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|Rescuing the Quad Cities’ Neglected Literary Heritage|
|News/Features - Literature|
|Written by Jeff Ignatius|
|Tuesday, 05 March 2002 18:00|
Aside from being buried in a book few people would ever think to look at, the entry in Who’s Who in Davenport 1929 certainly seems unremarkable: “Five writers , who belong to what is called ‘the Davenport group,’ were drawn together either in Davenport because of their writing, or elsewhere later, primarily because of having coming from there.
These are George Cram Cook, his wife Susan Glaspell, Arthur D. Ficke, Harry Hansen, and Floyd Dell.”
Yet that passage, from a section entitled “The Cultural Development of the Tri-Cities” (then considered Davenport, Moline, and Rock Island), lays the groundwork for understanding the area’s literary heritage. Although the members of “the Davenport group” aren’t well-known, the people they influenced, promoted, and launched are among the giants of American literature.
What might be even more remarkable is that few people in the Quad Cities seem to have any sense of it.
“I’ve always been interested in the story that hasn’t been told,” said entrepreneur Doug Miller, who has used some pretty basic texts – the aforementioned Who’s Who book and The New Encyclopaedia Britannica – to weave a compelling argument for the importance of the Quad Cities in the development of American literature.
Cook, Glaspell, and Dell were successful on their own (Glaspell won a Pulitzer Prize for her play Alison’s House), but perhaps more importantly, they played key roles in the success of writers such as Sherwood Anderson, Eugene O’Neill, and Edna St. Vincent Millay in the early part of the 20th Century.
The circle gets even wider. Anderson, for example, was a major stylistic influence on William Faulkner and Ernest Hemingway, and Cook must be given some credit for the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, which has played a significant role in the development of much of America’s contemporary literary talent.
Making the leap from people from this area to literary luminaries such as O’Neill, Faulkner, and Hemingway isn’t difficult, Miller said; it just hasn’t been done. “We never make the connection,” he said.
The Quad Cities area, Miller claims, “was quite a crossroads … a hotbed for all kinds of activity. … We were a lot more sophisticated than people today realize.” The area had one of the highest per-capita incomes of any place in the country, and it served as an incubator for all types of entrepreneurial and artistic talent.
Probably the most direct contribution to American literature by the “Davenport group” was the effect they had on playwrights Eugene O’Neill and Edna St. Vincent Millay. Davenport natives Cook and Glaspell were among the founders of the Provincetown Players in 1915 in Massachusetts. A year later, the group moved to Greenwich Village and produced O’Neill’s first play, Bound East for Cardiff, “thus launching the career of one of America’s distinguished playwrights,” in the words of the The New Encyclopaedia Britannica. O’Neill, of course, is best known for plays such as The Iceman Cometh and Long Day’s Journey into Night.
Millay also got her start with the Provincetown Players, with which she acted and wrote. Her best-known play was 1921’s Aria da Capo, and she was the first woman to win a Pulitzer Prize for poetry. The troupe also helped develop the career of Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Paul Green.
The New Encyclopaedia Britannica notes that the Provincetown Players, which was active until 1929, “stimulated the work of many theatrical talents that otherwise might have remained obscure.”
Floyd, another member of “the Davenport group,” became one of the leaders of the Chicago literary establishment and as a critic championed writers such as Anderson and Theodore Dreiser.
The Quad Cities influence might reach farthest – though less directly – with the world-renowned Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Cook taught at the University of Iowa from 1895 to ’99, and in 1896 led the class “Verse Making.” Several volumes on the Iowa Writers’ Workshop note that Cook’s class – along with one taught by Clark Fisher Ansley – were the forebears of Edwin Piper’s “Poetics” class, which served as a template for the workshop when it began in the 1930s. It was the first creative-writing degree program in the United States.
The workshop rose to prominence under the 25-year directorship, beginning in 1941, of Paul Engle. Its graduates have won a dozen Pulitzer Prizes and include Flannery O’Connor, John Irving, Robert Bly, William Stafford, Jane Smiley, and Raymond Carver.
While Miller wants to celebrate this Quad Cities heritage – he said he’d like to one day make a documentary on the subject – the story also has a lesson. These writers came from this area, but “they couldn’t do it here. They had to do it somewhere else. … They were shunned by the community.”
Miller said that disapproval of politics and bohemian lifestyle forced these literary figures from the area. Cook and Dell, for example, were Socialists.
Miller compares the area’s literary history to the legacy of Bix, whose importance – because of his lifestyle and the type of music he played – was ignored in the Quad Cities for decades. “It’s kind of that Midwestern thing,” Miller said. “If it’s not mom, apple pie, and the American flag, you put it down. It’s suppressed so long, it disappeared.”
From this, Miller takes the view that as Davenport is starting its River Renaissance project, with a focus on the musical heritage of the river, the Quad Cities should embrace the literary past and ensure that future generations of authors don’t leave the area because of a lack of support.
“These people left because they weren’t being nurtured here,” Miller said.
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