Indiana is known mostly for basketball, corn, the Autumn scenery in the
rolling hills of the southern part of the state, the billowing steel mills in the northwestern region, its seemingly unending railroad tracks and the Indy 500. Until recently reading H.L. Mencken on American Literature, I had associated the state with only a few authors of note, namely Lew Wallace, Kurt Vonnegut and perhaps the most identifiable with the state of Indiana, James Whitcomb Riley.
But as I began to take note of the number of authors from the state being addressed in the Mencken book, comprised of selections from his “Smart Set” articles written while editor for the literary review magazine of the 1920s and 30s, I did a little extra digging around to compile a list. Research produced a large number of Hoosier authors, so I culled only the better-known writers, mostly from the period covered by Mencken’s reviews.
For a state that’s the smallest in size of any east of the Mississippi River and not of an original colony, the list of talented writers it has produced is quite impressive:
Booth Tarkington – (July 29, 1869 – May 19, 1946) Booth Tarkington was an author and playwright from Indianapolis. He won the Pulitzer Prize in 1919 with his 1918 novel, The Magnificent Ambersons and in 1922 for his 1921 work, Alice Adams. Tarkington was influenced by writers of the American realism movement, a style of writing at the time which centered around ordinary, day to day activities of the American middle-class, featuring authors like William Dean Howells, Jack London and Upton Sinclair. Focusing on industrial expansion in America, Tarkington’s well regarded Trilogy included, in addition to The Magnificent Ambersons, The Turmoil of 1915 and The Midlander of 1924. Many of his works were later adopted to the stage and screen, such as Alice Adams, which starred Katharine Hepburn.
James Whitcomb Riley – (October 7, 1849 – July 22, 1916) From Greenfield, a small town on the old National Road just east of Indianapolis, James Whitcomb Riley, the “Hoosier Poet”, is one of Indiana’s most cherished legacies. Reflecting on his youth, his poems became beloved children’s favorites, hence, his nickname the “Children’s Poet”. The actual pond that inspired his poem The Old Swimming Hole, is now a city park on the east side of town. Riley was named after Indiana Governor, James Whitcomb, a friend of his father, an attorney, who was also involved in state politics. While his father was away serving in the Union Army during the Civil War, the Riley family took in an orphan girl named Marie Alice Smith, the inspiration for the poem “Little Orphan Annie”, perhaps Riley’s most well-known work. Riley also worked as a reporter for the Anderson Democrat, a newspaper in Anderson, Indiana, until being dismissed after publishing “a newly discovered poem” claimed to have been written by Edgar Allan Poe. Returning to Greenfield, Riley continued writing poetry, eventually gaining the national recognition he had long sought and by his later years, the sobriquet “National Poet”. Other well-known Riley works include The Raggedy Man, Little Mandy’s Christmas-Tree, and The Days Gone By. Indiana has many memorials dedicated to Riley, including the James Whitcomb Riley Hospital for Children in Indianapolis.
Gene Stratton Porter – (August 17, 1863 – December 6, 1924) Geneva Stratton was born near the small town of Lagro in Wabash County. In addition to being an author, she was also a naturalist and photographer. Without a formal education beyond high school, but always an avid reader, Ms. Stratton became a writer of natural history and photographer of wildlife in the local “Limberlost” wet-lands. Her first novel The Strike at Shane’s, published anonymously, met limited success. The Song of the Cardinal, her first attributed novel, was a great success. Her novel Laddie, was a semi-autobiography, based on her early personal experiences. Subsequent novels Freckles, A Girl of the Limberlost, and The Harvester were set in the disappearing swamp-lands of central Indiana. Her articles were frequently featured in McCalls and other magazines. In 1889, Ms. Stratton married pharmacist Charles Porter. They built two log-cabin homes, one at “Limberlost”, and a second, the “Cabin in Wildflower Woods”, in Rome City in the northern part of the state, both of which became state historical sites. Stratton-Porter wrote more than 20 books, consisting of novels, which were translated into several foreign languages and Braille, and natural history.
David Graham Phillips – (October 31, 1867 – January 24, 1911) Born in the Ohio River town of Madison, David Graham Phillips studied at Indiana Asbury University (later DePauw University) before going to work as a reporter for the Cincinnati Times-Star. Moving to New York, Phillips developed his reputation as a fine investigative journalist with the New York Sun and New York World newspapers. Phillips published his first novel, The Great God Success, in 1901, which performed so well that he quit journalism to write fiction. His investigative background was evident in his fiction, as they were based on social problems. The Plum Tree of 1905 and Light Fingered Gentry published in 1907, both addressed political corruption, while The Second Generation dealt with the issue of inheritance. Occasionally commissioned to write articles for magazines on political subjects, his 1906 series published in Cosmopolitan magazine, The Treason of the Senate, created an upheaval. After being called a muckraker, Phillips returned to writing novels of fiction with Old Wives for New in 1908, addressing the social and economic standing of women in society, and in 1911, The Conflict, where he once again addressed political corruption. Phillips was murdered in 1911 by a Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra violinist who believed that his family was the target of Phillips’ novel The Fashionable Adventures of Joshua Craig. In 1917, Phillips’ most well-known novel, Susan Lenox, was published posthumously.
Theodore Dreiser – (August 27, 1871 – December 28, 1945) From Terra Haute, Theodore Dreiser was the predominant American writer of the Naturalism movement, an extension of Realism. His brother was songwriter Paul Dresser (Americanization of Dreiser), who penned the song On the Banks of the Wabash, Far Away. After one year at Indiana University, Dreiser went to work as a newspaperman in Chicago then St. Louis through the 1890s and by 1907, was the successful editor of a women’s magazine, though he personally detested magazines of that type. Having experienced much discontent coming from a poor family, Dreiser’s work reflected on the stark realities of life. His 1910 novel, Sister Carrie, was so controversial that the publisher refused to honor the contract and the book wasn’t generally available until reprinted by another publisher 12 years later. Jennie Gerhardt was published in 1911, but it was his 1912 work, The Financier, that solidified his reputation. Intended to be the first of the “Trilogy of Desire”, part two, The Titan, published in 1914, was a failure and part three, The Stoic, was posthumously published in 1947. Dreiser’s An American Tragedy, published in 1925, is considered to be his finest book. According to the harsh literary critic H.L. Mencken, Dreiser was one of the few American authors comparable to the European “greats” that included Friedrich Nietzsche and Joseph Conrad.
Lew Wallace – (April 10, 1827 – February 15, 1905) Born in Brookville, Lewis “Lew” Wallace moved with his family to Covington at a young age, then on to Indianapolis when his father was elected Governor. At the age of nine, Lew and his older brother moved to the Crawfordsville area, which he would regard as his home for the remainder of his life. Wallace began his education at Wabash Preparatory School then proceeded to a private academy in Centerville, where he became interested in the study of law. When his father refused to pay for additional schooling, Wallace returned to Indianapolis where he went to work for the county clerk, and got involved with the local militia. It was there that he started writing his first novel, The Fair God, which was not published until 1873. Wallace continued to study law in his father’s law office and was admitted to the bar in 1849, after which he started his own law practice. When War with Mexico broke out, Wallace served as regimental adjutant with the rank of 1st lieutenant in General Zachary Taylor’s army, but saw no action. He returned to Crawfordsville to practice law and was elected to the state senate prior to being called on, once again, to serve in the militia at the onset of the Civil War. After an extensive and eventful military career in the U.S. Army, Wallace re-entered politics where he would begin writing Ben Hur; A Tale of the Christ. Published in 1880, Ben Hur would overtake Uncle Tom’s Cabin as the best-selling American novel, a designation it would hold until Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind came out in 1936. In 1893, The Prince of India; or, Why Constantinople Fell was published which, despite its success, was nothing near the achievement of his previous work. Wallace’s other publications include, Life of Gen. Ben Harrison in 1888, The Wooing of Malkatoon [and] Commodus in 1898, and Lew Wallace: An Autobiography, 2 volumes published in 1906.
Emily Kimbrough – (October 23, 1899 – February 10, 1989) Born in Muncie. and a source of great pride in “Middletown U.S.A.”, Emily Kimbrough graduated from Bryn Mawr College in 1921, followed by a trip to Europe with her college friend Cornelia Otis Skinner. They co-authored Our Hearts Were Young and Gay, published in 1942, from the memoirs of their European adventures. The book became a New York Times best-seller and prompted both to go to Hollywood to pursue a movie script. Kimbrough wrote We Followed Our Hearts to Hollywood, which came out in 1943, based on that experience. Kimbrough then followed with How Dear to My Heart, a 1944 publication of memoirs of her childhood in Muncie during the turn of the century. Kimbrough’s career started in 1923, when she went to work for Marshall Field’s Advertising Bureau as a researcher and writer for Fashions of the Hour, Marshall Field’s quarterly catalog, of which she was later promoted to editor. She left the department store in 1926 after being recruited by Barton Curry of the Ladies Home Journal, where she became fashion editor until 1929. Kimbrough went on to publish articles for The New Yorker, Atlantic Monthly, among other publications, as a freelance writer until 1952. She established a career in journalism, as editor of Fashions and managing editor of Ladies Home Journal, and had her articles published in Country Life, House & Garden, Travel, Reader’s Digest, Saturday Review of Literature and Parents. In 1952, Kimbrough published an autobiographical account of working in the Advertising Bureau at Marshall Field’s. In 1952, she added radio to her repertoire when she joined WCBS Radio. Emily Kimbrough’s house and surrounding blocks, were established as a Muncie local historic district in 1976, and on November 13, 1980, were added to the National Register of Historic Places.
Ernie Pyle – (August 3, 1900 – April 18, 1945) Born near the small town of Dana, Ernie Pyle was a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist. Enlisting in the U.S. Navy Reserves during World War I, Pyle served for 3 months before the war was over, finishing his reserve duty with the rank Seaman First-Class. Pyle attended Indiana University, where he was editor of the student newspaper and traveled to Asia with some of his Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity brothers. He accepted a job at a LaPorte newspaper, with 1 month left to go before graduating. After 3 months, he went to Washington D.C. to work as a reporter for The Washington Daily News, a tabloid newspaper. In 1925, Pyle married a girl he met in Washington, Geraldine Siebolds, who suffered from bouts of mental illness and alcoholism. Tired of his desk job, Pyle and his wife left town in 1926 to tour the country in his Ford roadster, but returned to The Washington Daily News after traveling over 9,000 miles. In 1928, Pyle became an aviation columnist, the country’s first. By 1932, Pyle was the managing editor of The Washington Daily News and was offered a national column for the Scripps-Howard newspaper chain, allowing Pyle to travel the country and write about his experiences and the people he encountered. After the United States entered World War II, Pyle became a war correspondent covering the European Theater where he won the Pulitzer Prize for journalism in 1944. When war in Europe ended in 1945, Pyle transferred to the Pacific Theater. Making the comment that the guys in the Pacific “had it easy” compared to the war in Europe, did not gain Pyle any new friends. After having a premonition of his own death during the invasion of Okinawa, Pyle was struck by Japanese machine-gun fire while riding in a jeep. Receiving a round to his left temple, he died instantly. After surviving 4 years of brutal combat in North Africa, Sicily, Italy, Normandy and Germany, Ernie Pyle met his fate after barely a month in the Pacific.
Kurt Vonnegut – (November 11, 1922 – April 11, 2007) Another Indianapolis writer, Kurt Vonnegut was a leader of the Humanist movement, characterized by satire, dark humor and science fiction. His socialist political views were inspired by Union leader, Eugene Debs, a fellow Hoosier. While studying at Cornell University, Vonnegut was assistant editor of The Cornell Daily Sun. He enlisted in the U.S. Army during World War II, and was assigned to the Carnegie Institute, then the University of Tennessee, to study mechanical engineering. Captured at the Battle of the Bulge, Vonnegut was chosen POW leader for his ability to speak some German, which he lost when telling the German captors “what he was going to do to them when the Russians arrived.” His experiences as a POW formed the basis for his novel, Slaughterhouse Five, named after the building where they were taken during allied air raids. Liberated by the Red Army in 1945, Vonnegut was awarded several decorations, including the Purple Heart (from what he later claimed was frostbite), Combat Infantryman badge, and the Prisoner of War, Army Good Conduct, European-Africa-Middle-Eastern Campaign, and World War II Victory medals. Returning to the states, Vonnegut attended the University of Chicago and found work with the City News Bureau of Chicago as a police reporter. Vonnegut left Chicago for a public relations job with General Electric in Schenectady, New York, and from 2003 to 200, was recognized as New York State Author. In addition to his greatest work, Slaughterhouse-Five in 1969, which resulted in the term “Vonnegutian” to describe his style, his other well-known books include, Cat’s Cradle in 1963, and Breakfast of Champions in 1973. Vonnegut, in his later years, became interested in the graphic arts.
E.W. Howe – (May 3, 1853 – October 3, 1937) Another writer from Wabash County, Edgar Watson Howe, born near the village of Treat, was a novelist, essayist and editor, best known for E.W.Howe Monthly magazine. Spending only a brief part of his life in Indiana, the Howe family moved to Missouri when Edgar was three years of age. Howe spent much of his childhood in Missouri where his father, an abolitionist, joined the Union cause at the onset of the Civil War. Towards the end of the war, Howe’s father purchased a newspaper in Bethany, Missouri, as a vehicle to advocate anti-slavery. Starting as an apprentice printer in Missouri, Howe’s work took him to Iowa, Nebraska, and Utah. By the age of 19, Howe was the publisher of the Golden Globe in Golden, Colorado, and in 1877, founded the Daily Globe in Atchison, Kansas, where he began writing his first novel about life in a small town in the Midwest. Published in 1883, The Story of a Country Town, was his most successful novel. While his first novel was highly regarded by prominent American authors of the time, Mark Twain and William Dean Howells, his subsequent books never found the same success. From 1911 to 1933, Howe was publisher and editor of E.W.Howe’s Monthly, and also wrote essays, travel books and an autobiography, Plain People, in 1929. In 1933, The Indigations of E.W. Howe, was published, a collection of his journalistic works. Mencken, who Howe was often compared to, was a fan of E.W. Howe’s Monthly, regarding it as: “one of the most curious as it is certainly one of the most entertaining of all the 25,000 periodicals now issuing in the United States”. Howe lived the remainder of his life in Atchison, Kansas.
Marjorie Benton Cooke – (November 27, 1876 – April 26, 1920) From Richmond, Marjorie Benton Cooke was educated at the University of Chicago. A novelist and playwright, her 3rd and most successful book, “Bambi”, was published in 1914. Not to be confused with “Bambi, A Life in the Woods”, published in 1942 by Austrian author Felix Salten and subject of the Disney animated drama “Bambi”, Cooke’s “Bambi” became a radio broadcast series in 1936 starring Helen Hayes. Upon graduation from college in 1899, Cooke quickly found success as a recitalist of sketches and monologues and by 1909, was referred to as “the greatest reader of monologues in America”. In 1910, Cooke’s first book, The Girl Who Lived in the Woods, was published, followed by To Mother and Dr. David, both published in 1911, Bambi in 1914, The Incubus and The Duel Alliance in 1915, the popular Cinderella Jane in 1917 and The Cricket, another of her most well-known works, published in 1919. The author of several plays, screenplays and popular short stories, Cooke’s career was cut short when she died of pneumonia in Manila during a cruise around the world.
Margaret Caroline Anderson – (November 24, 1886 – October 19, 1973) Born in Indianapolis, but also documented as being from Columbus, Indiana, Margaret Caroline Anderson was educated at Western College for Women in Oxford, Ohio, now part of Miami University. Following college, Ms. Anderson moved to Chicago to work for The Dial as a book reviewer. In 1914, Ms. Anderson founded The Little Review magazine, which struggled initially before reaching legendary status. Though Anderson continued to publish, much animosity in America including charges of obscenity resulting in a conviction, provoked her to move to Europe. She continued writing with a three-volume autobiography, consisting of My Thirty Years’ War published in 1930, The Fiery Fountains in 1951, and The Strange Necessity published in 1962. The Little Review Anthology was published in 1953, and Forbidden Fires, was published posthumously in 1996.
Lloyd C. Douglas – (August 27, 1877 – February 13, 1951) Born in Columbia City, Lloyd Cassel Douglas was a Lutheran minister and author, who grew up in Monroeville, Wilmot, and Florence, Kentucky, where his father was the pastor of the Hopeful Lutheran Church. Douglas was educated at Wittenberg College in Ohio, and ordained as a pastor by the Lutheran Church in 1903. As a Lutheran pastor, Douglas served in Ohio, Indiana and Washington D.C. In 1911, he accepted the position of Director of Religious Works at the University of Illinois and in 1915, was appointed Minister of the First Congregational Church of Ann Arbor, Michigan. From 1920 to 1926, Douglas was Senior Minister of the First Congregations Church of Akron, Ohio, and later served as a minister in Los Angeles and in Quebec, Canada. Douglas didn’t publish his first novel, Magnificent Obsession, until 1929 at the age of 50, but still became one of the most popular American authors of his time. His writings were strongly influence by his religious background and, to some degree, by fellow Hoosier author Lew Wallace. Books authored by Douglas include, A Congregation in 1920, Minister’s Everyday Life in 1924, Forgive Us Our Trespasses in 1932, Green Light, White Banners in 1936, and Doctor Hudson’s Secret Journal of 1939. Douglas continued with Invitation to Live in 1940, The Big Fisherman in 1948, and posthumously, A Time to Remember, published in 1952. But his most well-known work, The Robe, published in 1942, was made into an epic biblical film after his death.