The Magazine

Northwest Passage

A vision of the world in the grain of Duluth

Jul 28, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 43 • By ROBERT WHITCOMB
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

One of the cities of my boyhood was Duluth, Minnesota, where most of my mother’s family lived when they weren’t in Florida. I recall it as spectacular, with high hills overlooking the unswimmably cold Lake Superior, evergreen forests, and many signs of intense industry and trade. In 1868, Dr. Thomas Preston Foster, founder of the city’s first newspaper, dubbed Duluth “the Zenith City of the unsalted seas.’’ Glorious boosterism! Sinclair Lewis, who lived in the city for a while (and lauded its beauty), must have loved the nickname.

Canal park and lighthouse (2005)

Canal park and lighthouse (2005)

The biggest source of Duluth’s wealth was one of the world’s largest iron-ore deposits located to the northwest of the city, in the Mesabi Range. That, grain, and some other resources of the Upper Midwest were shipped out of Duluth, mostly by boat on the Great Lakes. The people who owned the companies that did this commerce tended to be of English and/or Scottish descent and lived high on the hills overlooking Lake Superior (which smelled of iron)—not to mention high on the hog—while helping to make America rich. They ate and got drunk at the Kitchi Gammi Club. 

The middle class and below, many of whose members were of Scandinavian and German ancestry, had their own haunts heavy with hearty food. But for big events, a remarkably wide range of people patronized The Flame restaurant. There was some social integration in this rather feudal burg besides in the cemeteries.

Duluth is the sort of place that people in New York make fun of as being provincial, a kind of subarctic Peoria. My memories are more of its romantic remoteness: What was a real city doing way out there? Journalist Michael Fedo, a middle-class kid of Italian and Swedish background, was born and grew up in Duluth before clearing out in his 20s. He now lives near Minneapolis. Of course, ambitious and/or artistic types such as Fedo tend to want to quit old industrial cities, which they find too confining and predictable, but some come back when travel writers discover the charms of these communities and gentrification sets in: Artist lofts! Vegan restaurants! 

Fedo is now in his 70s, but his nostalgic, bittersweet, sometimes clinical memories remain sharp in this book of essays. It’s mostly conventional stuff from a sincere fellow—not that there’s anything wrong with that! My biggest complaint, besides there being a few patches of convoluted and over-elevated writing, is that these essays have less of a sense of place than I would have liked. Much of Fedo’s tales could have been set in just about any number of Heartland cities. He briefly outlines Duluth’s history, back to the arrival of the French, and from then on, it’s mostly the usual stories of a quite normal boy, and then young man, with apparently minimal angst. He writes about his kindly and grumpy relatives, his schoolteachers, his love of baseball, boyish pranks, and Duluthians’ desperate longing for famous people to touch down to validate the port city’s importance. As Fedo proudly relates, besides Sinclair Lewis, Joe DiMaggio, Louis Armstrong, and a few other luminaries did show up.

I would have liked more description of Duluth’s theatrically cold and violent winters, ore boats, and gritty waterfront—where my uncle ran a firm romantically called the Zenith Dredge Co.—and the activities of the tough characters of the Mesabi Range. And this book very much needs maps and more than just one depressing black-and-white photograph of a bridge painted with “Welcome to Duluth.’’ As usual, I suppose, we can blame the publisher.

He overdoes the tendency of the city’s residents to deprecate themselves, said to be a Minnesota tradition based on the state’s large and austere Scandinavian population. He writes: “[O]ur hometown was a city with an inferiority complex. Subservience infused our culture.’’ I remember quite different attitudes: a kind of clubby arrogance among the rich and quiet confidence in the middle class.

Still, Duluth is a solid example of the grand tradition of American towns and small cities whose denizens frequently refer to the times when the community could have become another New York, if only, say, a certain rail line had been linked to the city, or some crook in Manhattan had not cheated an honest local businessman, or a financial crash had not come when it did. And indeed, Duluth, as the westernmost port on the Great Lakes, might have become considerably bigger, if nowhere near as big as its boosters claimed it could have been. (Of course, these dashed hopes imply that it would be good to be another New York.)