University of Minnesota Alumni Association


A Famous Editor, a Famous Architect, and a Few Other Good Reads

It’s Minnesota Alumni’s quarterly books roundup.

Thirty years ago, an unlikely Norwegian surname became famous across the country thanks to the growing popularity of the Utne Reader magazine. Now the bearer of that name and founder of that periodical, Eric Utne (B.A. ’72), has written a memoir of his experiences publishing his digest of the alternative press—among many other life adventures. Far Out Man: Tales of Life in the Counterculture (Random House) brings the reader along on Utne’s decades-long quest for answers and meaning, which took him from exploring Eastern medicine and macrobiotics to the men’s movement and Waldorf Schools, with significant stops along the way to found and run both New Age Journal and Utne Reader.

Full disclosure: I served as managing editor of Utne Reader for eight years, and thus worked closely with Utne. Despite that proximity, I found I was unfamiliar with most of the rollicking, almost Zelig-like life he has led.

From his beginnings as a Baby Boomer growing up in a ranch house in Roseville, Minnesota, Utne became close friends with macrobiotics guru Michio Kushi, poet Robert Bly, and author Brenda Ueland, who also happened to be his step-grandmother (her third marriage was to his maternal grandfather, artist Sverre Hanssen). Along the way he also managed to rub elbows with Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, Tina Brown, Margaret Mead, Garrison Keillor, and many other famous 20th century characters mentioned within the book’s 300-plus pages.

Utne is and was a true seeker, and his persistent investigations of various philosophies and spiritual practices make for fascinating reading. Although such heartfelt and wideranging searching can be easily parodied as dilettantism or flaky New Age meanderings, his searches have been real, and the lessons he has learned along the way many and true.

As can often be the case with lifelong seekers, Utne’s childhood was a fractured and fractious one; he writes he alternately endured criticism and neglect from his unhappy—and unhappily married—parents. He remained close to his three siblings, however, particularly to his younger sister, Mary, who died of cancer in her 50s, and younger brother, Tom, who died much earlier.

Tom Utne—who was, if anything, an even more ardent searcher than his brother—died on the Oregon compound of the controversial religious leader Bhagwan Rajneesh, the victim of an untreated allergic reaction to peanuts. Tom had been instrumental in helping Eric pull together the first issue of Utne Reader. It was published just after his death and dedicated to his memory.

Utne was also strongly connected to Ueland, who acted for him as a kind of combination cheerleader/mentor/inspiration for many years, until her death in 1985. After reading his description of the magazine he intended to publish, “Brenda could not have been more supportive,” writes Utne. “Without her hyperbolic and inflated praise, I might not have had the courage to go forward. She acknowledged me for qualities I didn’t know I had, and very probably did not have until she claimed to see them in me. Brenda’s encouragement made me want to live up to her vision of me, to be better, braver, and more noble—the heroic person she challenged me to be.”

His memoir movingly describes the now 73-year-old Utne’s lifelong quest to become that person, a quest he pursues even still.

And the rest…

For a look at the life and work of another famous Minnesotan, pick up a copy of the beautifully produced coffee table book Elizabeth Scheu Close (University of Minnesota Press) by Jane King Hession (M.Arch. ’95). Elizabeth “Lisl” Scheu Close spent 60 years working as a Minnesota architect after emigrating to the United States from Austria as a young woman. Together with her husband, Winston Close, she made important contributions to the Twin Cities residential architectural landscape, designing more than 250 modern homes, including a distinctive cluster in the University Grove neighborhood of St. Paul. One of the few women working as architects in mid-century America, she inspired hundreds of women who followed her into the profession.

The Twin Cities is also the setting of a wrenching children’s picture book with a sadly universal message about death. The Shared Room (University of Minnesota Press) by Kao Kalia Yang (with illustrations by Xee Reiter) tells the story of a Hmong American family dealing with their profound grief after the accidental drowning of their older daughter. Told from the perspective of the dead girl’s brother, who is asked if he would like to move into her now-empty bedroom, The Shared Room is a beautiful and tender story of loss and abiding love.

The lifelong resonance of home and family is also the theme of The Second Home (St. Martin’s Press), a first novel by Christina Clancy (B.A. ’91). Set mostly on Cape Cod, the site of the protagonists’ vacation cottage, the book tells a kind of joint coming of age story of the three Gordon siblings, Ann, Poppy, and Michael. Their complicated relationships with each other, their parents, and other Cape Cod locals, and especially their profound connection to a longtime, much-loved family cottage, are skillfully explored in this evocative, richly detailed novel.

If you’d rather read something set a bit further afield, look for The Chile Pepper in China: A Cultural Biography (Columbia University Press) by Brian R. Dott (B.A. ’87). A professor of history at Whitman College with a specialty in China, Dott’s book is a fascinating look at how the non-native chile (it wasn’t introduced into the country until the 16th century) became ubiquitous in China, influencing not only its cuisine but its medicine, language, and cultural identity as well.

Lynette Lamb (M.A. ’84) is a Minneapolis writer.

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