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“Edenic Continent”: Hoosier Writers in American Literature

Being from the Midwest, especially Indiana, can give an artist a sense of inferiority. Hell, it gives anyone a sense of inferiority. Lots of New York City or Los Angeles or even Chicago natives hear the word “Indiana” and imagine a 22,000,000 acre trailer park with a race track in the middle. Or a 22,000,000 acre cornfield with a race track in the middle. Or, somehow, both at once. They pity you. They want to take you shopping. They cautiously say they assume you’ve heard of whatever cultural obsession grips the nation at the moment, but they aren’t sure you’ve been exposed. Wait, what have you been exposed to? Do you have some kind of weird farm virus people get from the wilderness?

Okay, maybe I’m exaggerating (or projecting), but really, it does feel that way sometimes. And the truth is, it sucks—especially, again, for an artist dismissed as a backwater upstart who hasn’t even heard of this famous person or that famous person and can’t possibly know what good art or writing or music looks like, I mean—what do people do in Indiana, anyway?

Well, one of the answers is, we write. Here’s a list of some of the Hoosier writers who have endured as legends even after their deaths.

Newton Booth Tarkington

If you’re familiar with Indianapolis, the name Tarkington is familiar from the Butler-Tarkington neighborhood, but that’s not why you should know who Booth Tarkington is. (No, not because of the civic theater either.) This guy is one of only three writers in American history to win the Pulitzer Prize twice, first for his novel The Magnificent Ambersons, and later for Alice Adams. (The other two writers are John Updike and William Faulkner.) The Tarkster pretty much published a novel a year from 1899-1945—EVEN AFTER HE WENT BLIND IN THE LATE 1920’S. What’s my excuse for not finishing that novel again?

Lew Wallace

Lew Wallace took up writing fiction as a distraction from practicing law. He started his second and best-known novel, Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ, while living in Crawfordsville, but finished it in Santa Fe while he was serving as the territorial governor of New Mexico. Six years after ­Ben-Hur was published, it was earning Wallace the equivalent of $290,000 a year today in royalties, and it was overall the best-selling book of the 19th century, surpassing classics like Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Frankenstein, Treasure Island, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and pretty much anything you ever read by Jane Austin or one of the Brontes. Yeah—I know, right? Ben-Hur? It’s really, really lucky for Wallace that he didn’t see the 2016 remake.

Ernie Pyle

After having the stones to just say “I quit” to a desk job and drive around the country with his wife for a while, Hoosier Ernie Pyle became the first aviation columnist in the United States. This doesn’t sound exciting today, but back when planes were only like twenty years old they were still going through a rebellious phase and things were a lot more exciting. Eventually Pyle’s job became to drive around the back roads of the US and write about the people and places he found there. Today, that job might be a lot more dangerous and exciting than it was for Pyle. But Pyle’s true claim to fame was in a line of work as dangerous as ever—that of a war correspondent, for him during WWII. He was killed in combat on the island of Iejima April 17, 1945, and left behind a legacy of front-lines documentation that eventually earned him a Purple Heart in 1983.

Madelyn Pugh

Madelyn Pugh—a Hoosier who had to suffer what I consider the indignity of being called “the girl writer”. They even put it on her set chair at Desilu, where she and her professional partner Bob Carroll, Jr were the visionaries behind I Love Lucy—all 181 episodes. Even on this list, she’s the girl writer, unless you count me, which is getting kind of meta. She must have been one brave and thick-skinned lady,  to enter the bullpens and radio stations where she built her name from the 1930s onward. Pugh contributed to over 400 television shows and 500 radio shows during the course of her more than 50-year career.

Kurt Vonnegut

Kurt Vonnegut was born and raised in Indianapolis, but left to attend Cornell University—a great school to drop out of, as he proved in 1943 when he enlisted in the US Army. Vonnegut was taken prisoner by Germans at the Battle of the Bulge and survived the bombing of Dresden by hiding in a meat locker. (Yes—you may be excused to begin reading or re-reading Slaughterhouse-Five, which is based on the whole meat locker experience.) While Vonnegut’s works are on required reading lists across the US today, Slaughterhouse was his sixth novel, making him one more writer among the many whose success came only after meager years and lots of rejection. However, Vonnegut credited many of his finest qualities to his upbringing as a Hoosier, and Hoosiers often appear in his novels. 

From novels to nonfiction to script-writing, Hoosiers have defined writing in every genre. Yes, even poetry—James Whitcomb Riley was one of the most popular poets of his day. I didn’t include him on this list because I think his poetry is boring and dumb. I even thought that as a kid even though he is supposedly The Child’s Poet. Back in some elementary grade I had to memorize a stanza of “When The Frost Is On The Punkin” for one of those performances where all your parents come sit in the classroom in plastic chairs. It was harrowing, just awful.

So what is it about Indiana that has created Hoosier literary geniuses topping the best-seller lists in virtually every era of US history? For me, the answer lies somewhere in the humility of our state—the fact that everyone thinks we’re a giant trailer park, or cornfield, yeah, it sucks, but it also means you have to work hard to earn the right to an ego. Obsession with your own story first isn’t the way things are always done here.The slow, cyclical beauty of the place we live deepens our communities; the humor and determination required of long winters, long summers, long harvests often widens our perspectives. Any Midwesterner can relate. I personally think Vonnegut said it best, in Indy’s NUVO Magazine in 1999:

“What geography can give all Middle Westerners, along with the fresh water and topsoil, if they let it, is awe for an Edenic continent stretching forever in all directions.

Makes you religious. Takes your breath away.”

Preach, Brother V. Hallelujah.