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Margaret Culkin Banning


I WAS BORN IN BUFFALO, MINNESOTA, WHICH IS A town near Minneapolis. Native Minnesotans often refer to themselves as Minnesota Gophers, and I am one of that band. Sinclair Lewis used to be greatly annoyed when he would happen on a reference to my birth as being in Buffalo, New York, because he thought it should be a matter of general knowledge that there is a place of the same name in Minnesota. It is a very old community for that part of the world, and for more than half a century has been the county seat. Also it is a beautiful town built on the side of a lake and with streets lined with splendid large shade trees.

Since Minnesota has always been my home base as well as my birthplace, it might be interesting to know how my family happened to settle there. My maternal grandfather, John Young, was a Minnesota pioneer. He had come from Ireland as a boy and some relatives had preceded him to Minnesota, so he joined them there. In the ensuing years he did very well in a material way, especially after the end of the Civil War in which he served in the famous First Minnesota Regiment. Thereafter he became county treasurer, made a good deal of money in land deals, built a fine house in Hamline and then managed to lose his small fortune.

My father was born in Oswego, New York. He studied law there with an Oswego judge, which was a way to get a legal education at that time; but he grew restless when he was in his early twenties and left home to explore the Middle West. He had very little money for he came of a large family, but he managed to get to New Orleans and then came up the Mississippi. For some reason he left the river boat when it reached Minnesota. There he taught school and met my mother, the eldest daughter of John Young and more beautiful than any of her descendants have ever been. They were married and my father resumed his study of law, passed the state bar examinations with the highest honors (so I have been told), and became after a short while the county attorney of Wright County. Two years later he went to the State Senate. So I happened to be born in Buffalo, and was the second child in a family of four.

Shortly before the turn of the century, President McKinley gave my father an appointment as Register of the Land Office in Duluth. This was both a political and financial plum in those days and our family moved to northern Minnesota, where the pines seemed very harsh and gloomy to my mother who had been brought up in the milder country to the south. I was too young to take any notice of vegetation, and have earlier memories of excitement when I was allowed to go to my father's office in the Federal Building and sit in the hole under his roll-top desk while he interviewed real Indians among the white people who were making land deals of one sort or another.

We always had a great many books in our house, most of them standard sets, and I was an early and omnivorous reader. Anything that was in print was my meat. I do not remember when I consciously began to think of writing myself, but it must have been about that time. For when I was seven years old, a smug and atrocious little poem appeared in one of the daily papers, "written by little Marguerite Culkin." At that time I was always called Marguerite. I had been baptized by a French priest and he pronounced the name in that way. Later on it did not seem to fit a rather Irish surname, so I began to spell it Margaret.

I went to the public schools in Duluth. I was a homely, freckled child and my older sister was extremely pretty, so it may have been an unconscious rivalry which made me do well in school. In high school I naturally worked on the year book, wrote some more inexcusable poetry (most of which was semi-plagiarized) and gained a reputation for being "smart." When I graduated from high school I had been so smart that I was rather frail and, fearing tuberculosis, my parents sent me to live in Rochester, New York, for a year with my father's brother and his wife. My uncle, Dr. Joseph Culkin, was a very well-known doctor and he and his beloved wife were devout Catholics. They placed me in the Convent of the Sacred Heart as a day student and I had one of the happiest years of my life. It would be impossible for me to tell adequately what the white chapel in the convent meant to me then and still means to me after all the years in between, as does my uncle's philosophical and ethical guidance.

I was close to my father's birthplace, Oswego, and spent a number of vacations there, as I did later when I was at Vassar College. It was because of the insistence of one of my other uncles that I was sent to Vassar to continue my education. After a lonely and difficult first year I found my place there and soon became one of the editors of the college magazine. At this point I believe that I began to seek and take criticism, and to read in a way which was not merely swallowing words mentally, but actually digesting them.

Of course I kept on writing poetry, and now it was not quite so bad as before. I was caught up in the Irish Revival movement and read the works of Lady Gregory-I met her once when she was lecturing at Vassar-and the contemporary Irish poets. I was also deeply interested in economics and sociology. The double interest, in creative writing and in the practical solution of human problems, has influenced my life from that time until the present. Certainly I was not a very docile student and in the year book when I graduated the comment opposite my picture was "II there's a government, then I'm against it."

It was inevitable that I should go into social work after I graduated. I was given a Russell Sage fellowship in Chicago and studied there for a year, living at the University Settlement House. Then I went back to Duluth and for a year worked there to establish social centers in that city. In the first year of the First World War I married and went to England where my husband, who was a lawyer, had a task which concerned abrogated grain contracts. This took him to Belgium and Holland. I stayed in London, kept a diary, worked with the Red Cross part time, and began my first novel. It was a rather dressed-up autobiography and fortunately never was published.

I came back to the United States in the following year to become a mother and housewife. When I was expecting my third child, I began to think I must get back to my writing-or I never would. It was possible for me and my children to spend that summer near New York where I began to tutor with Viola Roseboro, a wonderful woman who had been one of the early editors of McClurems Magazine. She was already old and half-blind, but the best critic I have ever known. At the end of the summer I had finished a novel. I took it to New York and the miracle happened. It was bought and published by George H. Doran. I was launched with Stephen Vincent Benet and Elizabeth Sanxay Holding-all three of as shared the same advertisement at first and then went our very different ways.

An account of my next years would take far more space than this sketch is allowed. Perhaps I can sum it up by saying that before long my financial and domestic circumstances had changed. When I sold the first book I had no need of money, but in a short time that necessity arose. Fortunately, I soon had friends among the editors of several leading magazines. George Horace Lorimer of the Saturday Evening Post, Edwin Balnier of the Red Book, and Ray Long of Cosmopolitan all helped me to get a firm footing in the magazine field. Eugene Saxton of Harper & Brothers became my guide and editor in the book field and Carl Brandt, one of the greatest literary agents, took care of not only my financial interests but gave me constant and intelligent criticism.

I was given tremendous opportunities but the pressure to produce more and better work was constant and exhausting. In those days, the magazines published serials and paid very well for them. For years I wrote at least one serial story every year and it meant working many hours every day and often during most of the night. I should probably state at this point that, although I think no writer can make rules that fit others, it was quite possible for me to do a great deal of writing and also keep close to my children until they went away to school.

Later on, when they were at school and came home for vacations, I thought that there was too much of the sound of the typewriter in our house, so I rented a couple of rooms in a building on the shore of Lake Superior and spent my working days there. I have had that office for nearly twenty years and for me it has been the solution to having privacy for work and study, and not making my family a tail to the kite of my profession.

When I go home I am a mother, a housekeeper, and a hostess to my friends. As time has gone on, my children have been married and we have been fortunate enough to have a house in Carolina and a cottage on the Brule River in Wisconsin where we all spend considerable time. But the pattern of work does not vary for me.

Of course I can take my work anywhere I go. That is the wonderful privilege of the writer. I have written in very strange places-in a hotel in Spain with revolution breaking out in the streets, in a blitzed Germany in 1946, in most of the countries in South America, on a ship in the South Pacific, in my Wisconsin cottage or in Tryon. But my pattern of work, wherever I am, is to set myself a task and allocate hours to do it, and shut the door on other things while doing it. Naturally you work more successfully in some places than in others, but the places sometimes fool you!

It may interest the readers of this Book of Catholic Authors to know that many years ago I set myself the task of writing three novels on the problems of Catholic laymen. I wrote the first in 1930 and the last of the three in 1956. But those three books, Mixed Marriage, Fallen Away, and The Convert (all published by Harper), are ones which I hope have been as useful to some people in the reading as they were to me in the writing. I have had some satisfaction too in several controversial articles, each of which reached a very large public--among them "The Case for Chastity," "Don't Malign American Youth," and "What to Regret" - my various articles on salacious magazines and their evil effect on young and old people.

As I wrote recently for The Writer Magazine, a writer is lucky in the fact that he can continue his work as long as he lives and has his reason. There is no age of retirement for a writer. As one grows older, one may write less but more thoughtfully than ever before. That is what I myself hope to do.

Originally published in The Book of Catholic Authors, Walter Romig, Sixth Series, 1960.


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