Favorite Ozarks Books – 15

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I ran across a chapter of this book in The Literature of the Ozarks, a book that I have written about before. I’d heard of Katie Estill, but somehow had overlooked her novels. So I went out and found myself a copy.

I started reading it a couple of days ago, and it’s a marvel. It begins (or very nearly so) with a murder, but it’s not a mystery, nor is it what one would call a “thriller,” although it does have plenty of police procedure in it. It also has some adult passages with adults doing, well, what adults do. So it’s not exactly a “romance,” either, although there’s love in it, of the most aching and true sort.

It’s set in a county that feels a lot like Oregon County, Missouri, with a river that runs through it (in the novel, it’s the Seven Point, not the Eleven Point as in the real-life county, but let’s not quibble over the number of points). And it has a triumvirate of main characters, three women, all of whom suffer and struggle in the course of the book, and who don’t particularly get along, and who discover that they have common aims and needs despite that. One is a deputy sheriff; one is a woman who has recently returned to the county after a time away; and one is a newer arrival. The murder connects them, divides them, and connects them again.

It’s a beautiful book that defies categorization, and it contains some lovely passages of description of the Ozarks landscape, of the interior thinking of its main characters, and of the mental and emotional negotiations they go through to achieve some answers and some peace. It was published in 2007, but the characters’ travails are as relevant today as they were then. You may have to hunt for a copy, as I suspect it’s gone out of print; but it’s worth the search.

Playing the Stereotype

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On Facebook, I’ve been following the progress of Thomas Peters’ book on radio station KWTO and the Ozark Jubilee with great interest. It’s going to be a great addition to the Ozarks history bookshelf! He’s been posting some of the photos he’s collected for the book, and this morning he posted this beauty:

Les Paul and Sunny Joe Wolverton

That’s an 18-year-old Les Paul on the right, performing with his friend Sunny Joe Wolverton on KWTO as the Ozark Apple Knockers. A far cry from the urbane, sophisticated jazz pioneer he later became, the occupant of more halls of fame than one would care to count. Everybody has to start somewhere, and for Paul it was playing hillbilly music under the stage name “Rhubarb Red.”

When I saw this picture, for some reason I thought of a movie I had recently rewatched, the Coen Brothers’ The Ballad of Buster ScruggsBuster (Tim Blake Nelson) opens the movie in full cowboy-movie garb, singing “Cool Water” as he rides through Monument Valley. Of course, the joke (or part of the joke) is that “Cool Water” is not a historic cowboy song at all, but a pop hit of the 1940s.

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What follows is a series of ghastly/comic episodes that both play on Western-story stereotypes and embrace them, just as the “hillbilly” image both mocks, uses, and embraces that stereotype as well.

We make art where we find it, with the materials at hand. Sometimes those materials include simplified versions of ourselves, and then we must decide whether to challenge the stereotype or play with it. I think either decision can work, as long as the stereotype is approached with conscious intent. It’s when stereotypes are presented unconsciously and uncritically that they harm. The rural rustic, the hayseed, has been with us since Greek comedy, and we will probably never get rid of it. So we might as well play with that image as we move toward the larger points we are trying to make in our literary and creative work.

What truly prompted me toward these thoughts, though, was the news that the former Dogpatch USA property had been bought by Johnny Morris of Bass Pro Shops fame. I’ve never met Johnny, although some friends of mine know him and speak very highly of him. While Bass Pro is the business that made him a billionaire, it’s the other Morris properties that play the Ozark stereotypes: Big Cedar Lodge, Top of the Rock golf course, and Dogwood Canyon (which is owned by a linked foundation). These properties present a sanitized, tidied-up version of the mythic Ozarks that people just love and are willing to pay handsomely to experience; a single-day admission to Dogwood Canyon will set you back $20, and it’s another $32 to ride the tram. Assuming you brought your own bicycle or are up for the walk, you can see a mill, an Indian burial cave, a wilderness chapel, some waterfalls, a trapper’s cabin, and other sites, all skillfully manufactured and manicured to achieve a perfect match of product and expectation.

This is progress, I suppose. The old Dogpatch attraction played on an earlier generation of stereotypes, barefoot hillbillies and moonshine stills. It will be interesting to see what becomes of it under its new owner. I’m guessing it won’t stray far from the formula that has made the other attractions so popular.

Dogpatch_USAs_old_entrance_sign

New Book!

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I’m thrilled to announce that I have a new book coming out this fall! Unlike my earlier books, this one is a collection of short stories. The title is Scattered Lights….that’s a line from one of the stories, and (in my mind) an appropriate metaphor for the people in the stories, and the stories themselves: a collection of things that may seem random at first, but which are deeply and firmly connected, if only we take the time to look. Release date is projected for November.

I’ve started a Scattered Lights page on my website and will be placing news about the book on it, for the most part, although I’ll put headlines here occasionally, too. The publisher is Cornerpost Press, a new venture out of West Plains, and they have been absolutely magical to work with! I think this new book will look great.

And for those of you who only know me through my novels, I think the stories will provide a different look. They’re not set in historical times, but in the contemporary setting.

Limits and Localism

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Draft Horses“On Limits and Localism” is the title of an excellent, thoughtful article by Lindi Phillips that recently came out on the Arkansas Strong website. It talks about farming in the Ozarks, and how the old traditions of small, diversified farming gave way to the standardized monoculture of national agriculture. And then it connects the weaknesses of that system to the issues of the current pandemic. It is well worth the read!

Find it here. “On Limits and Localism.”

Patriotic Songs – 7

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Fireworks

(Photo from the Library of Congress)

Independence Day approaches, so it’s time to think about patriotic songs again. In the past, I’ve written about “America, the Beautiful,” “The Star-Spangled Banner,” “The Stars and Stripes Forever,” and others. So it’s definitely time for an update.

I wrote earlier that I preferred “America, the Beautiful” to “The Star-Spangled Banner” as our national anthem, partly because of its singability and partly because of its tone. It’s a celebration of America in all its variety and thus appropriate for all times, while “The Star-Spangled Banner” is a battle song, more suitable for wartime spirit-rousing than for reflection on our blessings. (In a future post I’ll write about America’s other great battle song, “The Battle Hymn of the Republic”). In our current turmoil over public symbolism, Francis Scott Key’s checkered history as a slaveowner who also criticized slavery has made him a problematic figure, similar to Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, and a great number of important historic figures whose past deserves re-examination. I doubt if “The Star-Spangled Banner” will ever lose its place at ball games and public events, though, now that it’s ingrained in people’s minds, so I’ll let that debate pass.

A friend of mine used to say, only half-joking, that Paul Simon’s “American Tune” should be our national anthem, as it reflected the American spirit nowadays a lot better than the songs from the 19th Century do. I’d like to think a little about “American Tune,” because it confronts us with the question of what a patriotic song is, and what it isn’t.

“American Tune” was written in 1972 and released in 1973, and Simon told an interviewer that it was written in response to the re-election of Richard Nixon. The tune was taken from Bach’s setting of “O Sacred Head, Now Wounded” from the St. Matthew Passion, a melody that has been used for other songs over the years, notably “Because All Men Are Brothers,” which was on an early album by Peter, Paul, and Mary. The lyrics are, in my opinion, among Simon’s best. They combine his penchant for surreal imagery with direct and emotional statements, and they convey a sense of weariness combined with resolution that we can all appreciate.

The song begins with a sense of defeat: souls battered, dreams shattered, friends ill at ease. But that sense is tempered by reassurance: “It’s all right,” the chorus reassures us, although just what “all right” means is rather subdued. It’s all right because we lived so well so long, and it’s all right because you can’t be forever blessed: not exactly words to march into battle with. The song’s most memorable moment, the one that everyone remembers, comes in the bridge section. The speaker has had a dream. I dreamed I was dying, he says, but this dream is all right, for his soul looks down and smiles reassuringly. Then I dreamed I was flying, and this time when he looks up, he sees “The Statue of Liberty / Sailing away to sea.” Liberty itself has fled the scene.

The final verse sums it up:

We come on a ship they call the Mayflower

We come on a ship that sails the moon.

We come in the age’s most uncertain hour

And sing an American tune.

Is it a patriotic song? Of course it is. It expresses deep feelings of loving concern about the country, at a time when “love it or leave it” was a popular slogan. As we reflect on our history today, with renewed examination of our under-told stories, our under-examined monuments, and the challenges posed by our historic symbols and slogans, we owe it to ourselves that patriotism doesn’t rule out criticism and love of country mustn’t blind us in those moments when the Statue of Liberty appears to have sailed away.

Juneteenth, Part Two

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Protest image 4

A week ago, I posted some reflections on the Juneteenth observances around the country, and remarked that we still have a long way to go before the legacy of slavery is cleared away, or even rendered less harmful than it remains today. At the time, I wasn’t thinking in particularly immediate terms, but two days ago an event in my hometown brought that observation to life in a particularly ugly way.

A group of (mostly) young folks organized a demonstration in the courthouse square in Fredericktown, Missouri, the place where I grew up for the first ten years of my life and where I still have family connections and strong emotional ties. That’s a picture of them above, and another one here:

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Threatening-looking, aren’t they?

Apparently the rumor mill had been active before the event, with the current crazy talk of “busloads of protesters” and such. A local businessman organized a counter-demonstration, and it attracted a sizable crowd of racists, nutcases, curiosity-seekers, and, presumably, some decent-minded people. Here’s a few of them:

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The counter-demonstrators, many of whom were heavily armed, attempted to disrupt and intimidate the demonstrators by circling the courthouse square with their speakers blaring, trying to drown them out, and more troubling, they positioned themselves in high positions above the demonstrators with weapons visible:

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I’m no weapons expert, but that sure looks like a silencer or flash suppressor on the rifle in that last photo.

The groups exchanged some yelling, but thankfully the police (who were considerably outnumbered) managed to keep the counter-demonstrators from attacking the demonstrators for the most part, although eyewitnesses said the counter-demonstrators were clearly looking for an excuse to start violence. At one point one of the demonstrators attempted to unfurl an American flag and was attacked by one of the counter-demonstrators, who was clearly armed:

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You can see the outline of his pistol pretty plainly in this photo. These last two pictures, by the way, are from Ramblin Hamlin Photography, which was on the scene. I took the other pictures from Imgur.

The most aggressive act from the demonstrators, by contrast, might have been a slightly ragged version of the Electric Slide (that’s right, the Electric Slide):

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(also from Ramblin Hamlin Photography)

Social media has been burning up since then, with two major themes: Those racists don’t represent our community – we’re good people! (Or at least I’m not a racist) and A lot of those demonstrators weren’t from Fredericktown – why didn’t they protest in their own town? Both good issues to raise. I guess my thought on the first one is that if you don’t want a bunch of racist lunatics to represent your community, at least in the minds of others, then you had better get out there and join the demonstration and make sure that your community comes down firmly on the side of racial justice. Otherwise the people who see the pictures will believe that the racists do represent you, because you have allowed them to. And on the second point, the home location of the demonstrators is not relevant for the same reason. I am told that one of the most obnoxious counter-demonstrators, who made gestures and said things that I will not describe or repeat here, was from Centerville. Well, if he got to come to the Madison County Courthouse and make a fool of himself, then I suppose some kids from Farmington are just as entitled to come down and demonstrate.

It saddens me to see such a disgraceful display in my hometown. Yes, Fredericktown has lots of lovely, non-racist people in it. Some of them showed up in the courthouse square on Wednesday, only to be spat at, threatened, and called vile names. So now the town is branded as a racist haven in the eyes of others, and if the citizens want to have that label removed, they’ll have to do it themselves by their words and deeds.

A COUPLE OF UPDATES: One of the demonstrators contacted me and let me know that some of the heavily armed, camouflage-wearing militia members actually performed a beneficial service, helping to keep the mob away from the demonstrators and escorting them to their cars and to the bathroom. That was good to hear, and it complicates the easy black-and-white narrative.

In addition, the town of Eminence, in Shannon County, came close to out-embarrassing Fredericktown on Saturday, the 27th. The sheriff there, in the midst of a re-election campaign, announced on social media that he had received a “credible threat,” which quickly brought the same unfounded rumors of “busloads of BLM and Antifa rioters” and resulted in about a hundred people, once again armed to the teeth, who parked at the courthouse or circled the square, crowing about their patriotism and vowing violence on any protesters who dared to show up. Video footage of this event shows a weird, carnival-like atmosphere, a combination of party and lynch mob. As it turned out, the “credible threat” was a complaint from a mother who was unhappy with the investigation of the 2018 death of her son, and the whole BLM/Antifa thing was complete baloney.  I’m not sure which community has cast itself in a worse light: the one that had an ugly response to an actual demonstration, or the one that had an ugly response to an imaginary one.

Juneteenth

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Today is Juneteenth, an unofficial holiday that grew out of a relatively obscure event, but one which has gained increased significance these days. We are in troubled times now, but I think this day is still worth celebrating. We don’t have any official holidays to celebrate the ending of slavery in the United States; the ratification of the 13th Amendment occurred on December 6, and the Emancipation Proclamation was issued on September 22, with an effective date of January 1. But Juneteenth has the virtue of spontaneity and an up-from-the-grassroots spirit, so it works even better as a day of commemoration.

In my ideal world, the anniversary of the end of slavery would be celebrated with national pride and a sense of relief, accompanied by resolutions on how to do better at wiping out the remainder of that American stain, a solemn day but also a joyous one. For now, though, I think more about the distance yet to travel than about the distance already gone, significant though it is. The last several weeks have demonstrated with painful clarity the inequities still present in our society, so this year’s mood is more about cleaning wounds than about celebrating progress.

I remember my own upbringing, in a tiny, lily-white school in a rural district. There were a couple of African-American kids on basketball teams in our conference, but that was my only contact with African-Americans other than television, until 4-H camp one year when there were others in my cabin. But really, until college I had no practical contact with families of another race.  So I still have a lot of ground to catch up, even at my age. As a teacher, I had a fair number of African-American students, and dealing with them was a wonderful learning experience for me. I even had one of my former students call me “a favorite professor” recently, which I wear as a tremendous badge of honor.

Simply put, in the area where I grew up, casual racism was the norm. I remember after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, the mother of one of my classmates offered her take on the situation in the most vulgar, racist language imaginable, shocking me to my core. My parents had brought me up to be considerate of others and had taught me the evil of racism, and to hear it spoken aloud by a trusted elder was devastating. I would like to imagine our country has outgrown those attitudes, but I know it’s not true. Another former classmate recently posted a remark on social media that was flat-out racist. Some of us called him on it, but he was unrepentant. I suppose the only difference is that fewer people nowadays (I hope) hold such beliefs, and that others are more willing to challenge them. But racism is alive and well.

I’ve been listening to the Slow Burn podcast on the career of David Duke, and it’s disheartening. I’d like to think that we’ve gotten past people like him. Unfortunately, the road ahead of us is probably as long as the road behind.

 

RFD

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Ozark Children Getting Mail

Ozark Children Getting Mail from RFD Box, 1940. Photographer: John Vachon. Library of Congress FSA Collection

A little while ago, I reviewed a new book entitled Ozarks RFD, by Jim Hamilton. Coincidentally, a friend recently asked me something about the old TV show, Mayberry RFD. Naturally, these events started me thinking about “RFD” itself.

Most of us know that the initials stand for “Rural Free Delivery,” which began in spots in the late 19th century to provide mail service to rural residents. Free delivery had been established in cities over 10,000 in 1863, but it wasn’t until 1895 that Congress appropriated money for some test routes in rural areas. Rural Free Delivery gradually caught on across the country, with the support of farmers’ groups driving the expansion.

Curiously enough, not all rural people supported the idea. Two main groups opposed it: small-town merchants, who rightly recognized that one effect of free mail delivery would be that farmers would make more use of mail-order companies like Montgomery Ward and Sears Roebuck; and, ironically, postmasters at the smallest post offices. The opposition from small postmasters, typically political appointees, resulted from their recognition that Rural Free Delivery could lead to the elimination of many of their positions, as indeed it did. But farmers loved it, and by 1902 it was established all over the country.

Mailboxes

Mailboxes, 1936. Photographer: Russell Lee. Library of Congress FSA Collection.

Like rural electrification a generation later, Rural Free Delivery was a huge leap forward in the betterment of rural life. Farm families could stay in touch with the wider world more easily. They had access to market information and thus were less susceptible to the manipulations of distant capitalists. They could buy more things from faraway places, subscribe to publications more easily, and participate in the national discourse more fully. Free daily postal delivery, which most of us take for granted, was a powerful enrichment to the lives of rural people.

Nowadays, of course, we hear talk about how the Postal Service has become outmoded, superseded by messenger services, private package delivery companies, and the Internet. There is even talk about letting the Postal Service go broke. But for many rural inhabitants, the daily mail is still a lifeline. Rural broadband remains a mirage in many areas, and just try to get FedEx or UPS to deliver to a rural route. It always distresses me to hear politicians talk about how much they love rural people and embrace rural values, and then to watch as they lay siege to the things that make rural life possible.

 

Favorite Ozarks Books – 14

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Ozarks RFD

This review first appeared in Elder Mountain.

The newspaper column is a surprisingly difficult genre: strict word count limits, inflexible deadlines, and the necessity to be both original and familiar to a broad spectrum of readers. Jim Hamilton is a master practitioner of the form. For more than forty years, he wrote columns for the Buffalo Reflex, and a collection of his early columns, River of Used to Be, holds a valued place on my bookshelf. Now comes a new collection, Ozarks RFD: Selected Essays 2010-2015, taken from the most recent decade and published by a new press.

Readers of a certain age will remember when writing a newspaper column was a prestigious perch reserved for those who had proved themselves to be exemplary reporters and writers. On the national scene, Mike Royko, Molly Ivins, Jimmy Breslin, and others swayed political debates. In the Ozarks, Jean Bell Mosley and Thomza Zimmerman, Leonard Hall, and Sue Hubbell reported from their homes and farmsteads on the rhythms of life in nature and community. Hamilton’s columns are in that vein – observant, nostalgic, rarely offering comment on current events.

That doesn’t mean they are shallow, though. The columns regularly steer through emotional shoals. Hamilton writes with painful honesty about losing a wife to cancer and a daughter to a car crash, and about the more general disasters that befall a nation and a community. Faithful dogs and treasured fishing holes inhabit these pages, but so do wars and calamities.

I suspect, though, that the columns most readers will respond to are his reminiscences of childhood in the Ozarks. Hamilton has a gift for memory that reveals itself through precision; the word pictures in these columns are detailed, vivid, and evocative. Perhaps one of the signs of love is noticing, and if that’s the case these columns are just about as loving as one can get these days. Jim Hamilton seems to have noticed, and remembered, everything that ever happened to him.

Is there repetition among them? Sure. One of the pitfalls of a newspaper column is the obligation to produce material on deadline, again and again, week after week, and no columnist escapes the repetition trap forever. But even when he’s returning to a familiar subject or theme, Hamilton finds a way to approach it in a different way, shedding light from a different angle. Still, as with all collections of columns, these are best read in modest amounts. A newspaper column is literature in bite-sized form; as with all bite-sized things, they are better enjoyed when consumed at a moderate pace.

Hamilton’s columns capture a moment, dig deep into a memory, analyze an emotion. Each column is a finely crafted exploration of an experience or recollection, and although you can see their origins in the deadline-driven world of newspaper production, they transcend those origins and offer us lasting insights. There’s both sweetness and precision in these columns, a combination that is hard to pull off and even harder to sustain. This collection of work is a real joy.

Jim Hamilton

Jim Hamilton

Favorite Ozarks People – 16

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After my family moved from Fredericktown to our farm on the Black River, my mother wrote freelance articles for the Mountain Echo in Ironton, which was then owned by Richard and Isla Armfield. They were a lovely pair or people, old-fashioned newspaper folks down to their toes. Richard suffered from Parkinson’s disease, which ultimately led to their selling the paper, but when I knew him he just walked with an odd gait and showed a minor tremor in his hands. Isla was an elegant dresser and extremely cordial, who was engaged in all sorts of community groups.

But the person I’m thinking about today was one of the back-shop guys, a printer named Wilbur Larkin. Sometimes when my mom traveled to Ironton I would accompany her, and I always found myself drifting into the back shop to watch the printers work. Although the paper was printed elsewhere, the Mountain Echo had a thriving job printing business, with Wilbur and another gentleman whose name will occur to me as I continue (I hope – I think it was Kenneth, but can’t be sure).

Wilbur was the master of two machines. One was a Linotype, an honest-to-goodness Linotype, which fascinated me to no end. I remember the distinctive, horrid smell of molten lead that emanated from the machine when Wilbur fired it up; there was a container on top, where he would toss in some lead blanks and whatever waste pieces of type were lying around from previous jobs, and once the lead had melted properly, he would set the font size and line width and then begin typing the new job on a weird keyboard that bore little resemblance to the standard QWERTY keyboard used by everything else. Lead would run down a little channel and be formed, letter by letter, into a line of type (thus the name), which would then be ejected into a receiving rack on the side. I was always warned to keep my hands away from the finished product, because as you can imagine, it stayed hot for quite a while. It was like watching a cathedral organist at work: intense, concentrated hand movements on an oversized apparatus, incomprehensible to the casual observer.

PSM_V40_D197_The_linotype

By Unknown author – Popular Science Monthly Volume 40, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=12205750

The other machine was a platen press. This one was electric, although there was a treadle-operated one elsewhere in the shop. Wilbur would daub a paddleful of ink (also strictly do-not-touch) onto the platen, then gradually accelerate into the on-off rhythm of placing a sheet of paper or posterboard into the frame in the moment of open space when the inked lettering was retreating from contact while simultaneously removing the newly printed sheet. Left hand out, right hand in. It was beautiful to watch, made even more so by the fact, repeated to me more than once, that despite the gentle, musical clanking of the machine, any finger that happened to be between paper and type at the moment of printing would be crushed. The platen press was mainly used for posters, and Wilbur kept several composing sticks hanging on the wall in which he would set the type; for the largest sizes, display type over an inch tall, he actually used wooden letterblocks instead of metal ones. I marveled at the cases of two- and three-inch type from which he would pluck the needed words: the number of letters was limited, so if your poster was something like “Massasoit for Assessor,” it might require two passes on the printing press so that the s’s could be reset onto the second line. Years later, I found a couple of job sticks and a type case at a garage sale; I bought them and still have them as souvenirs.

Wilbur was a soft-spoken man who didn’t seem bothered by my presence but didn’t exactly encourage it, either. But he tolerated me, let me watch, and answered my questions with patient good humor.

Few things in life are as satisfying as the sense of mastery: of a subject, a challenge, a tool, an activity. It’s always thrilling to watch someone who’s a master: I think that’s part of the reason for the popularity of professional sports, watching people whose skills are so clearly at a peak. But mastery takes many forms, all of which deserve honor. We tend to associate mastery with physical skills and to bemoan their diminishment. To some extent, that’s true; there’s aren’t as many master saddlemakers or quilters as there once were. But we shouldn’t overlook other forms of mastery. Over the years I’ve been fortunate to watch other masters, digital masters, at work, with design programs, data management programs, and others. And the speed and assuredness with which they work is just as thrilling to me. It’s just as amazing to watch over the shoulder of someone who’s creating a unique design on screen as it was to watch my dad peer into the innards of malfunctioning hay baler out in the field and diagnose its problem within a few minutes, or to watch Wilbur Larkin perform a sonata on the Linotype.