Thomas Shastid

The cover of Thomas Shastid’s two-volume 1926 novel The Duke of Duluth. The figures above the clouds are the great “water carriers.” (Image: Zenith City Press)

Within weeks Claude manages to get John expelled and obtains his cousin’s riches using a forged will. John pulls himself up by his bootstraps by buying a popcorn stand, and soon is back on top, a successful businessman and fully reinstated student.

One day John’s watch, inherited from his father, goes missing. He receives a tip that it is in a pawn shop in Duluth. He returns to the Zenith City for one day and is accused of murdering a Jewish pawn broker. Thinking he has no defense, he flees town and takes to “tramping,” but remains well financed, drawing from his bank when cash is needed. He quickly meets Bo (as in “hobo”), a seasoned tramp. Bo teaches John the tricks of the trade, and they travel together for a while until Bo is killed hitching a ride on a train. John ends up in Montana, where he finds a family farm run by an elderly woman and her drunken son. John not only gets the farm back into shape and profitable, but he reforms the alcoholic as well, simply by giving him a solid beating. Finally, while watching the “water carriers” arriving from Gitchee Gummee to end a drought, John has an idea that will allow him to return to Duluth—and Jean—and keep him out of the penitentiary.

Without going into detail, John’s plan involves revealing that he has a nearly identical younger brother, Jim, living in Superior—a fact unmentioned in the book’s first 635 pages. This results in a mistrial, which it turns out wasn’t necessary to free John anyway, as a note in a bottle—written by Claude’s accomplice, who drowned in a shipwreck—washes ashore, explaining how Claude framed John. And oh, by the way, Jim is engaged to one Claudia Allouez, a direct descendant of Claude Allouez, a French missionary and the first European to settle at what is now Superior—Superior’s Sieur Du Lhut, if you will. And of course, shortly after his acquittal John is approached by a man who informs him he is indeed a duke—a real duke—the Duke of Durmline, a fictional European principality. John naturally turns down the title. Oh and you know what else? All those evil things Claude did? Turns out he had an extra bone in his brain, which made the otherwise ethical Claude a scoundrel. How did they find out? Why, at a party where the photographer mistakenly used x-ray film, of course! Claude would be just fine after a little surgery—and, oh yeah, he is John’s twin and they were separated at birth. Finally, John and Jean could get married and settle into a life of service in their beloved town of Mount Service, er, Duluth.

Like his first book of juvenile poems, The Duke of Duluth was probably self-published; indeed, most of Shastid’s books were likely financed by the author. Shastid’s publisher, George Wahr, was a bookseller in the college town of Ann Arbor, Michigan. Wahr made most of his living selling supplies to University of Michigan students and tracking down rare volumes for its faculty. Whar also operated “a lucrative publishing business which printed tracts on various subjects.” Likely this was a service Wahr provided academics who were out of publishing options. On Shastid’s book, Wahr is called “Publisher to the University of Michigan,” as opposed to “University of Michigan Press,” suggesting an unofficial relationship between Wahr and the college. Wahr is listed as publisher on Shastid’s anti-war theories, his later autobiographies, and all three novels—everything he wrote during that time that was not about opthalmology. And no publisher with his eye on the bottom line would produce a two-volume book of fiction: If a reader didn’t enjoy the first volume, she was unlikely to purchase the second.

Although he wrote the book during the heart of the Jazz Age, Shastid is much more of a 19th-century Romantic than a Modern. Overwrought, Shastid’s novel never fails to use seven words where one would do and the author apparently never met an adjective he didn’t like. The dialogue, when not a racist portrayal of Irish or Jewish stereotypes, is painfully tone deaf, and the plot lines are implausible to the point of ridiculousness. His overuse of exclamation points must have strained the contents of the typesetter’s job case. Hemingway would have hated him.

But for all his literary foibles, the text betrays Shastid’s deep love for Duluth. He describes the lights along the ore docks as the “string of pearls around the neck of a beautiful young woman” and considers the ship canal the “gate to the world.” His hero dreams of a gleaming white “University of Duluth” that he hoped to help build at the top of the bluff.

Henry Adlard, former pastor of Duluth’s First Unitarian Church, wrote a positive review of the novel, but even he had to admit “the story could have been made shorter without loss. It might then have been produced in one volume and so reached a larger audience.” It might also have appealed more to Duluthians if its protagonist had spent more time in Duluth.

Shastid never did write the other books in his proposed series. He died in Duluth on February 15, 1947, at St. Luke’s Hospital. He was 80 years old. His executor had his extensive library sold off, and while making an inventory of books found hundreds of unsold copies of the Duke of Duluth in the attic.

If you would like to read The Duke of Duluth you can find copies in the Duluth Public Library.

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Story by Tony Dierckins. Originally published on Zenith City Online (2012–2017). Click here for more stories by Tony Dierckins.