My Margaret Culkin Banning project

marguerite-culkin-margaret-culkin-barren-central-07I’ve been collecting information about a minor writer who spent much of her career as a writer in my town back around the 1920s. She was sort of a blueblood — the daughter of a famous Minnesota politician who married a prominent attorney in Duluth — but she began writing novels that would appeal to women (one of her first titles was “This Marrying”) and caught the writing bug. Her books are out of print, but our local library has a complete collection of her books, which mostly collect dust on their shelf in a dark corner. When I moved to this community in 1995, I learned that she grew up in my Hunter’s Park neighborhood when I came across an article she wrote for a 1976 history of Duluth.

Hunter’s Park. My neighborhood is on the edge of town, marked by a tall building (now a home) that was the last streetcar stop up the hill from Lake Superior. Our house was built in 1919, during Duluth’s heyday, and although it’s small, the original plans to the house show a “Maid’s Room” on the second floor. There is even a buzzer on the floor of the dining room, which is astonishing because the kitchen is about three steps away. From Culkin Banning’s chapter, I learned that my neighborhood was settled by Scottish people who came to northern Minnesota during its mining and lumbering boom 1880 – 1900. There’s a gloomy Glen Avon Presbyterian Church just a block from our house, and street names have a Scots sound to them: Mygatt, Kenilworth, Leicester. They built their homes in this part of town, and hired girls from the Italian population who also settled here.

A working writer. Once I started digging, I learned that MCB (my shorthand for her–like I say, I’ve been thinking about this a long time) wasn’t a particularly pleasant person. She wrote about women struggling to make it on their own (MCB divorced from her lawyer husband), women’s rights, birth control — but she sort of lorded it over the locals that she was a woman of letters. It’s remarkable to think she made a living off her writing, but she seems to have lived well, writing regularly for McCalls, Ladies Home Journal, The Saturday Evening Post, and other popular magazines from that time, and churning out her books year after year. I suppose her books and topics would be considered genre fiction or even “chick-lit” today, but I believe she aspired to be taken seriously.

The actual work. Her writing is a little clunky in places; mannered and fussy. She loved dialogue which goes on and on for pages. Yet, sometimes there are passages that are quite good. I’ve collected some of these in my file. These books will never be reprinted. I recall reading Booth Tarkington’s Penrod when I was a kid. Who reads these writers now? Makes me a little sad.

A serious side. There are some interesting parts to her life. She worked as a writer for the U.S. government during WWII, writing articles about the hardships of families in Great Britain, and (I think) travelling to Europe after the war to write about refuges from the war – “displaced persons” I believe they were called.

A decision to be made. A librarian who works for the historical society here isn’t sure this is much of a story. MCB wasn’t a great writer, and her fame came more from her family and because of her financial situation, she was able to live well and focus on her writing. Yet I am drawn to her story. She was a big fish (in her mind) in a small pond (somewhat ludicrous as my town is located on an enormous lake), and she may have looked down on people. But she didn’t live a frivolous life. She got involved in politics. And even if she wasn’t kind to people, for a short time, she put my corner of the state on the map.

And still. Every day, I drive by the rather lovely old building near downtown where she kept her office, where the beautiful windows look out over the lake. Once, I saw a photo of MCB, sitting at her desk, working at one of those heavy black typewriters. Although the photo must have been posed, she looks very focused and happy.

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