In Ann Arbor’s 181-year history, the city has inspired a number of essays, poems and short stories. The city, and later the University, has inspired a broad range of writers – from world-renowned author Robert Frost to countless local authors. In his anthology, Laurence Goldstein attempts to collect the best and most interesting works while intentionally avoiding the more well-known authors and their pieces. – Chris Gaerig

Sarah Royce

The public history of a city can be written by a single author, but its inner history – the story of its cultural evolution, the ever-unfinished portrait of its shape-shifting identity – can only be written by a composite author –

That Ann Arbor is a realm apart from reality makes perfect sense when one considers the qualities of an intellectual culture. A world of ideas – of argument, or spirited discourse, of new and subversive formulations about everything – is indeed a glass house through which the inhabitants catch sight of a different world than the one presented by conventional wisdom. That is one function of a university. Living in a privileged place, one can become accustomed to thinking that the rest of the world conforms to the shape of one’s own experience, rather like the old woman in Nancy Willard’s novel Sister Water who thinks that everything she sees on television is happening in Ann Arbor. For students especially, the retraction of parental monitoring creates an enchanted and liberated space for powerful dreaming, for radical new forms of self-definition and community action –

So ‘reality’ gets changed in the process and not just by being put in ironizing quotation marks. At a time when 70 percent of all Americans attend some institution of higher education, the surrounding world of hard knocks and lifelong opportunities is constantly reshaped by the ideas percolating in the university and pouring into the world outside the ivied walls. Surely the relationship is a symbiotic one. When John F. Kennedy visited Ann Arbor in 1960 to announce his idea for a Peace Corps on the steps of the Michigan Union, and when Lyndon Johnson came four years later to propose the creation of ‘Great Society’ during a commencement address in the football stadium, the dreams of an older establishment mingled with the radical ideas fostered on campus to generate an innovative and potent sea change in the cultural life of this nation and the world beyond –

But there is more to being human then being intellectual. It would be a gross distortion of the literary record if an editor filled his anthology with writings about ideas, all-important as they are. It’s fair to say that the majority of writings about the university, from first to last, focus on two other aspects of the academic condition: sports and recreational social life. There is no overestimating the passion of football, especially, in Ann Arbor, around the state of Michigan and in the hearts of alumni throughout the world. Football appears as a leitmotif in this anthology, first appearing in the nineteenth century (though it’s interesting to note in a novel of 1899 that baseball had more respect on campus) and carrying forward into the fiction of Charles Baxter and Elwood Reid and the poetry of Donald Hall –

And then there are the infinitely complex social relations, on and off campus, undertaken by young people spending four or more years of their lives in the privileged space of an academic milieu. I have chosen brief samples of fiction from the nineteenth century to demonstrate the earlier forms of what might be called affiliations, be they same-sex (fraternities, sororities, dormitories) or, more often, mixed-gender dynamics (dances, courtship, professional rivalries) –

Some writers nostalgically depict Ann Arbor as a sort of utopian open society, a crucible of soul making that prepares the individual to withstand the pressures of the outer world. This view of the educational experience nourishes the iconography of the ivory tower. Other writers who revisit Ann Arbor in their memoirs see the matter with more complexity. Ann Arbor, in this view, is part and parcel of the everyday conflicts of the rest of the world, and what is most happily remembered is the vehemence with which the creative spirit struggled – in classrooms, in dorm rooms, in fraternity lounges, in the offices of the Michigan Daily or the Union or the Administration Building – against the temptation toward passivity and indifference –

Someday every remarkable place in the world will have its own anthology. Now it is Ann Arbor’s turn – and the present offering is only the beginning.”

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