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Summer Reads
 (Old Books)

Indianapolis earned its literary reputation long
before Kurt Vonnegut made a name for himself as
one of the greatest writers of the last century.
In the years between the end of the Civil War and
end of World War I, there was barely a time when
Hoosier authors didn’t top the best-seller lists.

This golden age of Indiana literature
occurred roughly between 1870 and 1920. During
those 50 years, Hoosiers were second only to New
Yorkers in the sheer number of authors with books
topping Publisher’s Weekly best-seller
lists. Ben-Hur was the blockbuster that
truly put Indiana authors on the map, but dozens
of others made it hard to ignore the Hoosier
phenomenon.

Take some time this summer to discover one or
more of our literary ancestors for yourself. In
many cases, the books offer a wonderful
opportunity to experience the Indiana of 100 years
ago. In most cases, they also make a wonderful way
to pass a summer afternoon or two.

Sarah Bolton (1814–1893)


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Bolton.jpg

From 1850 until her death, Bolton was the unofficial poet laureate of
the state, speaking at every public event from
Statehouse hearings to church picnics. Her
best-known poem, “Paddle Your Own Canoe,” gained
worldwide acclaim and was put to music as a
popular song at least twice before 1900. She
published two collections of poetry in her later
years, The Life and Poems of Sarah Bolton
(1880) and Songs of a Lifetime (1892).
Both have dozens of poems about early pioneer life
in Indianapolis and the people and places Bolton
knew best.

Edward Eggleston (1837–1902)


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Hoosier
 Schoolmaster.jpg

Hailing from Vevay, Indiana, along the river near
Madison, Eggleston’s best-known book is the 1871
novel The Hoosier Schoolmaster. Based on
experiences his brother had while teaching in the
backwoods, the book is a simple romance with light
humor and adventure. More importantly, it’s one of
the earliest examples of a book written in
Midwestern dialect—predating Mark Twain, who is
rumored to have gotten the idea of writing about
Tom and Huck in dialect here. The Hoosier
Schoolmaster
was a huge best-seller, and
Eggleston became known as the first Hoosier
author. A sequel, The Hoosier Schoolboy,
appeared in 1873. It was still popular enough in
1937 to be made into a movie starring Mickey
Rooney.

Lew Wallace (1827–1905)


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Ben Hur.jpg

Ben-Hur is the biggest book to come out
of Indiana and one of the best-selling books of
all time. It was the first novel to outsell Uncle
Tom’s Cabin
, and it has never been out of
print in the nearly 140 years since first
published. The full title is Ben-Hur: A Tale of the
Christ
(1880), and it is a book of
biblical proportions and subject matter. Wallace
was a war hero and a historian who spent seven
years writing Ben-Hur, and it might feel
as if it will take that long to read it. Don’t
despair, and don’t give up. The book really is
better than the movie, even without Charlton
Heston. 

Related: Behind Booth
Tarkington – Portraits from the Gentleman’s
Collection at the IMA

James Whitcomb Riley (1849–1916)


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Riley.jpg

Born in Greenfield, Riley became an Indianapolis
fixture in his adult years, and his name still
graces schools, hospitals, and apartment
buildings. Most recently, that’s Riley with the
monocle and top hat staring down from a large
mural near his home in Lockerbie. His folksy poems
struck a chord with American’s love of all things
bucolic as the Victorian era ended, and Riley
became a national celebrity. Poems such as “Little
Orphant Annie” (1885) and “The Raggedy Man” (1888)
were memorized and recited for generations, and
books such as An Old Sweetheart of Mine
(1891) can still be found in a good number of
Indianapolis homes.

George Barr McCutcheon (1866–1928)


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Graustark.jpg

The most famous of the forgotten Hoosier authors,
McCutcheon was a playwright and novelist from
Lafayette who dominated best-seller lists with his
series of Graustark books from
1900–1920. The first, Graustark: The Story of
a Love Behind a Throne
(1901) is a romance
novel introducing the princess of Graustark and
her love-struck American suitor. Still a great
read, the Graustark novels spawned dozens of
movies and became an early example of romantic
comedy.  McCutcheon also wrote Brewster’s
Millions
(1902), which has seen 12 film
versions over the years, including the 1985
Richard Pryor remake.

Gene Stratton-Porter (1863–1924)


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Girl of the
 Limberlost.jpg

She was the best-selling Hoosier author of the
last century and one of the most famous authors in
the world when she died in an automobile accident
in 1924. Two of her books, Freckles
(1904) and Girl of the Limberlost
(1909), were among the 10 best-sellers in the
United States from 1870–1920. At the time of her
death, she had moved to Los Angeles and started
her own film company to produce movie versions of
her books. She died before the first film was
released, but versions of Girl of the
Limberlost
continued to find their way to
the big screen at least five more times before
1995.

Related: Circle City Sheroes – 50
Local Women Who Resisted, Persisted and Paved
the Way

Meredith Nicholson (1866–1947)


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House of
 Candles.jpg

If you’re looking for a perfect summer read, you
can’t go wrong with Meredith Nicholson. His novels
are simply delightful.  Light on the heavy prose
or saccharine that characterize most of his peers,
his most famous work, The House of a Thousand
Candles
(1906), is one of the earliest
mysteries of popular fiction and will still hold
your attention right up to the Scooby-Doo reveal
at the end. Another great read is A Hoosier
Chronicle
(1912). Nicholson’s descriptions
of Indianapolis and thinly veiled characterization
of prominent citizens make the book a wonderful
way to travel back in time.

Related: Meredith Nicholson
– A Writing Life (Review)

Booth Tarkington (1869–1946)


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Vanrevels.jpg

He was the first writer to win the Pulitzer Prize
for Fiction twice, the first for The
Magnificent Ambersons
(1919) and the second
for Alice Adams (1921). Only two
writers, William Faulkner and John Updike, have
won twice since. Tarkington was a lifelong
resident of Indianapolis, though he summered in
Kennebunkport for decades, and clung to Victorian
mores and ideas of class structure until his dying
breath. If you’re new to Tarkington, start with
his first novel, The Gentleman from Indiana
(1899), the humorous The Two Vanrevels
(1902), or Alice Adams. Leave The
Ambersons
for winter.

Related: Booth Tarkington
at the Movies

Theodore Dreiser (1871–1945)


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Sister
 Carrie.jpg

A controversial writer who downplayed his Hoosier
roots for most of his life, Dreiser hailed from
Terre Haute and made his name in newspapers before
novels. The tragic story of Sister Carrie
(1909) changed all that, and Dreiser received much
criticism for his realistic portrayal of a country
girl who goes to the big city and falls prey to
just about everything. An American Tragedy
(1925) follows many of the same themes, but this
time it’s a young man who succumbs to temptation
and pays tremendously for his indiscretions.
There’s no question that Dreiser is dark. But it’s
a welcome antidote to the sugary mores of most
fiction from the era.

Alice Woods (1872–1959)


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Edges.jpg

Alice Woods lived one of the most exciting lives
and wrote some of the most popular fiction of any
Hoosier author. Her first novel, Edges
(1902), is based on her experiences as a young art
student in Paris, and she followed with five more
books, all but one set in her adopted home of
France. The most controversial was The
Hairpin Duchess
(1924), here Woods
fictionalized the circumstances around the suicide
of her friend Margaret Cravens, a young music
student from Indiana who fell in love with Ezra
Pound (also a friend) while living in Paris. 

Related: Summer Reads – 10
New Books by Hoosier Authors

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