Column: While living in Duluth mansion, famous author penned book about race
Last month, I attended a book club meeting in a mansion once owned by a famous American novelist. Sinclair Lewis lived in the Congdon Park home at 2601 E. Second Street in the early 1940s. It's where he wrote "Kingsblood Royal," the subject of our meeting.
Lewis was a prolific, celebrated author. He won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1930 at age 35. He is probably most famous for his book, "Main Street."
"Kingsblood Royal" is about a banker named Neil Kingsblood who searches his ancestry trying to prove that he has royalty in his bloodline. Instead, he finds that he has African-American heritage, and his life is turned upside down.
Guiding us in our discussion was George Killough, a professor of English at the College of St. Scholastica, who edited a diary that the author kept while living at the home. "Minnesota Diary, 1942-46" was published by Killough in 2000.
Killough projected photos of Lewis onto a wall.
"Here is a picture of him in this house," he said. "This might be the library."
Killough said that Lewis had an agreement with the foreman of the then University of Minnesota Duluth agricultural experiment station, where the soccer fields are today. The agreement was that Lewis could wander the fields and the workers wouldn't bother him.
But Lewis did make an effort to get to know Duluthians and African-Americans. One of those was Marjorie Kelly -- better known today by her married name, Marjorie Wilkins, half of whom the new Myers-Wilkins Middle School is named for. She enrolled in St. Mary's nursing diploma program. Killough projected a 1947 nursing graduation photo of her onto the wall.
"One of the nuns once told me that she was very good-looking and also very outspoken," Killough said. "Lewis cultivated a friendship" -- wanting to know what it was like to be an African-American young woman in Duluth.
In his research on Lewis, Killough interviewed Wilkins.
"Since she was only in her 60s, I talked to her on the phone a couple times (and) I thought I would have lots of time to talk to her again."
But he didn't get the chance. She died shortly after.
The professor said that Wilkins was a historical figure in her own right as she went on to be Duluth's first African-American surgical nurse and first African-American nurse anesthetist.
"She liked Lewis a lot," said Killough. "She felt kind of sorry for him. Most people who knew him in the 1940s did feel kind of sorry for him."
Right after Lewis left Duluth, Wilkins had tuberculosis and spent a year in a Nopeming sanatorium. Lewis sent her a big stack of books to read.
Killough went on to say how Lewis made it a point to get to know people in Duluth by getting himself invited to parties, but that he had a reputation of being a bore -- arriving late, leaving early and instigating arguments. He also had a drinking problem.
As I sat in the old mansion with the huge windows, beautiful wood-paneled walls and expansive fireplaces, my mind wandered: I wondered if our gathering was just another group of upper- middle-class white ladies, mostly members of the American Association of University Women, discussing racism. But did I know that for sure? Was it possible that some of the "white" women in the room were, like Kingsblood, not quite "white" after all?
Whatever their experiences on race, their opinions on the book were lukewarm. Some felt it was just too much, like making the point with a sledgehammer, a view similar to some reviewers at its 1947 debut, when New York Times book critic Orville Prescott called Kingsblood Royal "artificial, unconvincing ... about as subtle as a lynching bee."
Yet Ebony magazine thought it was on the mark, naming it the best novel of the year.
The magazine even went as far as to take pictures to photo-illustrate the book.
In a way, I did too -- taking pictures of the house in which he
wrote it. The home is now owned by Josie
O'Gara and Stephen Huddleston.
"If those walls could talk, the stories they would tell," O'Gara said.