Indiana at 200 (73): A History of Bestselling Authors
by Andrea Neal
It’s been called the Golden Age of Indiana literature. During the first half of the 20th century, Hoosier authors dominated the fiction bestseller list, rivaling states with far more established literary traditions.
Meredith Nicholson penned “The House of a Thousand Candles” (1905). Theodore Dreiser wrote “An American Tragedy” (1925). Booth Tarkington won Pulitzer prizes for “The Magnificent Ambersons” (1918) and “Alice Adams” (1921).
Other popular fiction writers of their day were Lew Wallace, Gene Stratton-Porter, George Ade, George McCutcheon, Lloyd Douglas and Charles Major, to name a few.
The prolific careers of these and so many other Hoosiers have prompted scholars to wonder: What made the land of cars and cornfields a literary mecca in the 20th century?
“There is no magic answer,” replied Howard H. Peckham in his 1950 American Heritage magazine article on the subject. Peckham theorized that several factors converged after the Civil War to promote a Hoosier writing tradition.
Among them: diversity of citizens, both ethnically and socioeconomically; an appetite for reading nurtured by literary clubs, libraries and local publishers; openness to new ideas, and familiarity with the rich literary heritage of New England.
Two analyses of bestseller lists, one by John Moriarty in 1949 and another by Steven J. Schmidt in 1990, reached the same conclusion. Indiana led the nation in the production of popular authors from 1900 to 1941. Using a point system for top 10 fiction titles, Indiana ranked first followed by New York, with Pennsylvania and Virginia third or fourth depending on the study.
Nicholson, born in Crawfordsville and an Indianapolis resident from age 5, often said the key to popularity was to stick close to home. Many Hoosier writers did.
Tarkington, an Indianapolis native, built his plots and settings around life in the Midwest. In “The Gentleman from Indiana” (1899), he made specific references to the Indiana landscape, skies and weather.
Nicholson’s early novel “Zelda Dameron” (1904) was set in Mariona, a pseudonym for Indianapolis. “The House of a Thousand Candles” was based on a mysterious old mansion on Lake Maxinkuckee at Culver. Nicholson wrote the book while living at 1500 N. Delaware Street in Indianapolis. Fittingly, the residence today is headquarters for Indiana Humanities, a not-for-profit organization promoting literary and cultural arts.
With the passing of the Golden Age authors, a new generation of Hoosier writers arose to take their place in the latter half of the 20th century.
Jessamyn West from Vernon wrote two bestsellers with Indiana plots. “The Friendly Persuasion” (1945) was made into a successful film starring Gary Cooper, and tells the story of a Quaker family living in Indiana during the Civil War. “The Massacre at Fall Creek” (1975) was a fictionalized account of a real crime in which white settlers killed Native Americans on the frontier.
Bloomington’s Ross Lockridge wrote one book, the 1,060-page “Raintree County,” modeled after Henry County. The work was declared by critics the “Great American Novel” upon publication in 1948. Lockridge, who suffered from severe depression, committed suicide soon after.
By the early 1970s, Kurt Vonnegut of Indianapolis “was one of the most famous living writers on earth,” according to biographer William Rodney Allen. Best known of his 14 novels was “Slaughterhouse-Five” (1969), which he based heavily on his experience as a prisoner of war in Dresden during World War II.
Living Hoosier authors with multiple blockbusters to their names include Dan Wakefield of Indianapolis (“Going All The Way,” 1970); historic fiction writer James Alexander Thom of Bloomington (“Follow the River,” 1981); and John Green of Indianapolis (“The Fault in Our Stars,” 2012).
Note to readers: This is the 73rd of 100 essays on Indiana history leading to the celebration of the Indiana Bicentennial in December 2016. Neal is a teacher at St. Richard’s Episcopal School in Indianapolis and adjunct scholar with the Indiana Policy Review Foundation. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Directions: The Meredith Nicholson House, headquarters of Indiana Humanities, is at 1500 N. Delaware Street, Indianapolis.