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Portage, Wisconsin is a place defined by passing through it. It was once a major hub of passage, via river and canal, from the Great Lakes to the Mississippi River. Today, the town, home to just over 10,000 people, is little more than a distant suburb of the state capital, Madison, 35 miles to the south. On the drive up 91-North, billboards advertise Ho-Chunk casinos, water parks in the Wisconsin Dells, and the world’s largest Culver’s, a fast-food chain famous for its frozen custard. There are numerous roadside attractions: outside a gas station, a life-sized statue of a pink elephant wearing horn-rimmed glasses; on the roof of a cheese shop, a giant mouse, nibbling a hole-riddled block of cheese. These advertisements are pleas for drivers, on their way to somewhere else, to pull off the highway and stay for a while.

Yet in this seemingly placid place there unfolded a revelatory literary and social struggle of the early 20th century. The key players were Margery Latimer, a modernist writer, her mentor, Zona Gale, a progressive writer, and Latimer’s husband, Jean Toomer, a spiritual teacher of the Gurdjieff movement and modernist writer, best remembered for his masterpiece of African American Literary Modernism, Cane (1923). Gale and Latimer were both born and buried in Portage. Toomer’s presence triggered the town's most infamous scandal. All three profoundly shaped the town through their short stories, novels, and essays, which sought to contain and comprehend its essence.

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