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Edward W. Schmidt, S.J.January 28, 2015

Searching for Marquetteby Ruth D. Nelson

Marquette University Press. 302p $29

Jacques Marquette was a Jesuit missionary and explorer. His missionary work included five years in remote northern Michigan (throughout I use today’s geographic terms), a challenging mission, and perhaps his life would have continued in relative anonymity except for his being assigned in 1673 to accompany Louis Joliet to explore the vast American heartland. This trip took the party of seven Frenchmen and two Miami guides across Wisconsin, down the Mississippi to the Arkansas River and back north again by way of the Illinois River and the west shore of Lake Michigan to the mission of St. Francis Xavier, near today’s Green Bay. A year later Marquette returned to mission work in central Illinois, but his health failed. Early in 1675 his two French companions on this mission tried to get him back to northern Michigan, but he died along the way. He was just short of 38 years old.

Marquette’s journal and map from 1673 supported France’s claim to the vast territory through which the party traveled. Some of the local peoples remembered him for his kindness and care for them, and he appeared in histories of the period. But for a long time the river near which he died—early on named the Pere Marquette—was the only monument to his memory.

Searching for Marquette explores why and how this changed and studies the artwork associated with Marquette’s missions. Ruth D. Nelson, who writes on art in the Midwest, has done a remarkable amount of research into Marquette’s popularity, which has inspired quite a few place names and institutional names and many statues and graphic representations of the man. Basically following the geography of Marquette’s time in the Midwest, the book tells his story and weaves in interesting local stories too.

Marquette’s evolution from historical note to Midwestern hero happened a century and a half after his death. Local historians were beginning to write about their area’s past. In the 1820s, Henry Rowe Schoolcraft explored the Michigan Territory, read of Marquette and found the site of the mission of St. Ignace, which Marquette had founded and where he was eventually buried. And George Bancroft’s History of the United States, begun in 1834, started the spread of interest in Marquette and in pioneer days long past. The American Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia in 1876 likewise fed the nation’s interest in its history. And for the Chicago Columbian Exposition in 1893, Cyrus E. Dallin, a sculptor who earlier had studied in Paris with Augustus Saint-Gaudens, used Native Americans as the subject of his work and a decade later sculpted a statue of Marquette for the St. Louis Exposition of 1904.

Places Marquette had worked at and visited began to create artwork to honor him. As schools and parks were given his name, images abounded in sculpture, painting, bas relief, drawing and mosaic. Though no one knew what he really looked like, heroic images became standard. Harry Wood traveled to France and met a number of Marquette’s family descendants and painted Marquette as tall and blond.

A stunning series of mosaics in the Marquette Building in Chicago depicts scenes from his life. A plaque on the Michigan Avenue Bridge over the Chicago River shows Marquette and Joliet, who had passed there on their return journey north; a sculpture on the bridge curiously portrays Marquette in a Franciscan habit.

Nelson places her research on this artwork in the context of local lore. Mentioning the luxurious Hotel Pere Marquette in Peoria, Ill., she notes that Peoria was an important stop on the vaudeville circuit (hence the expression “if it plays in Peoria”). And she writes that Archbishop Joseph H. Schlarman of Peoria in 1933 “was an early advocate of ethanol…and ‘warned about the impending danger of reliance on foreign oil.’” These additional stories provide an enhanced context for this serious study of a very particular subject in art history.

Nelson’s research and her interpretation of it are very impressive. The book would have benefited, though, from more careful editing. Commas appear or fail to appear without system. Misplaced modifiers are awkward. Thus, “Mounted on a bluff in a quarry in Godfrey, [Ill.,] the Rotarians lost their lease ten years later.” Or: “Offered as a raffle prize, a Cincinnati coffee shop owner won the painting and, in turn, put it up for sale.” Also, the introduction includes 15 endnotes, but numbers in the text stop after number six. And the table of contents places Milwaukee in Illinois!

Still, the book is an interesting look at a limited but important facet of American history. People found in Marquette a quiet but fully dedicated hero from a mythic past who devoted his life to a cause he believed in before he died worn-out and sick at a remote river in Michigan. Besides this the Pere Marquette River, a county and a town in both Michigan and Wisconsin now bear his name, as do towns in Iowa and Kansas, lakes in Missouri and Minnesota, an island in Lake Huron, countless parks and streets, Marquette University and High School in Milwaukee and proud high schools elsewhere. The book explains what one author called a “Marquette movement,” that turned Marquette into a hero. In 1930 The New York Times called him “a man of stout purpose and pure heart” and wondered why the Catholic Church did not canonize him.

Searching for Marquette answers many questions, but not that one.

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