“Upon The Gallows Tree”: E. Merrill Root’s poem “Witchcraft”

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A rendering of Bridget Bishop, the first to be executed of the alleged Salem witches.

A rendering of Bridget Bishop, the first to be executed of the alleged Salem witches.

About a year ago I was browsing through the Dictionary of Midwestern Literature: Volume One—The Authors, and I read the entry on a writer named E. Merrill Root. I had never heard of him before. E. Merrill Root was a poet and professor who spent much of his career at Earlham College in Richmond,Indiana. Edward Merrill Root was born on January 1, 1895 in Baltimore, Maryland. He graduated from Amherst College and did civilian war-related work as a conscientious objector with Quakers in France before returning to the U.S. and attending Andover Theological Seminary for a year. In 1920 he became an English professor at Earlham, a Quaker institution, and remained there until retiring in 1960. Root was a traditional poet who usually worked in rhyme and standard metrical patterns. He demonstrated particular skill with the sonnet form. Root was a student of Robert Frost’s, and Frost was an admirer of his work.

The seal of William Stoughton, the judge who oversaw the Salem Witch Trials. This seal was affixed to the execution warrant for accused witch Bridget Bishop.

The seal of William Stoughton, the judge who oversaw the Salem Witch Trials. This seal was affixed to the execution warrant for accused witch Bridget Bishop. (Photo by Margo Burns).

In addition to poetry, Root wrote a biography of the English writer Frank Harris as well as essays and polemical works on American education. Root was a strongly anti-Communist conservative. I can’t speak to the quality or nature of his political writings. There’s a stereotype in the culture that poets and artists are generally liberal, and while this is often true, it is also a stereotype. Twentieth century poets and writers who are generally identified as political conservatives include Allen Tate, T. S. Eliot, Robert Frost, Peter Viereck, Wyndham Lewis, Ezra Pound, W.B. Yeats, Louis Bromfield, Walker Percy, and Wallace Stevens. Some prominent authors, such as American novelist John Dos Passos, moved rightwards after the Second World War after holding leftist positions during the Twenties and Thirties.

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I have been impressed by Root’s poems. In keeping with this spooky time of year, I wanted to share a poem of Root’s about the Salem Witch Trials in Salem, Massachusetts during 1692-93. It’s a kind of ballad, and I find it wonderfully evokes the weirdness and hysteria of that time, ending with a particularly haunting image. This is from his collection entitled The Seeds of Time, published in 1950. In the original version the first and third lines are indented, but this is problematic in wordpress, so all lines are flush against the margin here. Now let’s travel back to Salem…..

“Witchcraft”

‘Tis Salem, 1696—
Beware the evil glance!
The woods are deserts dim and full
Of dismal circumstance.

New England is the Devil’s realm,
Good Cotton Mather knows—
There copper demons throng the dark
Amid a waste of snows.

Cotton Mather

Cotton Mather

Children, infected with the night,
Gibber and shriek and twitch:
God save them—and God save us all!—
From demon and from witch.

Like beasts upon all fours they crawl;
Their flesh turns blue and black;
The foam is froth upon their lips;
Their limbs grow numb and slack.

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(That hag, old Tituba, is there—
The creature of the night:
She hears the rustle and crepen bustle
Of witches in their flight.)

"Tituba and the Children"

“Tituba and the Children”

“ ‘Tis Goody Nurse!” the children cry,
“ ‘Tis Reverend Burroughs, too!”
(Upon their foreheads and their hands
The sweat is ghastly dew.)

Ann Putnam cries,–she is but twelve,–
“His two dead brides!—they say
He slew them both, he stabbed them both;
And see, their cheeks are gray.”

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And Goodwife Putnam, like a bow
Too tightly strung, is there;
She sees the specters of the dark
Flutter across the air.

“How oft,” cries she, “how oft hath he
Plagued the poor godly child!—
See, yellow birds flit round his head.”
Her rolling eyes are wild.

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“The red calf’s head,” one child doth shriek,
“Its ears are stiff and pert—
See, See!” She points at vacant air;
Then swoons and falls inert.

“ ‘Hoccanum come!’ ” (Ann Putnam saith)
“Old Goody Nurse did cry;
And just that night—that very night—
My father’s cow went dry.”

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The others pant, “The black dog runs—
Yet see, it hath her head!”
“She rides the water like a cork,
Who should be drowned and dead.”

“The white sow roots the earth in dreams…
I may not sleep by night.”
Haggard and hollow are their cheeks;
Their eyes are thronged with fright.

1280px-Witchcraft_at_Salem_Village

Why wonder then that juries pale
And swoon in sympathy?
Why marvel witches hang like fruit
Upon the gallows tree?

———-E. Merrill Root

 

Patrick Kerin

Resources:

The Seeds of Time by E. Merrill Root. Falmouth Publishing House, Portland, Maine. 1950.

Dictionary of Midwestern Literature: Volume One–The Authors. Philip A. Greasley, General Editor. Indiana University Press, Bloomington and Indianapolis, 2001.

May 22, 1868: The Reno Gang Makes Outlaw History

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Reno Gang member John Reno.

John Reno of the Reno Gang.

May 22, 1868. The darkness of the backcountry night has settled around a train stop where the Jefferson, Madison & Indianapolis train takes on wood and water. In this outpost near Marshfield, Indiana, seven men wait for the train. They lurk beneath trees or behind bushes. Frank Reno, the leader of the men, kneels down and puts his ear to the rail. The train is on its way. Within minutes the train has come to a halt, and engineer George Fletcher, oilcan in hand, leaps down from the engine.

A man steps out of the darkness and strikes Fletcher on the head, knocking him unconscious. Fireman David Hutchinson is attacked and overcome by two bandits. Other men cut the telegraph wires. Conductor Americus Wheeler draws his pistol but is shot and severely wounded. The outlaws then uncouple the engine, tender, and express car and drive the train down the track, the baggage cars stranded on the rails near the stop. Like a scene out a western movie, gang leader Frank Reno and one other man make their way across the top of the cars and climb down to the platform outside the express car. They jimmy open the door. The agent inside refuses to hand over the keys to the boxes holding 97,000 dollars in gold and government bonds. He is beaten with pistols and crowbars and thrown out the door, where he will be found beside the tracks the next day, still alive but badly injured.

The train is abandoned near Seymour, Indiana, but the conductor, fireman and engineer locate a handcar and make their way to the engine and adjoining cars. They back the train down the tracks, reconnect with the other cars and make their way to Indianapolis, where they tell authorities about the heist. It proves to be front page news around the country, one of the most stunning robberies in the nation’s short history.

Frank Reno, leader of the Reno Gang.

Frank Reno, leader of the Reno Gang.

The robbery was the work of the Reno Gang, an outfit made up of four brothers named Reno–John, Frank, William, and Simeon–along with an assortment of other hoodlums. It was the gang’s third robbery, but the brothers had a long history of criminal activity prior to their careers as train robbers.

The Reno men were born into a strict Methodist family in Indiana. Their father, Wilkinson Reno (sometimes spelled “Wilkison” or “Wilkerson”) moved to Indiana from Kentucky in 1813 and married a woman named Julia Ann Freyhafer in 1835. Wilkinson Reno settled with his family on a farm in Jackson County, Indiana. In addition to the four men mentioned above, there was also a daughter named Laura and a son named Clinton, who came to be known as “Honest Clint” as he never joined in the gang, although he had his own problems with the law, which included arrests for running a gambling house and an indictment for assault and battery.

Reno Gang member Frank Sparks.

Reno Gang member Frank Sparks.

John and Frank drifted into crime during their youth, fleecing travelers passing through the area with crooked card games. John, Frank, and Simeon were all Union bounty jumpers during the Civil War. A bounty jumper was a man who would enlist in a unit of the Union or Confederate army and then abscond with his enlistment bonus or bounty. Some would join multiple units, collecting as many bounties as they could. By 1864 Frank and John returned to their old stomping grounds and resumed lives of civilian crime, forming a gang that robbed both travelers and local merchants. The Renos apparently had no qualms about murdering travelers they robbed.

The gang committed their first train robbery on October 1, 1866 near Seymour, Indiana, which has become known outside the state in recent years as musician John Mellencamp’s hometown. The gang robbed an Ohio and Mississippi Railway train not long after it departed the Seymour depot, netting an estimated $16,000 dollars. But the Renos had stirred larger and more dangerous forces than an outraged local citizenry. The safe containing the money from the October robbery was insured by a firm called the Adams Express Company, and company officials quickly hired the Pinkerton Detective Agency to go after the thieves.

Logo of the Pinkerton Detective Agency. The logo helped give rise to the term "private eye."

Logo of the Pinkerton Detective Agency. The logo helped give rise to the term “private eye.”

The Pinkertons themselves would become legendary during the latter half of the nineteenth century. Formed during the 1860s by a Scottish-born detective named Allan Pinkerton, the company won respect for foiling an assassination attempt on President Lincoln, conducting Union intelligence operations during the war and pursuing western outlaws, including such notables as Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, but earned equal infamy for its role as the hired guns of large corporations suppressing labor agitation. Now the Pinkertons were in pursuit of the Reno Gang.

Butch Cassidy's 1894 Utah prison mugshot.

Butch Cassidy’s 1894 Utah prison mugshot.

The detectives scored their first success by nabbing John Reno for robbing the Daviess County treasury in Gallatin, Missouri on November 17, 1867. Gang members shifted their focus to robberies in Iowa after John’s arrest, but were back in Indiana late in 1867. Two gang members, neither of them Reno brothers, robbed another train leaving the Seymour depot in December 1867. They netted around $8,000, which was turned over to the Renos. A fourth attempt at robbery in July of 1868 was foiled when six of the gang, once again minus the Renos, stopped a train only to encounter ten armed Pinkerton men. In the following shootout, one member of the gang named Volney Elliott was captured and gave the detectives information leading to the arrest of two other gang members: Charlie Roseberry and Theodore Clifton—but the remaining Reno brothers were still on the lam.

Allan Pinkerton

Allan Pinkerton

But it was the beginning of the end for the Reno gang. A vigilante organization had formed in March of 1868, two months before the notorious late May train robbery, and the thirst for vengeance was great. On July 10, 1868, vigilantes intercepted Pinkerton agents transporting the captured outlaws and told the detectives to “trot for Seymour” before hanging Elliott, Roseberry and Clifton from a tree. Three other gang members soon met the same fate at the same spot, which became known as “Hangman Crossing.”

William and Simeon Reno were captured next. The two men were apprehended in Indianapolis on July 27 and transported to a jail in Floyd County offering greater protection against vigilantes. Frank Reno escaped to Windsor, Ontario in Canada with gang associate Charlie Anderson. Windsor had become a safe haven for American criminals and a source of frustration for American officials and private detectives like the Pinkertons. Allan Pinkerton contacted Secretary of State William H. Seward requesting extradition of Frank Reno and Anderson back to the U.S.

Thus began a series of diplomatic communications that stalled the extradition of the two men. Frustrations increased when other Reno gang members attempted to assassinate Allan Pinkerton on two occasions. This further outraged Seward, who dispatched a gunboat to Windsor to pressure the Canadian and British governments into action. It was there for ten days before departing after the Canadian government protested its presence in Canadian waters. The Canadian government in turn was frustrated to learn that Frank Reno attempted to bribe the teenage son of the judge overseeing the extradition hearings with six thousand dollars in gold, hoping the boy would somehow influence his father on his behalf. Governor-General Monck of Canada finally agreed to release the fugitives to the United States.

Allan Pinkerton with President Lincoln and George McClellan at Antietam.

Allan Pinkerton with President Lincoln and George McClellan at Antietam.

But there was one last hurdle. Britain had changed its rules regarding the extradition of fugitives and another delay occurred. Finally, Pinkerton and his men went to Canada to take custody of the fugitives. Pinkerton’s problems weren’t over yet. After taking custody of Frank Reno and Anderson, the tug they were traveling in was sliced in half by a steamer. Pinkerton and his men treaded water and held on to the two convicts in leg irons and handcuffs until the steamer turned around and rescued them.

Yet all of the waiting and effort that went into securing these remaining fugitives of the Reno Gang would be undone by the work of vigilantes. Trouble came by train, appropriately enough, on the night of December 11, 1868, to New Albany in Jackson County, Indiana. A group of around sixty-five masked men exited the train, seized the sheriff, overpowered the jailer and hanged Frank, William, and Simeon Reno along with Charlie Anderson. When their grim work was done, the men boarded their train and returned to their homes. No one was ever charged with any crime in connection with these executions.

Western historian James D. Horan wrote “There was a token investigation of the lynching but nothing came of it. Secretly state and local officials congratulated themselves that the power of the outlaw gang had finally been shattered. No one pointed out that the vigilante action only underscored the total breakdown of law and justice in their state.”

Frank and Jesse James with their revolvers. They would follow in the Reno tradition and became skilled train robbers.

Frank and Jesse James with their revolvers. They would follow in the Reno tradition and became skilled train robbers.

Crowds poured into town to see the bodies on display in the jail in Seymour. The large numbers of visitors choked the roads outside of town. Visitors were allowed to pass the pine coffins after a weeping and angry Laura Reno viewed their bodies. She shook her fist at the crowd. John Reno, who was serving time in Missouri for the Daviess County treasury raid, later wrote “The awful news came near dethroning my reason but I was kept at hard work which may have saved me.” John Reno would be released from the Missouri penitentiary in 1878, return to prison some years later for counterfeiting, and die on January 31, 1895. “Honest Clint” was the longest living Reno brother. He died in Kansas in 1921.

The lynching of the Renos stirred up trouble with Canada and Great Britain. England was shocked by the executions, and wanted an apology. Some American officials were concerned England would change its extradition policy and Canada would become a refuge for American criminals. An American senator introduced a bill that would give extradited criminals federal protection. Secretary of State Seward sent an apology and a copy of the bill to British officials to smooth things over. The story of the Renos slowly took on a kind of legend as the first of the well known train-robbing gangs.

Secretary of State William H. Seward

Secretary of State William H. Seward

Others would follow in their footsteps: the James-Younger gang, the Daltons, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. The Renos have sometimes been credited with inventing train robbery, but that is erroneous. Other train robberies occurred prior to their careers. James Horan states in his book The Authentic Wild West: The Outlaws that trains were robbed in the south prior to the Civil War. There were also train robberies at North Bend, Ohio near Cincinnati in 1865 and there was another train robbery in early 1866 that occurred between Boston and New York City.

But it was the Renos who staked a special claim in history with their spectacular haul on May 22, 1868.

Patrick Kerin

Resources:

The Authentic Wild West: The Outlaws by James D. Horan. Crown Publishers, New York. 1977

Wikipedia article on the Reno Gang.

Finding Dulcinea (website): “On This Day: Reno Gang Robs Train Outside Marshfield, Ind.”

Library of Congress web article: “Of Rails and Robbers.”

Legends of America website: “Old West Legends: The Reno Gang and the 1st Big Train Robbery.”

 

President Lincoln: Master of American Prose

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Abraham-Lincoln-12

February 12, 2015 marks the birthday of President Abraham Lincoln, who is not only one of our greatest Presidents—perhaps the greatest American President—but one of the great leaders in world history. Lincoln is also arguably the greatest writer among the Presidents.

All of our Presidents have left behind a body of writing, usually consisting of policy statements, speeches, letters, and the like. Some of our Presidents have actually been authors prior to taking office as President. Jefferson was responsible for most of the Declaration of Independence and also wrote one book: Notes on the State of Virginia. Woodrow Wilson was an historian, a Ph.D who authored several books on politics and history. Theodore Roosevelt wrote books on nature and history prior to assuming the Presidency. In the second half of the twentieth century, some of our Presidents have written numerous books during their post-Presidential careers.

Two of the most prolific are men who were trained in the non-literary discipline of engineering: Herbert Hoover and Jimmy Carter. Hoover wrote books on politics, policy, history and fishing, and even authored a biography of Woodrow Wilson. Carter has written a variety of books, ranging from commentaries on Middle Eastern politics and reflections on the Scriptures to a historical novel set during the American Revolution. Others have written memoirs and occasional books addressing political issues and history.

Abraham_Lincoln_by_Nicholas_Shepherd,_1846-crop

Lincoln never wrote any books. His life was cut short during his second term. But of all our Presidents he was the greatest writer, a man who could compose the elegant and profound lines of the Gettysburg Address and the Second Inaugural as well as robust and fascinating pieces of persuasive writing, such as the “Address at Cooper Institute” (also called the Cooper Union) concerning slavery in the United States.

Lincoln was born on February 12, 1809 in Kentucky. He and his family later moved to Indiana, and as a young man Lincoln moved on to Illinois. He knew the rough and tumble frontier world of the early United States. His formal education amounted to a handful of months in country schools, but he read voraciously. On two separate occasions he worked on a flatboat carrying goods down to New Orleans. He worked as a storekeeper and postmaster, a farm hand and railsplitter, and served as a militia officer during the Black Hawk War. He later read law and became a lawyer, and many of Lincoln’s writings show his skill at carefully crafted argumentation. He was steeped in the classics: the Bible, Shakespeare, and John Bunyan’s Puritan classic The Pilgrim’s Progress.

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In his lifetime Lincoln wrote letters, including a number addressed to editors, speeches, some poetry, and his immortal public statements: the Emancipation Proclamation, the Gettysburg Address, and the Second Inaugural, this last being most likely Lincoln’s greatest work.

Painting by Francis Bicknell Carpenter showing Lincoln presenting the Emancipation Proclamation to his cabinet.

Painting by Francis Bicknell Carpenter showing Lincoln presenting the Emancipation Proclamation to his cabinet.

His writing blends many elements. His language could be lofty and poetic, yet sinewy and trenchant. He could vary his language to the demands of the audience, and there was often a salt-of-the-earth flavor to his anecdotes reflecting his frontier upbringing. There is a marvelous clarity to much of his writing—Lincoln’s capacity for language was an important ingredient in the success he achieved as a lawyer. And his writing can be sonorous, demonstrating also an innate capacity for rhythm, skillful handling of complex ideas, emotional power, expert use of repetition of words and phrases, and highly effective parallelism (“of the people, by the people, for the people”).

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There are assorted collections of Lincoln’s writings available. I have a copy of Selected Writings of Abraham Lincoln, published by Bantam Books and selected and edited by author and journalist Herbert Mitgang. It has an excellent selection of Lincoln’s writing, and it makes for fascinating reading. I hope you might consider taking some time to explore President Lincoln’s rich and masterful prose.

Patrick Kerin

Published 110 Years Ago: Gene Stratton-Porter’s “Freckles”

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Gene Stratton-Porter

Gene Stratton-Porter

For the book-reading public of 1904, the name Gene Stratton-Porter was as familiar to them as the names Jodi Picoult, Stephen King, and Nora Roberts are to the one of today. In her time, Stratton-Porter, an Indiana native, was a best-selling novelist who later recognized the profit potential of film adaptations and moved to Los Angeles to pursue film treatments of her novels. She was killed in a car accident in Los Angeles in 1924. But one hundred and ten years ago, she had a hugely successful novel called Freckles, about a young man and his growth to maturity in the Indiana forests. The novel has been adapted for the screen four times, the last version being released in 1960.

Geneva Stratton-Porter was born Geneva Grace Stratton near LaGro, Indiana in Wabash County on August 17, 1863. She was the last of twelve children. Her father, a farmer and lay preacher, was fifty and her mother forty-six when she was born. She became fascinated with nature and animals from an early age. She married a druggist named Charles Darwin Porter, and the couple had one child, a daughter named Jeannette Helen Porter.

Charles Porter was a successful pharmacist, and branched out into other lines of business, becoming wealthy. Gene found her own success, first as a wildlife photographer, then as a writer. She was fascinated by the Limberlost swamp region near their town of Geneva, and she spent long hours traipsing through the swamp, creating striking images of wildlife. She first published photos, then composed articles on animals and photography before exploring fiction.

Porter built his wife a handsome cabin near the Limberlost region that is now the Limberlost State Historic Site. When the 13,000 acre swamp was later drained, and the land was altered by ventures in farming and oil exploration, she and her husband moved north, where they built another cabin. This property is now the Cabin at Wildflower Woods State Historic Site near Rome City, Indiana.

Stratton-Porter cabin at Limberlost State Historic Site (photo by Chris Light courtesy of Creative Commons).

Stratton-Porter cabin at Limberlost State Historic Site (photo by Chris Light courtesy of Creative Commons).

Gene’s first book was The Song of the Cardinal, which describes a year in the life of the state bird of Kentucky, Ohio, and Indiana. But she branched out into fiction with her first novel, Freckles. The book was successful, and she followed it with A Girl of the Limberlost in 1909, The Harvester in 1911, and Laddie: A True Blue Story in 1913. Her books are sentimental, and they often concern noble kinds of people who overcome challenges, often with the help of community. The books openly demonstrate and espouse certain values, such as love of neighbors, hard work, and resourcefulness. Most are set in Indiana or some other Midwestern landscape, although The Keeper of the Bees, which was published posthumously, is set in California.

Freckles (image courtesy of Amazon).

Freckles (image courtesy of Amazon).

Freckles was the book that made her a household name. The story concerns a young man known only as Freckles who was raised in a Chicago orphanage. He is missing a hand. He becomes a guard for a timber company in the Limberlost swamp, patrolling the swamp each day to protect the company’s interests from timber thieves. Freckles is at first intimidated by the natural world, having grown up in the urban jungle, but soon comes to love nature and becomes more confident in himself. He is helped along on this journey by a man named McLean, who is part owner of the company and manager of its operations.

Gene Stratton-Porter's Cabin at Wildflower Woods on the shores of Sylvan Lake near Rome City, Indiana. This is also an Indiana State Historic Site.

Gene Stratton-Porter’s Cabin at Wildflower Woods on the shores of Sylvan Lake near Rome City, Indiana. This is also an Indiana State Historic Site.

I don’t want to say too much about the novel for those who might want to read it themselves, but it’s safe to say there’s a love story, villains, adventure, close brushes with death, and absolute redemption at the end—and Freckles learns the secret of his paternity, which given the romantic conventions of books such as these, is absolutely glorious. The book was published by Grosset & Dunlap in 1904 with illustrations by E. Stetson Crawford.

Patrick Kerin

 

Here’s a link to the Indiana State Museum historic site for Limberlost:

http://www.indianamuseum.org/explore/limberlost

And here’s one for Cabin at Wildflower Woods:

http://www.indianamuseum.org/explore/gene-stratton-porter-home

Sources:

Afterword by Joan Aiken to A Girl of the Limberlost by Gene Stratton-Porter. Signet Classic edition by Penguin Books, New York, 1988.

Dictionary of Midwestern Literature: Volume One—The Authors. Philip A. Greasley, General Editor. Entry on Gene Stratton-Porter by Mary DeJong Obuchowski. Indiana University Press, Bloomington and Indianapolis, 2001.

Wikipedia entry on Freckles.

Wikipedia entry on Gene Stratton-Porter.

Indiana State Museum sites on Limberlost and Cabin at Wildflower Woods.

Nero Wolfe creator Rex Stout born December 1, 1886.

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Rex Stout in 1975.

Rex Stout in 1975 (Photo by Jill Krementz).

Rex Todhunter Stout, creator of the famous detective Nero Wolfe, was born on December 1, 1886 in Noblesville, Indiana. After a stint in the U.S. Navy (serving aboard the Presidential yacht during Teddy Roosevelt’s administration), Stout worked a series of odd jobs and wrote four novels of contemporary life before turning his hand to detective fiction. His 1934 novel Fer-de-Lance was the first to feature the massive and eccentric detective Nero Wolfe. Like his creator, Wolfe is a man with an interest in gourmet food and cultivating orchids. He solves crimes from his brownstone apartment. His assistant, a detective named Archie Goodwin, handles the work out on the street and provides a contact with the world for his boss. Goodwin relays all of his information to Wolfe, who then solves the crime. Goodwin also narrates the books. The books were incredibly popular in their time and still have devotees today.

Nero Wolfe was introduced to the public eighty years ago in "Fer-De-Lance." (Image courtesy of Amazon).

Nero Wolfe was introduced to the public eighty years ago in “Fer-De-Lance.” (Image courtesy of Amazon).

Stout published a total of forty-six Nero Wolfe titles. Stout was also a fierce anticommunist liberal who supported FDR and the war effort by writing propaganda and doing patriotic radio broadcasts, but was still kept under surveillance by J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI.

Rex Stout died on October 27, 1975 in Danbury, CT at the age of eighty-eight.

 

Patrick Kerin

 

Sources:

Webster’s Dictionary of American Authors. Smithmark Publishers, New York City, 1995.

The Oxford Companion To American Literature by James D. Hart. Fifth Edition. Oxford University Press, New York and Oxford, 1985.

Wikipedia entry on Nero Wolfe.

Published 70 Years Ago: Ernie Pyle’s “Brave Men”

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Ernie Pyle with the GI's at Anzio.

Ernie Pyle with the GI’s at Anzio.

There was no shortage of outstanding reporters in World War II. In the United States alone, journalists such as William L. Shirer, Edward R. Murrow, John Hersey, Quentin Reynolds, Martha Gellhorn, and Richard Tregaskis are still read today for their reporting of this titanic conflict of the twentieth century. Literary lights also served as war correspondents, including John Steinbeck, Ernest Hemingway, and Erskine Caldwell. But there was one newspaperman whose reportage is inseparable from World War II, a reporter who occupied a special place in the hearts of those fighting the war: Ernie Pyle.

Ernie Pyle wasn’t just popular with the GI’s. He had a huge audience in the United States who valued the simple, direct approach he took to the people and events he wrote about in his columns. He had become a “roving reporter” for the Scripps-Howard syndicate in the 1930s, traveling throughout the U.S. as well as deep into both Central and South America, sharing with his readers what he encountered along the way.

Ernie Pyle talks with members of the 191st Tank Battalion at Anzio.

Ernie Pyle talks with members of the 191st Tank Battalion at Anzio.

Ernie Pyle was born in Dana, Indiana on August 3, 1900. His family worked as sharecroppers for a prosperous farm family. He grew up among plain people and learned to value the stories and experiences of everyday folk. He served briefly in the Navy towards the end of World War I, then went to Indiana University to study journalism. He served as a reporter and city editor for the campus paper, earned a position at the LaPorte (Indiana) Herald six months before graduation, and was lured away from there after just six months to the Washington Daily News of the Scripps-Howard chain. He married his wife Geraldine on July 7, 1925.

Ernie Pyle on Okinawa.

Ernie Pyle on Okinawa.

Several years later, Ernie Pyle broke new ground in journalism–he became the first writer to have a column devoted entirely to aviation. He held this position from 1928-1932, then became a managing editor for the Daily News, but hating being deskbound. By 1935 he convinced Scripps- Howard executives to let him become a roving reporter on the condition he provide six columns a week. Some of these columns about life in the U.S. would be published in the posthumous collection Home Country (1947).

Ernie Pyle

Ernie Pyle

Pyle began covering the war with the Battle of Britain in 1940. When America entered the conflict he tried to enlist in the U.S. Army, but was rejected due to his age. He went on to cover the North Africa and Italian campaigns and the drive through Europe following D-Day. His next assignment was  covering the Pacific war in 1945. He was killed on April 18, 1945 by a sniper on the island of Ie Shima. Ernie Pyle was only forty-four years old. He was buried on Okinawa, but his remains were later taken to the National Military Cemetery of the Pacific in Hawaii, known informally as “The Punchbowl.” Many veterans of the Pacific campaign are buried there.

Funeral for Ernie Pyle on Okinawa.

Funeral for Ernie Pyle on Okinawa.

Ernie Pyle’s book Brave Men was published seventy years ago. Brave Men is divided into four sections. The first covers the invasion of Sicily and subsequent campaign there between June and September of 1943. The second is devoted to the Italian campaign from December of 1943 to April of 1944. Then follows a section on Pyle’s time in England in April and May of 1944. Some of this material includes reflections on the war in Italy, a visit to American airmen in England, and a portrait of a tank destroyer unit. The book concludes with the battle through France from June to September of 1944. Pyle arrived in Normandy one day after the D-Day landing and followed the fighting into Paris.

First edition of Ernie Pyle's "Brave Men" from 1944.

A real find: I found this first edition hardcover of Ernie Pyle’s “Brave Men” from 1944 at the Friends of the Public Library Warehouse in Cincinnati for the price of three dollars. This book  looks virtually brand new.

Brave Men is fascinating reading. Pyle’s prose reads so easily, and the stories are so fascinating that it’s easy to get pulled into the book. It is chock-full of accounts of everyday soldiers, sailors, and airmen. Often when profiling someone he will tell where the man is from and sometimes even provide a street address and some family history. This makes for an intimate first-hand look at the war.

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The legacy of Ernie Pyle lives on. There is a museum at the Erie Pyle State Historic Site in Dana, Indiana, and Indiana University’s School of Journalism is located in Ernie Pyle Hall. There is also an Ernie Pyle journalism scholarship at Indiana U. Visitors can also tour the Ernie Pyle Home and Library in Albuquerque, New Mexico. His home has been converted into a branch library, and they have Ernie Pyle material and memorabilia stored there as well.

It you’re looking for a great first-hand look at World War II, you can’t go wrong with Brave Men. It is an outstanding collection of columns by a great American journalist.

Patrick Kerin

Links:

Ernie Pyle State Historic Site in Indiana: http://www.erniepyle.org/

Ernie Pyle Home/Library in Albuquerque, New Mexico: https://www.facebook.com/ErniePyleLibrary

Sources:

Brave Men by Ernie Pyle. Henry Holt and Company, New York, 1944.

Dictionary of Midwestern Literature: Volume One: The Authors. Philip A. Greasley, General Editor. Indiana University Press, Bloomington and Indianapolis, 2001. Entry on Ernie Pyle by Krista Ann Greenberg.

“American Giant:” Theodore Dreiser

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Theodore Dreiser

Theodore Dreiser

Despite a famously ponderous prose style, novelist Theodore Dreiser, born August 27, 1871 in Terre Haute, Indiana, remains one of our most impressive American novelists. The distinguished American critic Irving Howe wrote that Dreiser is “among the American giants, one of the very few American giants we have had.” Although best known for his novels Sister Carrie (1900) and An American Tragedy (1925), Dreiser also created a large body of work that includes other novels, short fiction, essays, and travel books, one of which—A Hoosier Holiday (1916)—is an amusing account of a trip Dreiser made back to Indiana from New York in 1916 in the early days of long-distance auto travel. It’s one of the first “road books.”

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Dreiser grew up in poverty in Indiana. His father was a German Catholic immigrant, his mother an Ohio woman of Mennonite background. Dreiser was one of the youngest in a large family. He had five sisters and four brothers. His older brother Paul later changed his last name, and as “Paul Dresser” became a successful and wealthy composer. Paul Dreiser is best known for composing the famous song “On The Banks of the Wabash, Far Away,” which reflects nostalgia for rural ways and scenes during a time when the U.S. was rapidly developing as an industrial nation.

On_the_Banks_of_the_Wabash,_Far_Away,_sheet_music_cover_with_Bessie_Davis,_Paul_Dresser,_1897

Dreiser attended Catholic and later public schools. A sympathetic schoolteacher paid for a year at Indiana University—Dreiser’s only experience with higher education. Dreiser then became a reporter, working for newspapers in Pittsburgh, Chicago, St. Louis, and New York, learning firsthand details of urban life, and witnessing just how cruel and unrelenting the new industrial America could be to society’s most vulnerable people.

Frank Doubleday

Frank Doubleday

Sister Carrie, the story of a woman who wins success on her own terms—as an actress and chorus girl who enjoys relationships with a number of men– was Dreiser’s first novel. Fellow novelist Frank Norris, an editor for Doubleday, liked the work. Dreiser signed a contract for publication while the company’s president, Frank Doubleday, was out of town. Doubleday was furious when he read the book and tried to cancel the deal with Dreiser. But Dreiser stuck to his guns, and the publisher relented. He published the book, but did nothing to get it distributed, reviewed, or advertised. Frank Norris sent out copies for review. Most reviews were hostile.

Novelist--and champion of Theodore Dreiser--Frank Norris.

Novelist–and champion of Theodore Dreiser–Frank Norris.

Dreiser returned to fiction first with Jennie Gerhardt in 1911, another novel about a young woman trying to make her way in society. He next completed The Financier (1912) the story of a business tycoon’s rise. The character Frank Cowperwood was based on Charles T. Yerkes, a railroad financier, and Dreiser continued his story in The Titan (1914). Dreiser followed The Titan with The “Genius” (1915), the story of a midwestern artist. The Financier and The Titan were the first two novels in a trilogy on Cowperwood known as the Trilogy of Desire. Theodore Dreiser completed the last volume of the trilogy—The Stoic—just days before his death in 1945.

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Charles T. Yerkes

Charles T. Yerkes

Dreiser turned his hand to other sorts of writing for a number of years after completing The “Genius” before returning to fiction with An American Tragedy. This is one of Dreiser’s best-known and enduring works, the story of a poor boy desperate to rise in the world who murders his pregnant girlfriend. The novel is based on the true story of Chester Gillette, who murdered his lover Grace Brown in upstate New York while out boating in 1906. Gillette was later executed in the electric chair. An American Tragedy was adapted for the screen as A Place In The Sun with Elizabeth Taylor and Montgomery Clift.

Scene from A Place In The Sun.

Scene from A Place In The Sun.

Chester Gillette

Chester Gillette

Grace Brown

Grace Brown

Dreiser turned to writing non-fiction in the years after An American Tragedy. He completed collections of essays and biographical portraits, as well as travel works. He visited the Soviet Union and wrote about that in Dreiser Looks At Russia (1928). Tragic America (1931) is a collection of writing about America in the throes of the Depression.

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Dreiser’s only other novels after An American Tragedy were published posthumously. The Bulwark (1946) is a study of a man and his search for spiritual values. The Stoic, as noted earlier, appeared in 1947.

Dreiser had to deal with the forces of censorship during the early years of his career. Squeamish critics and readers objected to both Sister Carrie and Jennie Gerhardt, but the climate had relaxed by the time he published An American Tragedy. And while there are many dimensions to his work, one of his key themes was the rise of a ruthless and impersonal urban and industrial society that exerts an often crushing force on individuals.

Theodore Dreiser died at the age of 74 in Hollywood, California on December 28, 1945.

 

Patrick Kerin

 

Sources:

Dictionary of Midwestern Literature—Volume One: The Authors. Edited by Philip A. Greasley. Indiana University Press, 2001.

Benet’s Reader’s Encyclopedia of American Literature. Edited by George Perkins, Barbara Perkins, Philip Leininger. Harper Collins, 1991.

Recent American Literature: Volume 4. Donald Heiney. Barron’s Educational Series, 1958.

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