The Door Way: The People in the Landscape by Norbert Blei
The resurgence of regionalism as a context for historical understanding and inquiry raises numerous challenges. Finding appropriate sources is essential for elucidating a location’s historical past, especially if the geographic focus is intended to present a particular place as inherently significant in and of itself, as opposed to being merely a localized manifestation of a national or international development. The Door Way fills this need in the case of a quintessential Midwest location.
Door County, Wisconsin—or Door—located on a peninsula jutting into Lake Michigan, has had multiple identities. For decades, it has been one of the Upper Midwest’s premier vacation destinations, especially but not exclusively for well-to-do Chicagoans. If nearby Wisconsin Dells was the region’s lowbrow attraction, Door was the Riviera. It also attracted large numbers of bohemian residents, an eclectic array of writers, artists, counterculture enthusiasts, and other iconoclasts seeking an escape from some humdrum existence. Their presence added to Door’s allure.
The Door Way is an impressionistic local history. The collection of essays by the late Norbert Blei, an “exile” from Chicago, captures the essence of the county’s multiple identities. Vignettes describe both the place—defined by a nexus of land and water—and its well- and lesser-known inhabitants. Readers familiar with Door will recognize some of the personalities, such as Al Johnson, who is best known for the goats which inhabit the roof of his Swedish Restaurant in Sister Bay. Other characters may rekindle a personal memory (Gust Klenke was connected to the rental cabins to which my buddies and I retreated during graduate school.) In all cases, Blei provides a record of their existence.
Given the author’s role as participant-observer, his stories also serve as primary sources, first person accounts of a well-known and regionally [End Page 71] significant place during the late twentieth century. As such, the collection both provides information which otherwise may have been lost, and poses problems. The various chapters—many not particularly well written—are more stream-of-consciousness reflections than biographical sketches. They give more of a “flavor” than an account of his subjects. Historians seeking information about Door’s inhabitants will find it useful, but they will have to parse relevant information from the author’s rambling prose.
Also, the editors fail to provide pertinent details. This includes the dates when Blei wrote particular chapters. Hence, unless there are clues in the text, the reader has no way of knowing even the decade when a chapter’s featured personality was chronicled. Publication specifics indicate that the present iteration is a reprint edition, but the editors do not give the original imprint date. According to Google, it was 1981, but even this does not reveal when individual chapters were written. For those reading to get a historical perspective, this will be frustrating, but such is the nature of most historical sources.
It is hoped that historians of the Midwest will endeavor to write Door’s history or include it in more expansive regional studies. The story of its past generations is rich, telling an important chapter in the evolution of the region stretching north and west from Chicago. It has been a place of renowned beauty, a summer destination dating back decades, and a home to wonderful eccentrics, including those whose lives fill the pages of Door Way. The history of Door’s residents and visitors reveals much about those who have called themselves midwesterners. When scholars do seek to explore that history, they would do well to consult Door Way, as well as the other works by Norbert Blei. Despite the criticisms made here, they can be valuable historical sources.