Monday, September 14, 2009

Derleth's 100th (a bit late, but good)

Garland shares spotlight with another author this year


Those who’ve attended Garland Days in the past have become used to seeing the late Pulitzer Prize-winning author Hamlin Garland — in the person of West Salem Historical Society President Errol Kindschy in period costume.

This year, another famous Wisconsin author who was a younger contemporary of Garland will make an appearance at Garland Days, speaking to the historical society at its annual meeting at 6 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 13.

August Derleth, who would have been 100 years old last February, remains the most prolific author in Wisconsin history. He wrote more than 150 books, including novels, short stories, essays, poetry, biographies, horror stories and children’s books.

David Schweitzer, who will give a talk as Derleth, is not certain the two men ever met. Garland, who died in 1940, was nearly 50 when Derleth was born in 1909. Still, the two would certainly have been aware of each other’s work.

“I know that Garland lectured on Derleth in a series of talks he did on Wisconsin authors,” Schweitzer said.

A resident of Milwaukee, Schweitzer first got interested in portraying Derleth through two of his passions —Wisconsin history and the theater.

Driving through Sauk City one day, he noticed a historical marker about Derleth. “I didn’t know much about him at the time, but I like to explore local cemeteries,” Schweitzer recalled.

Derleth’s gravestone is a bit unusual in that it is actually a bench. “He wanted people to enjoy the beautiful view of the countryside,” Schweitzer said.

As a child Schweitzer hadn’t been much of a reader but as a grade schooler he’d read a book by Derleth called “The Ghost of Black Hawk Island.”

“I loved that book and can still remember the character names,” Schweitzer said.

Years later, Schweitzer was told by a Sauk City local that there was an annual festival in Derleth’s honor, and he decided to go. After that, he became even more intrigued.

“They were performing skits about him, and I volunteered to help,” Schweitzer said. He did such a good job that he was approached about playing the author at other functions throughout the state.

Eventually, the Wisconsin Humanities Council agreed to sponsor his appearances as Derleth. “I consider myself very lucky to do bookings all over Wisconsin,” Schweitzer said.

What is it about Derleth that resonated most strongly with Schweitzer? “It’s hard to put in a nutshell,” Schweitzer said, “but I guess I like his nature writing the best.”

Derleth did three books on Henry David Thoreau (author of “Walden”), and Schweitzer said that after returning to the Milwaukee area after his Navy discharge and seeing so much urban sprawl, those books “hit home for me. Derleth had some anger in his later books about what had happened to the landscape.”

For Schweitzer, one of the biggest rewards for portraying Derleth came early on. “One of the first audiences I had was in Sauk City and afterwards people who knew Derleth complimented me — that was very gratifying.”

Schweitzer has been told he looks like Derleth and photos of the two suggest more than a passing resemblance in their facial features. There is one area, however, where Schweitzer doesn’t quite measure up.

“I’m told he had a humongous barrel chest, so I wear extra padding in the chest and shoulders when I perform,” Schweitzer said.

This will be Schweitzer’s first visit to Garland Days, and he said he’s looking forward to the event.

He has, however, been to the area before, giving a talk at the La Crosse Public Library on a snowy night a few years ago.

It turned out to be one of his favorite bookings ever. “It was a gathering of librarians from all over the county and they turned out to be a wonderful audience,” Schweitzer recalled.

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