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Michigan's Famous and Forgotten Authors
By DAVE DEMPSEY JACK DEMPSEY
Michigan State University Press
Copyright © 2012 Dave Dempsey and Jack Dempsey
All right reserved.
Chapter One Southeast Michigan
George Matthew Adams "Today's Talk"
August 23, 1878-October 28, 1962 Born in Saline; lived in several other Michigan towns
Henry Ford's Greenfield Village in Dearborn harbors the auto titan's boyhood home, Thomas Edison's multi-invention laboratory, the Wright Brothers' flight headquarters, George Washington Carver's childhood cabin, Abraham Lincoln's rural courthouse, Luther Burbank's garden studio, and Noah Webster's research center. One may still saunter down its lamp-lit streets to discover structures representing a golden age of nineteenth- and twentieth-century creative leadership in the United States. The homes, businesses, and retreats of these giants are thoughtfully arranged in the village to instill pride and inspire genius.
A sign in front of another village building identifies it as the "Adams Family Home." On an antique table inside the narrow first-floor hallway, single-page flyers bearing the heading "Today's Talk" are available to peruse. Thinking them an explanation for the day's program, visitors are surprised to find instead reprints of short articles published decades ago, each on a single theme of some positive nature, authored by the Adams for whom the house is named. This is not one of the Massachusetts Adamses (politician or brewer), or the famous nature photographer Ansel Adams, or Scott Adams, creator of the business-spoofing comic strip "Dilbert." The name of George M. Adams is given credit on these broadsides. The house is old; surely the subject matter of these slight pamphlets must no longer be relevant. For a modern e-book-buying public that cannot get enough of self-improvement guides, though, such a judgment might not be so true. When did this author live and die? How was it that he came to write such columns? Why is his home preserved in "America's greatest history attraction," a sprawling park dedicated to the creative powers of Firestone, Foster, Frost? Just what was "Today's Talk"?
George Matthew Adams was born in the parsonage of the Baptist church in Saline, Michigan, on August 23, 1878. The house was located at the southeast corner of Ann Arbor and Henry Streets, just below the main road through town. John Quincy Adams—no relative—signed the lot's first deed. The church building stood across the street (and still does). It was a modest home, in keeping with the frugality and humble station to which ministers of the Gospel were accustomed in the late nineteenth century. A central hall divided the house into two sections, with the minister's study on the left as one entered, matched by a bedroom on the right. Five children, including George and his twin sister, necessitated the clever use of all available space.
Now a small city, subsumed in a bustling suburban Washtenaw County community of some nine thousand residents, Saline near the turn of the twentieth century was a village one-fifth that size. Its location astride the Chicago Road on the way to the Illinois metropolis made it a stopping point for weary travelers. Today, on the way westward into town, on the route that is designated us-12, one finds a large industrial facility on the north side, once a Ford Motor Company plant.
George spent his first three years at this plain house in Saline. The career of a small-town Michigan minister could involve many moves, and the Adams family relocated during the next decade to other small churches in the southern part of the state. According to the 1899 Baptist Ministerial Directory, the Adamses resided in Grand Rapids, Parma, Reading, Centreville, and Rochester. Most of these communities were rural, where the church building, humble as it might be, served as the lodestar for weekly experience. Despite the family's peripatetic life, George grew up confident about the future, for the words his father shared with congregants had a life-giving and sustaining power.
After the family left Michigan in 1894 for Iowa, the young man continued his education until graduating from university in Ottawa, Kansas. He moved to Chicago, megacity of many opportunities, for a career in advertising. Adams began at the bottom and worked his way up, quite literally: his first job was elevator operator. By his mid-twenties, he had graduated to writing advertising copy, which paid more but satisfied him less. He became determined to write messages of more lasting value. Thus began the authorship of daily notes, each dealing with a theme such as self-confidence, persistence, or other virtues that could encourage and motivate the reader. These messages began to make their way into newspapers and periodicals thanks to the author's connections in the industry. Before long Adams had his own column—"Today's Talk"—which gained wide appeal, appearing in Good Housekeeping magazine and in growing syndication across North America.
Building upon the success of his column, Adams formed a syndicate in 1907 and invited other writers to join the "Adams Newspaper Service." Its stable of contributors grew to include a diverse group, including fellow Michiganders Edna Ferber and Edgar Guest, Book-of-the-Month Club founder William Allen White, and New York City bishop Fulton J. Sheen. One of its main features was comic strips, since newspapers needed to fill small spaces with amusing material for their subscribers. The kindly humor and humble advice dispensed by these cartoons found a ready audience. Because of the expanding renown of its founder, within a decade the company was renamed the "George Matthew Adams Service" and moved from Chicago to New York City, publishing capital of the nation.
"Today's Talk" had its roots in several aspects of Adams's life. One was his time at Ottawa University, a Baptist-affiliated college whose mission had long been to further the welfare of the Ottawa Indians. Adams's own rise-to-riches story was important. His father never made much money, and the son's good fortune and fame in the publishing business inspired gratitude and a desire to share good news with the reading public. Above all, religious grounding that began in a small Saline parsonage provided the soil in which Adams nurtured a life of unflagging optimism. His writing appealed to the metaphysical needs of average Americans. His column gave them a periodic burst of hope, confidence, and energy amid the travails of the day.
Seeking to take advantage of his byline, Adams published a book of poetry in 1910 called Uncle Walt, the Poet Philosopher. It had modest success. Undaunted, in 1913 he authored a volume entitled You Can, comprising a collection of brief talks, founded on his columns, treating what it described as the most important topic in the world: "your success." The message did not necessarily focus on financial achievement; Adams sought to edify readers by picturing outcomes that would enhance their lives, promote their happiness, fulfill their dreams. One talk dealt with the topic of courage:
Courage is naked Right put through fire and brought out uncracked and unbroken.
Courage is heartworth making itself felt in deeds. It never waits for chances; it makes chances.
Its author betrayed a talent rooted in ad copy but striving to do more than sell merchandise.
In 1920—in the aftermath of the first worldwide bloodletting—Adams published a slim book having but a single, capitalized word for a title: UP. Subtitled A Little Book of Talks on How to Wake Up, Get Up, Think Up, Climb Up, Smile Up, Cheer Up, Work Up, Look Up, Help Up, Grow Up!, the volume did not fit any customary genre. It was not designed only to feather the pocket of its creator, for the inside cover assured the reader that "UP is a book to give away." Whether it had such merit can be judged from a column entitled "Hello, Rocks-Hello, Trees":
A matchless tree waves its limbs in a mild moving wind and a note of music, more wonderful than any ever breathed by a harp, comes to my ear ... The further you get from Nature, the less happy you are; and the nearer, the more exultant you become over the world and all that there is in it. There is nothing unbeautiful in nature. Even the decaying tree, the dead bush, the vanishing stream—each is beautiful. If you know how to see, "all's right with the world." For everything that Nature creates is clean and right.
This was Henry Thoreau distilled for a new age. Similarly, there is the heartening theme of "Praise":
I have a wonderful business ... I run a business which furnishes half a nation or so with something that lights up people's hearts and lives. And my biggest asset is the praise I give to the writers and artists who keep these millions in the happy zone. I love my business because it gives me the chance to praise ... The next best thing to being praised is for you to praise. I know because I have tried it out. So don't be afraid to praise.
This may be the first incarnation of the now popular phrase "in the zone." A concluding chapter is "The Open Fireplace," and it begins with:
I write this little talk before an open fireplace. How like life it is! ... I say to myself that I shall try to make my life like an open fireplace, so that people may be warmed and cheered by it and so go out themselves to warm and cheer.
Within the decade, the nation plummeted into the Great Depression, and Adams encountered another crisis that challenged his positive philosophy. One of those broadsides on the hallway table of the Greenfield Village house contains a passage he wrote in 1937:
People do not want what we have in our pockets half as much as they want what is in our hearts. If we combine both, intelligently, however, according to our means, we give wisely and well.
Such a sentiment might seem delusional in the midst of severe economic distress. Yet it hearkened back to a biblical principle—a lesson Adams no doubt learned from his father's sermons in small town Michigan churches: "Every work which he began he did with all his heart and prospered."
Although Adams was living in New York, a part of his heart remained in Michigan. A broadside bearing the title "Birthplaces" contains this revealing and hopeful story:
A few years ago I visited the little cottage in Michigan where I was born. It's a small story and a half frame structure that stands next to a church. I stood there and looked at it. I thought of the gentle Mother who gave me birth, with that of my sister, who is my twin. I thought of the joy and thrill it must have given to her—and I reviewed the anxieties of that time that she must have had, always wondering what sort of man I would be and what would become of her only boy ... It is a credit to any nation or community that preserves these birthplaces ... as an object lesson and an inspiration to the youth of today, so unacquainted with circumstances that have bequeathed to them so great an inheritance.
Henry Ford greatly admired George Matthew Adams. After driving through Saline during 1937, the same year as "give wisely and well," he determined to acquire the writer's childhood home for his history park, relocate it to Dearborn, and "restore" it to a glory it might never have seen. Ford stocked it with books by Adams and from Adams's library. After all, according to the auto magnate, Adams's writings were "so typical of the America we all love." Today, it still contains artifacts donated by the author, such as the "big, funny bed" he was born in, the coverlet his mother made him, original paintings of hers, and a book of his father's sermons in which he placed special mementos. In June 1942, he spent a night in that front bedroom as if to relive his Saline origins.
Two decades later, on October 28, 1962, coincident with the end of another national crisis, Adams died in his home in the Bronx, age eighty-four. Reporting on his funeral there, the New York Times obituary said of the "Today's Talk" columns: "They revealed human sympathy and cheerful optimism." It also mentioned that he had won the 1959 Freedom Foundation Award for "outstanding achievement in bringing about better understanding between peoples." In an era when the term "diversity" usually meant nothing more than a difference in opinion, Adams had been about the business of lifting up all of humanity, from the village of Saline to Greenwich Village to Greenfield Village.
Although the glory of the author's byline has faded, the pioneer frame house survives as testament to the principles upon which it and the church building across the street were built, and upon which its famous inhabitant founded his life. Life in small Michigan towns that Adams knew as the son of a minister laid the groundwork for a lifetime of positive thinking. More than a decade before Dale Carnegie published How to Win Friends and Influence People, and years before fellow Michigan-born Dr. Wayne Dyer became famous for offering motivational inspiration to anxious Americans, a Michigander by the well-known name of Adams was already talking the way up.
You Can: A Collection of Brief Talks on the Most Important Topic in the World—Your Success (New York: Frederick A. Stokes Co., 1913).
Take It: Suggestions as to Your Right to the World and the Great Things That Are in It (New York: Frederick A. Stokes Co., 1917).
UP: A Little Book of Talks on How to Wake Up, Get Up, Think Up, Climb Up, Smile Up, Cheer Up, Work Up, Look Up, Help Up, Grow Up! (Chicago: Reilly and Lee Co., 1920).
Just Among Friends (New York: W. Morrow and Co., 1928).
Better Than Gold (New York: Duell, Sloan and Pierce, 1949).
The Great Little Things (New York: Duell, Sloan and Pierce, 1953).
Adams Family Home at The Henry Ford (Greenfield Village), 20900 Oakwood Boulevard, Dearborn, Michigan 48124
Original Baptist church site, 117 South Ann Arbor Street, Saline, Michigan, with parsonage directly south
Kenyon, Frost, and Miller
Jane Kenyon: May 23, 1947-April 22, 1995 Born in Ann Arbor Township; graduate of Ann Arbor Pioneer High School and the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor; lived in Ann Arbor
Robert Frost: March 26, 1874-January 29, 1963 Fellow at the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor
Arthur Miller: October 17, 1915-February 10, 2005 Graduate of the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor
Neither Robert Frost nor Arthur Miller was born in Michigan. Neither lived here long, and neither died or was buried here. Jane Kenyon was born in Michigan; she lived here through college until marriage drew her away to New England. Miller returned to Michigan several times before his death in 2005; Frost came back less often after his stint in the 1920s, though descendants made the state their home. Kenyon's visits after college graduation in 1972 were sporadic. The three would seem to have little in common and literary careers little influenced by all things Michigan. The link among these poets and playwright was their tenure at the University of Michigan's campus in Ann Arbor. Miller, Frost, and Kenyon—all award winners, each with a unique talent—derived much from, and owed much to, the Great Lakes State and the college town they experienced.
Ann Arbor has a singular flavor. Although a conservative bastion for much of its existence, in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries it became a haven for liberal ideas and causes. Tradition says its name derives from two sources: the same first name of the wives of its founders, and the foliage tenting the Huron River that flows by campus. Ann Arbor's identity as the "city of trees" has long stood. Home to one of the nation's top universities, the community relies for half its population on students, professors, and administrative employees of the institution known as "U of M." The main site of the university is downtown, entwined within the city like an expanding vine. Farmland and green space surround the core, a thriving cultural center full of creative opportunity and energy.
Jane Kenyon was a baby boomer, born in 1947 from the union of a jazz musician and a nightclub singer. Her childhood was spent in an Ann Arbor Township house down an unpaved farm road just outside the city boundaries. When her musical parents were not performing out on the circuit, they spent considerable time in their farm garden, and Jane and her brother grew up relishing family time planting in their small patch of paradise.
Her father's mother, Dora, a native of Owosso whose childhood had been spent in a strict Methodist home, lived on State Street downtown. The kids frequently were put in their grandmother's charge, and those experiences made a deep imprint on Jane concerning things religious. Dora's approach to spirituality concentrated on the Apocalypse and eternal punishment, severe images that implanted fear and guilt in a young girl's imagination. Kenyon would later describe how the loving Savior of Scripture became transmuted into a monstrous, graying "Jesus Senior" because of a grandmother's eschatology. The emotional scarring would drive Kenyon away from her God for a long time. A childhood complicated by parental separation and an overwhelming sense of sinfulness shaped her into an introspective and insecure young woman fitted out for a lifelong struggle with depression. A poem of her youth concluded with the fear of maternal abandonment, betraying a soul in torment:
Sometimes when she goes downtown, I think she will not come back.
Excerpted from Ink Trails by DAVE DEMPSEY JACK DEMPSEY Copyright © 2012 by Dave Dempsey and Jack Dempsey. Excerpted by permission of Michigan State University Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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