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Michigan Book Excerpt: Ink Trails II by Dave Dempsey & Jack Dempsey

We’ve featured the work of Michigan author Dave Dempsey on Absolute Michigan before, notably an excerpt from his 2006 book William G. Milliken, Michigan’s Passionate Moderate. Dave is back along with his brother Jack in this excerpt from their new book from Michigan State University Press, Ink Trails II: Michigan’s Famous and Forgotten Authors. Michigan has been the birthplace, home, and inspiration to a tremendous number of men and women of letters, both the well-known and the obscure, and Ink Trails II tells the their stories. Enjoy!

Ink-Trails-II-Michigans-Famous-and-Forgotten-Authors-Dave-Dempsey

Growing up in Michigan as an enthusiastic reader, I thought of my home state as a minor bit player in the drama of American literature. No great or even very good authors had deep Michigan roots. Sure, there was Hemingway, but he just spent summers here as a kid, and stopped coming back as an adult.

Michigan, in short, seemed a literary desert.

Age teaches you about the complexity of life, and as I continued to read the image of Michigan as the Sahara of authors receded. I stumbled now and then onto the works of good to great writers associated with Michigan. Sports journalist-turned short story genius Ring Lardner was one. The exquisite, mercurial poet Theodore Roethke was another. But while my verdict was refined, it remained negative: Michigan lagged well behind most states in generating important poetry and fiction.

After teaming with my brother in the research for two books containing short biographies of 32 Michigan-linked writers, I think I know why my impression persisted: because, for whatever reason, many of Michigan’s best writers have been forgotten or neglected. My co-author and I have turned this shame into an opportunity. We believe our books can bring back to the fore Michigan writers and writing buried under the weight of the years.

One of the discoveries that best illustrates the point is an author named Allan Seager, profiled in Ink Trails II. I had never heard of the man before acquiring his biography of Roethke to assist with the preparation of the poet’s chapter for the first Ink Trails.

As I read The Glass House, the author’s narrative impressed me as much as Roethke’s life did. The prose was crisp, the observation keen, the attitude wholly honest. Turning the book around to view the author information, I was pleased to see Seager had lived and taught in Michigan. I made a note to consider him if another book in the Ink Trails line would be published.

My brother and I signed a contract with the publisher, and Ink Trails II was underway. I turned excitedly to Seager, accumulating a fair amount of biographical information but mostly plunging into his works. I wasn’t disappointed.

Born in Adrian in 1906, Seager was baptized in the storytelling art by his salesman father. Although the family moved to Tennessee in his adolescence, Seager returned to attend the University of Michigan and ultimately joined its faculty. He died in 1968.

As The Glass House suggested, Seager combined attention to detail with a writing style that charmed me into reading more. The style itself, and his descriptive power, were the true protagonists of the novel Amos Berry, a polemic attacking the era of the organization man crushed under the wheels of conformity.

Seager wrote approximately 80 short stories during his career, and this was his art form. His first story was a blockbuster.

Published first in the London Mercury and later revised and placed in an American setting in a collection of Seager’s short stories, “The Street” resonated so well with readers that it went on to become legendary, rewritten and remade without attribution, published in magazines and broadcast on radio and television. Visiting Brazil, Seager recognized his plagiarized story in a Portuguese-language magazine while browsing in a doctor’s waiting room.

The story takes place in a hospital room that two patients share. One is in a bed beside the only window, and describes in detail the events daily unfolding on the street outside. “Every day Whitaker gave him something new, a dogfight, the new milk wagon, or a householder smoking in his back yard. These bright fragments he inserted carefully into the whole and trimmed and polished until the wall before him almost became a window through which he too could see the street.”

The listening patient is increasingly envious of his roommate’s privileged position – so much so, that when the roommate suffers a seizure, he lets him die rather than summoning the nurse. Inheriting the dead man’s bed, the survivor looks out the window to see only a perpetually empty courtyard. His roommate’s stories had been fashioned from imagination.

It’s a story with an O. Henry ending – but darker. It establishes Seager’s literary world view, but also his close attention to character and setting. The impression it makes lingers in the reader’s mind.

Seager’s great work is likely A Frieze of Girls: Memoirs as Fiction. Its title is based on a remark he made that looking back on the age of 20, “It was a kind of frieze of girls and long aimless car rides at night.”

The book is a chain of short stories roughly tracing Seager’s youth, listening to his unlovable Civil War veteran grandfather on his front porch, wooing an 18-year-old girl when he is 16, drinking his way through college during deprecation. The abundant, dry humor is self-deprecating, as in the middle story, Under the Big Magnolia Tree, when he grabs a handful of flowers at a bargain price and takes them to his beloved. Arriving at her apartment, he presents the wrapped bouquet; when she unwraps them, there are no roses, only stamens. The petals have fallen off. Seager now knows why he got a bargain. “I dropped the whole mess on the floor and ran.”

A Frieze of Girls is not meant to be read as a literal autobiography, but as life as remembered. In total it becomes a nonfiction novel or a fictional autobiography – a form unto itself. More importantly, it is coherent and vivid work of art.

How could an author like Seager be so obscure today? It’s true that he was not a recurrent best-selling writer, but his stories and novels were sufficiently respected to warrant reviews in The New York Times and other nationally significant publications. It was likely a combination of bad luck – for example his publisher went bankrupt as his novel Death of Anger was coming off the presses – and works that sometimes emphasized ideas over characters. But his writing was never dull.

Seager is just one of 32 pleasant discoveries in the two Ink Trails volumes. We hope readers are inspired to hunt down a few of them. They won’t be disappointed.

It says something significant that we continue to receive fresh suggestions on poets and writers to include in yet another sequel to Ink Trails. We have not come close to exhausting this vein of gold. Perhaps you cherish an author of whom we don’t know. Bring her or him to our attention. Maybe there will be an Ink Trails III. Soon enough, we will have helped elevate Michigan’s literary reputation to the level it deserves.