The Society of Midland Authors celebrated its 100th birthday on May 1 and 2, 2015, in Chicago, starting with its annual awards banquet on Friday at the Cliff Dwellers in Chicago.
Our Facebook page features a gallery of photos from the awards banquet. As you can see from all of the smiling faces, it was a happy occasion.
On Saturday, May 2, the Society held a free daylong event at University Center in the South Loop, featuring speeches by noted authors, panel discussions on literary topics and short readings.
Schwab reads Lindsay
After welcoming remarks by SMA president Meg Tebo and vice president Robert Loerzel, past president Jim Schwab set the tone for the day with a performance of two poems by Vachel Lindsay, who was a founding member of the SMA back in 1915. “He was in many ways a forerunner of today’s performance poets,” Schwab remarked, as he introduced “The Unpardonable Sin” and “General William Booth Enters into Heaven.” As Schwab notes in a blog post about the day’s events: “…the second poem is designed for musical accompaniment by banjos, flute, and tambourines. I had none of these available for this modest performance, so I asked the audience to clap in rhythm when I raised my arms, and to stop when I lowered them for the softer stanzas. I am pleased to say that they accommodated me warmly, including Ald. Burke.”
Carla Knorowski, CEO of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library Foundation, presented the next program, talking about a new book she edited, Gettysburg Replies: The World Responds to Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. The book includes 100 essays, each 272 words long — the same number of words in the manuscript of Lincoln’s famous speech. The book’s contributors include world leaders such as Jimmy Carter and Lech Walesa. Two Chicagoans featured in the book — Alderman Edward W. Burke and Graham A. Peck, an associate professor of history at St. Xavier University — joined Knorowski at our event, discussing their short essays and reading them.
“The question ‘What would Lincoln do?’ is still asked today,” Knorowski said. “What we tried to do was to pay tribute to our 16th president … most of all for his literary prowess and genius.” She called the book “a treasure trove of 21st-century thought.”
Burke called the book a “remarkable accomplishment” and read his essay, “The Dark Horse Candidate,” which describes how Lincoln was nominated for the presidency at the 1860 Republican convention in Chicago.
Peck said it was challenging to write a meaningful essay in just 272 words. “It was very different from anything else I had written before,” he said, explaining that he considers the Gettysburg Address to be a “prose poem.” Lincoln’s concise format inspired Peck to write an essay titled “In the Throes of Democracy.”
The book includes pictures of handwritten essays from many of its contributors. “Fortunately, I was a product of the good Dominican Sisters … who taught me how to write longhand,” Burke remarked. “I’m told that most kids today don’t write in the cursive method and can’t read cursive. … I can’t tell you the feeling of awe that one experiences to walk into a bookstore and to see one’s name with every living American president and Lech Walesa and a Holocaust survivor … I hope that we’re going to be on the best-seller list so when they write my obituary they can say that I was a best-selling author.”
Lindberg reads Dreiser
Richard C. Lindberg, a past president of the SMA, paid tribute to Theodore Dreiser, noting that Dreiser inspired his interest in Chicago history. Lindberg read the opening of Dreiser’s memoir Newspaper Days, including the line: “Chicago was like no other city in the world, so said they all.”
Rick Kogan, a longtime journalist with the Chicago Tribune who has written or co-written 14 books, shared his memories of growing up surrounded by writers. Kogan’s father, Herman Kogan, was an SMA member, and so were many of Herman’s friends, including his frequent co-author, Lloyd Wendt, who was SMA president from 1947 to 1949.
“My father wrote books. … He was a newspaperman, and he was in love with Chicago and its history and its words,” Rick Kogan said. “He did write almost all of these books in a small office in the front of our apartment. He’d write the books first in my head” — by telling his son the stories before he put them down on the page — “Wherever we went and whatever we did, he made it possible to feel the pulse of the past.”
Describing that corner of the home where his father wrote, Kogan said: “In my father’s office, books really buckled the shelves, looking as if the addition of one more might cause an avalanche of literature. … Those books have stayed my playgrounds.” Kogan spoke of his love for bookstores, and his special fondness for old books. “The pages of an old book are warm, as if they captured the heat of the hands that previously turned the pages,” he said.
Nelson Algren, Studs Terkel, Saul Bellow and Willard Motley were among the guests who gathered in the Kogan house for parties in the 1950s and 1960s. “Cigarette smoke choking the air like fog,” Kogan recalled. “Almost all of them were writers, and I met them before I could read. … There hasn’t been a day since those days when I haven’t felt my mind filled with books.”
Asked whether he recalled any stories about the Society of Midland Authors from that era, Kogan said: “All I wanted to do was escape from that drunken living room. I was terrified. … What I remember is the camaraderie that this organization helped to foster. Not all authors are booze hounds. They need this kind of thing to have a place for people to meet.” Speaking of his father, he added: “I know he was incredibly fond of this organization.”
Bernard Brommel, a past SMA president, was in the audience for Kogan’s talk. He interjected a recollection of the time he scheduled an appearance by Terkel, who asked for Herman Kogan to introduce him. “That was one of the greatest joys of my life — to see those brothers together,” Brommel said.
Near the end of his remarks, Kogan observed the uncertain future that writers face. “Writers need help,” he said, but “the stories are out there. So I keep the faith. … I’m hopeful, but scared at the same time.”
The next speaker was Haki Madhubuti, a poet, best-selling author, and the founder of Chicago’s Third World Press, which is the largest independent black-owned press in the United States. He began his remarks Saturday morning by acknowledging some of the people who influenced him, including Malcolm X, Margaret Burroughs and Gwendolyn Brooks (who was an SMA member and award winner).
“I’m here because of Gwendolyn Brooks. Gwendolyn Brooks changed my life,” Madhubuti said, recalling how he gained confidence as a boy when he read books from Detroit’s library by African-American authors. “For the first time in my life, I was reading literature that wasn’t an insult to my personhood,” he said. “And so, art was critical.”
He continued: “I joined the Society of Midland Authors primarily because I respected what the society was doing in terms of fostering literacy and books. I feel that people who deal with the written word listen and as a result of listening, they do something.”
Madhubuti then spoke about his forthcoming book, Taking Bullets, which he wrote in response to the recent police killings of young black men and the protests those incidents provoked.
“I tried to bring clarity to the black community from an insider’s point of view,” he said. “We are dealing with empire. We’re not just dealing with those cops on the street. … Most of these boys and men are poor and have not had adequate legal representations … The empire doesn’t work for everyone.” Madhubuti read several “bold statements” from the book, such as: “In the West, most certainly in the United States, white people never — and I mean never — have to think about being white.” But black people, he added, “have to think about being black every day of the year.”
He criticized the U.S. government for failing to prosecute the financiers who caused the recession. “The 1 percent top bankers … walked away with a smile … and committed extreme violence on the world,” he said. “They didn’t burn down a CVS. They wrecked the economy. You talk about violence? That’s violence!”
Tears were in Madhubuti’s eyes as he finished reciting a poem from his book, “Dying of Ignorant Talk While Taking Bullets.”
Tebo reads Brooks
SMA president Meg Tebo closed the morning session by reading a few poems by Gwendolyn Brooks. She recalled that Brooks’ poetry resonated with her as a teenager in Chicago’s suburbs, instilling the lesson that “we can learn from another.”
Sawyers reads Petrakis
Harry Mark Petrakis, a longtime SMA member who was present for the Society’s 50th anniversary celebration, had been hoping to attend our 100th anniversary events, but he was unable to make it. Speaking to the audience, Robert Loerzel read aloud from an email Petrakis had sent, expressing his regrets. “I have had a lifetime of such gatherings in the past,” Petrakis wrote. “Hosting the Midland Authors dinners and accepting the Midland Authors awards. There were all those good friends back then too, Bob Cromie, Herman Kogan, Hoke Norris, Jack McPhaul, all those bright, sturdy men gone now.”
SMA member June Sawyers, who helped to promote Petrakis’ book Tales of the Heart as a publicist for publisher Ivan R. Dee, read a few excerpts from that memoir to the crowd. Although Petrakis’ stories about everyday people, “His words elevate their stories into something else, a sense of the epic,” she noted.
Edward Burke, the alderman of Chicago’s 14th Ward and chairman of the Chicago City Council’s Committee on Finance, delivered a keynote address. Burke praised the SMA for “building upon a strong foundation for these past 100 years and for continuing to forge a sense of community for Midwestern writers.” As Chicago lost many of its most prominent authors to the lure of the East Coast over the past century, “The Society of Midland Authors has remained firmly anchored to this region as it pushed on with the important task,” Burke said.
Burke, who has authored or co-authored three books, said he has “often found inspiration, encouragement and comfort” in reading the works of Carl Sandburg, Harry Mary Petrakis, Scott Turow, Richard Lindberg, Herman Kogan and other writers who have belonged to the SMA. In closing, Burke offered “a measure of encouragement” by quoting some poetry from William Wordsworth: “Fill your paper with the breathings of your heart.” Burke added: “In other words, fellow authors, never stop writing, never lose sight of the important legacy you’ll be handing down to those who follow in your footsteps. … Write from the heart and trust your instincts.”
After his speech, Burke presented the city’s proclamation honoring the Society of Midland Authors on its centenary.
Bowman reads Dunne, Loerzel reads Algren
Jim Bowman read a selection of writing by Finley Peter Dunne, the Chicago newspaper columnist who created the humorous and insightful character Mr. Dooley, an Irish-American bartender in Bridgeport. And then Robert Loerzel read an excerpt from Chicago: City on the Make by Nelson Algren.
Steve Bogira and Jonathan Eig
Next was a conversation between Steve Bogira, a Chicago Reader reporter and author of the SMA Award-winning book Courtroom 302, and Jonathan Eig, who had just won the SMA Award for Adult Nonfiction the night before, for his book The Birth of the Pill.
They discussed the challenge of finding ideas for books that will interest a publisher and attract readers as well as fulfilling the author’s ambition to address a big and important topic. “Do you want to give up writing about things that are really important to write a baseball biography?” Eig recalls thinking. “There are tradeoffs there. … Would I be content knowing that only six people would read it? … There’s a way to find stories are compelling that can find a popular audience that have something important to say about the world we live in. The breakthrough moment for me was reading (Lauren Hillenbrand’s) Seabiscuit. I realized: You can tell a sport book to tell a big story. … It was really a story about the Great Depression.” That inspired Eig to write his first book, a biography of Lou Gehrig, The Luckiest Man.
“When I was writing my first book, I kept my copy of Seabiscuit open,” Eig said, recalling how he would study the way Hillenbrand wrote her book, asking himself, “How did she that?” He added: “I steal as plainly and blatantly as I can get away with.”
Asked what he would write a book about if he could write about anything, Bogira said, “I would write about what I’m writing about for the Reader, but at book length.” And that topic is the effects of racial segregation and poverty on people in Chicago neighborhoods. “Even though I’ve written only one book, that’s what I feel I was meant to do,” Bogira said, adding that he’s lucky to work at a newspaper that publishes long article and allows him to work on them for long stretches of time. But he said, “Even doing it at the length I do it at the Reader, it’s frustrating.”
Eig asked Bogira how he decides to tell a story. “That’s the fun part,” Bogira said. “You do a lot of reporting and then you have choices: What goes when? … That’s a big part of the craft: What do you tell when?”
Martin E. Marty, a noted University of Chicago scholar on the history of religion, spoke next, offering a humorous look at Franz Bibfeldt, a fictitious theologian. As Marty explained in an email to Jim Schwab: “Bibfeldt was an invention of Marty in 1951, on the eve of his graduation from theological school and preparation to enter Christian ministry. It was a satire on eccentrics and eccentricities in ‘the system,’ but when the hoax was exposed, not all of the exposed took kindly to it, and they wanted Marty punished.” As a result of this episode, Marty ended up at the University of Chicago, where he spent his career. (Read more in Schwab’s blog post.)
Speaking on Saturday, Marty said, “No theologian had as much direct influence on my career as Franz Bibfeldt. … He did a lot to change me along the way.”
Marty recounted: “His doctoral dissertation was on the problem of the year zero. Have you ever thought about the problem of the year zero? If not, I’d like to disturb you.” Observing the progression of the years B.C. to the years A.D., Marty observed, “It goes from 1 before to 1 after and no one ever said anything about this — except Franz Bibfeldt.”
A new edition of Marty’s 1994 book The Unrelieved Paradox: Studies in the Theology of Franz Bibfeldt has just been released.
Richard Frisbie reads Lardner
Richard Frisbie, a past SMA president, read a selection by Ring Lardner, the legendary Chicago sportswriter who was an early member of the Society.
Ilene Cooper and Blue Balliett
In midafternoon, Ilene Cooper and Blue Balliett spoke about writing books for children. Cooper’s most recent book is A Woman in the House (and Senate), which was a finalist for the SMA’s Children’s Nonfiction Award. The book tells the stories of female politicians who have served in Congress. “The nicest letter I got about it was from a librarian who said her daughter loves this book and she sleeps with it,” Cooper said.
Balliett spoke about her book, Pieces and Players, the latest in her series of mysteries for young readers. She explained that it was based on the true story of the 1990 art theft at the Gardner Museum in Boston, but she faced the difficulty of how to take the characters from her previous books — kids who live in Chicago — and place them in Boston to solve the crime. But then an editor suggested: “Blue, I want you to steal something. Pick up the Gardner up and move it to Chicago.” And so that’s what she did, transporting the story to a setting she was more familiar with. Balliett said she hopes she may inspire some of her young readers to solve the actual Gardner Museum mystery. “I feel like it’s not an impossibility at all,” she said. “Why not a kid?”
Marc Kelly Smith
Marc Kelly Smith, who founded the Uptown Poetry Slam at the Chicago’s Green Mill Jazz Club in 1987 and continues to host it, riveted the SMA gathering with a performance of Carl Sandburg’s poetry, roaming around the room as he brought the words to vivid life.
Sawyers reads Anderson
Afterward, June Sawyers returned to the podium to pay tribute to Margaret Anderson, the groundbreaking Chicago editor of The Little Review, who published James Joyce and other literary iconoclasts of the early 20th century.
Christine Sneed, Carol Anshaw and Rosellen Brown
The final part of the afternoon was a panel discussion with three novelists. Christine Sneed won the SMA Award for Adult Fiction in 2014 for her novel Little Known Facts, and her new book, Paris, He Said, was released this week. Carol Anshaw’s books include Lucky in the Corner, which was a finalist for the SMA Fiction Award, and Aquamarine, which won the SMA Award in 1993. And Rosellen Brown has published ten books — novels, short stories, poetry, essays — including Before and After, Tender Mercies, Civil Wars, Cora Fry’s Pillow Book and Half a Heart.
Brown kicked off the discussion by asking: “Why write novels in the age of the memoir?” Sneed said, “If you’re going to write about family and they’re still living, it’s a dicey proposition. … I just really like trying to inhabit other people’s consciousnesses.”
Brown remarked, “I’m absolutely not interested in my own biography.”
And Anshaw said, “I think people are writing memoirs in terms of creating Facebook personas for themselves. … To me, that would be no fun at all. The fun is in making characters.” She also noted that she does include aspects of actual people in her fiction, but those people often don’t recognize the characters. “I put stuff in about people, and they never see it as about them,” she said.
Discussing what readers she has in mind when she writes, Sneed said, “I try to write a book that I would want to read. My first reader is me. … I guess, people who interested in contemporary art and culture.”
“I don’t think of a specific person, but I do think of giving someone the pleasure that I had reading,” Anshaw said. “I like building in little surprises that will be pleasurable to people reading the book.”
How does Brown choose a topic for one of her books? She confessed, “What I like to write is entirely a mystery. This is a bad thing to admit when I’m a person who supposedly teaches people how to write a novel.”
Brown emphasized the importance of small details such as how many syllables a word has, to create a rhythm. “I told a student you need a two-syllable word here and she said, ‘Huh?’” Brown recalled.
Anshaw stressed the need to rewrite. “Going over sentences really does something to them,” she said. “I can’t lay down something that’s first-rate right away.”
And Sneed observed that she doesn’t like using outlines with her fiction. “That’s boring,” she said. “I don’t want to know.”
As the afternoon ended, some of those present headed over to Hackney’s restaurant n South Dearborn Street for a Publishing Cocktails gathering.
Commenting on the day, SMA member Marlene Targ Brill — who introduced the children’s authors — remarked: “I always come out of Society of Midland Authors events feeling smarter, and today is one of those days.”
These photos and more pictures are in a gallery on our Facebook page.