Thursday, December 22, 2005
Pacific Grove author Richard Miller recently published his 12th book, Tanglefoot: An (Almost) True Story of Civil Wars and Cities. Billed as a “factual fiction,” Tanglefoot tells the story of Captain George Wellington Streeter, a young Civil War vet, Mississippi River boat captain and circus owner who runs his steamboat, the 35-ton Reutan, onto a sandbar near East Superior Street in Chicago, Illinois. Unable to move the vessel, which slowly silts into place, Streeter pronounces it the “Independent District of Lake Michigan.”
In 1889, Streeter and his wife move into a larger ship which has run aground in the District and name it the Castle. Anyone who has a problem with it gets a look at the business end of Streeter’s shotgun. Eventually, landfill connects Streeter’s island to the city and after the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, Streeter invites demolition teams to dump their burned waste-wood and backfill onto the sandbar, extending its acreage considerably. As the landmass grows, Streeter begins to issue parcels of land to “homesteaders.” Despite a great deal of conflict with Chicago’s city planners, founders and neighboring millionaires, Streeter maintains his hold on the District, which is now primarily populated by hookers, hobos and various other undesirables.
From 1894 on, there are many attempts to forcibly remove Streeter from the District. When police are injured by axe and gunfire, the courts find Streeter and his men are acting in self-defense. Streeter’s fight for the Independent District of Lake Michigan continued until his death on January 24, 1921, despite the fact that he and his second wife left Streeterville to move to East Chicago, Indiana in 1918.
As an interesting sidenote, Streeters’ heirs continued to lay claim on the land until April 1928, when the courts ruled in favor of Chicago Title and Trust. Today, Captain Streeter’s District of Lake Michigan is part of the Miracle Mile and people still call it Streeterville. The site of Streeter’s shanty is currently occupied by the John Hancock building.
It’s a remarkable story and Miller’s own life is no less eventful. A WWII vet, merchant marine and activist, Miller has a Ph.D. in American History from UC Berkeley and taught history at the San Francisco Art Institute for 21 years. The 80-year-old author sat down with the Monterey County Weekly for a Q&A.
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Weekly: You don’t like the word “novel” and you’ve called your books “truer than history.” In what genre do you classify Tanglefoot and why?
RM: I was mainly thinking out loud and as here digressed. Tanglefoot classifies as a historical novel and/or historical fiction and is mounted on the Grand Paradox: The truth that can be written is not the truth. And this throws us into areas of analysis and classification and linguistics and perception. So let’s go for historical fiction or historical novel and say goodbye to all that.
Weekly: Henry Hyde’s quote about Cap Streeter’s story, which serves as an epigraph to your book, reads: “Not in the history of any city in the world has there been another case like this.” Why is that? What attracted you to this story?
RM: A friend here in California had shown me an account of Cap’s miraculous defense of his property and civil rights. I have a close friend in Chicago, now a filmmaker. Conversations and inquiries led us to believe Cap’s story had yet to be told. It seems to be a fantasy, except that it really happened, and thusly awed Hyde and us.
Weekly: Tanglefoot is a very violent tale. The Civil War seems to have carried over into Streeter’s life. You served in the US Marine Corp from 1943-45 and were also the co-chairman of the Monterey County Committee to End the War in Vietnam from 1965-67. How have your views on war affected the way you told this story?
RM: I was never in combat. There’s nothing noteworthy in my record in the Marines. I thought the war would go on forever, that old men had screwed things up so badly they were using us as a last resort, and that I would not live to be 21, as predicted by the fact that platoon leaders only lived about two minutes when leading the point. I digress. All this made me see Cap as shown in the book is a credible character.
Weekly: You were also a Democratic candidate for the House of Representatives 12th Congressional District (then Monterey, Santa Cruz, San Benito and San Luis Obispo Counties—roughly the same district Sam Farr represents today). How has your political life influenced your interest in Streeter?
RM: I believe if we go to war there is no maybe about it. One is morally obliged to either go fight in it and make all ancillary sacrifices or dedicate to ending it and act accordingly. During WWII we Americans enjoyed a solidarity of purpose more intense than at any time before or since. Nowadays our colonial wars make no demands of our citizens, not even pay-as-you-go. Our troops bear the burden, sharing some of it (but not the pay) with about 20,000 mercenary contractors.
Weekly: Your work has been praised by the likes of Herb Caen, Tom Robbins, William Burroughs, Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Larry McMurtry. Those are some odd guys. Do you associate yourself with any school of writers, such as the Beats, over the decades?
RM: No, I don’t swim in schools. I try to tell the truth that cannot be told and mind the music (of the words) and the step (of the story).
Weekly: How have your decades in Monterey County informed your writing?
RM: Only one book—Coyote—is set in Monterey County. And that partially. The hardback is a revision of the paperback and so is the best one to read. The Monterey Library has most of my books and local stores have some. One reason I avoid local scenes is that our family lives—thrives—here and I never use my family in my books.
Weekly: What do you consider your best book and why?
RM: I have six kids and numerous grands, most of whom live here. Every one of them is quality. No runts or bad seeds. Which ones do I like best? This question has no answer. It’s apples and oranges. I’ve written 12 books I’ve kept. Others I aborted along the way. I think the 12 are all different and occupy a big basket of incomparable fruit.