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Repeating the past: Two Minnesota writers

I was out of town this past weekend, fleeing the miserable weather in Minneapolis for the sunnier climate of Los Angeles, and also drinking in the various arts and culture that the City of Angels has to offer. As tempted as I am to make a joke here in which LA is an artistic wasteland and I spent the entire weekend staring at cast members from the new "Beverly Hills 90210" television show, this wouldn't be fair to a city that was my home for three years. Los Angeles is actually terribly exciting, artistically speaking, and it's sort of ideal for me, as it takes both high art and trash art seriously, and has a superabundance of both.

I did, however, actually spend the weekend staring at cast members from "90210," but that's another story altogether.

Since I was away for whatever artistic events tried to climb out from under the ice, snow, and sub-zero temperatures of the Twin Cities, I thought I would use my column today to do something I'd like to do infrequently from here on out, when I have the opportunity. And that's to revisit some of Minnesota's early contributions to the arts. It's a huge topic, as Minnesotans are compulsively creative but also seem to have virtually no institutional memory for what they have done in the past.

Every time a local gets a movie deal, for example, everybody goes simply nuts, not remembering that we produced an author who is responsible for some of Hollywood's greatest films. No, I'm not talking about Diablo Cody, who's from Illinois, anyway. And I'm not talking about The Coen brothers, although they are very good. And I'm not talking about Stephen Sommers, who directed "The Mummy" and was responsible for a gloriously demented sea monster film called "Deep Rising." I'm talking about Theodore Pratt.

"The Incredible Mr. Limpet," based on a novel by Theodore Pratt
Warner Brothers
"The Incredible Mr. Limpet," based on a novel by Theodore Pratt

Yes, you heard me. Minneapolis native (and longtime Floridian) Theodore Pratt. Not placing the name? He wrote more than 30 novels, five of which were adapted into films. No? Well, if you're a fan of Don Knotts at all, and who isn't, you've probably seen the film in which he turns into a fish, called "The Incredible Mr. Limpet." Ah, I see you nodding, and you've already started humming one of the film's many songs: "I wish, I wish, I wish I was a fish." Well, we've got Theodore Pratt to thank for that.

He was, by the way, also responsible for a book from 1950 called "Tormented," which deals, according to the book jacket, openly and truthfully with the subject of nymphomania. The book sold over a million copies, probably because it has the word nymphomania on the cover. I've read it, and it's rather ponderous. I guess I was hoping Pratt would be a little less honest and truthful and little more squalid. I have a feeling I'm not the only reader who had that reaction to the book.

I'm going to discuss another forgotten book by a local writer, but first let me tell of how I first discovered it. When I was young and bored, I did what all young, bored children did if they wanted to get beaten up after school — I wandered around the school library looking for something to read. One day I stumbled across a book called "Cult & Occult," and I took it home and read it eagerly. I had, as you probably have ascertained by now, a childhood obsession with horror movies, and this book seemed to suggest that these movies weren't just fanciful fictions, but were rooted in the real mysteries of the world. There was a lot of that when I was young — it was both the benefit and the curse of growing up in the '70s, perhaps one of the most flakiest times in our nation's history, and also the one most defined by mustard-colored clothing.

"Cult & Occult" by Tribune columnist Robert T. Smith
From the collection of Max Sparber
"Cult & Occult" by Tribune columnist Robert T. Smith

This book, from 1973 and published by a Minneapolis company called Winston Press, was authored by Robert T. Smith, who was then a columnist for the Minneapolis Tribune. Smith decided to take a look at America's varieties of religious experience at the time, particularly taking interest in those that claimed to access supernatural mysteries. So there are Satan worshippers and modern witches and voodooists. But there are also Jesus people, and guitar-led Catholic folk services.

Smith had a very plain-spoken writing style, and tended to focus on anecdotal storytelling, especially letting people just tell their own tale. So he offers up every claim his subjects make uncritically -- he never approaches any of the tales skeptically, but, then, he never really treats them as credible either. He just documents what people have to say, like a folklorist collecting Appalachian ghost stories.

It's impossible to imagine a book like this getting published today. Who would stand for a book in which Christians are profiled side-by-side with Satanists, both identified as sharing an ecstatic approach to religion? What grade-school library would carry such a book? And what Star Tribune columnist would write it? James Lileks might, but it would mostly be scans from old New Age magazines that Lileks would make fun of.

They say if we don't remember our past, we're doomed to repeat it. But I don't see any books about nymphomania or Jesus people in our near future. And perhaps I can be forgiving for thinking that Minnesota has gotten a little duller as a result.

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