May 4, 2013

Duluth's First Poet: Mary McFadden in 1907

On the Inland Sea

In his essay "Landscape and Narrative," Barry Lopez describes a correspondence between the external landscape and the psyche. The place we grow up and live becomes an internal landscape; the contour and dimensions of the earth become that of our thinking.

If this is true, then Duluth, the farthest inland port, has shaped its poets and writers. The shores of Lake Superior lap against the five miles of sandbar, Park Point is divided by water (and shipping lanes) from Wisconsin Point. The city of Duluth is on the north shore; Superior on the south shore.

The earliest poem I've found written by a citizen of Duluth is here. Mary McFadden published it in the city newspaper in 1907.  She was the editor in chief, a suffragist, and political lobbyist. Her poems focused on the natural world. This poem captures a moment between day and night as the canoe slips from land to sea, "drifting away."

Mary McFadden did drift away from Duluth about four years after this was published to become the editor of a monthly magazine in St. Paul, and then she worked in Europe for six months as a war correspondent and then moved to Greenwich Village in New York City where she wrote articles for Scientific American, and she published poems in International Journal of Medicine and Surgery.  Mary McFadden's poem reflects the style of poetry in 1907, and it marks the beginning of the literature written in Northern Minnesota.

I've discovered rich veins of material in my research about northern Minnesota's literature, history, politics, geology, geography, religion, immigration, labor history, environmental issues and public health.  The influence of women in these spheres is considerable, yet often their stories were not regarded.  The origin of this word is old, Middle English and Old French, and it meant to "take notice of to " gaze" or "heed."  Too easily these stories fall into silence and the next generation grows up without knowing, yet going into the future on a road built by the capable hands of many women and men.

Today, I went down Chester Creek Trail knowing that it was created in the early 1900s from a primeval forest with rugged waterfalls.  Mary McFadden walked here. My path took me past houses, over bridges, and along the eroding slopes, steep streets, and potholes made deeper by the spring's rapid snow melt and the floods of last year. I can no longer walk on the ground without thinking of those who walked before me. I aim to widen my vision to encompass those who are no longer visible and those who will walk after me, but aren't yet visible. Silence will never feel the same.

Bakk-Hansen, Heidi.  "Mary McFadden: Duluth's Inkpot Warrior." Zenith City Online. March 1, 2013. Web. Retrieved April 6, 2013.

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