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Lost Writers of Minnesota

Claude Washburn

by Joel Van Valin

On paper, at least, Claude Washburn was everything a young F. Scott Fitzgerald dreamed of becoming. He was a man of leisure, if not outright rich, inheriting from a millionaire father. He had lived in Paris and had actually been Over There for World War I. He had Minnesota roots but knew movers and shakers on the East Coast and in Europe. And he was a big time writer—not a best seller, but an Author of Importance, someone writing serious things that people talked about when having serious conversations. Sinclair Lewis him­self had mentioned Washburn in Main Street, in the same sentence as Thoreau and Thomas Browne. If Claude Washburn’s career, like Fitzgerald’s own, seemed to end in failure and an early death, he left behind a quiet legacy of four or five novels, some opinions and verse, a book of Parisian essays, and a view of the world as it appeared to a rich young Midwesterner of the early 20th century.

Washburn was born in Mankato in 1883, but is mainly associ­ated with Duluth, where his family moved in 1890. Jed Washburn was a wealthy lawyer who became a leading citizen of the town, and helped organize Jay Cooke State Park. Claude was educated in exclu­sive boarding schools in Florida and Massachusetts, then went on to graduate magna cum laude at Harvard in 1905. Afterwards he ambled about Italy for a bit, thinking of a career in teaching, but after McClure’s ran his story “Caroline and Her Note-Book” in 1908, he decided to settle down in Paris and write, turning out some plays and a series of essays that were collected as Pages from the Book of Paris (Houghton Mifflin, 1910).

It was in Paris that Claude met Ive Sinclair Gowen, a well-bred but penniless nineteen-year-old American living in Europe. They were wed in Florence in 1911. One can imagine the young couple fitting in quite comfortably within the pages of Fitzgerald’s The Beau­tiful and the Damned: fashionable young upper-class Americans, living a bohemian life on their own terms. But Gerald Northrop, Washburn’s 1914 debut novel, is more in line with This Side of Paradise: a nebulous book that is content to mostly gaze around at its freshly minted 20th century dreamscape. And unlike Fitzgerald’s imagined rich, the view from inside the castle does not linger over thick silk shirts and soft woollen socks.

The premise revolves around the title character, the grandson of a wealthy mill owner in Valencia, a bustling Wisconsin town with many similarities to Duluth. Upon his grandfather’s death Gerald inherits the mill business; but he remains torn between the two dis­parate worlds of Paris and the Midwest. In Valencia he kindles a romance of sorts with a neighbor girl of the right social station, Clara Moore, but she has the usual Midwestern preoccupation with occu­pation. What, she wonders, is Gerald actually going to do with him­self?


“The ideal is for every man to develop every bit of himself just as far as circumstances will let him. And my circumstances leave me free,” he said exul­tantly. “I've all the chance in the world,—and you'd have me go into the mills! Oh, Clara!”

“But—but,” she asked, “what are you going to do?”

“Oh,” he said, “there's all Valencia in that question! I'll never under­stand it! Do? I'm going to be.”


Shifting between the Midwest and Paris, Washburn spends a great deal of time describing Gerald’s impressions of both worlds. One epiphany he has is about the “make-believers”—those people, including most society women, who pretend to be something they are not.


“Shall I tell you what the only reality is in Valencia? This!” he cried, waving his hand at the trucks and drays in the street through which they were passing. “Go to the business men in Valencia if you want to find reality. All the rest, make-believe! make-believe!”


Gerald’s disdain of women has a nearly misogynistic tone—at least until he falls in love himself:


“And women,—yes, I believe they are nearly always bad at heart. As a rule, they don't break conventional social laws, because they were trained so hard not to that they don't dare; but emotionally they're really corrupt ... And we put women above us as something to worship,—something higher, purer, nobler! Shame!”


But lest we confuse hero and author, Washburn speaks directly to us at times, and seems at pains to distance himself from Gerald:


As it is, even at this point, Gerald, radiant, uncombated, perfectly sure of himself, makes an almost pitiful figure. A man actuated by one firm convic­tion is an ominous sight, when one stops to think of the fragile threads by which convictions hang.


The reviews of the novel were middling. “Notwithstanding that Gerald Northrop is an utter prig, his adventures are interesting,” the Boston Transcript conceded, while the Nation quipped “This is an excel­lent example of a type of current fiction which possesses a number of good qualities, and which we might very well do without.”

But even as the novel went to press, the world it described was crumbling. World War I had begun, and Claude and Ive spent most of it hopscotching between Paris, Italy, Duluth, and the Washburn’s winter home in North Carolina. When the US entered the war in 1917, Claude became a translator at the American Embassy in Rome; it was there Claude and Ive’s only child, John Larry Washburn, was born in 1918.

Though he now had a job and a young family, Claude continued writing fiction. Order (1920), a novel about life in a Midwestern town, made much less of a splash than Gerald Northrop, but Wash­burn’s third novel, The Lonely Warrior (1922), is his best-remembered work. It’s the story of Stacey Carroll, a young American who goes off to war in 1914 for idealistic reasons, and comes home in 1919 a hol­low and disillusioned man. Though still set among the leisure class in the Midwest, Washburn’s characters are more universal here, and the nihilism Stacey wrestles with is a grander theme than Gerald Northrop’s easy narcissism.


“I give you my word that I don't think about myself at all any more. It's an effort, trying to. I haven't any thoughts, and I don't care a rap for any one, and there isn't anything I want to do, but I'm jolly well not going to do any­thing I don't want to do. So that's that!”


Although the drawing room conversations remain stilted and the plot conventional, Stacey and his experiences seem drawn from real life—and indeed Washburn, though not as close to the Italian front as young Ernest Hemingway, probably saw a great deal of the war dur­ing his time in Rome. Bitter and restless, Stacey shrugs off any stories of heroism or bravery under fire. Captain Carroll is only proud of one thing: defying orders to attack in the Argonne forest the day before the Armistice was signed, saving some of his men’s lives.


“You see, a time came,” he continued slowly, an odd dazed look in his eyes,—“About 1916 it began, I should think—when all the surface seemed to have been stripped from life, one layer after another, until there was nothing left showing but universal naked pain. Nothing mattered except this. It was so much bigger than anything else. Belgium didn’t matter. Prussian militarism was a word. Love and hate disappeared, unimportant. Nothing was left but pain.”


Once returned, Stacey continues his pre-war courtship of Mar­ian Latimer with half-hearted irony. Beautiful, romantic and coquett­ish, Marian worshiped the idealistic Stacey who went to war, and is puzzled by the apathetic Stacey who returns, shouting at one point, “Come! Let’s have tea. You’re quite Byronic, Stacey!”

More interesting, to both Stacey and the reader, is Marian’s mother, the cool Mrs. Latimer. A middle-aged woman of the world, Mrs. Latimer can see beyond Stacey’s grim facade, and refuses to either argue or trifle with him. In the long 1914 prologue of the novel, she warns Stacey of what might come:


“How do I know what war does?” she continued at last. “How should you know, for that matter? But Stacey, if it changes you in odd deep ways that you can't conceive of now—nor I, either—don't, please don't, suffer too much and blame yourself for the changes.”


Being a contemporary “issue” novel, The Lonely Warrior was widely publicized and read at the time. The New York Times review is probably offers the fairest accounting of Washburn’s masterpiece:


In spite of much that is crude and amateurish Mr. Washburn’s novel is, in more ways than one, thoroughly excellent. The people in the story, flat­tened as they are under their load of words, do still bear a resemblance to life. They are not stock characters: each has an idea, even several, and is struggling rather pitifully against the author to express it.


By the early 1920s, the Washburns were independently wealthy, thanks to Jed’s investments, and continued to live in Italy. Claude completed two later novels, The Prince and the Princess (1925) and The Green Arch (1926). The latter story, like The Lonely Warrior, features a disillusioned veteran, but is set in North Carolina. Though the reviews were positive, neither book met with much success. As his friend Sinclair Lewis wrote in a 1921 letter to publisher Alfred Har­court, “Confidentially, I don’t think C.W. will go much farther than he has now. He’ll keep up to present level. But he lacks a passionate reaction to daily life.”

The last years of Washburn’s life fairly resembled the ending of a Fitzgerald novel. In 1925 Ive left Claude for another man, and he returned to America with his son John Larry, eventually settling in his parents’ house in Duluth. In the summer of 1926 he was suddenly taken ill, and died of a streptococcic infection. His ashes were scat­tered in Lakewood Cemetery in Minneapolis.

Although Gerald Northrop and The Lonely Warrior can still be found in some dusty library stacks and in the shadowy corners of the Internet, the author himself seems to have moved from a life of wealth and pleasure into almost total obscurity; his only biography is an unpublished manuscript by his son John Larry. However, Claude Washburn’s death was not the end of the family’s literary legacy. His niece, Carol Russel, became a short story writer best known by her married name: Carol Bly.