A Plan to Distinguish the First Lincoln Namesake
City also as the Second City of Lincoln Statues
Lincoln Bicentennial Celebration in Lincoln, Illinois
Abraham Lincoln and the Historic Postville
including a William Maxwell connection to the Postville Courthouse
About Henry Ford and the Postville Courthouse,
the Story of the Postville Courthouse Replica,
Tantivy, & the Postville Park
Neighborhood in the
Route 66 Era
The Rise of Abraham Lincoln and His History and
Heritage in His First Namesake Town,
also the founding of Lincoln College, the plot to steal Lincoln's
body, and memories of Lincoln College and the Rustic Tavern-Inn
Introduction to the Social & Economic History of
including poetry by William Childress & commentary by Federal Judge
Bob Goebel & Illinois Appellate Court Judge Jim Knecht
"Social Consciousness in William Maxwell's
Writings Based on Lincoln, Illinois" (an article published in the
Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society, winter 2005-06)
Peeking Behind the Wizard's Screen: William
Maxwell's Literary Art as Revealed by a Study of the Black Characters in
Billie Dyer and Other Stories
Introduction to the Railroad & Route 66 Heritage
of Lincoln, Illinois
The Living Railroad Heritage of Lincoln, Illinois:
on Track as a Symbol of the "Usable Past"
Route 66 Overview Map of Lincoln with 42 Sites,
Descriptions, & Photos
The Hensons of Business Route 66
The Wilsons of Business
Route 66, including the Wilson Grocery & Shell
Route 66 Map & Photos Showing Lincoln Memorial
(former Chautauqua site),
the Historic Cemeteries, & Nearby Sites
Route 66 Map & Photos Showing Salt Creek &
the highway bridges, GM&O bridge, Madigan State Park, the old dam (with
photos & Leigh's memoir of "shooting the rapids" over the old dam), &
the Ernie Edwards' Pig-Hip Restaurant Museum in Broadwell
The Historic Logan County Courthouse, Past &
Route 66 Map with 51 Sites in the Business &
Courthouse Square Historic District,
including locations of historical markers
(on the National Register of Historic Places)
Vintage Scenes of the Business & Courthouse Square
The Foley House: A
Monument to Civic Leadership
(on the National Register of
the Route 66 Era
Arts & Entertainment Heritage,
the Lincoln Theatre Roy Rogers' Riders Club of the
Cars, Trucks & Gas Stations of the Route 66 Era
Churches, including the hometown
churches of Author William Maxwell & Theologian Reinhold Niebuhr
Factories, Past and Present
Food Stores of
the Route 66 Era
Hospitals, Past and Present
Hotels & Restaurants of the Railroad & Route 66
Lincoln Developmental Center
(Lincoln State School & Colony in
the Route 66 era), plus
debunking the myth of
Lincoln, Illinois, choosing the Asylum over the University of Illinois
Mining Coal, Limestone, & Sand & Gravel; Lincoln Lakes; & Utilities
Museums & Parks, including the Lincoln College
Museum and its Abraham Lincoln Collection, plus the Heritage-in-Flight
News Media in the Route 66 Era
The Odd Fellows' Children's Home
Memories of the 1900 Lincoln Community High School,
including Fred Blanford's dramatic account of the lost marble
fountain of youth
A Tribute to the Historians and Advocates of
Watering Holes of the Route 66 Era
The Historic 1953 Centennial Celebration of
The Festive 2003 Sesqui-centennial Celebration of
Lincoln, Illinois, including photos of LCHS Class of 1960
dignitaries & the Blanfords
Why Did the State Police Raid Lincoln, Illinois,
on October 11, 1950?
The Gambling Raids in Lincoln and Logan County,
During the Late Route 66 Era (1950-1960)
in this section tell about Leigh Henson's Lincoln years, moving away,
revisits, and career:
About Lincoln, Illinois;
This Web Site; & Me
A Tribute to Lincolnite Edward Darold
Henson: World War II U.S. Army Veteran of the Battles for Normandy and
the Hedgerows; Brittany and Brest; and the Ardennes (Battle of the
For Remembrance, Understanding, & Fun: Lincoln
Community High School Mid-20th-Century Alums' Internet Community
(a Web site and
email exchange devoted to collaborative memoir and the sharing of photos
related to Lincoln, Illinois)
Leigh Henson's Pilgrimage to Lincoln, Illinois, on
July 12, 2001
Review of Dr. Burkhardt's William Maxwell Biography
Leigh Henson's Review of Ernie Edwards' biography,
Pig-Hips on Route 66, by William Kaszynski
Leigh Henson's Review of Jan Schumacher's
Glimpses of Lincoln, Illinois
Teach Local Authors: Considering the Literature of
Web Site About
Leigh Henson's Professional Life
in this section are about the writing, memorabilia, and Web sites of
A Tribute to Bill and Phyllis Stigall:
Exemplary Faculty of Lincoln College at Mid-Twentieth Century
A Tribute to the Krotzes of Lincoln, Illinois
A Tribute to Robert Wilson (LCHS '46): Author of
Young in Illinois, Movies Editor of December Magazine,
Friend and Colleague of December Press Publisher Curt Johnson, and
Correspondent with William Maxwell
Brad Dye (LCHS '60): His Lincoln, Illinois, Web
including photos of many churches
Dave Armbrust's Memorabilia of Lincoln, Illinois
Fikuarts of Lincoln, Illinois, including their
connections to the William Maxwell family and three generations of
family fun at Lincoln Lakes
Jerry Gibson (LCHS '60): Lincoln, Illinois,
Memoirs & Other Stories
Dave Johnson (LCHS '56): His Web Site for the
Lincoln Community High School Class of 1956
Sportswriter David Kindred: Memoir of His
Grandmother Lena & Her West Side Tavern on Sangamon Street in the Route
Judge Jim Knecht
(LCHS '62): Memoir and Short Story, "Other People's Money," Set in
Hickey's Billiards on Chicago Street in the Route 66 Era
William A. "Bill" Krueger (LCHS '52): Information
for His Books About Murders in Lincoln
Norm Schroeder (LCHS '60): Short Stories
Stan Stringer Writes About His Family, Mark
Holland, and Lincoln, Illinois
Thomas Walsh: Anecdotes Relating to This Legendary
Attorney from Lincoln by Attorney Fred Blanford & Judge Jim Knecht
Leon Zeter (LCHS '53): His Web Site for the
Lincoln Community High School Class of 1953,
including announcements of LCHS class reunions
(Post yours there.)
Highway Sign of
The Route 66
Association of Illinois
State Historical Society
Marquee Lights of the Lincoln Theatre, est. 1923, Lincoln, Illinois
Peeking Behind the
Literary Art as Revealed by a Study of
the Black Characters in Billie Dyer and Other Stories
"The view after seventy is
breathtaking. What is lacking is someone, anyone, of the older
generation to whom you can turn when you want to satisfy your curiosity
about some detail of the landscape of the past. There is no longer any
older generation. You have become it, while your mind was mostly on
other matters" (William Maxwell, "The Man in the Moon," in Billie
Dyer and Other Stories, p. 56). Note: At 65 (2007), I'm not quite at that
point, but close enough to appreciate the observation.
The following discussion complements
my article titled "Social
Consciousness in William Maxwell's Writing Based on Lincoln, Illinois,"
and another page in this site titled "Introduction
to the Economic and Social History of Lincoln, Illinois." (Note: In this essay, I typically spell Brummell with two
l's because that
spelling is used on the headstone of Hattie Dyer Brummell, and that is
the way her granddaughter, Ms. Priscilla Florence, tells me she spells
it. In Mrs. Whitfield's letter to William Maxwell later on this page, I
spell it with one l because she does.)
Prior to William Maxwell's masterpiece, So Long,
See You Tomorrow (1980), which was also his next-to-last book, the central
characters of his Lincoln-related work are based on his family because
those were the people he knew best and whose experiences he could most
readily write about. In So Long, Maxwell uses an introspective,
autobiographical first-person narrator and a character based on his
brief, late-childhood friendship with a white farm boy, fictionally named Cletus Smith.
In writing about the Smiths, Maxwell was expanding the scope of his
material to include those he knew only marginally. Maxwell confides that he did a lot of reading to try to
understand Midwestern farm life in preparation for writing about the
In his last book, Billie Dyer and Other
Stories (1992), Maxwell continues to write about his family,
himself, and people who had been in the margins of his experience in
Lincoln. The central figure of "The Man in the Moon" is Maxwell's Uncle
Ted Blinn. The central figures of "My Father's Friends" are Aaron
McGivor and John Dean Gillett Hill, a Lincoln attorney from a
distinguished, upper-middle-class family. The Gillett family was
independently wealthy from owning thousands of acres of rich farmland in
Logan County around Elkhart, south of Lincoln. The
central figure of "The Holy Terror" is Maxwell's older brother, Edward
("Happy" or "Hap").
The two longest narratives of Billie Dyer
and Other Stories are the title piece, "Billie Dyer" (34 pages), and "The Front and
the Back Parts of the House" (14 pages). The central figures of
these stories are blacks. Maxwell opens the book with "Billie Dyer," and
"The Front and the Back Parts of the House" is the next-to-last story. The central figure of "Billie
Dyer" is William Dyer, M.D., a native of Lincoln and graduate of
Lincoln College who became prominent as
one of this nation's first black physicians. The central figures of "The
Front and the Back Parts of the House" are the autobiographical narrator
and Hattie Dyer Brummell, a sister of Dr. Dyer who had been employed as a cook and
housekeeper by Maxwell's parents, Maxwell's maternal grandparents, and
his Aunt Annette (Blinn) Bates. Members of the Dyer-Brummell
black family of Lincoln lived on Elm Street just a half block from Maxwell's
parents and his maternal grandparents, the Edward Dunallen Blinns.
Dyer-Brummell family ancestors were former
slaves. William and Hattie's paternal grandfather was Aaron Dyer, who had lived in Springfield,
Illinois, and who had been active in the Underground Railroad. The
Dyer-Brummell family also helped to found and build the 1868 Allen
Chapel African Methodist Episcopal Church (AME) that still stands at the
corner of Broadway and Sherman Streets.
The history of blacks in Lincoln, Illinois, is
an important part of its social history. This black history, however,
has not been very thoroughly written and is reported in only a few
sources. Two sources of significance to Lincoln's social history for
their black characters are Maxwell's novel titled Time Will Darken It
(1948) and his last publication, Billie Dyer and Other Stories
Knowing the Dyer-Brummell family members only from childhood experience, Maxwell had limited involvement with them and, of course,
limited powers of observation and memory of them. In writing about
these blacks, Maxwell did not rely on memory alone, but conducted
research, and he mentions that research in his stories. During 2007,
I investigated Maxwell's research into this black family and discovered
that his stories mention only a small part of the research he did.
This essay examines Maxwell's research on the Dyer-Brummell families
and describes my own corresponding research findings. My research has involved
communication with Ms. Debbie Ross, the adopted daughter of John A.
Ross. As explained in this essay, he was a grade school black classmate
of Maxwell, and Maxwell corresponded with him in the 1980s, attempting
to learn more about the Dyer-Brummell family. Maxwell was seeking
information to help him write about Dr. Dyer and his sister, Hattie Dyer
Brummell. Ms. Priscilla Florence is a granddaughter of Hattie
Dyer Brummell, and this essay greatly benefits from Ms. Florence's
insightful remembrances of Lincoln, Illinois, and details of her
family's history and its connections to William Maxwell. This essay
quotes previously unpublished letters to and from Maxwell
generously provided by Debbie Ross and Priscilla Florence. This essay also
Maxwell's portrayal of blacks in his final stories and draws some
conclusions about his literary art based on those black characters.
Discussion of "Billie Dyer"
The title figure in "Billie Dyer" was the son of Alfred and Laura Ward
Dyer. Although both Mr. and Mrs. Dyer worked for the Maxwell family,
Maxwell writes that "as far as I knew I had never laid eyes on William
Dyer" ("Billie Dyer," p. 5). In his effort to gain information about
William Dyer, M.D., Maxwell talked to one of his brothers. I assume this
was the younger brother, Blinn, not the older one, Edward, who died in
1985, perhaps before Maxwell began work on "Billie Dyer." Maxwell also
talked to the President of Lincoln College, who had been a childhood friend of
Maxwell in Bloomington, Illinois, where Maxwell's Aunt Edith lived with
her medical doctor husband. Maxwell does not name this man, but my
research shows that he was Raymond Dooley. William Dyer had attended
Lincoln College, which gave him an award in approximately 1955, and most
likely Raymond Dooley was responsible for that recognition.
A central primary source Maxwell uses and summarizes is Dr. Dyer's World
War I diary. Other primary sources cited by Maxwell in "Billie Dyer" are a few letters "written between 1955
and 1957" by Dr. Dyer to Maxwell's cousin, Hugh Davis. "Billie Dyer" also
secondary sources: the Logan County histories of 1878, 1911, and 1982; editions of the Lincoln Evening Courier;
and The Namesake Town: A
Centennial History of Lincoln, Illinois (1953).
"Billie Dyer" describes the 1975 discovery of William Dyer's WW I dairy
in Dallas, Texas, by Jim Wood, a real estate agent. Curious to learn
more about Dr. Dyer and his diary, Wood eventually wrote the Lincoln
Public Library of Lincoln, Illinois. Maxwell does not explain how he
accessed this diary, but implies that did so through the Lincoln
Maxwell describes the diary as "a lined eight-by-twelve-inch copybook
[photocopy] with snapshots and portrait photographs and postcards pasted
in wherever they were appropriate. That it escaped the bonfire is
remarkable; that it fell into the hands of so conscientious a man is
also to be wondered at" ("Billie Dyer," p. 17).
In an email message to me in October, 2007, Richard Sumrall, Director of the Lincoln Public Library, explained that the Library had
received a photocopy of the typescript of this diary, but the sender and
date of submission are presently unknown. This document was
apparently the source that Maxwell worked from, and his language in
describing the diary suggests that he believed there was only one copy.
In a phone conversation I had with Dr. Dyer's great niece, Priscilla
Florence, in September, 2007, she explained that Dr. Dyer had self-published
his diary and had given copies to family members, but she knows of only one
or two surviving copies. In a later email to me, Ms. Florence
mentioned that her first cousin, Foster Whitfield, says he has the
original manuscript of Dr. Dyer's diary.
In October of 2007, I was pleasantly surprised to see a copy of Dr.
Dyer's WW I diary for sale on eBay, and I purchased it. This copy is a
typeset, printed version measuring approximately five inches by eight
inches with a gold-colored cover and 63 glossy pages. The copy I have is titled "A Soldiers'
[sic] Diary" by First Lieutenant Wm. H. Dyer, M.D. This copy has
no date or place of publication, and these copies are rare: in several years of exploring used bookstores in central Illinois
and monitoring eBay for items relating to Lincoln, Illinois, I have never seen such a copy.
seller I purchased this copy from was living in Cleveland, Ohio, and he
wrote me that "I bought it from an old friend who is now deceased. I
believe he bought it at a book store in Akron, Ohio, in the 1970's." Dr.
Dyer's brother, Clarence, had lived in Ohio, so perhaps there is a
connection. Inside the front cover is the inscription and signature: "To
Mr. and Mrs. Horace Brown from Wm. H. Dyer M.D." I have found no
information about the Horace Browns.
inside the back cover of my copy of Dr. Dyer's diary are two newspaper articles. The newspaper(s)
is/are unidentified, but the text indicates the publisher(s) is/are not
The Lincoln Evening Courier. One of the articles is an obituary
of Dr. Dyer, and the text implies that the source is a Kansas City
newspaper. The other article dates to the 1953 centennial celebration of
Lincoln, Illinois, and reports that the town was honoring Dr. Dyer as
one its "25 citizens of Lincoln, Ill., who have made successful places
The foreword below proves that Dr. Dyer had privately published his diary:
The following passage from Dr. Dyer's diary describes his
departure from Lincoln for Army service:
"It was a
beautiful Sunday afternoon, September 24, 1917, that I left my
home, for what fate I knew not, but to proceed at my country's
"When I arrived at the railway station,
some three hundred or so of my friends and neighbors had
gathered to say to me farewell and to bid me God-speed on my
"Many photographs, too, were taken of
me to be the monuments of the first colored officer of our town
and the first one of my race from Lincoln to be offered up."
"When my train arrived, the crowd had
grown quite dense and I was kept busy shaking hands with those
who promised me remembrances in their prayers."
Mother and Father standing there with
tears in their eyes were too full to speak when I kissed them
and bade them farewell."
"I still had not realized the gravity
of my mission, yet impressed by the sadness which hovered over
the countenances of my parents, my eyes too filled with tears,
my throat became full and for miles as the train sped on, I was
unable to speak or to fix my mind upon a single thought" (pp.
First Lt. William H. Dyer, M.D.
Bessie L. (Bradley) Dyer, His Wife
The preceding material is from Dr. Dyer's privately published WW I
diary, courtesy of Leigh Henson. Maxwell's "Billie Dyer" says that
Bessie Dyer was a painter, and that gives rise to the question of
whether her image above is a self-portrait.
In an email communication with me in the fall
of 2007, Priscilla Florence says that while she was viewing this
community history Web site of Lincoln, Illinois, she recognized a
picture postcard image of the lake in Brainerd Park (Chautauqua site) as
a painting similar to one painted by Bessie Dyer. Ms. Florence mentioned that boys from
Lincoln, including her Great Uncle William Dyer, used to swim in this lake.
Ms. Florence writes, "As a matter of fact, her picture looks like the
same angle with boys added in. She called it a swimming hole." Access
postcard of painting of the Chautauqua site lake that resembles that of
Access the newspaper article
about Dr. Dyer's
honor as one of the top citizens of Lincoln, Illinois: the "Hall of
Fame" during the town's 1953 centennial celebration. Access more
information about the centennial celebration (its parades, pageant,
etc.), including the identities of all members of the
Hall of Fame.
Access the 1958 Kansas City newspaper
Photo of Dr. William Dyer from the newspaper article about his
participation in the 1953 centennial celebration of Lincoln, Illinois.
Discussion of "The Front
and the Back Parts of the House"
In "The Front and the Back Parts of the House," Maxwell says that his
puzzling encounter with Hattie Dyer took place during a visit he made to
Lincoln to see his family when he said he was in his early forties (p.
83), but it is difficult to reconcile this estimate of his age at the
time of the visit with other facts. The visit during which Maxwell
experienced Hattie's snub would have had to be after 1948, when Time
Will Darken It was published (the novel whose black character
offended Hattie), and before 1958, when his father died. Maxwell says he
was living in the country when his father requested the visit (p. 83).
According to Christopher Carduff's chronology, Maxwell and Emily lived
in a New York City brownstone apartment on East 36th Street at Lexington
Avenue from 1949 to 1955, with weekends and holidays spent at their
country Yorktown Heights "small, sturdy house" (William Maxwell:
Later Novels and Stories, p. 953). In 1955, Maxwell and his
wife took up full-time residency in Yorktown Heights (p. 955). Did the
visit to Lincoln during which he experienced Hattie's snub occur in
1955+? If so, Maxwell would have been in his late forties, not his early
forties. Whenever the visit occurred, Maxwell would have been married,
but the narrator of "House" does not indicate that both his wife and he
made that visit to Lincoln.
with Hattie occurred in the home of his Aunt Annette Blinn
Bates on Lincoln Avenue. Maxwell writes that "years passed without my thinking about
Hattie Dyer at all, then suddenly there I was backing away from her in
confusion" (p. 92). As indicated on her headstone (pictured later on
this page), Hattie Dyer Brummell passed away in 1963. Perhaps Maxwell did
not begin to seek information about her until the mid 1980s, after he
had published his major work, So Long, See You Tomorrow (1980)
and began to concentrate on the material of Billie Dyer and Other Stories
In "Billie Dyer," Maxwell does not indicate that he attempted to go
beyond the sources named or suggested in the story in order to
gain more information about the Dyer-Brummell families, but he does make
such a revelation in "The Front and the Back Parts of the House." As
Maxwell considered how he could find out more about Hattie Dyer Brummell,
he writes that "I could have asked my aunt [Annette Blinn Bates] and she
would have told me all that a white person would be likely to know, but
I didn't. More years passed. I found that I had a nagging curiosity
about Hattie--about what her life had been like. Finally it occurred to
me that my Cousin Tom Perry, who lives in Lincoln, might be able to
learn about her" (Billie Dyer and Other Stories, p. 99).
Front and the Back Parts of the House" includes a quote from the second
letter Maxwell's step-cousin, Tom Perry, wrote to him on this matter:
"'I don't understand it. . . . The colored people of Lincoln have always
been very open. If you asked one of them a question you got the answer.
This is different. They don't seem to want to talk about Hattie Dyer.'"
Maxwell continues, "In a P.S. he added that the elderly black man who
took care of his yard was reading one of his books. Miss Lucy Jane Purrington, whose
yard he also looked after, had lent it to him, and in a flash I realized
what the unforgivable thing was and who had done it" (p. 102).
epiphany is that he is the one who had offended Hattie. He realizes
that she must have discovered the unsympathetic black characters in his
1948 novel, Time Will Darken It, that correspond to her husband
and her: "If Hattie did indeed read my book then what could she think
but that I had portrayed her as a loose woman and her husband as a
monster of evil? And people in Lincoln, colored people and white, would
wonder if I knew things about Fred Brummell that they didn't, and if he
was not the person they took him for. I had exposed their married life
and blackened his character in order to make a fortune from my writing"
Prior to the preceding passage, Maxwell writes, "When I was working on
the novel about the Kings, it did not occur to me that Hattie would read
it or even know it existed. A few women who had known me as a child
would put their names on the waiting list at the Lincoln Public Library,
one or two at the most might buy it, is what I thought. Men didn't read
books. The Evening Courier and the Chicago Tribune
supplied them with all the reading matter they required" (p. 106).
William Maxwell and John A. Ross
"The elderly black man" who took care of Tom Perry's yard plays a key
role in Maxwell's self-discovery. Most likely, the real-life counterpart
of this elderly black man was John A. Ross, a life-long resident of
Lincoln, Illinois. Early in 2007, my friend Bobby Olson of Springfield,
Illinois, told me that he had known John A. Ross and that Mr. Ross had a
daughter in Springfield, Illinois. I found her name and email address on
the Internet. After several email exchanges and phone conversations with
her, I interviewed Ms. Ross on August 17, 2007, at the Abraham Lincoln
Presidential Library in Springfield, Illinois. At that time, she
confirmed that her father had done yard work for Tom Perry and others in
(Note: Ms. Ross is the
founder and lead singer of the blues band named The Debbie Ross Band of
Springfield, Illinois. She sang The Star-Spangled Banner at the
old State Capitol in Springfield when Barack Obama announced his
Presidential candidacy there. In Sources Cited below, see link to The
Debbie Ross Band Web site and to a YouTube video of Ms. Ross singing the
national anthem at the Obama announcement.)
Curiously, Maxwell does not identify the "elderly black man," let alone
reveal that he was Maxwell's classmate and friend. Nor does Maxwell
explain that he had corresponded with Mr. Ross in an effort to learn
more about Hattie and her family. Maxwell perhaps does not identify "the
elderly black man" because Mr. Ross was a personal acquaintance of Maxwell, and
Maxwell did not want to seem to exploit him as Hattie apparently thought
Maxwell had done with his portrayal of her husband.
According to an article in the Bloomington Pantagraph of 1993 by
Elaine Graybill, John A. Ross and Lincoln author William Maxwell
attended Lincoln High School in the same freshman class of 1922.
Maxwell's family then moved to Chicago, so the freshman year was the
last time that Ross and Maxwell saw one another, although they corresponded over the years.
Ross says Maxwell encouraged him to read: "He [Maxwell] introduced me to
reading. He loaned me a copy of The Wizard of Oz. That was the
first book I ever read" [in the eighth grade].
Ross says he then began to visit the Lincoln Public Library: "I learned
to read all stuff. I read some of everything." Ross said he read all of
Maxwell's books and has read novels by other authors.
The Pantagraph article says that "after graduating from Lincoln
High School, Ross attended Lincoln University, now Lincoln College,
about six months, until he ran out of money."
"Ross's career consisted of farm and janitorial work, and 29 years at
Caterpillar's foundry. He worked for Maxwell's aunt, Annette Bates. 'I
worked around the Maxwell family all my life.'"
Photographer unknown, but perhaps Ann Klose. Access memoir about John A. Ross from
his adopted daughter, Debbie Ross, and other Lincolnites who knew him.
Debbie Ross enjoys returning to Lincoln to visit family and friends.
Debbie Ross provided me with copies of
four letters that her father had received from Maxwell from November,
1986, to December, 1991. Maxwell's letter to John A. Ross of January 7, 1987, mentions that Mr.
Ross had also done yard work for Maxwell's Aunt Annette's husband
[William Bates], and this letter explicitly asks John A. Ross for
information about the Dyer-Brummell families:
"Right now I am trying to write a
story about the family of Alfred Dyer [father of Dr. William and Hattie]
and I waited too long to ask people about them. They lived on Elm Street
between 8th and 9th Street, and his daughter Hattie cooked for my mother
when I was a child. His son William was chosen in 1953 as one of the 10 most distinguished figures in the history of Lincoln. Like
you, they were part Indian, part white and part Negro. I know that
Alfred Dyer had 5 children, but I cannot even find out what the names of
all of them were, let alone what happened to them. And after the story
is published you don't, of course, have a second chance. Did you know any
of them? They would be perhaps 20 or 30 years older than you. Is there
anybody that you know in Lincoln besides yourself who can remember
things that far back? I would be so grateful for anything you can tell
Apparently John A. Ross was unable to provide Maxwell with much, if any,
information about Hattie and her family. In Maxwell's letter to Ross of
October 24, 1987, Maxwell writes,
"It was kind of you to remember my
interest in Hattie Dyer. I don't suppose now I will ever find out what I
was hoping to, and will just have to put the story aside. She worked for
my mother when I was a small child, and I met her again once thirty
years later, in my Aunt's house on Lincoln Avenue. I should have asked
her then what her life had been like, but you don't know at one time in
your life what you will want to know at another. She was a very nice,
quiet, capable woman, and my mother thought the world of her."
When Maxwell lacked as much factual information as he wanted, he sometimes
used his imagination to create scenes built on the facts
he did have. One example of Maxwell's use of his imagination for this
purpose occurs in "Billie Dyer," in which Maxwell invents an account of
William Dyer's childhood friendship with John Harts and how it could
have led John's father, David H. Harts, Sr., to provide financial
support for William's education. (Access more information about
Civil War Captain
David H. Harts,
William Dyer's benefactor.)
Maxwell's letter to John A. Ross of October 24, 1987, includes a most
interesting passage in which Maxwell imagines what he does not actually
know about Hattie Dyer Brummell's life:
"Storytellers are like fortunetellers, in reverse, because they peer
at the past instead of at the future. What I think is that in 1918,
reluctantly (because she didn't want to leave her father and mother, who
were old) she moved to Chicago because her husband thought he could do
better for himself there. And it turned out that he was right. They both
worked. She had had enough of housekeeping and so she went to an
employment agency and ended up with a job as a cleaning woman in a
hospital or office building. The work was hard but the pay was much
better than she had been used to. And life in Chicago more expensive
than it had been in Lincoln, but also more full of variety. Between
them, she and her husband had enough and they lived comfortably in a
walkup on the South Side, and she got to be friends with the woman whose
back porch adjoined hers. When the Depression came he was laid off, but
she still made enough at the hospital for them to scrimp by, and he kept
hoping to find work but didn't, and so when old Mrs. Dyer took sick they
decided to give up and go back to Lincoln so Hattie could take care of
her. I have made all of this up. Do you think any of it is likely to be
The preceding passage was composed four years before the publication of
"The Front and the Back Parts of the House" in The
New Yorker. The appearance of "Billie Dyer" in The New Yorker
was the first publication of that story before it appeared
in Billie Dyer and Other Stories the following year, but surprisingly the
"storytellers are like fortunetellers" passage is not included in the
Maxwell's letters to John A. Ross, I wondered whether Maxwell's papers
at the University of Illinois might include Ross's letters. Maxwell's
letter to Ross of January 7, 1987, indicates that Ross had written to
tell of his life, and I wanted to see that autobiographical information. In
an email to me of September 5, 2007, I received the following statement from Professor Alvan
Bregman, Rare Book Collections Librarian at the U of I: "Dear
Professor Henson: I am sorry to disappoint you, but there do not seem to
be any letters from John A. Ross in our Maxwell correspondence. I've
checked not only the databases, but also the correspondence files
themselves. If I do ever happen to come across such letters, I will let
I have also attempted to gain more information about the Dyer-Brummell
families through my own research, and thanks to the Internet, I
discovered information that was unavailable to Mr. Maxwell. Early in 2007 I emailed [Lincoln] Courier
reporter Nancy Rollings Saul because I knew she was interested in the
black history of Lincoln, Illinois, especially in Aaron Dyer's
involvement in the Underground Railroad. As a long shot, I asked Ms. Saul if she might
have a photo of Hattie Dyer Brummell so I might add it to this community
history Web site.
Ms. Saul sent me
the remarkable Dyer-Brummell family
photo that appears below, and she also sent me additional
information that she obtained when she attended a Dyer-Brummelll family
reunion in Decatur, Illinois, in August of 2002. That information
included the names of Hattie Brummell's children in attendance; a
photo of one her daughters, Mrs. Marian Louis Clay; some biographical details about
Mrs. Clay; and the names of Mrs. Clay's children.
Alfred and Laura Ward Dyer family portrait.
The box identifies Hattie Dyer Brummell and her husband, George. Helen Brummell, daughter of George and Hattie, sits on her grandmother's lap
(the "H" printed on Helen's shoulder by some unknown member of the
family to identify her, perhaps years later). The little girl on her
grandfather's lap is unidentified. Even though she has an "M"
printed on her shoulder, Ms. Florence tells me that at the time of
the photo her mother, Marian Brummell, had not yet been born to
Hattie and George. Photo courtesy of Nancy Rollings
Saul. Photo is undated but probably the 1910s.
Using Internet searching with one of those names, I located and phoned
Ms. Frankye Clay Parham, who later told her older sister, Ms. Priscilla Florence,
about my interest in their family. Ms. Florence phoned me, and during conversation with me
in early September, 2007, we discussed the separation of Hattie and her
husband, George. Priscilla Florence said that Hattie's
husband, George Brummell, was somewhat rootless.
In emails of January, 2008, Ms. Florence explained that George had left his family
in Lincoln and had gone to Chicago. Ms. Florence is unsure why he did.
Her mother (Hattie's daughter, Marian) believes that George had
abandoned his family, but Ms. Florence adds her mother "was a very young
girl then, and anyone who would know has been dead for decades. Gramma
Hattie left her kids with her mother [Laura Ward Dyer] at the home on
Elm Street to get her husband in Chicago. My mother only remembers
missing her very much at that time. She [Hattie] came back with him.
They stayed together until he died (in the Lincoln house on Elm Street,
according to cousin Harold, who was there at the time). George was very
ill with a weak heart for years and only able to shine shoes in Lincoln
when he felt well. I think that Gramma Hattie was the main wage earner." George Brummell is buried at his hometown of
Ms. Florence has graciously provided me with additional information
about her family and its connections to Maxwell and Lincoln, Illinois. I
am most grateful to Nancy Rollings Saul for making it possible for me to
have found Ms. Florence and thus to obtain more information about this
remarkable family. Amazingly, many in this family like Dr. Dyer left
Lincoln for better opportunities, yet quite a few continue to be
somewhat close-knit. Ms. Florence communicates extensively with family
members, and many of them have offered insights and details that she has
shared with me.
Ms. Florence told me about her Aunt Helen
Whitfield, one of Hattie's daughters (as previously noted, Helen is
sitting on the lap of
her grandmother in the Brummell family photo above). Mrs. Whitfield had written William Maxwell about his
portrayal of Hattie and her husband. Priscilla Florence kindly provided me with a copy of that typewritten letter and of
Maxwell's letter of reply. Mrs. Whitfield's letter is undated, but
probably was sent in the first half of 1992 because Maxwell's response letter is dated
July 10, 1992.
Below is the full text of Mrs. Whitfield's letter, and I
have done some minor editing of spelling and punctuation, but I retain
Mrs. Whitfield's spelling of Brummel with one l. This letter
is the only known written primary source that confirms Maxwell's
literary testimony that his portrayal of Hattie's husband had
c/o New Yorker Magazine, Inc.
New York, New York 10036
Re: Harriet Bell Dyer Brummel (known to you as Hattie)
Dear Mr. Maxwell:
By way of introduction I am one of Hattie Dyer's daughters.
After reading your book "Bill Dyer and Other Stories," I became lost in many
memories growing up in Lincoln, Illinois.
Your misconception of my father, Fredrick Brummel, was apparent, after
reading your description of him in your book, "They Came like Swallows.'
[Note: Maxwell's novel with characters as counterparts of Mrs.
Whitfield's parents is Time Will Darken It.] Yes, it angered
and surprised my mother. This book shocked many of the Lincoln
residents. They sought to destroy all copies [Note: This is not true
of Swallows, but perhaps of So Long.], I never had the pleasure
of reading it. You see, my mother was not the only Lincolnite who
identified with the characters in your book.
Let me tell you about George Brummel, Fred as you called him. He was
a gentle man, dignified, bright and was never exposed to the horror of
slavery. He is buried in Decatur, Illinois (his home) not Lincoln. Your
description of my father was not pleasing to me.
My parents were very proud people, even though their backgrounds
varied. The Brummels settled in Decatur, Illinois from Europe. My
granduncle Robert Brummel lived in Indianapolis, and he claimed to be third
cousin to Beau Brummel, even had some proof.
I am to this day, sorry I did not learn more about the Brummel family
other than that their bloodline was Cherokee, French, English, and small
amount of African American. Cherokee is prominent in both sides of the
family. Grandma Dyer's mother was full blooded Cherokee Indian.
Let's go back to Mamma. My father died when I was 13 years of age.
Mamma was left with five children (at home) to raise. Do you know, we
had a meeting (called by Mamma) to decide how she would manage to feed,
cloth, etc., us, her very different children. Would we become recipients
of ADC? No, was echoed throughout the conversation. My mother decided
electric lights would be turned off and to be turned on when I finished
high school. I was beginning my freshman year, so for four years we had
kerosene lamps. The day I graduated the electric lights were turned on
(How wise my mother was).
My mother often told us we were of aristocracy (smile), and we really
believed her. You see, I believed that we were the only family in
Lincoln that didn't have electricity for those four years, along with no
car, or any other luxury.
Many years passed but at some of our family gatherings we asked Mamma
why we had no lights as well as why she instilled the fact we were
aristocratic (rich in heritage, poor financially). We her children had
many blessed thoughts of Hattie and Fred Brummel.
I recall learning
many times about the Harts, Maxwells, Bliss [Blinns], and Harris.
I often see the name William Blinn on TV. Is he related to the Blinn of
could go on and on but I do not want to tire you. So, please inform me
where you obtained the history of my family. I have a granddaughter and
a niece who are interested.
My kindest regards to Mrs. Maxwell.
Ms. Helen Brummel Whitfield
Osseo, WI 54758
Below is the entire text of Mr. Maxwell's letter of reply to Mrs.
Whitfield, dated July 10, 1992. Not surprisingly, the publishing-savvy
Maxwell opens with a conventional libel dodge of denying that his
characters are based on actual people.
Dear Helen Brummel:
In that novel I wasn't really writing about
your father at all, or your mother either. But because of surrounding
circumstances it seemed I might be. If I had it to do over again, I
would make sure this didn't happen. But it is a relief to me to know
that my guess about why your mother was not more friendly to me was
correct. I tried to put my arms around her because she represented the
world I had lost when my mother died, but I didn't manage to tell her
this, and she didn't manage to tell me why she was angry. Too bad. But
also a long time ago, and one must let go of things that happen.
When I was writing "The Front and Back Parts
of the House" in Billie Dyer and Other Stories, I tried hard, for years,
to find out what your mother's life had been like but by that time she
had passed away and there didn't seem to be any people in Lincoln who
remembered her. [Note: Contrast this language with that of "The
Front and the Back Parts of the House" in which Maxwell quotes his
cousin Tom Perry: "They [black Lincolnites] don't seem to want to talk
about Hattie Dyer."] I expect I just didn't know the right people to
After the book was published I had a letter from a member of the family
on 8th Street that your mother worked for when she moved back to Lincoln
from Chicago. They said that one morning she came to work in tears
because your brother, who was, as I am sure you don't need to be told, a
remarkable athlete, wasn't allowed to eat in a cafe with the other boys
who were celebrating their victory but had to take his plate and go
outside and eat, sitting on the curbing. In some ways the world gets
better. But so slowly. Anyway it couldn't happen now, in Lincoln, or
During part of my growing up I lived on a farm in Wisconsin where there was
no electricity, so I know that coal oil lamps can
be cosy [sic], though electricity is more convenient.
The Dyer family always interested me. Some
of the things about them I remembered, some I learned from the widow of
Dr. William Dyer's friend Hugh Davis, who was my cousin once removed.
Your mother was quite right. They were, and are, aristocrats.
In her letter above, Mrs. Whitfield does not
explicitly raise the question of whether the real-life counterpart of Fred Brummell's wife (Rachel) is her mother, Hattie Dyer Brummell,
but clearly implies it to be the case. Maxwell
denies that connection: "Austin King's house [a setting in Time Will
Darken It, the novel presenting the Fred Brummell character] was
clearly our house, to anyone who had ever been in it. In 1912 Hattie was
across the street at my Grandmother Blinn's. But during the visit of my
Great-Aunt Ina and her family Hattie was working in our kitchen.
However, I never had it in mind to write about her. Rachel, the colored
woman who worked in the Kings' kitchen, was imaginary ("The Front and
the Back Parts of the House," pp. 104-105).
Maxwell's denial that he was writing about
Hattie in Time Will Darken It would appear to be contradicted by
"the rest of the story" of "The Front and the Back Parts of the House."
"If Hattie did indeed read my book then what could she think but that
I had portrayed her as a loose woman and her husband as a monster of
evil? . . . Any regret for what I may have made Hattie feel is nowhere
near enough to have appeased her anger. She was perfectly right not to
look at me, not to respond at all, when I put my arms around her"
("House, p. 107).
When I received Mrs. Whitfield's letter,
I wondered whether she was related to Foster Whitfield, my black friend
from Lincoln during my last year of high school and freshman year
at Lincoln College (1960-61). Priscilla Florence said that Foster was
Helen Brummell Whitfield's only child. He had attended Central School with
others my age while I attended Jefferson School, so he and I did not meet
till high school years.
In later grade school years, Foster had moved from Lincoln for several
years till he moved back to Lincoln to finish high school, when he lived with
his Grandmother Hattie. During my freshman year at Lincoln College, Foster invited me to
see where he lived. I recall he had several candles
in his bedroom, and his bedroom
window gave him the freedom to come and go at night as he pleased.
Unfortunately I did not meet his
Grandmother Hattie. Of course, even if I had met her, I would have
known nothing about her family's significance in the town's history or probably
would not have cared even if I had. I am reminded of Maxwell's
observation: "You don't know at one time in your life what you will want
to know at another."
a photo of Foster's third-grade class at Central School in 1951:
Third Grade Class at Central School of Lincoln, Illinois (1951).
Photo courtesy of Janet Kerpan, LCHS noble Class of 1960. This photo is
most appropriate for closing a very wide circle. Foster Whitfield is in
the second row from the left, second seat. Bob Goebel, my high school
classmate who spurred my interest in William Maxwell and who has
contributed several remembrances to this community history, is in the
left row, fourth from the front. Jerry Gibson, my best first cousin once
removed, is in the third row from the left, fourth from the front.
Jerry has contributed much material to this community history and
invaluable encouragement to me on many occasions. Two seats behind Jerry
is Janet Kerpan, who provided this photo and much encouragement for this
The above photo was
also published in the Lincoln Courier because the lady who owned
the Courier, Mrs. Nugent, liked to publish photos of classes. In
the photo captions, she quoted selected students' responses to
leading questions whose answers demanded didactic testimony for good behavior. I
discovered this photo from the Courier on microfilm years ago in
my early research of Lincoln social history.
The title of photo in
the Courier is "Picking up Clothes, Keeping Room Tidy, Topic for
Third Grade Class." Foster is not one of the half dozen students whose
responses are given to the question, "Why should you always hang up your
clothes and keep your room tidy?" Bob Goebel's answer is, "Your room
would look a lot nicer. You could trip on something and hurt yourself. .
. [illegible] save a lot of work. It saves a lot of time."
Priscilla Florence, CFP,
Writes About Her Family, William Maxwell, and Lincoln, Illinois
As indicated previously on this page, Priscilla Florence is a
granddaughter of Hattie Dyer Brummell and first cousin of Foster
Whitfield. In several email exchanges between Priscilla and me in the
fall of 2007, she provided family history and remembrances of Lincoln,
Illinois. She has generously allowed me to analyze them and present them
here. Also, with the help of her sister, Ms. Florence provided the
following wonderful painting of Hattie Dyer Brummell owned by their mother, Mrs. Marian Clay.
Painting of Hattie Dyer Brummell at about the age of 70. This
painting was done from a photograph and is courtesy of Priscilla
What you say about my family flows very well into Lincoln's history and
I am impressed that you bothered to pursue the history of African
Americans in Lincoln. We are so often left out or just ancillary to
It is a large and noble task that you pursue. It goes in many
directions, but you have managed to keep it organized. Isn't it amazing
how many links you find? I
grew up wondering how my family ended up in the small towns of Lincoln,
Decatur and Springfield. William Maxwell and now, your research explain
To answer one of your questions, different family members spell Brummell
different ways. My mother [Mrs. Marian Clay] spells it as I
do. Others spell it with one l, but all seem to spell it with two m's.
The two oldest Dyers, Leon Dyer and Frances
Dyer Edwards died within the past 2 years. Leon's father, Edward,
and Alfred, my great-grandfather, were brothers. My cousin,
Frances, was the daughter of Uncle Clarence and died Dec. 22, 2006.
What is interesting about her is that she was encouraged by Uncle Will
to come to Kansas City to study nursing. She graduated from an
all-black nursing school in K.C., Mo. in
1940 and entered the Army Nurse Corps. serving in WWII taking care of
German prisoners housed at Fort Huachuca in Arizona. Was she following
Uncle Will's steps?
[Ms. Florence provides the following photo of one of her
Undated photo of Martha
Regarding the Gorens, yes, my family was married to the Gorens
family. Harold tells me that one ancestor helped Alfred Dyer build the
A.M.E. Church. Everyone in my family who has ever been to Lincoln
remembers the A.M.E.
Church. It played a key role in the lives of all blacks in Lincoln. I
remember spending many hours there as a child. Gramma Hattie would
frequently invite the then current minister over for Sunday dinner (who,
of course, always took the best pieces of the fried chicken).
The place on Elm Street was by every definition a "homeplace." It
was where all 6 [Maxwell thought there were 5] of Gramma Hattie's children went with and without their
kids during crises. Almost all of them have landed there for various
reasons, staying for a few months or years, then launching back out. For
instance, my sister and I lived there with my mother when she divorced
my father. My cousin Harold said that 7 to 8 of his brothers and sisters
stayed there when his father died. At the same time, Aunt Thelma and her
husband were there with their 3 kids.
[Note: Maxwell refers to the Dyers'
house in a couple of places: "The Dyers' house was just around the
corner on Elm Street [second house from the southwest corner]. It was
shaped like a shoebox and covered with green roofing paper" ("Billie
Dyer," p. 9). As a child, Maxwell accompanied his father when he visited
the elderly Mrs. Dyer, and these visits afforded a recollection of the
house interior: "I was not expected to take part in the conversation;
only to be there. And so my eyes were free to roam around the front room
we sat in. The iron potbellied stove, the threadbare carpet, the
darkened wallpaper. The calendar, courtesy of the local lumber company
[where Alfred Dyer worked]. The hard wooden chairs we sat on" (The Front
and the Back Parts of the House," p. 96).
says they slept everywhere. It's hard to imagine there is no sign
of this place in Lincoln now, but it was a very small house, built by my
great grandparents, so it was a privilege to have a place they owned.
[Note: Priscilla's following comment is a response to my mentioning that
in "The Front and the Back Parts of the House," Maxwell writes, ". . . Alfred Dyer owned his own house and the houses on either side of it.
This surprised me. He did not look like a property owner. All three
homes were torn down recently, Tom said (Maxwell's step-cousin Tom Perry), and the site has not been built on."]
Forgot to say that neither Harold, Gertrude nor I remember any ownership
by the family of homes other than the Elm Street house, built by Alfred
Dyer. That was my purpose of the call to Gertrude and Harold. We all
find it hard to believe, but none of us would rule anything out
[Note: The notion that all three houses torn down were on
contiguous lots is hard to believe because as of October, 2007, there are
houses on either side of the lot where Alfred Dyer's house was located
that appear to have been there many decades. If Alfred Dyer did own
other houses, they must have been at some other location(s).]
My sister, Beverly, and I spent a lot of time playing with the kids
next door and were in and out of one of the houses all the time. Gramma
Hattie never referred to it as having been owned by our family.
Historic house on black section of Elm Street (left)
surviving from the Dyer-Brummell family eras. The Dyer-Brummell family
home was located immediately to the right of the white house at right.
Photo courtesy of Leigh Henson.
[The following photos show Florence's second and third grade
classes at Central School in the early 1950s.]
[Note: I mentioned, also, to Priscilla Florence that I am only four
years older than she. I was riding my bike all over west Lincoln,
including Elm Street, when she was visiting her Grandmother Hattie and
playing with neighborhood kids--small world.]
The copy of the diary you described is the one I remember seeing in my
home growing up, given to my mother by Uncle Will. Her sisters and
brothers also received copies. My cousin, Gertrude, in Decatur
says she has a copy. Foster says he has the original manuscript.
I was also told that someone else had the original manuscript.
Have no idea who has what, but Foster says he will send me what he has.
The beautiful Lincoln Presidential Library would be a great place
to house the diary. Are they interested in such things? I
visited the Lincoln museum in Springfield last year and found it
fascinating. Had no time to go next door to the Library.
Speaking of libraries, Gertrude, the daughter of Ethel, one of my
mother's sisters, tells me that the library at Lincoln College has a
memorial in the form of a picture, statue or something similar in honor
of Aaron's work in the Underground Railroad. The family was invited to
a dedication for it shortly after our family reunion, but no one could
go at the time.
Aunt Bess and Uncle Will had a great fondness for my mother and
later, my sister and I. We spent much time at their home in Kansas
City. Aunt Bess was indeed a painter. She gave paintings to the
family. These paintings hung in the Lincoln home and in our home in
Jacksonville. Sadly, they are now destroyed over time by mistreatment
and through various moves.
Great Uncle Clarence, Gramma Hattie's brother, lived in Columbus,
Ohio. It is interesting how you came upon the diary on e-bay. Again,
someone, thought it would have some value to someone else - and it did.
Thanks for recognizing its significance. I regret that I didn't place
more value on it when first seeing it. I don't think Uncle Will wrote
anything else, but no one really knows. He seemed to have an awareness
of his own place in history having created a diary in the first place.
My family would not share some of the
romantic musings you referred to in some of your writing. Foster has
another story of trying to swim in a lake in Lincoln [Lincoln Lakes] with his white
friends, but being told he couldn't go in because he was black. That
incident is burned in his memory. My mother talks often of her family
and others needing to see a dentist, but all dentists but one refused to
see black people. The one would see them only after hours, at dark, and
required that none of them use the front entrance. They almost never saw
a doctor and my family was fortunate in that Uncle Will would do short
examinations and make recommendations when he came to visit, which he
did as often as possible.
Of course, you and Maxwell covered many of
the attitudes reflected in the town's behavior towards black people. It
hurt families a lot, but was no different than other towns in the
Midwest. Black people had to leave those towns to get ahead. That is why
Uncle Will was so heroic in his reaching back to help when he could.
Maxwell mentioned that perhaps Uncle Will's siblings resented him for
what was done for him by his donor [benefactor]. No one is
around to verify a resentment per se, but there were some sacrifices on
everyone's part in the family to help Uncle Will through college and
Medical School. The donor paid for a very small part, but the seed was planted. I am
learning that Uncle Clarence, his brother, wanted also to go to school,
but the family had no extra resources to help him. All extra resources
were directed to Uncle Will.
My mother was also encouraged by Uncle Will to come to Kansas City,
Kansas, after graduating from Lincoln High, also to pursue a greater
future than what was available in Lincoln. He paid her way through a
year or two of junior college. She met my father after he left the
army; they married and I was born in the first year of the boomers. My
friends think it is amazing that Uncle Will bothered to reach back to
women in an age when it was not commonly done.
Because of him, my mother saw black people
accomplishing things as teachers, doctors, etc. Once she saw what could
be accomplished in Kansas City, when she lived with Uncle Will, she
became determined to see that she and her future children would be part
All four of us have advanced degrees. My brother has a law degree and
the rest received our Master's. I don't want to presume that it all
started with Uncle Will because Gramma Hattie was encouraging as
well. She did not want to see any other family member work as
housekeepers or maids. I think she thought fondly of the Maxwells,
because when she no longer worked for them, the father would visit her
and give her some much needed money, unasked. I remember her referring
to these visits often. He would just come to say hello, more than
once. She liked that he continued to think about her.
My article titled "Social Consciousness in William Maxwell's Writings
Based on Lincoln, Illinois" explains that Maxwell's work captures the
social structure of his hometown in the early twentieth century,
including the part played by black servants of the upper middle class.
"Billie Dyer" and "The Front and the Back Parts of the House" show that
toward the end of his life
Maxwell developed a strong interest in the history of blacks in
Lincoln, especially in the members of the Dyer-Brummell families who
worked as servants in the homes of his family.
Maxwell expresses his particular interest in Lincoln's black history by
describing how the published histories of Lincoln and Logan County do or
do not treat the subject. In "The Front and the Back Parts of the
House," Maxwell uses a digression to describe the page in the 1953
centennial history of Lincoln (The Namesake Town, p. 33) that
summarizes some of the Dyer family history as told by Hattie Dyer Brummell
based on an interview with her by someone anonymous (perhaps Raymond
Dooley). In that interview, Mrs. Dyer reveals that she is part white
Indian--her grandmother, who lived in North Carolina, was the child of a
Cherokee Indian father and a white mother. This woman came in the
covered wagon days first to Sparta, Illinois, and then to Springfield"
The last several paragraphs of "Billie Dyer" lament the absence of black
history in "the most recent" local history there: Maxwell describes
this book, but does not
give its title: "a large book--nine by twelve--. . . The likeness of
Abraham Lincoln is on the cover, embossed in gold, as if some where in
the Afterlife his tall shade had encountered King Midas" (p. 14).
Maxwell is clearly referring to the History of Logan County,
edited by Paul J. Beaver--I own a copy and easily recognized it from
of this work is explicit: "Someone who had
never lived there [Lincoln] might conclude from this book that the town
had no Negroes now or ever. Except for the group pictures of the Lincoln
College athletic teams, in which here and there a dark face appears
among the lighter ones, there are no photographs of black men and women.
And though there are many pictures of white churches of one denomination
or another, there is no picture of the African Methodist Episcopal
Church [the 1953 centennial history has such a photo]--only a column of
text, in which the buildings it occupied and the ministers who served it
are listed" ("Billie Dyer," p. 34). I note that the basketball teams of Lincoln
Community High School in the 1982 history also show blacks (Beaver, p.
36), and these photos are a better indication of the presence of black families in Lincoln
than the pictures of Lincoln College athletes because many students of Lincoln
College come from other places, especially the Chicago area.
Maxwell conducted research to discover information about the Dyer-Brummell
families so that he could write about them in his final collection of
stories. Those stories have prompted my own research on this subject,
which has benefited from the Internet. That resource was not available
in Mr. Maxwell's lifetime. The results of my research shed light on
Maxwell's research and his use of it.
Obviously, William Maxwell's research helped him to write about the Dyer-Brummell
families in two of his last stories; but his writing, specifically "The Front
and the Back Parts of the House," does not fully reveal the nature of
his research or the way he used it. For example, Maxwell does
not identify "the elderly black man" who worked for Tom Perry. In his
story, Maxwell could have concisely reported his effort to learn more
about the Dyer-Brummells through correspondence with John A. Ross. Such
a brief clarification would have been of interest to readers.
Additionally, Maxwell surely realized that Ross's life-long experience
in Lincoln held much potential as material for literary composition. In his
letter to Mr. Ross of January 7, 1987, Maxwell cites information that
Mr. Ross had shared that shows Maxwell had an appreciation of Mr. Ross's
life that would have been quite suitable for at least one good story:
Your letter gave me a great deal of
pleasure. I think in many ways your life has been unusual. I certainly
don't know anybody who has lived for 80 years, off and on, in the house
he was born in. I was born in a house on Ninth Street, but only lived
there 12 years. I had two brothers--one of them is now dead [Edward]--but
no sisters, and think it must have been a great advantage to be brought
up in a house where there were so many children. The first job my father
ever had was working as a bill poster for the Opera House [on
Broadway Street and later named The Grand Theater], I think
before ever you were born. I marvelled [sic] at your
account of your ancestry, and particularly at your great grandfather,
who actually managed, as so many men have wanted to, to have 2 wives at
the same time. What adventures, what remarkable accidents, what stories
the bare facts suggest. Sometime when you're in the mood I hope you will
tell me more, since there is, you say, a lot more to tell. . . . Like
you, they [the Dyers] were part Indian, part white and part
Negro. . . ."
Maxwell may or may not have been trying to
learn more about Mr. Ross as potential material for a story. We can only
speculate on the reason Maxwell does not identify "the elderly black
man" or reveal the correspondence with him. The point is that Maxwell
has withheld information about his research activity and details about a
character that would have interested many of his readers.
It is puzzling that Maxwell's "The Front and the Back Parts of the
House" does not include the paragraph of his letter to John A. Ross of
October 24, 1987, in which Maxwell imagines what he does not know about
Hattie Dyer Brummell's life because that is a key technique that Maxwell
likes to use to create the effect he sought: "the illusion of reality"
The selections in Billie Dyer and Other Stories about the Dyer-Brummell
families depend heavily upon factual information, and readers would like
to think that good writing is both
complete and free of irrelevancy. My research of the Dyer-Brummells
and my analysis of Maxwell's stories about them reveal details that he
withheld. In my view, these are not irrelevant: they hold much potential
interest for readers, and Maxwell could have easily included them
without excessively lengthening the stories. The informal,
digressive style he uses in these stories would have easily accommodated
such details. But, of course, we must remember that Maxwell is not
writing strictly factual prose: he is writing autobiographical fiction.
This kind of writing presents challenging puzzles. One of them
is trying to determine whether withheld information is a function of
artistic purpose or evidence of flawed writing. Another puzzle--and perhaps an
one--is to distinguish fact from fiction in a given work.
The author-narrator persona of "The Front and the Back Parts of the
House" is a focus of these puzzles. To what extent does this figure
reflect autobiographical facts, and to what extent is he a product of
the author's imagination?
The author-narrator persona of this story does not clarify exactly when he became
troubled enough over Hattie's snub to try to discover its cause. After
the scene of the snub, he merely says, "Years passed
without my thinking about Hattie Dyer at all, and then suddenly there I
was backing away from her in confusion. When I told my wife about it she
said, 'It wasn't Hattie you embraced but the idea of her.' Which was
clearly true, but didn't explain Hattie's behavior" (p. 92). After
several pages of digression, the author-narrator says, "I could have asked my aunt
[Annette Bates] about Hattie and she would have told me all that a white
person would be likely to know, but I didn't. More years passed. I found
that I had a nagging curiosity about Hattie--about what her life had
been like. Finally it occurred to me that my Cousin Tom Perry, who lives
in Lincoln, might be able to learn about her. He wrote back that I had
waited too long. Among the white people there was nobody left who knew
her, and he couldn't get much information from the black people he
talked to" (p. 99).
It is curious that when the narrator persona thought about Hattie many
years after the snub, he does not say his nagging curiosity was about
the reason for her snub. Rather, the curiosity was about "what her life
had been like." Had William Maxwell early on surmised the reason for the
snub? The author-narrator says he did not realize the reason for
Hattie's snub until several decades after it happened. How likely is it
that Maxwell would need that much time--and a special experience to
realize that some black people are literate--to surmise the reason for
If Maxwell had not figured out the reason for the snub, why did many
years pass before he thought about it enough to try to get an answer?
Just how troubled about the incident was he if he did not think about it
for many years? The snubbing incident happened in the early 1950s, and
Hattie died in 1963 (see photo of her headstone below), so there was a
period of about ten years in which Maxwell conceivably could have
written to Hattie or written to others in Lincoln in an effort to reach her or learn about her.
Maxwell could have written his father, who sometimes visited Hattie,
until his death in 1958. I also wonder what the year was in which Maxwell was curious
enough to write Tom Perry. Was this not until the
1980s when Maxwell was working on the stories of Billie Dyer and
Other Stories? Maxwell's letter to John A. Ross of January 7, 1987,
quoted above, shows that Maxwell was not motivated to write letters of
inquiry by nagging
curiosity alone, but by a desire to write about the snubbing experience
Additional insight into the puzzle of fact vs. fiction in the
author-narrator can, perhaps, be gained by looking at the
literary principles that guided Maxwell's art.
Maxwell presents his main beliefs about a
writer's purpose and method in a speech delivered at Smith College on March 4, 1955; and
in that speech he says that a writer's purpose is to create the illusion
of reality ("The Writer as Illusionist" in A William Maxwell Portrait,
pp. 208--228). Moreover, the illusion results from fooling the reader:
"Writers--narrative writers--are people who perform tricks" ("The Writer
as Illusionist," p. 209). "So far as I can see, there is no legitimate
sleight of hand involved in practicing the arts of painting, sculpture,
and music. . . . They are fundamentally serious. In writing--in all
writing but especially in narrative writing--you are continually being
taken in" (p. 211).
In his discussion of literary theory, Maxwell describes "tricks of
construction" that involve "the whole work" (p. 213). In "The
Front and the Back Parts of the House," Maxwell's potentially greatest
"trick" involving the whole work relates to the author-narrator--truly
the story's main character, not Hattie--, and the problem is to know to
what extent this figure captures Maxwell's actual thoughts and feelings
and to what extent this figure's thoughts and feelings are the product
of Maxwell using his imagination to create the illusion of reality: to
trick the reader.
Maxwell's literary theory suggests that he had been influenced by The Wonderful Wizard of Oz,
a book whose story and theme charmed Maxwell so much that he loaned his
copy to his black friend and grade school classmate, John A. Ross. Maxwell's writings based on
Lincoln, Illinois, resonate deeply with my personal experience in and
curiosity about our mutual hometown, but this old English teacher is
intrigued by--and a bit troubled by--the notion that literary art is
really literary artifice. I understand the confusion Dorothy must
feel when her dog, Toto, accidentally knocks down a screen that reveals
the true identity of the wizard:
The Lion thought it might be as well to frighten the Wizard, so he
gave a large, loud roar, which was so fierce and dreadful that Toto
jumped away from him in alarm and tipped over the screen that stood in a
corner. As it fell with a crash they looked that way, and the next
moment all of them were filled with wonder. For they saw, standing in
just the spot the screen had hidden, a little old man, with a bald head
and a wrinkled face, who seemed to be as much surprised as they were.
The Tin Woodman, raising his axe, rushed toward the little man and cried
out, "Who are you?"
"I am Oz, the Great and Terrible," said the little man, in a trembling
voice. "But don't strike me--please don't--and I'll do anything you want
me to" (Chapter 15: "The Discovery of Oz--The Terrible," The
Wonderful Wizard of Oz).
Later, Dorothy and her needy friends are reassured by the wizard's wise
In "The Writer as Illusionist," Maxwell says that "the writer must be
taken in by his own tricks" (p. 211). This concept is significant
for the question of fact vs. fiction in the author-narrator of "The
Front and the Back Parts of the House." The author-narrator says he did
not realize the reason for Hattie's snub until several decades after it
happened. If that is true--and not literary fiction--, the delayed epiphany suggests that Maxwell had been taken
in by one of his own tricks.
Maxwell's self-delusion is that no one would discover the connection
between George Brummell, Hattie's husband, and the fictionalized,
unsympathetic portrayal of him as Fred in Time Will Darken It.
If this connection were discovered, moreover, Maxwell believed that he stood to profit: "I had
exposed their married life and blackened his character [Hattie's
husband] in order to make a fortune from my writing. I was a thousand
miles away, where she [Hattie] couldn't confront me with what I had
done. And if she accused me to other people it would only call attention
to the book and make more people read it than had already" ("Front and
Back Parts of the House," p. 107).
Maxwell's self-deception could derive from the white stereotype that black servants were illiterate, or
otherwise ignorant of or uninterested in literature. Maxwell had left
Lincoln, but certain upper-middle-class racial attitudes had not left
him. Maxwell had deceived ("tricked") himself until his cousin in Lincoln revealed
that his black lawn keeper was reading one of Maxwell's books. In that
moment, Maxwell realizes that Hattie knew he had exploited her family:
"And in a flash I realized what the unforgivable thing was [offense to
Hattie] and who had done it" ("Front and Back Parts," p. 102).
Maxwell had been forced to peek behind his own screen.
I, too, peeked behind it by investigating Maxwell's research into the
Dyer-Brummell family. I discovered that Maxwell's research was more
extensive than he reveals in his writing, but that he did not gain as
much information as he had wanted to.
Maxwell's literary depiction of blacks, combined with information from
other historical sources, reveals much about
their identify and their role in the social history of the Great Emancipator's first
namesake town. There is considerable irony that two of the best-known black
families in the history of Lincoln, Illinois--those of John A. Ross and
of Alfred and Laura Ward Dyer--were racially mixed and that the namesake
of this town, Abraham Lincoln, like many Americans then and thereafter,
was opposed to what Lincoln's contemporaries called "amalgamation." As
noted above in this essay, both the Ross and Dyer-Brummell families had
white, black, and Indian ancestors. In his opening speech in the fifth
Lincoln-Douglas Debate at Charleston, Lincoln expressed views that his
critics have often cited: "I am not nor ever
have been in favor of making voters of the negroes, or jurors, or
qualifying them to hold office, or having them to marry with white
people. . . . I do not understand that because I do not want a negro
woman for a slave I must necessarily want her for a wife. . . . It seems
to me that it is quite possible for us to get along without making
either slaves or wives of negroes" (Holzer, The Lincoln-Douglas
Debates, p. 188).
Abraham Lincoln, in addition to many of his contemporaries, had favored returning blacks to
Africa ("colonization"), and he apparently did not realize that free
blacks would consider the United States to be their country of choice
and would want to remain here. Lincoln was also unable to foresee the
social and political consequences of freedom for blacks living
in a country that promised its people "life, liberty, and the pursuit of
Social and political equality between races was not an aspect of the lives of blacks in
Lincoln, Illinois, that Maxwell's stories are much concerned with. As I explain in "Social
Consciousness in William Maxwell's Writings Based on Lincoln, Illinois,"
he only briefly describes subtle racial prejudice and does not explore
racial discrimination. Maxwell's focus on family life was a logical
limitation of writing based mainly on childhood memory.
most rewarding experience in peeking behind Maxwell's screen is my
belief that he would have shared my
pleasure in learning of the many present-day successes and enduring ties
in the black families he wrote about: the living
legacy of John A. Ross, Dr. William Dyer, and Hattie Dyer Brummell.
The gravestones below are located in the black section of Old Union
Cemetery on the southwest edge of Lincoln, Illinois. Helen Brummell Whitfield rests in this section near
her mother, Hattie. Members of the John A. Ross family also rest here.
Ms. Florence tells me that her great grandparents, Alfred and Laura Dyer,
are buried near the old streetcar depot on the north, central part of the
cemetery. Both Ms. Florence and I have looked for their headstones, but have
not found them. Photos are courtesy of Leigh Henson.
Marker at the Foot of Dr. Dyer's Grave
Bessie L. (Bradley) Dyer, 1889--1969, and Dr.
William H. Dyer, 1886--1958. I placed the flag during my family visit to
Lincoln in October, 2007.
Mrs. Brummell is buried near her brother,
William Dyer, M.D., and her daughter, Helen Brummell Whitfield.
Baum, L. Frank.
The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.
Baxter, Charles; Michael Collier; and Edward
Hirsch, eds. A William Maxwell Portrait: Memories and Appreciations
(NY: W.W. Norton & Company, 2004).
Beaver, Paul, J., ed. History of Logan
County, Illinois, 1982 (Dallas, TX: Taylor Publishing Company,
Email to Leigh Henson, September 5, 2007.
Dooley, Raymond N., and Ethel Welch, eds. The Namesake
Town: A Centennial History of Lincoln, Illinois (Lincoln, IL: Feldman Print Shop, 1953).
Dyer, William, M.D. A Soldiers' [sic] Diary
(No place or date of publication).
Florence, Priscilla. Phone conversation and
various emails to Leigh Henson, September and October, 2007.
Graybill, Elaine. Bloomington Pantagraph,
Holzer, Harold, ed., The
Lincoln-Douglas Debates: The First Complete, Unexpurgated Text (NY:
Fordham University Press, 2004).
Maxwell, William. "Billie Dyer," in Billie
Dyer and Other Stories (NY: Alfred A. Knopf, 1992).
_______. Letter to Helen Brummell Whitfield,
July 10, 1992.
_______. Letters to John A. Ross. October 24,
_______ . So Long, See You Tomorrow (NY:
Vintage Books, 1996).
_______. "The Front and the Back Parts of the
House," in Billie Dyer and Other Stories (NY: Alfred A. Knopf,
_______ . "The Man in the Moon," in Billie
Dyer and Other Stories (NY: Alfred A. Knopf, 1992).
_______ . Time Will Darken It (NY:
Vintage Books, 1997).
Ross, Debbie. Interview with Leigh Henson,
Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library, Springfield, Illinois, August 17,
Sumrall, Richard. Email to Leigh Henson,
Ms. Ross on YouTube singing
The Star-Spangled Banner at Barack Obama's Presidential candidacy
Whitfield, Helen Brummell. Letter to William
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