On this day in 1944, the New York publishing firm Knopf released the first book by Hoosier author and noted reporter and political speechwriter John Bartlow Martin.
The book, Call It North Country:The Story of Upper Michigan, received favorable reviews from the New York Times and such established midwestern periodicals as Minnesota History and the Wisconsin Magazine of History. Although it went out of print for a time, in October 1986 (the sesquicentennial of Michigan’s statehood) Wayne State University Press republished Call It North Country as part of its Great Lakes Books series, and it remains in print to this day.
In the summer of 1940 Martin, a former IndianapolisTimes reporter who had switched careers, making his living as a freelance writer in Chicago for true-crime magazines, pondered where he and his new wife, Fran, could travel for their honeymoon.
Since his boyhood in Indiana, Martin had sought relaxation through outdoor pursuits, continuing to do so as his writing career blossomed by retreating to rented cottages in northern Wisconsin on fishing expeditions. Convinced that Wisconsin had become “too civilized, too crowded with tourists, too organized,” he sought a more remote spot for time alone with his new bride. The couple decided to try Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, a region that one writer described as “a wild and comparative Scandinavian tract—20,000 square miles of howling wilderness on the shores of Lake Superior.”
Although a relative newcomer, Martin, from the first, believed that he could write something about this wild country and its “magnificent waterfalls, great forests, high rough hills, long stretches of uninhabited country, abundant fish and game.” With the aid of a Chicago bookstore owner and a New York publisher, Martin, who had begun to break out of the true-crime field with “serious nonfiction” contributions to prestigious national magazine, saw his wish come to fruition with the publication on May 15, 1944, of Call It North Country.
Martin had been able to capture in his first book not only the region’s wild beauty, but the character of those who lived there—people “among the finest and friendliest on earth,” who, he said, “when they know you and like you, there is absolutely nothing they will not do for you. But this takes time, you must not push, they have to find out about you.”
During the summer of 1943, Martin, assisted by Fran, drove to the Upper Peninsula to conduct research, visiting the Marquette County Historical Society, consulting newspaper clipping files, reading books, and interviewing a number of people in the region’s logging and mining communities—lumberjacks, miners, trappers, newspapermen, saloonkeepers, local historians, police officers, shop owners, retired prostitutes, game wardens, and plain citizens, “some of them,” Martin noted, “old-timers with long memories.”
Martin realized that his work on the Upper Peninsula could be what came to later be known as social history, as it portrayed “how the American people talked, worked, and behaved.” The stories he garnered from the people he interviewed were important because nearly everybody whose recollections of the old days were “entombed” in the book were themselves entombed not long afterwards. “It wasn’t a bad idea to get them down on paper for our children,” Martin said.
With assistance from Fran, Martin spent hours reviewing proofs sent to them by the Knopf publishing firm. “Proofreading,” he wrote a friend, “is a job unfit for human consumption. I had no idea it was a big a job as it is.” The couple was also responsible for preparing the book’s index. “God! Publishers certainly get their thousand dollars worth,” Martin joked about the advance he had received from Knopf.
Martin did note that an author seeing his first book in type “probably is a kick never repeated. You sign a contract then go out and do a lot of legwork then type page after page of copy and send it in—and then nothing happens, and you begin to wonder if maybe you weren’t just sort of making it up. Then along come the proofs and bang—it’s really going to be a book after all.”
Call It North Country, which had a second printing by Knopf in July 1944, sold well for a regional book, approximately ten thousand copies, Martin estimated, and received solid reviews from major newspapers in New York and Chicago.
Martin was most pleased, however, by the book’s acceptance by the people it described and its longevity. On his many trips to the Upper Peninsula, Martin often came across old copies of his book in other people’s houses or on bookshelves in camps. These were copies that had been “almost read literally to pieces, their spines cracked, pages loose, pages pencil-marked and with coffee spilled on them, books that have really been read. That is the readership an author appreciates.”