Friday, October 24, 2014

Feature on Wayne Lanter and "If The Sun Should Ask Witch Doctors, Proverbs, and Parables"

Christal Cooper 2,321 Words

published by Twiss Hill Press this past February, is Wayne Latner’s ( most recent book to date.  The prolific Lanter has also written numerous books on poetry, non-fiction, and fiction.  If the Sun Should Ask, a blockbuster of 434 pages, features memoir, auto-biography, biography, historical fiction, and poetry-divided into four sections:  “At The Edge Of The Farm,” “Freeburg, Illinois,”  “Poetry and Prose,” and “Photos,” all interspersed within the book – for example, entries from “At The Edge Of The Farm” are on pages 1, 26, 45, 51, 62, 84, 106, 122, 132, 142, 147, and 164.  The book has a flow like music bringing all of the sections together like a symphony; sometimes presenting the reader with a surprise of a poem, photo, or narrative.

In this blog, one excerpt from each section is presented, in addition to the Introduction, where Wayne Lanter discusses the origin of If the Sun Should Ask and the process of writing If the Sun Should Ask via narrative, history, fiction, memoir, autobiography, and poetry. 

Guest Blogger Wayne Lanter: 
If the Sun Should Ask
A Note on the Writing

       Sometime during the summer of 2002 four of the Muses, the Hoeflinger sisters, Dorothy, Betty Jane, Carol Jean and Patricia, suggested that the LePere cousins, the grandchildren of Louis and Emma LePere, have a reunion (there were sixteen of us), and further, that each write a piece relating his or her memories of Grandparents LePere’s farm where many of us spent a good bit of our childhood time.   The suggestion seemed pleasant enough and in the weeks that followed I produced sixty or so pages of my memories of the farm, laced with scattering of anecdotes and narrative ramblings.  At the reunion that fall I presented a copy of the manuscript, entitled “Language at the Edge of the Farm,” to each of those in attendance. 

       In the months following the October reunion, at idle moments, I added a few pages to the chronicle, and then in 2009, rereading the manuscript, decided the “journal” might contain a worth-mentioning narrative of growing up in the rural Midwest at a time when the country was shifting from agrarian to industrial, from rural to urban, as well as something about the people caught in the shift.  I envisioned a possible extension or supplement to Hamlin Garland’s Boy Life on the Prairie and Carl Sandburg’s Prairie-Town Boy, maybe mixed with a bit of Ole Edvart Rolvaag’s Giants in the Earth.  Then, too, I had in mind bits and pieces of Edgar Lee Masters’ Spoon River Anthology, Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio, and E.W. Howe’s The Story of a Country Town.  This then, If the Sun Should Ask, is the result of the 2002 suggestion – the extension and the mix.

       To delve into and write about what might be considered one’s personal past often invites the wish or hope, from writer and reader, that the probe or report be somehow separate from fiction, even historical fiction, and be bound in memoir or autobiography.  And while these hopes and desires may lend themselves to better classifying the writing, and hanging the narrative out to dry, to give it a place, so to speak, they can also demean and mask the reality of the story being told.

       Most often, even when agreement is sought, not two individuals will agree on the facts, or on what the facts mean.  Past events appear to us as Wallace Steven’s “Thirteen Ways of Looking at Blackbird,” each and every “way” arrange somewhat differently by an individual human mind.  The past of memoir, autobiography, fiction, history – the bits and pieces used to manufacture the telling or writing – are dipped from a steaming caldron of already registered, gathered, or reaped material.  In reality, memoir, autobiography and fiction or historical fiction or history – as facts and reported events collected and recorded with a specific, individual point-of-view- are barely distinguishable from one another.

       Of course, there is here, in If the Sun Should Ask, some thing of a memoir (memory, as faulty as it may be), of autobiography (if you can imagine the writer decades later to be the person he is writing about  - when clearly he is not), as well as something of history (in recording bits and pieces of times and places often chosen randomly by the writer) and also, certainly, of fiction (giving structure and drama to the story that events themselves did not provide).  Stephen Blair, Department of Classics, Princeton University, has written, “. . . no historical account can entirely mirror reality because history is narrative and an event is not.  To write history, a historian must prioritize clarity over chronology, emphasize causal connections, and suppress irrelevancies.  Even in unbiased historical, privy to flawless information, will compose a story that, though it may be inspired by a particular event, isn’t a true account of it (The New Yorker, The Mail, “Narrative History,” January 6, 2014).  But so it is with my narrative.

       If the Sun Should Ask is a personal narrative of witch doctors, proverbs, and parables, of facts and events, of pictures and poems, to which I had access – of simply sitting around the camp fire or in the living room offering my impression of something of life in the American Midwest during the middle part of the twentieth century, with the hope that it not be forgotten, too soon.

       Although, and maybe because we were out at the edge of things where our lives were necessarily isolated, we were always eager for information, gossip, stories, about other people.  After all, it is human curiosity that makes drama and fiction and poetry fascinating – as with all stories.

       In folk cultures women tend to be the purveyors of the language parts of the ethos.  For the most it is the women who tell the stories, sing the songs, and create proverbs.  Folklorists have noted that most folk proverbs involve the kitchen or what can be seen from the kitchen window.

       In passing on her share of the language-culture, Mom not only read to use and introduced us to games, but supplied us with plethora of proverbs and folk sayings.  For Mom things dead were not just dead, but for emphasis, they were “Dead as a doornail.”  When she did not like the people I was hanging around with, to admonish me, since she knew that I knew that she thought they were either uncivilized, “white trash,” uncouth, or even worse, maybe “woodchoppers,” she would remind me that “birds of a feather flock together”.  Of course “every dog smells his own dirt.”  “A stitch in time saves nine,” and “A watched pot never boils.”  “Many hands do light work make,” and a woman nearing the end of a pregnancy was always “Big as a house.”

       Mom reminded us that “Only the good die young,” and “Everything works out for the best,” which is a stoic-precept/corollary of “Everything is just the way it is supposed to be,” if only because it worked out that way, somehow, and not another way.  Of course, “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks,” and, “There’s no fool like an old fool.”

       If one is warm in the winter, she is “Snug as a bug in a rug” or “Snug as a pea in a pod.”  And when I was particularly recalcitrant and/or stubborn, Mom was quick to point out that I was being “Stubborn as a mule,” or worthless as “A bump on a log.”  Dad added to the list on occasion reminding us that our unattended demands and requests were common the world over – that “People in hell want ice-water, too.”

       Grandma LePere believed that, “Fools’ names and fools’ faces always appear in public places.”  Also passing on a bit of family lore, possibly autobiographical, she noted that when beginning a family, “The first one can come any time, the second one takes nine months.”

       Excerpt from If the Sun Should Ask
       “Edge of the Farm” section
Pages 26-27
Copyright granted by Wayne Lanter

Several months after we took up residence with the Cokes a house around the corner on Belleville Street, owned by Ed Wolf, became available for $35.00 a month.  The Wolf house was strategically located at an angle behind the shop, with St Paul’s Evangelical and Reformed Church across the street and St. Joseph’s Catholic Church across the alley.  So we were, as e.e. cummings wrote, “…literally surrounded (but not defeated) . . . “ by the saints, their deities and clerics, and their plangent bells and sanctities.

St. Paul’s was on the south side of Belleville Street at a slight angle from and facing our house.  This meant that on warm Sunday mornings I could lie in bed with the bedroom window open and listen to the congregation gathering for 8:00a services and be glad that I had not yet to get out of bed.

The Protestant parsonage was next-door to the north of us, our yards separated only by the narrow ribbon of a weed-centered rock driveway.  At the time it was occupied by the Reverend Hayward Kiel and his family.

Reverend Kiel was a small, emaciated man with a pock-marked face, a hooknose, and thin hair.  Years later, when I saw the film Nosferatu, Count Orlok (Max Schreck) reminded me of Reverend Kiel.       

I remember talking with the Reverend twice – once when I was in high school and reading about the Protestant Reformation.  I realized that I had a chance to get it straight from “the horse’s mouth” and knocked on his door and asked him about it.  The session was informative.  I sat for two hours and listened as he explained the corruption of Catholicism that he claimed led to the revolt.

The second encounter came one June afternoon when sister Judith, who was always fussing with cats, and I were out in the backyard burying one of the wounded she had befriended that had not made it back through the door.  The Reverend Kiel stepped across the narrow driveway to recite a few last words for the deceased before we added a scoop of dirt to the hole in the ground.  I did not ask which of the nine feline spirits he had recommended to rest, or which of the cat gods had showed up to consider the recommendation.  At any rate, we were glad for assistance.

Looking the other way, St. Joseph Catholic Church backed on the alley behind our house, as did one part of the Catholic grade school playground.  The St. Joseph’s parish priest at the time was Herman J. Freese, a fractious and disgruntled old man who “married ‘em and buried ‘em,” but not without grumbling and who occasionally lectured the grade school students on their Catechism.  He also thundered from the pulpit plangently each Sunday to entreat the parishioners with the assurance of damnation did they not cough up dollars and cents to further sate the church coffers.

In years to come H.J. Freese would solicit Dad to repair or service the tower mechanism that drove the large bells that struck the hour and quarter hours for the St. Joseph’s church clock.

Several times I accompanied Dad into the belfry to make clock repairs.  By then I had read Victor Hugo’s The hunchback of Notre Dame, and crawling around in the accumulated dust of the tower with H.J. standing below giving directions to things about which he knew absolutely nothing, his silhouette among the shadows, among the dust motes riding the shafts of what little sunlight was coming in, the thought came to me that with his potbelly and sagging jowls and weak eyes he would have fit very well with the grotesqueries of medieval Paris.  And I’m not talking about who might, in the end save Esmeralda.  Clearly he would have been Quasimodo’s capitalist nemesis.  And that, too, was an epiphany.

As far as I know Dad was never compensated for these services.  I asked him about it once and he just shook his head and smiled as if to say, “Well, what do you expect?”  Neither did his services relieve him of the Freese-frozen-imposed obligation of weekly contributions or pew rent – though it always seemed strange to me that one might have to pay admission to get into and/or sit down in the house of an all-good god, to pay a fee to appreciate the halo of stained-glass and wonder.

Excerpt from If the Sun Should Ask
“Freeburg, Illinois” section
Pages 210 – 213
Copyright granted by Wayne Lanter

When asked what the Jesuits taught him, James Joyce is reported to have said, “They taught me to order and to judge.”  Implicit in this is an admonition to avoid equivocation and to look at things in their most elemental sense – to find the order.  The good sense of thinking insists that we not miss any meaningful detail, or the relationship between the details.  This is what we need to judge, to say this is good, but this is better – throughout the physical and moral order of things.  For four years Austin Mulkey guided me through that maze.


Rock-ribbed, Republican, a withered leg,
an unyielding Puritan, he encouraged
others where he could not go.  How often
do those without feet become cobblers?
Beneath the summer sun he required
little beyond an honest day’s labor,
the seasoning with which work and work
will brand the soul.  Knowing probability
and failure, he tallied each achievement
so in the evening shade success
would be gauged by surviving the day
in a dignity of what cunning
and strength could be crafted,
what competence earned exploiting
natural gifts while weathering contradictions
of the incomprehensible.  His nights
were quiet and mostly without light
with which to find release from
the terrifying restrictions of nature.

       Poem excerpt from If The Sun Should Ask
       “Poetry and Prose” section
       Pages 423-424
       Copyright granted by Wayne Lanter

Photo Description and Copyright Information

Photo 1b
Wayne Lanter in Greece
Copyright granted by Wayne Lanter

Photo 2a
Jacket cover of If the Sun Should Ask

Photo 3
"Landscape with Farm Building," by the Philadelphia artist Cecilia Beaux, oil on canvas.
Courtesy of the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts.
Public Domain

Photo 4c
Hamlin Garland
October 1981
From the Writer:  A Montghly Magaizne and Help All Literary Workers printed in October 10, 1891
Public Domain

Photo 5d
Jacket cover of Boy Life on the Prairie

Photo 6e
Carl Sandburg
Attributed to Al Ravenna
Library of Congress
New York World-Telegram & Sun Collection
Public Domain

Photo 7f
Jacket cover of Prairie Home Boy

Photo 8g
Ole Edvart Ralvaag
Fair Use Under the United States Copyright law

Photo 9h
Jacket cover of Giants In the Earth

Photo 10i
Edgar Lee Masters
Public Domain

Photo 11j
Jacket cover of The Spoon River Anthology

Photo 12k
Sherwood Anderson
November 29, 1933
Attributed to Carl Van Vechlen
Library of Congress
Public Domain

Photo 13l
Jacket cover of Winesburg, Ohio

Photo 13m
E.W. Howe
Fair Use Under the United States Copyright Law

Photo 14n
Jacket cover of The Story of a Country Town

Photo 15
Wayne Lanter writing in Paris, France.
Copyright granted by Wayne Lanter

Photo 16o
Wallace Stevens
Fair Use Under the United States Copyright Law

Photo 17p
Post of “13 Ways of Looking At a Blackbird”
Design:  Thom & Dave Marketing Design
Painting:  Laura Litwa Holden
Typography:  Dave Bell
Copyright granted by Poetry Society of America

Photo 18q
Stephen Blair
Copyright granted by Stephen Blair

Photo 19
Jacket cover of If the Sun Should Ask

Photo 20
Painting of a woman preparing food in the kitchen
Attributed to Thomas Hicks (1823-1890)
Public Domain

Photo 21
Woman at the Window
Oil on canvas
Attributed to Frauam Fenster
Public Domain

Photo 22r
Woodcut of interior of a kitchen
16th Century
Attributor unknown
Public Domain

Photo 23s
Mildred Nellie LePere
Copyright granted by Wayne Lanter

Photo 24t
Mildred Nellie LePere
Copyright granted by Wayne Lanter

Photo 25u
Studio photo of peas in their pods
July 7, 2011
Attributed to Bill Ebbesen

Photo 26
Jacket cover of If the Sun Should Ask

Photo 27v
ee cummings
November 13, 1953
Attributed to Walter Aberth
Library of Congress and Photographs Division New York World Telegraph and the Sun Newspaper Photograph Collection

Photo 28w
Saint Paul Joseph’s Catholic School

Photo 29x
Movie poster for the silent film Nosfergtu
Public Domain

Photo 30y
Max Schreck as Count Orlok in Nosfergtu
Public Domain

Photo 31z
Print shows Luther burning papal bull of excommunication with vignettes from Luther’s life and portraits of Hus, Savonarola, Wycliffe, Cruciger, Melanchton, Bugenhagen, Gustav Adolf, & Bernhard, duke of Saxe-Weimer. 
Printed by H. Schile
Library of Congress – Prints and Photographs
Public Domain

Photo 32za
Wayne and sister Judy in 1946
Copyright granted by Wayne Lanter

Photo 33zb
Image of St Joseph’s Catholic Church in Freeburg, Illinois
Public Domain

Photo 34zc
Willard Lanter
Copyright granted by Wayne Lanter

Photo 35zd
Victor Hugo
Public Domain

Photo 36ze
Jacket cover of The Hunchback of Notre Dame

Photo 37zf
Still from the 1923 movie The Hunchback of Notre Dame
Lou Chaney as Quasimado
Patsy Ruth Miller as Esmeralda
Public Domain

Photo 38
Jacket cover of If the Sun Should Ask

Photo 39zg
James Joyce in 1918
Photo by C Ruff
Public Domain

Photo 40zh
Austin Mulkey

Copyright granted by Wayne Lanter

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