It has become a rule of small towns in America: all of them, scattered across the United States, have felt the larger world press in on them in movies and television, books and music, and they have begun to understand themselves in the way the country has decided we should understand ourselves: fame. It is the reason for The World’s Largest Ball of Twine, and it is the reason for the Ronald Reagan Trail, of which Galesburg is a part because President Reagan spent his formative year of first grade at Silas Willard School.
But it is not always the dim reaching towards the spotlight and celebrity by association it seems. Sometimes a small town does raise a giant. And it is important, because we, as people and as part of towns, understand ourselves through our surroundings.
To remember Carl Sandburg is from Galesburg is to understand this place anew: it is not untrue to say Galesburg made Sandburg, and if you hadn’t thought before of Galesburg as a place that could raise a man who would write, “So we all love a wild girl keeping a hold / On a dream she wants” and “Give me hunger, / O you gods that sit and give / The world its orders,” think again. It can make you remember what a place like this is capable of.
It was in that spirit that many dreams and long-forming plans came together to honor another giant Galesburg raised: Dorothea Tanning.
Tanning was born in Galesburg in 1910 and lived here until 1930. She moved to Chicago briefly, then moved to New York, and though she spent much of her life in Paris, New York is again her home. She turned 100 last August.
Her name in Galesburg might be nowhere near the common currency of Sandburg’s, but it is not for lack of import. She has been called the oldest living surrealist and her work is held in collections at the Tate Modern in London, the Musée National d’Art Moderne in Paris and the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Art critic John Russell called Tanning “one of the major artists of our century” and her poetry has been published in The Paris Review, The New Yorker and “Best American Poems 2000.”
To celebrate Tanning and her achievements, and to remind Galesburg of its connection to her, last week the town hosted a series of events including a poetry reading and a series of talks by both critics and family.
On Friday, Mary Jo Bang, a poet from St. Louis whose poetry intersects with and addresses modern art (including that of Tanning), read to the group gathered in the Muelder Room of the Knox College library. She read both her own and Tanning’s work and afterward, in answering questions, began to offer ideas she fleshed out the next day when she and a panel discussed Tanning’s poetry.
The next day, Saturday, several talks were held in Kresge Hall, outside of which paintings and sketches by Tanning were displayed. The first event was a lecture by Michael Taylor of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Taylor is a scholar of surrealism and once curated an exhibit of Tanning’s work.
Taylor was followed by “In Her Own Words: Dorothea Tanning’s Memoirs,” at which family members of Tanning’s sat at a table on stage and read, in turns, pieces of her memoir as pictures of Tanning were projected on the theatre wall. Then, Bang returned with Alice Quinn, former poetry editor of The New Yorker who first published Tanning’s work there and Jeffrey Shotts, the senior editor of Graywolf Press, the publisher of Tanning’s one book of poetry (as well as the book forthcoming).
They each presented differently. Bang read aloud old poetry of Tanning’s and argued that though Tanning only recently began publishing poetry, she was a poet all along. Quinn discussed reading for the first time the poems of Tanning’s she would publish and Shotts read parts of the sometimes humorous exchange between he and Tanning while he edited her book “A Table of Content.”
So whether for fame—for itself or one of its daughters—or to help its future children understand it better, Galesburg has offered up Tanning to be remembered as someone from Galesburg. And it has tried to make the connection stick: from now on, according to a proclamation by the Galesburg City Council, signed by Mayor Sal Garza, May 14 is “Dorothea Tanning Day.”