Performance celebrates pioneering Linden Hills writer

Linden Hills has long been a neighborhood of free thinkers, even before women could vote and "Leave It to Beaver" showed us the idealized American family on TV.

It should come as no surprise that one of the first voices of change came from the neighborhood’s own Brenda Ueland, a journalist, teacher and author of three nonfiction books.

On Sept. 30, East Harriet resident and choreographer Jane Peck will debut "Charleston with ‘Me’: A tribute to Minnesota Maverick Brenda Ueland" as part of the 125th anniversary of the Schubert Club in St. Paul.

"I just find her terribly inspiring," said Peck, whose company Dance Revels Moving History uses past influences from as far back as the 16th century. After performing a 1920s-style dance at the Minneapolis Institute of Art in 2005, Peck decided to use the same vintage ragtime to celebrate Ueland, whose heyday took place during the roaring ’20s.

"[She was] right in the thick of the action in those eras," Peck explained. "Some of the words that she has written are so profound and have really endured the test of time."

Southwest actress Josette Antomarchi will narrate the dance using excerpts from Ueland’s work. The free performance will include old classics by Scott Joplin and Irving Berlin and projected images of the author and Linden Hills.

Ueland was born in 1891 and grew up in a big house on Richfield Road tucked between Lakes Calhoun and Harriet.

"There was no boulevard in front then," she wrote in her 1983 memoir "Me." "The lake came just to the edge of our wooded bank, and sometimes in rainy years our green-painted steps led right down into the water."

She loved living in Minneapolis and often wrote about riding her horse to the Edina mills, going to school in Linden Hills, and walking around the lakes.

"[Walking] made me feel wonderful, much better," she recalled. "What joyful exultation, going around Lake Calhoun in the winter wind. At night I fell asleep right after dinner. No colds."

In the early 1900s, Ueland left Minnesota and got her bachelor’s degree from Barnard College in New York City. She became involved in art and the women’s suffrage movement, taking after her mother, Clara Ueland, who served as the first president of the Minnesota League of Women Voters.

According to her memoir, Ueland spent some time studying in Europe after college. She moved back to New York as World War II began, got married, and had a baby girl named Gabrielle. Ueland later married and divorced two other men, including Manus McFadden, former editor of the Minneapolis Times.

"For a long time I felt that falling out of love was the great, stimulating, and enviable experience," she wrote. "That was because of my discovering that repudiation, being cast out and alone, always means an extraordinary and vivid life, even though a sadder and more uncomfortable one."

Over the course of her career, Ueland worked as a staff writer for the Minneapolis Times and saw her words published in numerous magazines and newspapers across the country. Her best-known publication is a 1938 nonfiction book called "If You Want to Write."

"This is what I have learned," she wrote in the opening chapter. "Everybody is talented, original and has something important to say."

Forty-five years later, local writer and University of Minnesota professor Patricia Hampl wrote an introduction for the second edition: "[Ueland] has been as befuddled and dashed as anyone who ever faced a blank paper: she doesn’t pretend to be problem-free, far from it. But she has a fine detachment, an ability to discern in every wooden writing the moments of authentic statement."

Carl Sandburg, a Pulitzer Prize winning writer and Ueland’s friend, called "If You Want to Write," "the best book ever written about how to write."

Ueland moved back to Minneapolis in the ’30s. "There was the lake, a tennis court, dogs, cats, the Lake Harriet school, the huge Sunday dinners in Father’s house, with everybody there," she wrote. "I told myself that I could write much better at home."

Like New York City, Linden Hills was a natural harbor for Ueland’s progressive ideas. She worked for an animal shelter, spoke out against automobiles and America’s oil addiction, and remained a staunch feminist until her death in 1985. By her own accounts, Peck said, Ueland may have been married three times, but she had hundreds of lovers.

The self-aware scribe stayed active mentally and physically as she grew into old age. She taught classes at the Minneapolis YWCA, set an international swimming record for people over 80 years old, and never stopped writing.

"The spirit, I think, is a stream, a fountain, and must be continually poured out," she wrote in the final pages of her memoir, "for only if it is poured out will more and clearer steams come."

Contact Mary O’Regan at [email protected] or 436-5088.