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Little Press on the Prairie

How a visionary Illinois publishing house was done in by mismanagement, murder, and unrequited love

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By James Ballowe

Etched into endless fields of corn and beans, Illinois 41 runs south from Galesburg to U.S. 136, where it ends some 180 miles southwest of Chicago. Two-thirds of the way down its 45-mile length, 41 veers west for a mile or so, forming the main street of Prairie City, one of the hamlets that characterize western Illinois. A block-long farm implement business, a factory outlet clothing store, and several empty buildings signify a once thriving downtown. Modest homes sit scattered on either side of the street. The population sign reads 600.

After World War II Prairie City, like villages throughout the midwest, relinquished its self-sufficiency. What the town once was is now but the memory of a waning generation. But what happened here while Prairie City flourished surpasses the occasional drama of most such towns. The village was the birthplace of James A. Decker, who in 1937, when he was but 20 years old, founded a press that would become the largest publisher of poetry in America. The press shut down suddenly in 1950, halted by disgrace and tragedy.

James Drugs, owned by Decker's grandfather Eldon James, sold sundries as well as drugs. James and his wife lived in an unimposing frame house two blocks south of the store. With them lived their daughter Ulah, her husband Arthur Decker, and their children James, born in 1917, and Dorothy, born in 1921. Decker worked as a pharmacist and served as president of the village. The family were devout Presbyterians. "As the children were growing up in Prairie City, the family was very well respected and looked up to by people," recalls Martha Graham, who as a Prairie City schoolteacher boarded with the Deckers. By the time she came to live there in 1930 James was being praised for his precocity. At ten he'd put out a neighborhood paper on a toy printing press. "He was a handsome boy and a handsome man," Graham recalls. But she also remembers that some other boys considered him a loner and a sissy. Dorothy, large and agile as a girl, was attracted to athletics, an interest her parents forced her to suppress.

In separate portraits of James and Dorothy apparently taken when James was about 20 and Dorothy in her mid-teens, the siblings look strikingly alike. But James's pronounced eyebrows accenting cool Germanic good looks do not translate well to Dorothy. She sits stiffly in a flowered dress, her hair close-cropped, her eyes dark and brooding. She seems not to know what to do with her thick arms and wrists. As she became a woman she grew heavier. And increasingly she lived in her brother's shadow.

From 1934 to 1935 James attended Park College, a Presbyterian school in Missouri, then worked as an editor of the Endeavorer, a religious magazine published in Kansas City. In 1937 he returned to Prairie City. His grandfather made space for him to operate a small hand press in the back of the drugstore, and he set out to become a publisher of poetry. He'd always had an interest in reading poetry, Martha Graham recalls. And he was a good prose writer. But never, he affirmed in a 1975 letter to rare books dealer Richard Leekley, did he write poetry himself. He published it because "I liked it and because I could do almost anything I wanted to in the field without paying a lot for manuscripts, etc. Dozens of the best young poets then were more than willing to have someone publish a book of their work, for no more than a royalty contract (no advance, etc.). Of course I lost money consistently."

It was the Depression. Decker was able to get by at the outset by living at home and employing his 17-year-old sister to help him with the onerous tasks of flatbed printing. His first venture was Upward, a poetry quarterly, soon retitled Compass, that became an outlet for contemporary writers such as Marianne Moore, William Carlos Williams, Wallace Stevens, and Weldon Kees. In 1937, under the imprint the Press of James A. Decker (which would remain the press's principal imprint until 1948), Decker published a pamphlet of poetry by Warren Van Dyne, the associate editor of Upward. In this way the press was launched.

In its second year the press published two more pamphlets by local poets and its first book. In 1939 Decker began to make his press available on a contract basis. According to researcher Burton Frye, who worked at the press in its final days, Decker usually promised to publish 200 copies of a book, the money from sales going to the author until the investment (generally $200) was regained. (At that time self-subsidized publication didn't carry the onus it later gained.) Word of Decker's operation spread rapidly among poets, and by 1940 the Press of James A. Decker was being showered with manuscripts. Decker responded that year with 16 books, many by writers recognized nationally.

Decker's taste in poetry was eclectic. But his literary quarterlies had already convinced critics and poets alike that he could discern quality in poetry and knew how to package it. One of his more interesting early books was Howard Nutt's sardonic Special Laughter. In Chicago Nutt had become a friend of Richard Wright, whose introduction to Special Laughter refers to Nutt's poems as being those of "a Yankee grown wary, conscious, and knowing, yet still casual, loitering, terse of speech, and, like a Mark Twain of the Twentieth Century, retaining the traditional manly reticence by camouflaging the horrible truth." Special Laughter advanced the press's reputation as a serious place for poetry. Conrad Aiken wrote in the New Republic that he found Nutt's book to be "effortless contemporary, naughty, full of glee . . . a quite admirable and sinister poetry."

Other books published in 1940 bear names of authors still known to poetry readers. Kenneth Patchen introduced Harvey Breit's Record of an Unfinished Journey. Decker issued Rae Baemish's American Signatures for the Black Faun Press and Hubert Creekmore's Personal Sun for the Village Press, imprints he never used again. Marks Upon a Stone by Jane Dransfield, a member of Ford Madox Ford's Paris circle, indicates that the press was gaining recognition outside the United States. And Clark Mills, who was to have three of his own books of poetry published by Decker, translated Stephane Mallarme's Herodiade.

In 1940 Decker further increased the visibility of his press by publishing anthologies. Norman MacLeod edited the first Calendar: An Anthology of 1940 Poetry, sponsored by the YMHA of New York City. It contained works by, among others, Williams, Moore, Patchen, Genevieve Taggard, and Eugene Jolas. Tom Boggs edited Lyric Moderns in Brief, containing the work of such writers as Stevens, E.E. Cummings, Archibald Macleish, Kenneth Fearing, Malcolm Cowley, John Ciardi, and Langston Hughes. Decker himself edited American Writing.

By 1941 Decker had married. His income, but for some job printing and a brief stab at running a local newspaper (which he started and quickly sold), was from turning out books of poetry. Though he rarely made even $2,000 a year, he could keep going because sister Dorothy's employment cost him virtually nothing and he and his family continued to live in his parents' home. Except for paper and ink, the press had virtually no overhead. But its growing success began to demand managerial and technological savvy. Decker lacked this savvy, and he turned out to be temperamentally ill-suited to acquiring it.

In its early years the press was known mainly to the literati. That changed when Decker brought out Edgar Lee Masters's Illinois Poems, a small collection of the aging writer's unpublished works. The book is prefaced with this note from Masters: "Prairie City, where The Press of James A. Decker is maintained, is only a few miles from Spoon River, and not far from Lewistown, Bernadotte, and Havana, towns named in these poems. I think it most appropriate that Mr. Decker's press should issue these poems about Illinois places." With the 1942 publication of a companion volume, Masters's Along the Illinois, Decker's press became the focus of national attention.

A Newsweek article described the "weatherbeaten sign, 'James Drugs,"' outside the cement-block store as "the shingle for one of the strangest and most courageous publishing ventures in the country." Decker had to be gratified by the following passage: "That Decker is Edgar Lee Masters' publisher--he has now produced collections of Masters' poems--is no accident. They seem, in fact, to be a natural team. The Spoon River which Masters made famous in his Anthology many years ago is but a few miles from Prairie City, and it was on Masters' advice that Decker remained in his home town to start his poetry-publishing business, rather than make a try at the big city. "Stay in Prairie City,' said Masters, "you'll attract more attention there."'

The writing Decker published provides an astonishing index to World War II poetry styles, ranging from the safely traditional to the most daring experiments. While his fellow townsmen and the country were praising Decker for having published such lines from Masters as these from "Channahan Locks":

Channahan means meeting of the

waters,

It is where the Des Plaines and the

DuPage

Have their confluences, where there

were otters

And wolves in the Indian age . . .

Decker was quietly promoting such intellectually playful works as Louis Zukofsky's "Mantis" (from the collection 55 Poems), which contains these lines:

"Mantis", An Interpretation

or Nomina sunt consequentia rerum,

names are sequent to the things named

Mantis! praying mantis! since your wings' leaves

Incipit Vita Nova

le parole . . .

almeno la loro sentenzia

the words . . .

at least their substance

at first were

"The Mantis opened its body

It had been lost in the subway

It steadied against the drafts

It looked up--

Begging eyes--

It flew at my chest"

--The ungainliness

of the creature needs stating.

No one would be struck merely

By its ungainliness,

Having seen the thing happen.

Having seen the thing happen,

There would be no intention "to write it

up',

But all that was happening,

The mantis itself only an incident,

compelling any writing

The transitions were perforce omitted.

Although Decker never chose to be a critic, a poet, or a scholar, he was by the age of 23 a discerning publisher who was willing to accept the enormous task of typesetting one of the most demanding of contemporary poets. Dealing with Zukofsky must have been a lonely task. With whom in Prairie City would he have shared the poet's idiosyncrasies?

By 1943 Decker was in the army. Dorothy taught herself typesetting and valiantly continued alone for two years. Despite paper shortages and her own inexperience she brought out a few titles, one of them a collection by the nationally known poet Ruth Lechlitner. But though Decker returned from the South Pacific to a press that had survived the war, he now faced overwhelming financial problems.

In a 1975 letter to Richard Leekley, Decker recalled "that the Press publications came to be more or less 'pyramided': that is, we would use the income from a new contract to fulfill an older contract, etc." He observed, "Obviously this could not continue indefinitely." He had built up a backlog of authors waiting in line for books they had already subsidized. Burton Frye would write that one poet had lingered at the base of the pyramid for at least five years. To get out from under, in 1946 Decker sold the press to Harry Denman, the owner of the local lumberyard. Decker and his sister stayed on to run the press, but now they were Denman's employees. Decker became editorial manager, Dorothy production assistant.

Decker desperately tried to honor his old contracts. Almost 30 titles appeared in 1946 and 1947, including occasional fiction and drama. A quarter century later Decker would write Leekley, "After the early 40s I guess you could safely say that the Press would publish anything, if paid for doing so." But as if to defend his editorial integrity, he recalled a visit to Prairie City by the director of the library at the University of Buffalo, to which Decker was donating copies of his books. The librarian asked him, "If you were offered Francis Thompson's The Hound of Heaven to publish, without payment, would you publish it?"

"I assured him that I would," Decker insisted.

Denman apparently didn't share Decker's sense of obligation to the poets Decker had put under contract. Stuck in the middle, Decker flailed about for a way out. Frye recorded that in August 1947, James and Dorothy "startled all of their authors by announcing that they had severed all connection with the Press and that if the authors wished to communicate with anyone about the unpublished state of their manuscripts they should write to Harry M. Denman, Prairie City, Illinois." The lumberyard dealer was so besieged by "hundreds of letters from irate poets" that in terror "he refused to open any more of his mail." According to Frye, James and Dorothy performed an about-face a month later, announcing that they "felt a moral responsibility about contracts which they had signed" prior to Denman's purchase of the press and would publish the books themselves once Denman moved his printing equipment from the drugstore--which they still owned.

Few of the poets could have known that this was an empty promise, for Decker was in no position to purchase new printing equipment. It was simply his way of declaring the moral ground on which he stood. It was also evidence of his innate incapacity to understand the magnitude or the consequences of his business obligations. The enterprise that had received national acclaim a few years earlier seemed in the throes of collapse.

But Prairie City had not seen the last of the country's largest publishing house devoted to poetry. A manuscript arrived from Ervin Tax, a Chicago writer who during the war in northern Africa had written a long blank-verse narrative poem he called The Wraith of Gawain. Decker's in-house assessment of the poem reveals that he still had the drive to see good poetry published. His memo described Tax's poem as having been written in the "old" style, "a fact which is the more unusual" given the improbable environment in which it was composed. Noting that the narrative was not "easy" to read, he claimed that it nevertheless gave the reader a belief in the authenticity of the "mood of the period." It reminded him of Edward Arlington Robinson's Tristram, but he was quick to add that it had "a power and technique of its own, the work of an obviously original talent." He urged Denman to publish it. Denman did, with Tax initially contracting to provide $400 for the production of 500 copies.

Later the subsidy rose to $1,000 for 200 copies. The book, which would come to 303 pages, was more than four times larger than those normally published by the press. Despairing of delays in publication, Tax, like his hero Sir Gawain, took matters into his own hands. He came to Prairie City to see about his investment. Once there, he became heavily involved in the operation of the press. In 1948 he bought it. The Press of James A. Decker, too "cute" an imprint for Tax's taste, became the Decker Press, and Tax set out to revive its reputation, while keeping James and Dorothy on the payroll.

Burton Frye recounted the huge impact Tax had on the floundering operation. He bought a machine that would make permanent impressions of type for reprints, and he expanded the drugstore to house it. Within a short period he secured a linotype, a flatbed cylinder press, a proof press, and galley racks. He set up a shipping department and enlarged the office. He expanded the promotional department, set up an accounting system, purchased an Addressograph and a postage meter, and bought a mailing list. By 1949 the Decker Press had seven employees under Tax's supervision and had just come off a year in which it published an extraordinary 53 books. And now the press was headed by a recognized poet whose Wraith of Gawain had attracted national attention.

At first Decker and Tax got along. When Tax, in 1947, made some suggestions about the business, Decker wrote a jaunty "Dear Erv" response. "Received your informative epistle last night," Decker's letter began. "You've done a good job in digging up the facts--as good as though you knew printing yourself." Decker went on to predict that with the proper equipment the press could turn out a 64-page book every four days and do some profitable commercial printing on the side. And he concluded, "I repeat, you've done a fine job. But I still think you're nuts if you think the authors will pay for more than a small slice of all this, if any."

But after Tax took over, the relationship changed. According to Burton Frye, an employee Tax brought in observed "that Mr. Decker does not understand finance nearly so well as he comprehends literature and printing." And quoting from a letter Tax sent Decker authors soon after he bought the press, Frye showed the new owner regretting the founder. "For example," wrote Tax, "when he says, 'I will do such and such by this or that date,' he is apparently too deeply satisfied by the phrasing's cadences and emotional overtones to remember what the words mean."

In July 1949, ten months after he bought the press, Tax announced that Decker was "an unsatisfactory employee, for dozens of reasons," and had been "replaced and discharged." Tax explained in a letter to his authors that "certain suspicions were confirmed by the uncovering of proof that his interest in other people's writing has extended to the writing on checks, which he endorsed most carelessly. Encouraged by the sheriff, he confessed to rather considerable embezzlements. Yet, whether or not as an exercise in saintliness, we finally elected to let him off with a stiff term of probation."

Decker did not publicly challenge this high-toned condemnation. He, his wife, his two children, and his mother abruptly left Prairie City for Kansas City. Dorothy remained behind.

As early as 1948, Tax (likely in collaboration with Decker) had published a Decker Press credo. Appearing on the back cover of George Anthony's Toys in Blood, it proclaimed a press that knew where it was going and how to get there: "The Decker Press devotes itself almost exclusively to contemporary American poetry, and even prides itself upon being perhaps the chief and last remaining publishing institution on this continent to which an unknown poet of talent may turn with justifiable hope. Moreover, since it subsists almost totally on poetry, The Decker Press can afford to be partial to no special school, but must rather strive to serve all schools--to remain tolerant of tradition no less than friendly to experiment. It is our aim to preserve for the laurels of posterity the work of whatever 20th century American poets the higher verdict of history may judge worthy of such recognition."

Tax had come to Prairie City not just as a petitioning poet but as a full-blown intellectual. And after he banished James Decker, who'd become something of a local hero for publishing the Masters books, Prairie City residents could only wonder about the stranger in their midst. The Deckers' eccentricities could be forgiven. They were of Prairie City. But now rumors began to surface about Tax, one of which was that he was publishing pornography. Living in the cramped rear of the drugstore, traveling long weekends to Chicago in search of funds to help keep the press going, Tax was an unsettling foreigner in town. Two decades later some townspeople recalled him to a researcher as a "Jew from Chicago."

Without her brother, Dorothy grew more inward and brooding. But she not only worked closely with Tax, many believe she fell in love with him. Tax, however, felt nothing romantic in return.

On a May evening in 1950 Dorothy left home in her 1948 maroon Frazer sedan and drove to Galesburg to pick up Tax, who was coming in on the Santa Fe. As usual, he'd spent the weekend in Chicago trying to raise money for the press. He wouldn't have known that Dorothy had hidden in the car a Mossberg .22-caliber automatic rifle that she'd stolen from a downstairs tenant. She'd also brought along two boxes of hollow lead slugs. A few miles north of Prairie City, near the hamlet of Saint Augustine, she pulled off the highway and drove about a quarter of a mile along a dirt road. Tax may have been asleep. The next day a farmer passed the parked car four times before he became curious enough to peer in. Tax, 39, sat slumped on the passenger side of the front seat. He had died from a bullet wound to the back of his head. Dorothy, 29, lay dead in the backseat, the butt of the gun resting on the floor. She had shot herself in the mouth.

"It was common knowledge in the village," the Macomb newspaper would report, "that the affair between the short and stocky Tax, a writer and publisher of poetry, and the rather large woman, who had never kept company with any other man, was an explosive one." Alluding to the Decker Press employees he'd interviewed, the reporter wrote, "Miss Decker, member of a prominent and well-known family, pursued Tax. . . . He, they said, wanted to get rid of her and was afraid of her. . . . Miss Decker, recalled by Prairie City residents as a strong and tom-boyish sort of girl, had threatened to kill Tax, had on occasion struck him, associates said. "Why, once she broke down the front door (of the Press shop) to get at him when he locked her out."'

The deaths destroyed the Decker Press. Even as the inquest was being held (with James Decker in attendance), Harry Denman filed suit against Tax's estate for the $4,000 he claimed Tax owed him for the press. The equipment was sold at auction. The doors to the building would remain closed for 20 years.

For the past quarter century the ME factory-outlet clothing store has occupied the space where poetry was once published. The cement-block walls enclose a room bereft of evidence of its former purpose. Back in the 40s, Mary Askins, who owns the store with her husband Ed, enjoyed coffee breaks with Dorothy Decker at a local restaurant. Today she is one of the remaining few in town who comprehend the legacy of the press. She recalls that the press's books and records "were taken to the lumberyard, where they were dumped onto a dirt floor." First out of curiosity, then out of a growing appreciation for the contents of the well-made books, she came to read some of the poetry strewn there. But over the years the books gradually disappeared or were destroyed as waste.

And what of James Decker himself? Contrary to a rumor that circulated after he'd left town, he neither died nor passed into anonymity. Eventually he wrote Leekley and, after a fashion, defended himself against Ervin Tax's charges. His confession, Decker said, had been an attempt to settle a complicated matter that involved both Tax and Dorothy, and "it was necessary in order to sever all my involvement with the Press and Tax." He asserted, "The mishandling was in fact a matter of incredibly bad bookkeeping."

By the time of this correspondence Decker had lived another life far removed from that of rural publisher of the nation's poets. In June of 1949 he became an editorial assistant in Lee's Summit, Missouri, ironically enough at the Unity School of Christianity's Good Business magazine. He thrived in the work and in the Unity Christian community, a Protestant sect that decades ago anticipated New Age Christianity. He was named the editor of Unity magazine in 1968 and became senior editor for Unity School in 1971. Unity published two of his own books that argue the Unity philosophy of God-centered self-reliance. And in 1967 Doubleday published The Right Answer, in which Decker drew on literature and popular psychology to support his message of self-reliance as a means of assuring physical and psychic health and achieving happiness.

But his "incredibly bad bookkeeping" caught up with him again in 1970. This time it netted him three months in federal prison and five years' probation for income tax evasion. (In 1965 he had earned an unreported $18,000 from a rare-stamp sideline and from making inspirational speeches.) Unity stood behind him. He returned to work there as chief editor after leaving prison, and from 1972 to 1975 was listed in Who's Who in the Midwest.

Decker's resilience and creativity seemed always to be met by an inability to sustain his successes. In a 1979 letter to the Decker family's onetime boarder Martha Graham, James Decker's first wife summed up the man she'd known for 35 years: "He was a brilliant man but like so many brilliant people he was emotionally immature and in the time that I knew him I saw him twice build himself up and then systematically destroy himself." The first instance of self-destruction was with the press. The second would have been with Unity. In 1976, in failing health, he shot himself to death in his office.

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