Flossmoor native James Gilbert, a retired Maryland history professor and Fulbright advisor, has recently published his 13th book. It is his first work of fiction with a setting similar to his childhood neighborhood in Flossmoor. He will be doing a reading and book signing at Flossmoor Station on July 15 at 4 p.m.
A distinguished retired Maryland history professor and Fulbright advisor, who has taught in six countries, has recently published his 13th book. It is his first work of fiction with a setting similar to his childhood neighborhood in Flossmoor. He will be doing a reading and book signing at Flossmoor Station on July 15 at 4 p.m.
James Gilbert was born in Chicago, but raised in Flossmoor where he attended elementary school and then Bloom High School in the days before Homewood-Flossmoor High School existed. He then went off to Carleton College in Minnesota and completed graduate school at the University of Wisconsin where he earned his master’s degree and doctorate in American History.
His parents later moved back to southern Illinois where they were originally from. He landed a job in Maryland, near Washington, D.C., and he has been there ever since, except for when he is residing in other parts of the world. Currently he spends a couple months out of the year traveling in either Europe or South America.
In the mid-1960s, Gilbert began working at the University of Maryland as a history professor. He was also a visiting head of the art department there for a year and has been a visiting lecturer and visiting professor in six countries – England, Australia, Sweden, Amsterdam, Germany and France.
“I have a kind of wanderlust,” said Gilbert, “So not only do I write about different topics, but I spend a lot of time living abroad.”
Gilbert has authored 11 books pertaining to cultural history. They cover a wide range of subjects, including world’s fairs, juvenile delinquency in the 1950s and the interaction between religion and science from the 1930s to the 1970s.
“I started writing fiction because I became increasingly frustrated writing history,” said Gilbert. “I like what you can do as a historian, but one thing you can’t do is get inside a character and you can’t tell anyone what they’re thinking. You can only speculate about what they think and what they believe.”
He’s written several novels, but his book “Key Party” is the first to be published. “It deals with an urban legend of the 1950s. It was probably an invention of Hugh Hefner and his (Playboy) magazine and the whole ‘Bunny Club’ idea of sexuality. It was the kind of thing that teenage boys talked about,” he said.
The book is a “comic-serious satire” of key parties (where couples would attend cocktail parties and sleep with another attendee’s spouse after picking a random key belonging to that person out of a bowl) and the false utopian impression of the “happy days” of the American family in that era.
The book is set in a community where four couples reside on a street adjacent to a golf course. Gilbert lived on a street that separated two golf courses, but that’s where the similarities end.
“It’s partly based on the town of Flossmoor, but completely imaginary. None of it is real. I didn’t model the characters after anyone,” he said.
“It’s about … their relationships inside the marriage and to each other,” he said. “I use the metaphor of the idea of the key party that would create a crisis that would show what these marriages were all about. It’s not about sex, it’s about human relations. It’s also about what the 1950s were really all about.”
Gilbert said that on his visits back to the area, he’s been surprised by how things seemed to appear larger in scale during his childhood.
“When I went back for my high school reunion, I drove from the train station to where I grew up. As a child I had remembered that there was a great big hill that I had to go down. When I drove on it, there’s no hill at all. Everything seemed smaller,” he said.
“When you are a child growing up, you see everything at the perspective of looking up at it, rather than looking down on it. When you grow up and look down it, it diminishes the size of it. The dead end road I lived on always seemed very long to me, and it was really just 3 or 4 blocks long. It was interesting for me to experience that.”
He remembers Flossmoor as a segregated community in the 1940s and 1950s and with three golf courses there, he said he was very conscious of golf.
“Flossmoor was all about golf when I was growing up,” he said. His father served as the village’s police magistrate during part of the family’s time there.
Gilbert continues working with the University of Maryland as a Fulbright advisor and he enjoys playing cello. He continues writing fiction, but as a true historian, does much research on settings, maps and dates to pull in an accurate history for his carefully curated characters.