Monday, August 9, 2010

Our View -- Another local cemetery tale gets unearthed

Printed in the Iowa City Press-Citizen, Dec. 3, 2009

Our View -- Another local cemetery tale gets unearthed

Two years ago, local historian Timothy C. Parrott did Iowa City a great service by authoritatively demystifying the lingering legends surrounding the life of Theresa Feldwert and the statue she commissioned.

In his pamphlet, "The Enigma of Theresa Dolezal Feldwert and the Black Angel," Parrott did away with the stories of the statue being hit by lightning or falling off the boat on the way from Europe. Yet he managed to tell a story even more interesting than the many spooky theories about how the statue lost some of its fingers. He managed to flesh out the life of one of Iowa City's amazing citizens: Theresa Karasek Dolezal Picha Feldwert (1836-1924).

Last year, Parrott published a second "Enigma" pamphlet telling the story of another grave marker in Oakland Cemetery -- the one that simply reads, "Harriet Deuell / Died April 10, 1881 / Aged 51 years." Instead of pulling back layers of legend, "The Enigma of Harriet Z. Deuell and Her 46-Day Death Fast" tells a long-forgotten, once nationally known story of a middle-aged Iowa City woman who committed suicide by starving herself to death.

Where Parrott presented Czech-immigrant and multiple widow Feldwert as the ultimate survivor, he now presents the never married Deuell (1829-1881) as an invalid woman who eventually decided that her only control over her life came in her decision to stop speaking (about two years before her death) and then to stop eating (46 days before her death).

Now Parrott has added a third "Enigma" pamphlet to his growing library, "The Enigma of Wesley Monroe Sauer and His Quixotic Descent into Madness." It deals with the life of Iowa City's "mad poet," who enjoyed national attention for a very brief period in the 1930s -- before Iowa City had gained its international reputation as a City of Literature.

Because Sauer's grave remains unmarked, it's more difficult to find his resting place (Lot 55 of Block 6 in Oakland Cemetery) than to find those of Feldwert and Deuell. But some of Iowa City's older residents -- especially those with connections to the northside -- may remember the stories surrounding Sauer's troubled childhood, his two books of poetry, his belief in fairies, his preoccupation with Don Quixote, his isolation in a small acreage north of town and his eventual suicide by hanging on Oct. 30, 1953.

As Sauer "moved ever closer to the outermost fringes of society," Parrott writes, "he ungrudgingly clung to the innocence of children. Rather than face the cruel adult world that engulfed him, he created for himself a magical world. ... Although limited by an eighth-grade education, he sought to commit this fantasy world to paper in the form of the 48 published poems he left as his legacy."

Where Parrott used Deuell's story to explore how the roots of today's raging debates over medical ethics stretch back much further than accounted for in living memory, he now uses a story from living memory to explore mental illness issues as well as Iowa City's emergent literary scene.

Parrott's pamphlets reminds us that there never was a golden age for our community. They also remind us, as William Faulkner observed, "The past is never dead. It's not even past."

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