I bought this book–A Journey Through Literary America–as a gift to myself directly from the website, on sale and autographed. But it’s also available on Amazon. It’s “a literary pilgrimage in photography and prose.” Thomas Hummel (writer) and Tamra Dempsey (photographer) set out to find the stories and explore the places that inspired 26 of this country’s greatest authors. They begin in the Catskills with Washington Irving and James Fenimore Cooper, and the first words of that chapter are “In the beginning.” They travel west and back and end in New Jersey with Richard Ford, a sportswriter turned novelist whom I’d never heard of–but he went to Michigan State University, so there’s that. Along the way, they “visit” Ernest Hemingway near my hometown in Michigan. Those photos are, of course, especially beautiful.
This book is a journey. Here are some first words.
First words from “Willa Cather (1873-1947)
When Willa Cather’s aunt and uncle moved from New England to the prairie in 1873, the year of her birth, they hired a wagon driver at the train station in Red Cloud, measured the circumference of the back wheel, knotted a strip of cloth around it and set off into the alien sea of grasses. Cather captured the trek in “Macon Prairie”:
Through the coarse grasses which the oxen breasted
Blue-stem and bunch grass, red as sea marsh samphire.
Always the similar, soft undulations
Of the free-breathing earth in golden sunshine.
Using that strip of cloth as a measuring device, Willa’s aunt counted the number of revolutions of the wheel from the town until they felt thy must be in the middle of their claim. There was no other way. There were no landmarks to navigate by. When they finally made it from the town to their lot, the aunt and uncle settled down for the night–then a whipping prairie fire scorched their land. The fire may have done them in, with all their possessions, if it hadn’t been for the quick action of the driver of the wagon, who started a backfire. The next day, Nebraska’s newest settlers learned that the closest water was at their neighbors’ place, two miles away–and had been hauled there from Red Cloud, 16 miles distant.
First words from “Sinclair Lewis (1885-1951)
February 7, 1885 dawned bitter cold in Sauck Centre, Minnesota (population 2,800). Ice glittered on the town’s 30 lakes. The wagon ruts down the mud of Main Street were frozen as solid as the iron wheels that had made them. The Great Northern locomotive steam hung over the rails, too frigid to billow. On that day, a baby named Harry Sinclair Lewis was born. It had only been 24 years since the first white child was born in Sauk Centre, a former Indian territory. Harry Sinclair Lewis’s parents did not take his convulsive sobbing seriously. Infants find conditions to be unfamiliar and harsh, but they adjust, grow into little children, and naturally find their way in the world. Little did they know that young Harry would continue to find life to be such a trial, that he would eventually make them all famous–or how little they would like that fame.
First words from “Langston Hughes (1902-1967)
I’ve Known Rivers.
These three words open the first major poem Langston Hughes published. The lines came to him as he headed south to visit his father in Mexico in 1920. The train he was on crossed the Mississippi and as he looked out the window at the muddy river he began to think what it had meant to black people. How “to be sold down the river was the worst fate that could overtake a slave in times of bondage.” And as the train chuffed its way over that long bridge, he began to write:
I’ve know rivers:
I’ve known rivers ancient as the world and older than the
flow of human blood in human veins.
My soul has grown deep like the rivers.
I bathed in the Euphrates when dawns were young.
I built my hut near the Congo and it lulled me to sleep
I looked upon the Nile and raised the pyramids above it.
I heard the singing of the Mississippi when Abe Lincoln
went down to New Orleans, and I’ve seen its muddy
bosom turn all golden in the sunset.
I’ve known rivers:
Ancient, dusky rivers.
My soul has grown deep like the rivers.
It was simple. Expressive. A calling card for a new poetic voice. It took Hughes about 15 minutes to write the poem that was anthologized dozens of times. “Poems are like rainbows,” he said. “They escape you quickly.” He was 18 years old.
Some questions for you.
Have you seen this book?
Who is your favorite American author?
What is your favorite place in America?
Are there any sentences here that make you sit up and take notice?
(Not my words–theirs.)
How would you write the first words of your own story?