This was my first book. I had the joy of showing the superb docudrama Northern Lights in approximately 60 communities in North Dakota. My friend and mentor Everett C. Albers invited me to write a humanities guide to the film, which had been funded by the North Dakota Humanities Council.
I wrote the book during one of my term breaks at Oxford University. I was a very long way from Crosby, North Dakota, where the Nonpartisan League took root back in 1915-17, but I was able to do a considerable amount of work at the Rhodes House Library in Oxford. The book was printed (published) in 8×10 format by Ev Albers, directly from the typescript, completed on my Hermes 3000 portable manual typewriter NB 5-13 at Hertford College, Oxford.
The book consists of a series of interpretative essays about the extraordinary black and white film: “The Making of Northern Lights,” “Northern Lights and Historicity,” “Northern Lights and Feminism,” etc.
No adequate biography has ever been written about the creator of the Nonpartisan League, A.C. Townley. North Dakota’s historian Larry Remele was preparing to write that biography when he died suddenly of a heart attack on June 3, 1988, at the age of 43.
My dream is still to write at least a partial biography of Townley, a failed flax farmer, former socialist, rabble rouser, organizational and sales genius, martyr to Woodrow Wilson’s red scare (1917-22), and brilliant employer of the emerging technologies of automobiles and airplanes. Townley was one of the most colorful figures in North Dakota history. He deserves a proper biography.
To read a chapter from A Humanities Guide to Northern Lights, click here.
“Townley had some demagogic blood. He sometimes sacrificed prudent instinct for the psychology of large groups. Half crouching, hands on thighs, eyes flashing as if he were some alchemist of language, Townley spouted strong words: vivid metaphors, earthy diction, biting sarcasm, a mixture of folk wisdom and raillery. His talent for flirting with both vulgarity and subversive half truths made him an oratorical legend in his own time, and brought him sometimes within the frontiers of the sedition laws. He was a towering negativist. Townley denounced, rebuked, decried, and reviled; tore down the crumbling foundations of the old order; dragged his enemies through the mud and called them reductive names. By instinct he was a leveler. He was a master of opposition. He could find rascals anywhere and stir citizens to throw them out of office—such were his powers of perception and rhetoric. But he could not so effectively realize his visions of a better world. Stability bored him. Victorious, he was never content to pursue the sometimes tedious administration of his farmers’ government. He sought always to broaden League control, throw the rascals out of other states, attack not just the abuses of the St. Paul millers and railroad titans, but those of entire national industries, and of the United States government itself. He promoted a tatterdemalion assortment of League commercial enterprises, some absurd (the Sisal Trust, for example), some outrageous (the Bering Sea Fisheries Company), some corrupt (the Scandanavian-American Bank of Fargo): but none critical to legitimate League goals.”