I bought them all, and he threw in the plastic bag. As I limped back with my prize to where Joelle waited, I saw another man selling water fifty feet from where she stood. No doubt he had been there all along. Blinded by my belief that water was far away, I must have walked right past him. 

While we waited for a ride, Rome entertained us. Bridal parties descended from black cars to get photos made with the Colosseum as background. A fashionable couple strode by, restraining a matched pair of sleek, hungry-looking, yellow-eyed wolf dogs on leashes—descendants, perhaps of the she-wolf who nursed Romulus and Remus.  

Overhead, a lone peregrine falcon patrolled.

This place was not built in a day.

Nor can it be fully explored in less than a month or two. We merely hoped to give the children a quick introduction. 

Our desk clerk assured us that everything in Rome is still where it was the last time. 

Trevi Fountain. Photo by David Iliff, licensed under CC BY 3.0.

So yesterday we all walked to Trevi Fountain. It spouts streams of water amid statues of hippocamps and Greek water deities. People throng the piazza and toss coins into the swirling waters. At mid-morning, it was already gosh awful hot—we are gripped by the fiercest and longest heat wave in Europe’s memory. Just viewing the fountain was so enervating that we all had to stop for gelati.

Then, on to the Spanish Steps—a monumental staircase of 135 steps in the middle of Rome. The kids ran up the steps; we took the elevator from the Metro station at street level. Then we all went on to enjoy the large park and gardens at the Villa Borghese.

Spanish Steps. Photo by Arnaud 25, licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0.

But the day’s highlight was a train/bus trip to the pleasant suburb of Frascati. There, mentored by a young chef named Nico, we made and cooked fresh pasta. Kids and adults enjoyed making, cooking, and eating the noodles, with typical Italian sauces. For growups, there were also some nice wines.

At last we had found an excursion that did not tax our capabilities.

Do as the locals do.

When our train rolled into Termini around nine o’clock, the Metro station was closed. So we took a cab home. It turned out to be a gypsy cab, a wildcat operation not licensed for the trade.

“The Hotel Dei Borgognoni,” I said.

“Oh, Borgognoni. Center of city?”

“Si.”

“I take you there, thirty Euro.” 

Not a bad price. I nodded.

He led us across Via Giovanni Giolitti to his van. A young woman sat at the wheel, revving the engine. She could have been his daughter but might have been his wife.

When he told the young woman “Hotel Borgognoni,” she shot him a bewildered look. The man climbed into the front passenger seat, with us in the capacious rear seats. Off we shot through the serpentine streets of a perplexing city.

The man and the woman consulted, argued. She turned this way and that. After twenty minutes, we stopped in a brightly-lit street, sidewalk restaurants lining both sides.

“Here,” the man said. “Borgognona.” He motioned for us to get out.

“No.” I shook my head vehemently. “This is not it.”

He waved his hand. “Here. Via Borgognona.”

“Not Via Borgognona. Hotel dei Borgognoni.” 

Katie chimed in. “It’s on Via del Bufalo.”

Hotel dei Borognoni.

Doubt crept into the man’s expression. “Hotel? Hotel Borgognona?”

The young woman at the wheel consulted her smart phone. Her face brightened. She looked up from the phone. “Hotel dei Borgognoni?” 

I nodded vigorously.

She showed me the screen—a glowing picture of the front door of our hotel.

“That’s it!” I cried.

She smiled and put it back in gear. After ten more minutes of narrow streets and alleys, we ground to a stop. “Here,” the man said, waving outside the cab. “Hotel Borgognoni.” 

Nothing looked familiar. In the back seat, Katie stared at her little phone screen and nodded. “Yeah, this is it.”

We got out, I gave the guy his thirty Euros. We hoofed our way a block through a deserted street, turned a corner, and there we were. Home at last.

Thus did we survive an amusing travel anecdote of the old style. 

Today, after our morning tour of the Vatican was over, Katie called us an Uber to get back to the hotel. Perfectly satisfactory it was. But not much drama, if you ask me.

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite (Travel) Writer

Price of Passage

Norwegian Farmers and Fugitive Slaves in Pre-Civil War Illinois

(History is not what you thought!)

Lollygagging

My keyboard rests on a glass tabletop, on a sunny balcony overlooking the Gulf of Trieste.

Across the Riva del Mandracchio from our hotel stands an old administrative building, the Molo Bersaglieri. It occupies the pier where cruise ships dock.

Trieste sunset. Larry Sommers photo.

There were two liners when we checked in yesterday, one each side of the pier, their tall hulks spoiling the view of the harbor. But both steamed out at five, civilized guests, well-versed on when to leave. 

Since then, we can see the sea, out to the horizon. That horizon is lost in afternoon shimmer as all Europe smothers under a blanket of heat. Global warming? Climate change? Normal fluctuations? Who can say?

Whatever its cause, I don’t mind the heat, because I was a child in downstate Illinois in the Fifties (pre-A/C). Also because I live now in Madison, Wisconsin, where the Ghost of Winter Past and the Ghost of Winter Yet to Come haunt each day from May through October.

Dolce far niente

So I’m happy to sit on the balcony of this luxury hotel, flanked by two honest-to-god Greek pillars, each two stories high and topped by a handsome Ionic capital. With my laptop and a bottle of literary-looking Italian soda pop—La Nostra Gazzosa, quella con il limone sfusato di amalfi—I engage in the splendid Italian pursuit known as il dolce far niente, the sweetness of doing nothing. 

John William Waterhouse (1849-1917), Dolce Far Niente, oil on canvas. Public Domain.

Where I come from, this is called lollygagging. It’s one of those American expressions like rubbernecking, flabbergasted, and bumbershoot; an honest, all-purpose word with no humbug or hokum about it. Still, the Italian rendering is more poetic and less accusatory. Italians know that while a certain amount of doing may be unavoidable, life itself is being. And it takes a mature tranquillity to simply be.

A river runs through it

We have brought our daughter and two grandchildren across the world to experience Italy and, incidentally, to help us celebrate our Golden Wedding Anniversary. Two years late. The trip was scheduled for the summer of 2020, but Something Happened to prevent it. That Same Something was still happening in 2021. But now, That Something’s prefix has changed from pan- to en- . So we are globetrotting again, like almost everyone we know, in a great lemming herd of pent-up travel demand.

The good news: Europe is still here. 

The bad news, Dear Reader, if you choose to see it that way, is that “we are not now that strength which in old days moved earth and heaven.” We, unlike our progeny, have gotten old. 

Škocjan funicular. Photo by Rochester Scouder, licensed under CC BY 2.0

So when we sojourned a few days in Croatia, my wife, Joelle, chose to stay in Zagreb while I accompanied our offspring on a day trip to Plitvice Lakes National Park. She was wiser than I. She would not have well endured the hike over hill and dale, treading shifty duckboards over rushing waters, climbing back up at least three feet for every one foot descended. 

A couple of days later, all five of us visited the Škocjan Caves in Slovenia. Joelle and I should have left it to the kids. We barely survived the climb back up. There’s even a purposebuilt funicular tram provided to lift unhardy travelers through the toughest 150 meters of the ascent. But first you must scale an infinite staircase to reach the foot of the funicular; then, from the top of the funicular, hoist your expiring carcass up another endless flight to regain the visitors’ center.

A helicopter, oxygen tanks, and a crack team of paramedics would have come in handy. 

Was it worth the effort? I would have to say yes. The geological extravaganza, both inside and outside the massive cave in the Istrian karst, was ASTOUNDING. But do yourself a favor and go see it before you get too old. 

Škocjan Caves entrance. Katie Sommers photo, used by permission.

On the Other Hand

Is there no silver lining to this tale of age and incompetence? 

Well, yes, Gentle Reader, there is a silver lining. Or maybe a gold one, judging by its cost.

On previous travels we have used a method I call Rick Steves Lite. We go by train, taking rooms in hotels or pensions near the stations. We have bumped our roller bags over cobbles and trolley tracks in many a city, homing on rooms that provide overnight rest and a cheap pied-à-terre while we explore the environs on foot or by metro. Not quite youth hostels but several cuts below the Ritz. This method has preserved our funds while yielding up many a chuckle over things experienced in some of the Fawlty Towers-style hotels that dot the European landscape. 

For the present safari, however, we asked Vicki, our travel agent friend, to simply line up good European hotels for us. Comfort and convenience were the goal; money, for once, was secondary. Vicki’s Croatian colleague Nicolina booked all hotels for this trip.

So we stayed in the Zagreb Esplanade, one of the grand old hotels of Europe. The Esplanade was built in 1925 as a deluxe oasis for travelers on the Orient Express. Yes, that Orient Express—the one Hercule Poirot is always solving murders on. The train oozes countesses, movie stars, and secretive diplomats. Such folks require high-class digs when they get off the train at an intermediate stop. Zagreb is one such stop, and the Esplanade is high-class digs.

Zagreb Esplanade.

We arrived in the hotel’s driveway by private transfer, a guy driving a Mercedes van from the airport. A squad of uniformed bellmen surrounded us, inhaled our luggage, and exhaled it mysteriously into our rooms. We sat in comfy chairs while a check-in specialist entered our passports and other information in a sleek computer. 

There was a lovely bar, a great dining room with a scrumptious and multifarious morning buffet, and a bistro staffed by enchanting waitresses who served gourmet options for casual dining. 

But the room! Whoever designed it thought of everything and finished it off with Art Deco elegance. The bed was firm; the space, well . . . spacious. The bathroom was nicely sequestered from the sleeping space. The shower rained tropical water down upon your morning self at perfect pitch. 

I would stay in the Esplanade any time.

Ah . . . Italia!

Here in Trieste, Italy, on the eastern ashore of the Adriatic, we are in the Savoy Excelsior Palace Hotel. A pretty fancy name, you must agree. The hotel is in the same class as the Zagreb Espanade but does not have as much of it. Art Deco is replaced by a curious mix of Italianate Rococo and Nondescript Modern. Still, the room is spacious and fully appointed, the hotel sports an army of attentive helpers, and the bartender mixes a good neat Drambuie.

It’s a far cry from the old Hotel Speronari in Milan—before its recent renovation—where you humped your luggage up three or four flights of winding stairs; where the aged manager plied you with a free cappuccino before allowing you to attempt the climb; and where your stomach was jolted awake at four a.m. by overpowering aromas from the bakery next door.

Despite lacking such touches, our first-class hotels are not all bad. I could get used to luxury.

I can hardly wait to see what Nicolina has booked for us in Venice. 

Tho’ much is taken, much abides; and tho’ 
We are not now that strength which in old days 
Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are; 
One equal temper of heroic hearts, 
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will 
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.
          —Alfred, Lord Tennyson, “Ulysses”

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite (Travel) Writer

Price of Passage

Norwegian Farmers and Fugitive Slaves in Pre-Civil War Illinois

(History is not what you thought!)

Tenth of Six Simple Steps to Literary Lionhood

Franz Kafka in 1923. Public Domain.

The startling tenth step, Gentle Reader, involves what our old friend Kafka might call “Metamorphosis.” Or even, as our old friend Ovid would have it, “Metamorphoses.” 

Latin poet Ovid. Public Domain.

The difference between the two—one letter—decided the question on a recent Jeopardy! answer.

But I digress.

What I mean is: Signing a book contract—the very definition of success in the literary game—changes you instantly into A New Thing Altogether.

Butterfly and caterpillar. Public Domain.

Let’s Review

As a HUGE FAN of this blog, you must surely have noticed that Your New Favorite Writer did set forth for the benefit of all, in public, beginning 4 August 2020, Six Simple Steps to Literary Lionhood. Those steps were, in order:

Step One—Cut the line. Go ahead and become a literary lion from the start, before you have a speck of achievement to point to.

Step Two—Write. Actually put something down on paper. To be a writer, one must write.

Step Three—Get feedback. Show your work to somebody and consider using their response to help you improve that work.

Step Four—Associate. To soften the Loneliness of the Long-Distance Writer, you must find your tribe.

Step Five—Submit. You must offer your work to the only judges who really count: Publishers.

Step Six—Build your platform. Gather about you, on social media and elsewhere, an army of friends who will help you sell your book.

In outlining these six steps, I cautioned repeatedly that although they are simple, they are not easy. Each step requires courage, cunning, and purity of purpose. If they were easy, everyone would be J. K. Rowling, or maybe Barbara Cartland.

Having set forth the Six Simple Steps, I smiled with satisfaction, knowing I had done a good work—even though I, myself, had as yet no published book to my name. 

As to that . . .

. . . the beast remained elusive. Having applied the Six Simple Steps to my own case, I began to come close to publication. I could smell it. I could amost taste it.

I was offered a contract on my debut historical novel, but had to turn it down! Can you believe that? It was gut-wrenching. But this turned out to be a necessary first step to getting a good, fair contract with a publisher I could work with. 

It was my good fortune that a couple of publishers who did not want to publish my novel took the time to write very helpful notes of rejection. Ever note, Dear Reader: A helpful rejection is better than a harmful acceptance.

I added a Seventh Step to the Six Simple Steps. Step Seven was the same as Step Two: Write. Or to put it more precisely, Rewrite. The two explanatory rejections told me that the book wasn’t good enough yet. This was a hard pill to swallow, but as Donald Maass observed, “At some point attention must be paid to the writing.”

Steps Eight and Nine were just like Step Seven, only more so. Write, write, write. I plunged in and spent a year rewriting the book, from tooth to tail with the help of stellar book coach Christine De Smet. 

This rewrite was radical. It gave me, at last, a book worth publishing. One of my two rejectors agreed to look at it again, and bought it.

The Next Step

This brings us back to where we started, and my discovery of Step Ten in the Six Simple Steps to Literary Lionhood. You may as well prepare for it now, as it involves metamorphosis.

The instant you sign a book publication contract, you change from a writer into a salesman. All your waking thoughts are questions you never asked yourself before. How can I maximize pre-publication sales? Where are book clubs that would like to read my book? How can I get a celebrity to interview me? Do I need to buy a weather-proof canopy for outdoor book fairs? How does that Square thing work? Should I wear an ascot to signings, or just my regular bib overalls? 

I kid you not.

It’s no good saying, “It won’t happen to me. I’ll remain an artist, above the fray.” No. You will not find that possible.

It’s no good cursing the book industry for forcing you into this commercial role. The publisher did not do it to you. The bookstores did not do it to you. You volunteered by hard, persistent  literary work. You did it to yourself.

To begin with, you wrote the damn thing. You poured yourself into it, day by day, for years. You wrote, you rewrote, you cut the line, you got feedback, you found your tribe, you hammered away at your platform. And you kept writing. 

By the time you had a book good enough to attract somebody’s notice, you were so deeply involved that you could not bear to think that nobody, or only a few loyal friends, would read it.

You can’t help wanting more. If you don’t get at least a respectable level of sales, you’ll be disappointed. So you plunge into the prospecting, the interviewing, the personal appearances, the social media, and hope for a light at the end of the tunnel.

A good friend of mine—a wonderful author with a powerful book—got so absorbed in the commercial end of things that he didn’t write a word of new material for two years. He’s writing again now, but he says it’s like pulling teeth to get started again.

I count myself lucky. I’m still writing a bit of new material, in the odd moments. 

But don’t think I’m not absorbed in my new occupation of selling books. I just can’t help myself.

By the way, there’s still time for you to pre-order Price of Passage at a 30 percent discount. Just go to https://www.dxvaros.com/price-of-passage-preorders. But don’t delay. After 22 August, the price is full retail ($19.95 paperback; $4.99 e-book). 

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Writer

Price of Passage

Norwegian Farmers and Fugitive Slaves in Pre-Civil War Illinois

(History is not what you thought!)

Spoon River

Violin. Auckland War Memorial Museum, licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 4.0
Fiddler Jones
The earth keeps some vibration going
There in your heart, and that is you.
And if the people find you can fiddle,
Why, fiddle you must, for all your life.
What do you see, a harvest of clover?
Or a meadow to walk through to the river?
The wind’s in the corn; you rub your hands
For beeves hereafter ready for market;
Or else you hear the rustle of skirts
Like the girls when dancing at Little Grove. . . . 
Spoon River Anthology, first edition, in its original dust jacket, quoting a laudatory review. Fair use.

Galesburg’s literary fame does not rest only on the shoulders of Carl Sandburg and Jack Finney. There is also Edgar Lee Masters (1868-1950), who published a poetry collection titled Spoon River Anthology in 1915.

Usually we think of an anthology as a collection of poems or other content by various authors. Spoon River Anthology still qualifies in a sense, because its central conceit is that each poem is voiced by a deceased town resident speaking from the grave. The lives and viewpoints thus chronicled are diverse and lively. Consider the reminiscence of a long-lived lady, with its flinty valedictory:

Lucinda Matlock

I went to the dances at Chandlerville,
And played snap-out at Winchester.
One time we changed partners,
Driving home in the moonlight of middle June,
And then I found Davis.
We were married and lived together for seventy years,
Enjoying, working, raising the twelve children,
Eight of whom we lost
Ere I had reached the age of sixty.
I spun,
I wove,
I kept the house,
I nursed the sick,
I made the garden, and for holiday
Rambled over the fields where sang the larks,
And by Spoon River gathering many a shell,
And many a flower and medicinal weed—
Shouting to the wooded hills, singing to the green valleys.
At ninety-six I had lived enough, that is all,
And passed to a sweet repose.
What is this I hear of sorrow and weariness,
Anger, discontent and drooping hopes?
Degenerate sons and daughters,
Life is too strong for you—
It takes life to love Life.

The young Edgar Lee Masters. Photo by unknown photographer. Public domain.

Born in Kansas, Edgar Lee Masters grew up in Illinois—first at Petersburg in Menard County, then in Lewistown, Fulton County, where he attended high school and had his first publication in the Chicago Daily News. In 1889-1890 he attended the Knox Academy in Galesburg, a college-prep school run by Knox College in those days, but was forced to drop out for financial reasons.

Masters became an attorney, poet, biographer, and dramatist. He published twelve plays, twenty-one books of poetry, six novels and six biographies, including those of Abraham Lincoln, Mark Twain, Vachel Lindsay, and Walt Whitman. None of these many works ever matched the success of his graveyard poems collected under the banner of Spoon River—a quiet stream that drains the prairies east and south of Galesburg, snaking its way down to the Illinois River at Havana.

Spoon River at Seville in Fulton County. NOAA photo. Public Domain.

Here are more examples of Masters’s craft:

Griffy the Cooper
The cooper should know about tubs.
But I learned about life as well,
And you who loiter around these graves
Think you know life.
You think your eye sweeps about a wide horizon, perhaps,
In truth you are only looking around the interior of your tub.
You cannot lift yourself to its rim
And see the outer world of things,
And at the same time see yourself.
You are submerged in the tub of yourself—
Taboos and rules and appearances,
Are the staves of your tub.
Break them and dispel the witchcraft
Of thinking your tub is life
And that you know life.
Mrs. George Reece
To this generation I would say:
Memorize some bit of verse of truth or beauty.
It may serve a turn in your life.
My husband had nothing to do
With the fall of the bank—he was only cashier.
The wreck was due to the president, Thomas Rhodes,
And his vain, unscrupulous son.
Yet my husband was sent to prison,
And I was left with the children,
To feed and clothe and school them.
And I did it, and sent them forth
Into the world all clean and strong,
And all through the wisdom of Pope, the poet:
“Act well your part, there all the honor lies.”
The Village Atheist
Ye young debaters over the doctrine
Of the soul’s immortality
I who lie here was the village atheist,
Talkative, contentious, versed in the arguments
Of the infidels. But through a long sickness
Coughing myself to death I read the
Upanishads and the poetry of Jesus.
And they lighted a torch of hope and intuition
And desire which the Shadow
Leading me swiftly through the caverns of darkness,
Could not extinguish.
Listen to me, ye who live in the senses
And think through the senses only:
Immortality is not a gift,
Immortality is an achievement;
And only those who strive mightily
Shall possess it.

Generations of students have read these poems—in other anthologies, fittingly, high school anthologies—and, perhaps in olden days, memorized some of them, free verse and all. They were, among other things, indicators of the stern and happy potentialities of life. I do not know whether Spoon River Anthology still holds a place in public school curricula. If not, we are the poorer for it.

Wikipedia notes, “Masters died in poverty at a nursing home on March 5, 1950, in Melrose Park, Pennsylvania, age 81. He is buried in Oakland cemetery in Petersburg, Illinois.” I wonder if he felt at all like his creation, Fiddler Jones—

. . . How could I till my forty acres
Not to speak of getting more,
With a medley of horns, bassoons and piccolos
Stirred in my brain by crows and robins
And the creak of a wind-mill—only these?
And I never started to plow in my life
That some one did not stop in the road
And take me away to a dance or picnic.
I ended up with forty acres;
I ended up with a broken fiddle—
And a broken laugh, and a thousand memories,
And not a single regret.

To have left on earth behind you some bit of music, art, or poetry, quivering in the air for those with ears to hear—perhaps it’s not such a bad epitaph.

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Writer

Price of Passage

Norwegian Farmers and Fugitive Slaves in Pre-Civil War Illinois

(History is not what you thought!)

Through the Lens Backwards

Today, Galesburg, Illinois, is unprepossessing. My old hometown has seen better days. As you drive through various residential neighborhoods, you see signs of urban decay. 

Still, there is a vitality. People are doing things. 

Main Street Underpass. Contractor photo.

New overpasses and underpasses have liberated Main Street traffic from its former bondage to the railroads’ freight-hauling schedules. 

The commercial section of Seminary Street was remodeled decades ago, its old brick pavement lovingly restored. Stores, restaurants, and a coffee shop line both sides of the street for a three-block stretch, south and north of Main. Establishments like the Landmark Café have been in business for a long time now and do a steady trade. Redevelopment of this old street is a retail success story.

Knox College looks prosperous. There are new buildings, and some of the old classics, such as Alumni Hall, have been rehabbed and repurposed beyond their former glory. The Knox Bowl football stadium is a big step up from the old field where we used to watch the hapless Siwashers struggle against the bruisers of Lawrence and St. Olaf. 

The very term “Siwashers,” once a proud and unique moniker, has been officially retired in favor of “Prairie Fire.” Ladies and gentlemen, applaud as the Knox Prairie Fire take the field. It doesn’t have quite the same ring to it, but we learned in 1993 that “Siwash”—which the college had used in all innocence for nearly a century—was also an ethnic slur against Native Americans, used especially in the Pacific Northwest. 

Victorian house, Buffalo, New York. Note the fishscale siding on the tall mansard roof. Photo by Andre Carrotflower, licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0.

Another sign of the times: There is now a nice soccer pitch beside the Knox Bowl. Not quite as nice as the gridiron for American football. Still, it’s something.

The tony streets north of Main in the central part of the city—Broad, Cherry, Prairie, Kellogg, and Seminary—are still lined with very nice, well-kept houses. Some of them are gorgeous Queen Annes or other late Victorian castles. Here and there one of these old dowagers crumbles down towards her foundations—neither rehabbed nor yet plowed under. Such eyesores tend to bring the neighborhood down. But it’s still a nice neighborhood. Some of the streets are still made of brick and lined with old globe-style streetlamps. 

Charming it is, as in quaint.

That fin-de-siècle architecture, and the town’s disused streetcar tracks, prompted the late Jack Finney to pen a classic short story called “I Love Galesburg in the Springtime.” In case anyone under sixty is reading this, I ought to explain the story’s title was a sidelong allusion to a line from “I Love Paris,” a very popular song penned by Cole Porter in 1953.

Finney, a Milwaukee native, was a 1934 Knox college graduate. Most of his best work was what today we call speculative fiction—a mélange of sci-fi, fantasy, and magical realism. The basic thrust of “I Love Galesburg in the Springtime” was a comforting conceit that the old red-brick and fishscale-sided town was possessed by a benevolent antiquarian spirit which actively subverted the schemes of developers to tear things down and modernize. 

You might not enjoy the story—if you can even find it. I, however, have long been captivated by Finney’s atavistic sensibility. 

James Daly in “A Stop at Willoughby.” CBS Television photo. Public Domain.

The late Rod Serling penned a favorite episode for the first season of The Twilight Zone called “A Stop at Willoughby.” In it, a harried, hounded, and henpecked New York ad exec looks out the window of his commuter train as he goes home in the evening and sees a little town called Willoughby—a town that’s never been on the train’s route before. 

In Willoughby, the sun always shines. A band plays in the park. Men and women in outdated garb stroll down streets traversed by horse-drawn rigs. Young boys roll hoops along board sidewalks. The ad man, portrayed by actor James Daly, longs for the slow-paced serenity of the little town. 

The story has a Serlingesque dark side in the harsh forces of modern life that impel the ad man to crave a life in Willoughby. I won’t reveal any spoilers, but my point is that the protagonist’s yearning to turn back the clock is pure Jack Finney. 

Maybe Jack was right. Maybe Galesburg harbors a stubborn, almost animate, resistance to change. Perhaps that’s why not everything has gone right for this grand old American city. 

But speaking as a native, I still love it—springtime, summer, or fall. 

Winter is another thing altogether.

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Writer

Price of Passage

Norwegian Farmers and Fugitive Slaves in Pre-Civil War Illinois

(History is not what you thought!)

The Burg

Galesburg is an old town for Illinois, having been established in 1837. 

Since then, it has gathered thousands of distinct strands of memory. 

Some of those memories attach to famous people. Carl Sandburg and Edgar Lee Masters, poets. Mother Bickerdyke, the indefatigable Civil War nurse. George Washington Gale Ferris Jr., inventor of the big wheel that takes people up in the air and brings them down again.

The original Ferris Wheel at the 1893 World Columbian Exposition in Chicago. Public Domain.

Some of the memories attach to me. 

Body Snatchers cover. Fair use.

I don’t mean to compare myself to Great Figures of the past, Dear Reader. You see, it’s just that we were all jumbled together—George Fitch who spun droll fin-de-siècle yarns about football and other college hijinks; Grover Cleveland Alexander, Hall of Fame pitcher whose career started in Galesburg; Jack Finney, Knox College graduate who wrote such classic speculative fiction novels as The Body Snatchers and Time and Again; Edward Beecher, abolitionist preacher, close friend of the martryed Elijah P. Lovejoy; plus tens of thousands of other folks you never heard of.

Oh, my dear—that brings us back to me.

Why I mention this is that all of us, famous and otherwise, contributed strands to the giant skein of recollections and speculations that is Galesburg. And the reason I belabor the point is not that Galesburg is much different from other small Midwestern towns. 

Only that it is mine. What commends it to comment is the homeness of the place.

Antecedents

Mom and Dad graduated from Knoxville High School, five miles from The Burg, in 1940. They might have gotten married there and then, but Dad was ever slow and deliberate. The Army got him before Mom did. After he got back from the Southwest Pacific, in September 1944, they married, in a home ceremony in Knoxville. By the time Dad entered Knox College the following September, I had been added to the ménage.

Dad was not the only veteran who wanted a college education. Uncle Sam catered to the aspirations of millions by providing funds, under the GI Bill, to make their dreams come true. Cheap housing units were thrown together on college campuses for returning veterans and their young families. We lived in one such apartment.

Icebox

We did not have a refrigerator; we had an icebox. The iceman would come once or twice a week—more often, I think, in summer—lugging a huge block of ice using iron tongs, sliding the ice into the upper compartment of the icebox. The lower compartment was where we kept milk, meat, eggs, and butter.

The Burg was a gridwork of purple brick streets, lined with glass-globed street lamps which cast a soft glow on warm summer nights. My little friends and I played on green grass crisscrossed by walks of crushed white gravel. 

Mom and Dad stayed up late, playing bridge with their neighbors. I lay in my tiny bedroom with my teddy bear and listened to the thwop of cards being shuffled and the more distant roll-and-bang of trains being assembled in the nearby Chicago, Burlington, & Quincy freight yards. By day, passenger trains dashed by on the main line—just across Cherry Street from where we lived—pulled by big black locomotives, streaming white vapor from their stacks.

A Durable Pageant

Later, in the 1950s, Aunt Bertha and Uncle Harry would take us across town to get ice cream at Highlanders’. It was a little stand run by a family who made the product in their own kitchen. I knew about chocolate, vanilla, and strawberry. But it was not until we patronized Highlanders’ that I learned ice cream could be infused with crushed bits of peppermint sticks. Zowie!

Mom liked black walnut fudge. Yechhh!

Even when Dad graduated in 1949 and we moved away to little Dwight, and then Streator, where he had chemistry jobs, we always came back to The Burg and its little satellite Knoxville. Because that was home. It was where all our people were.

Aunt Bertha would pile us kids into her Ford Victoria and take us to Lake Bracken for swimming. There was a nice sandy beach and a big clubhouse where you could get a Snickers bar that was frozen. Another zowie.

Sometimes we went to Lake Storey or Lincoln Park at the other end of town for picnics. Life was pretty good.

The Small End of the Telescope

All that was decades ago, Gentle Reader. Things have changed dramatically. Highlanders’ is no more. Purington Bricks folded up long ago. The Lake Bracken Clubhouse burned down in 1987.

But the memories mean something. They stick in people’s minds. In 1960, when The Body Snatchers and other work had already made him rich and famous, Jack Finney reached back and penned a short story called “I Love Galesburg in the Springtime.”

We are not just a jumble of experiences. We are a bundle of associations.

Even on increasingly rare visits to The Burg of today, I sense immediately that I have come home.

I pray, Dear Reader, there is a place like that for you. 

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Writer

Price of Passage

Norwegian Farmers and Fugitive Slaves in Pre-Civil War Illinois

(History is not what you thought!)