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Love letter to a University alum

UND alum, playwright Maxwell Anderson subject of North Dakota’s first Literary Landmark

Joel Vig (left) and Maxwell L. Anderson, grandson of the late playwright and UND alum Maxwell Anderson, unveiled the plaque for the United for Libraries Literary Landmark that will be displayed on campus at Burtness Theatre. Photo by Mike Hess/UND Today.

Two people came to Grand Forks last week to honor the late University of North Dakota alum and famous playwright Maxwell Anderson by establishing the first Literary Landmark in the state of North Dakota.

Each left with a different experience.

Maxwell Anderson

For Maxwell L. Anderson, grandson of the prize-winning playwright, his first visit to the state where his grandfather was raised and his father was born became one of discovery. For Joel Vig, returning to Grand Forks, the community where he grew up, and UND, the university from which he graduated in 1976, it was something he described as a Rip Van Winkle experience.

“It is exciting and joyful to see my hometown and my University thriving and stronger and better than ever,” he said.

Anderson and Vig spoke during a ceremony at UND’s Burtness Theatre to unveil the plaque from the United for Libraries Literary Landmarks Association recognizing Maxwell Anderson’s contributions as a journalist, a Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright and later a movie screenplay writer from the 1920s to the 1950s.

Maxwell Anderson was born in Pennsylvania in 1888, graduated from UND in 1911 and died in Connecticut in 1959. During his lifetime, he wrote 55 plays, 32 of which were produced in New York Broadway theaters. Many others were turned into screenplays for films and radio programs.

Special discoveries in special collections

In the archives of the Department of Special Collections in UND’s Chester Fritz Library, Anderson’s grandson described how he unexpectedly discovered two hand-written manuscripts, one for a play his grandfather wrote that he didn’t know existed and another revealing the unknown history of a well-known play.

Maxwell L. Anderson, an art historian, author and president of Souls Grown Deep – an organization advocating the inclusion of Southern Black artists in American art history – said, “I’ve spent a lot of time in archives over the years – all over the world – and was thrilled to be here to see archives that touched on my family’s history.

“But I did not expect to see in my grandfather’s handwriting, both on a play I’d never heard of and the fact that his storied production, ‘Knickerbocker Holiday,’ began its life as ‘Knickerbocker History,’” Anderson said. “In his own hand, he crossed out the word ‘history’ and supplanted it with the word ‘holiday.’”

Another find in UND’s special collection archives was a 1938 diary of the late Maxwell Anderson, which the grandson immediately shared with his brother and nine cousins.

“We’re excited to imagine what might come of that script that came out of nowhere,” he said. “It’s all-important to have this collection in the safe, capable hands at UND.”

UND alum and Grand Forks native Joel Vig was credited for launching the effort to have famed playwright Maxwell Anderson recognized on North Dakota’s first Literary Landmark. Photo by Mike Hess/UND Today.

Vig, as UND President Andy Armacost noted, was the person most responsible for launching the effort to establish a Literary Landmark at UND in honor of Maxwell Anderson. With a 40-year career as a stage actor in New York and having little to do during the COVID pandemic, Vig made it his mission to put Literary Landmarks in states where they didn’t exist.

Taking the initiative

“I decided to give myself the job of reaching out to several of these states, including my home state of North Dakota,” he said. “I knew of Maxwell Anderson because I attended UND. I decided to make the push to see if I could get him honored as the first landmark there.”

Initially Vig contacted Grand Forks Herald columnist Marilyn Hagerty, who directed him to then UND Interim President Joshua Wynne, currently dean of the UND School of Medicine & Health Sciences and vice president for Health Affairs. He liked the idea, but let Vig know that incoming-president Armacost would be the best person to lead the project. It took only one phone call to convince Armacost to get onboard.

“I give great credit to President Armacost because from the very beginning, he didn’t just say, ‘Oh, that’s a good idea. Let me think about it.’ And he didn’t give it to a committee,” Vig recalled.

“I have to give him a pat on the back because that bronze plaque, which will now forever be on the exterior of this building, is going to commemorate a great North Dakotan, a great UND alum and a great writer who has given so much to so many people.”

The United for Libraries plaque designating the Burtness Theatre as North Dakota’s first Literary Landmark. Photo by Mike Hess/UND Today.

During the ceremony Vig read a letter from Philip Langner, president of The Theatre Guild, founded more than 100 years ago and considered one of the greatest production organizations of the 20th century. Langner compared Maxwell Anderson’s works to those of George Bernard Shaw, Eugene O’Neill, Robert Sherwood and Tennessee Williams, calling them playwrights who did more than entertain.

“They addressed important and controversial subjects to inform and inspire the theater-going public,” Langner wrote.

“Maxwell Anderson’s contributions with his plays will live forever,” he continued. “The Theatre Guild salutes Maxwell Anderson’s accomplishments in the literary world and congratulates his family and North Dakota and the university there on this special honor.”

A top UND graduate

During her remarks, DeAnna Carlson Zink, CEO of the UND Alumni Association & Foundation, noted that 14 years after Maxwell Anderson graduated from UND, he was considered one of the University’s top 10 graduates. The first two issues of Alumni Magazine included stories about the plays he brought to the New York stage.

“I would say that Maxwell Anderson gave hope to many UND graduates over the years as an example of someone who did great things with a UND degree in hand,” Carlson Zink related. “Even now, 111 years after he graduated, I would strongly suggest that Maxwell Anderson is still among the top graduates of this outstanding University.”

Maxwell L. Anderson, grandson of Maxwell Anderson, discovered a play manuscript and his grandfather’s 1938 diary in the archives of the Department of Special Collections in UND’s Chester Fritz Library. Photo by Mike Hess/UND Today.

Armacost pointed out that Maxwell Anderson is also remembered at UND for his “Love Letter to a University,” which he wrote in 1958 to credit UND for helping launch his writing career.

“Throughout our lives, most of us will come to recognize the people, the times, the places, and the events that helped shape our careers and who we are as humans,” Armacost said. “Clearly, the letter was a reflection on how Anderson’s time at UND positively influenced his life.

“Let us learn from Maxwell Anderson’s words and his example,” he added. “Let’s make the effort to express our gratitude to those who have educated and inspired us to be a person in our own right.”

Art and communications

Eric Link, Provost and Vice President of Academic Affairs whose field of study is American literature, noted that art provides a form of communication Maxwell Anderson employed to translate experiences across space and time to make us think critically about our lives and the communities in which we live.

“Not only does it bring us enjoyment, but it helps us learn and grow,” he related. “It fosters a sense of community identity, and builds our relationships with one another. Art is a powerful tool that helps bind us to each other in ways other disciplines cannot.

“This is why we’re so very proud today to be recognizing one of our state’s most celebrated literary figures, Maxwell Anderson, and his ties to UND, which played a significant role in his life,” Link said.

Anderson’s grandson said it was a great honor to represent his family at the UND Literary Landmark ceremony “to celebrate the life and work of a man who always celebrated his beginnings here in North Dakota.

“And we wish all the students of UND a future filled with the same kinds of possibilities that he found here over a century ago,” he concluded.