Orlo J. Otteson
To begin at the beginning, I was born in Chickasaw County, Iowa, in a country house my immigrant grandfather built. The beaten-down dwelling still stands, a victim of age and neglect, but a reminder of days gone by. My coming-of-age years occurred in Osage, a small county seat town in northeastern Iowa, and a setting I still call my "hometown.”
The country around Osage, in Mitchell County, is gently rolling farmland, breaking here and there into patches of woodland and an occasional stream. It is fine country and well-adapted to the pursuits of boyhood. The streams seem somewhat shrunken now and the woodlands denuded of their shadowy romance; but certain spots there, and farther east, where I spent summer days on my uncle’s farm, are among my most vivid recollections.
With seemingly boundless energy and a driving will to excel, I pursued and captured an Iowa state high school wrestling championship, an achievement that earned me a scholarship to the University of Wisconsin (Madison). Several more years of competition led finally to several forms of exhaustion and a mounting interest in bookish ventures; and I returned to Iowa, where I acquired a B..A. degree in English from Luther College.
Following a stint in the U.S. Army and after three demanding but rewarding years as a Minneapolis high school English teacher and coach, I enrolled in the graduate Program in American Studies at the University of Minnesota (Minneapolis), where I immersed myself in the task of further understanding what Henry James called "the complex fate of being an American." Armed with an M.A. degree, and pushed along by a deepening interest in nonfiction writing, I turned to journalism.
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I'm an optimist. I think God loves Americans and drunkards and keeps them, for the most part, out of the way of passing cars. I'm a skeptic though. I believe wise skepticism is the first attribute of a good critic. I accept Mark Twain's view that soap and education are less sudden than a massacre, but more deadly in the long run. I respect (but have imperfectly followed) Hemingway’s succinct advice: Before you react, think. Before you spend, earn. Before you criticize, wait. Before you quit, try. I admire (and support) those who speak out—and keep speaking out—against injustice, sham, and inequality. I strive to do right. I yearn for significance. I can take a joke.