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Wisconsin academy review (Winter 1994-95)

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DAYS OF OBSIDIAN, DAYS OF GRACE (selected poetry and prose by four Native American writers) by Adrian C. Louis, Jim Northrup, Al Hunter, Denise Sweet. Poetry Harbor, 142 pages, softcover. $13.95. Order from 1028 East Sixth Street, Duluth, MN 55805.

Imagism is considered an early twentieth-century English trend in poetry, but poet Al Hunter explained to me that imagism is rooted in Native traditions dating from the days of petroglyphs and symbolic record-keeping on hides. Today imagism is still alive in this enlightening new book. With survival as the core theme of this rich anthology, Days of Grace tells a story like the proverbial photo worth a thousand words.

“Staying Alive” is where the struggle, and this book, begin. Framed with vast white space, Hunter’s small poem “Staying Alive” presents a powerful image that gallops from the page. The second piece, “Shaman and Black Robe,” spurred such a river of images and thoughts, I could read no longer. I dreamed of it in the night, and in the morning I sorted through it by writing poetry of my own.

When I continued reading, the emotions of survival and of living fully beyond survival became clearer. The importance of a full spiritual and traditional life became clearer as well. Honoring elders and those who pass on by offering food to the spirit of the deceased, sustenance for the spirit journey, may be construed as morbid in an anglo-European outlook, but Hunter’s “Feast of the Dead” portrays these traditional beliefs as clearly respectful, spiritual, and innate to living fully. In “Mishomis” and “Ancestor Poem,” traditional beliefs hold strength for survivors.

But lessons come from the living as well and the bulk of Al Hunter’s poems reflect this. He honors friends and family at length. He shows how traditions are taught in a modern world. He reflects on survival, the struggling, desperate and most wrenching experiences that have led him to respect the traditional use of sacred tools. Hunter’s poetry is potent and richly filled with memories of loss that have transformed into prayers of hope and promise for the future.

Canadian Al Hunter lives with a passionate vision of the future, patiently and pointedly explaining, posing provocative questions in “Water.” After we glimpse his web of experiences and redirect our thinking toward a diverse myriad of concerns, he completes his section of the book with “Dreams on a Horse” and the line “And now I see that there is much more to say.”

The other authors expand and validate Hunter’s themes. Green Bay poet Denise Sweet’s work balances the book with a woman’s perspective, her ideas based on the same armature of survival. Her verses have a gentle tone woven with images of traditional Ojibwe life in modern days. Her poem “For Antone” speaks to the beauty and necessity of traditional life. “Night of Diamonds: January, 1993” gives the reader a candid glimpse into a beautiful and potent experience with exquisite imagery. And “Dancing the Rice” is very pleasurable reading as well. Like all the authors, her poems make it clear that traditional life is growing in contemporary America.

Jim Northrup’s stories are so enjoyable to read they seem light. “Rez to Jep to Rez” is a pleasant and humorous trip with the Warmwaters to Los Angeles. But when I closed the book the images of his characters stayed near. His stories are sketches that prod the imagination to fill in the details. Underlying the day-by-day portraits are the survival issues explored by the other authors. I think Northrup, who lives in Minnesota, is an imagist too. And a traditionalist in the sense that his stories have lessons; though they are told with sparse detail, they imply complex information. “Riding the Dog” was a fun ride with a humorous twist, but I got off too, and like Jim, “. . . I never looked back.”

Adrian Louis’s poems are raw, almost as if his life in the unbroken winds of the South Dakota plains and the stark deserts and mountains of the West have given his words a sharp edge of unguarded truth. Well, the truth of survival is raw, gruesome, and powerful. After dramatically sharing the desperation in the struggles for survival, Louis portrays hope, thank God, for life beyond survival. It may seem small, but he’s sober and it’s a start. His sobriety seems filled with bitterness and difficulty, but he has his eyes on survival. In the “The Fine Printing on the Label of a Bottle of Non-Alcohol Beer,” in the lines that provided the image-filled name of this provoking book, Louis looks back to see the path that lies ahead. And in “Some of What We Have Forgotten,” he remembers well. It is a reference poem to be read often. Lush with details and instruction, it memorializes the days of obsidian. More, it marks a path: for life beyond survival, to days of grace.

David Hopkins lives in Ashland and edits Chequamegon Review. His poetry and fiction have appeared in numerous publications.

FRANK LLOYD WRIGHT & THE BOOK ARTS by Mary Jane Hamilton. Friends of the University of Wisconsin-Madison Libraries, 1993. Exhibition catalog, 105 pages, softcover. $19.95. Order from 360 Memorial Library, 728 State St., Madison, WI 53705-1494.

Frank Lloyd Wright & the Book Arts contains forty-two illustrations, more than six pages of index, and almost four pages of bibliography. The cover is a portion of a two-page title spread designed by Wright for the Auvergne Press edition of William C. Gannett’s The House Beautiful, published in the mid-1890s.

This handsome volume was intended as a companion to an exhibition in the Department of Special Collections at Memorial Library in Fall 1992. However, it stands alone quite well as an unusual study in certain topics of interest and sources of influence for this country’s acknowledged architectural genius, Frank Lloyd Wright. Mary Jane Hamilton wrote the book and curated the exhibition as well as concurrent exhibitions at the Cooperative Children’s Book Center and the Wisconsin Academy Gallery.

Hamilton’s meticulously researched study consists of fifteen chapters. The titles and subtitles suggest that she has left lit   [p. 47]   tie, if anything, of her subject unturned. The first five are: “The Power of the Printed Word: Influences on Wright,” “Family Tradition: Wright’s Relatives as Authors and Editors,” “Wright and Chauncey Williams, Jr.: Their Ties to Madison,” “English Arts and Crafts: An Influential Precedent for Wright,” and “Closer to Home: Printed Books Wright May have Seen in Chicago.”

The book persuasively provides details, descriptions, and demonstrations from Wright’s heritage and experience in the creation of books, among other facets. Hamilton has discovered that some primary characteristics of Wright’s architectural work (not the engineering flaws) have correlatives in his work in the book arts: Wright’s artistic impulse for perfection (“improvement”); his desire not only to shape an object but, depending upon the nature of the object, to also shape its content or context; and his tendency to strive for a simplicity which holds an audience’s interest.

Both Wright’s architecture and Hamilton’s study require a certain form of patience. For those unable to appreciate the qualities of the architecture, yet feel they should, it is possible that this study can help.

Richard J. Daniels is associate director of the Wisconsin Academy.

THE WAUSAU STORY by Robert W. Gunderson. Employers Insurance of Wausau, 1992. 198 pages.

Bob Gunderson’s book, The Wausau Story, is an autobiographical account of his career at Wausau Insurance Companies. For most of forty-one years, Gunderson directed the company’s advertising. The book recalls in detail how the main advertising theme was born, how the program evolved, and who the many players were.

Wausau Insurance (originally named Employers Mutual Liability Insurance Company of Wisconsin) was the brainchild of a small but powerful group of lumber barons and entrepreneurs who dominated the economic and social life of central Wisconsin around the turn of the century. Anticipating passage of the nation’s first Workmen’s Compensation Law, they created the new company on September 1, 1911, mainly to protect their own corporate interests. Employers Mutual wrote the first Workmen’s Compensation insurance policy in America on that same day.

The company thrived, but, in the dull business of selling business insurance, it faced a serious challenge of building an identity in its nationwide market. What’s more, it was located in a small northwoods city in the middle of rural Wisconsin — a charming but invisible area of the United States.

Gunderson’s story begins around 1950 when he joined the company’s advertising department. The small company hired the world’s largest advertising agency, J. Walter Thompson, and together they turned their inauspicious location into the centerpiece of their advertising. Almost by accident, they choose a quaint Milwaukee Road railroad station in Wausau as their trademark.

In 1964, Gunderson and his associates agree to invest a portion of their advertising dollars in a fledgling television program called “60 Minutes.” When Gunderson retired in 1991, Don Hewitt, the show’s executive producer, presented him with a desk clock inscribed: “Without Wausau there wouldn’t have been a ‘60 Minutes.’”

The author describes the many advertising themes — how many worked and others were discarded. There are countless reproductions of print ads and photographs of events and people with whom Gunderson worked. The most interesting anecdotes concern his relationships with J. Walter Thompson and Cramer Krasselt, the Milwaukee agency that succeeded Thompson in 1971. It is in these situations that the creative talents of writers, artists, and photographers and the political and managerial skills of account executives and of Gunderson himself are best displayed.

Gunderson is a generous and loyal person. Although he obviously orchestrated the evolution of the company’s advertising, he distributes credit to scores of his associates in and outside of the company. These include his fellow corporate executives, his staff, and particularly agency and media personnel. In particular he singles out Ross Littig and John Pritchard, Cramer Krasselt’s vice chairman and senior creative director, respectively. Littig originally serviced the Wausau account at J. Walter Thompson. When the politics of that agency forced him out in 1970, Gunderson decided to investigate a new advertising relationship. This led to his choice of Cramer Krasselt, and Littig was hired by them to run the Wausau account. Following Littig’s and Pritchard’s retirements at Cramer Krasselt, Gunderson again reassessed other agency possibilities. After an intense bidding process, Cramer Krasselt prevailed.

Gunderson is also proud of his relationship with “60 Minutes” and the show’s well known personalities. Perhaps too much of the text and photographs are devoted to the role the show played in Wausau’s advertising. There is no doubt that “60 Minutes” became a highly visible vehicle for the company’s message, but the real credit for taking the risks of associating with a new and controversial show should go to Gunderson and J. Walter Thompson.

Gunderson is an able, straight-forward reporter. He has had an unabashed love affair with his job. In spite of being located in a small town, his work provided many heady experiences for an aspiring advertising executive. He traveled widely, worked with many of the country’s top advertising and media executives, and was wined and dined in some of the most glamorous eateries. Most important, he was evidently given wide authority to do his job as he saw fit, and he did it well.

His attachment to his job may have caused him to write in the kind of detail that might strain the patience of some readers. But for marketing and advertising professionals, constituents of Wausau Insurance, and students, the book is an interesting, behind-the-scenes view of one company’s experience in developing a successful, somewhat unorthodox advertising campaign.

Norman Paulsen, Jr. is a Milwaukee public relations executive.

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BUCKET BOY by Ernest L. Meyer. The Milwaukee County Historical Society, 1992. 236 pages.

True to its subtitle, A Milwaukee Legend, Ernest Ludwig Meyer’s book provides the reader with a rosy, legend-like view of one segment of the Milwaukee German-American community a scant decade before the United States’ entry into World War I. Bucket Boy is a re-publication of a collection of largely autobiographical stories which first appeared in one volume in 1947. Some of the vignettes had been published earlier in The American Mercury and in Collier’s.

This book is an unabashedly sentimental and, to some extent, an unrealistic picture of Old Milwaukee. In the preface, the author himself admits to his memory’s “separating out the dross and retaining the gold: fool’s gold, perhaps, but of a warm and comforting glow.” The passing of some forty years since the experiences of a sixteen-year-old lad has left “a blessed remembrance of good times and gay.”

Ernest L. Meyer, born in Denver in 1892, was the son of German immigrants. The language of the home was German, the family’s traditions were German, the circle of friends was largely German-speaking. The author’s father, George Meyer, was an editor at the prestigious German-language Milwaukee newspaper Germania, so even in the world of his work, the language used was German. (It is interesting — and revealing — that the author’s father is referred to as “George,” not the German “Georg”; the author himself is identified as “Ernest” on the volume’s cover and on the title page, but throughout the book he is consistently addressed by the German “Ernst.” Assimilation was definitely taking place.)

In the first of the volume’s thirteen stories, we meet Heinz (respectfully addressed as Herr Heinz by the teenage author), who had been a bookkeeper at a brewery but was discharged at age sixty when his eyesight failed. The author does not take issue with exploitation of worker loyalty; there is no overt social criticism. Rather, the emphasis is on Heinz’s current career, a Kesseljunge, that is, a “boy” who fetches pails of beer from a local tavern and delivers them to the newspaper’s staff on hot summer days (nipping a bit from each pail en route). Heinz is happy with his lot, sees his work as important, and even crafts equipment that enables him to carry and deliver a dozen pails of beer at one time. He is also a student of the history of brewing and enjoys imparting his wisdom to his young friend, the sixteen-year-old Ernst, who often visits with Herr Heinz.

Heinz is only the first of an array of sympathetic characters who appear in the book. We get to know the author’s father fairly well. We also meet the itinerant poet Martin Drescher, called Träumer Hans (Dreamer Hans), who, between times he was in jail — usually on vagrancy charges — spent his life visiting his politically radical friends (the author’s father among them) in cities all over the country.

Then there is the Germania’s police reporter Dolfee, who kept a “birthday book” in which were registered the birthdays of prominent people he had met over the years — on their birthdays he would stop by to congratulate them and contrive to be invited to celebrate at a local tavern with a few stems of beer, and, of course, with the free lunch such establishments provided. Interesting is the wealthy, lonely, and free-thinking manufacturer Otto Meister, with whom Heinz was invited to live after the latter’s wife and dog had died — Heinz provided the liberal intellectual stimulation that Frau Gertrude Meister, “conservative and pious, a German Lutheran of a particularly unbending and conservative sort,” could not contribute.

The characters we encounter are economically drawn and blend nicely to give us a picture of a Milwaukee long since gone. These are the “good old days” we so often hear about. The author is conscious of seamier sides of existence at the time; he simply chooses — a conscious choice — to leave them out of consideration. This is his attempt in 1947 to present a positive image of what German-American life was like before Kaiser Wilhelm and Adolf Hitler and two World Wars, to give the reader insights, with humor and grace, into the joys and sorrows of the lives of one small, ethnically homogeneous group of people.

To the reader who has been around long enough or who has researched the era, certain names from the past will be familiar: Gettleman beer, not to mention Schlitz; Frieda Voigt, the author’s sister, whom I met shortly before she retired from teaching at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee; Pastor Gausewitz, undoubtedly the father of one of my own professors at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Walter Gausewitz.

Karl E. Meyer, the author’s son, now an editor with The New York Times, has provided a valuable, informative introduction which not only outlines his father’s background and career, but also highlights some contributions Americans of German heritage have made to life in this country.

Harry Geitz is professor of German at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and director of the Max Kade Institute for German-American Studies on the Madison campus.

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