Tuesday, April 17, 2012

A Gathering of Posey


On June 30, 1886,approximately sixty men and women interested in the writing profession gathered in the auditorium of Indianapolis’s Plymouth Church. Reporting on the meeting,the Indianapolis Journal noted that “instead of being food for laughter,” the gathering of these would-be poets and novelists turned out to be “a very practical and business-like body.” The Western Association of Writers had been born.

In its approximately twenty-year existence, the W.A.W.—variously referred to as the “Literary Gravel Pit Association,” “The Writer's Singing Bee,” “a literary house party,” “an effort to get up a corner in Spring poetry and fix the price of manuscript stories at so much per year,”and other less than flattering terms by its critics—attracted to its colors such literary stars as Maurice Thompson (who was elected the group’s first president), James Whitcomb Riley, Sarah Bolton, John Clark Ridpath, William Dudley Foulke, Meredith Nicholson, Paul Laurence Dunbar, Booth Tarkington, Will Cumback, Mary H. Catherwood, and Benjamin Parker.

The association’s annual week-long conventions at Spring Fountain Park on the shores of Eagle Lake near Warsaw, Indiana, brought together in one spot poets,novelists, short story writers, historians, and others interested in belles lettres. “In the writer’s view, the point of interest lay not so much in the actual literary standards of the organization as in the fact that all kinds of authors who were moved by the literary impulse, flocked together so insistently year after year,” noted Indiana historian George S. Cottman, a longtime W.A.W.member. “It was the gravitating to each other of kindred spirits who in their daily environments, found scant appreciation of the fugitive fancies that haunted them.”

Inspired by the success enjoyed by such Indiana authors as Riley and Thompson, Hoosiers of all types following the Civil War were trying their hand at writing, especially poetry. “There was a time in Indiana when it was difficult to forecast who would next turn poet,” observed Meredith Nicholson in his book, The Hoosiers. One Indianapolis journalist declared that “there had appeared in the community a peculiar crooking of the right elbow and a furtive sliding of the hand into the left inside pocket,which was an unfailing preliminary to the reading of a poem.” Various literary organizations sprang up to minister to those afflicted with the writing bug:the Indianapolis Literary Club in 1877, the Terre Haute Literary Club in 1881,and the Ouiatenon Club (Crawfordsville) in 1883. It was the W. A. W., however,that became, as one historian put it, “intimately connected with the spirit which produced the Golden Age of Indiana literature.”

A Hoosier-dominated institution from its inception, the association’s guiding spirit was Marie L. Andrews of Connersville, who first discussed the idea with J. C. Ochiltree, Indianapolis Herald editor, in the summer of 1885. Ochiltree offered Andrews a list of Herald contributors and also prepared for her a prospectus for a literary organization. That winter, three regular writers for the Herald—Dr. J.N. Matthews, Richard Lew Dawson, and Dr. H. W. Taylor—exchanged correspondence discussing the possibility of calling a “gathering of the poets of the Wabash Valley in some convenient city, or resort, for the purpose of enjoying whatever pleasure might result from a meeting so novel and unique,” remembered Matthews.

Working together, Andrews and Dawson produced a notice, addressed to “The Literary Profession,” which was published on April 3, 1886, in the Chicago Current. The notice called upon “all writers of verse and general literature” to band together to form a new literary association that aimed at discussing “methods of composition, and all topics pertaining to the advancement of literature in America.”

The association’s sponsors received more than one hundred positive responses to their call for action and the first meeting was held in Indianapolis in late June 1886. “In the assembled audience,” wrote a Journal reporter, “was a score or more of persons with enviable reputations as writers, and whose outpourings have graced the pages of volume and magazine, as well as the brighter, but perhaps more evanescent column of the newspaper.”

At the meeting, Thompson was elected as the group’s first president, Andrews as secretary, and Ochiltree as treasurer. A subsequent gathering in October saw the organization adopt both a constitution and a name for itself: the American Association of Writers. Members agreed that the organization’s main mission was to “promote acquaintance and friendship among the literary fraternity, and impart encouragement and enthusiasm to one another.” The association also would work to protect writers against “piratical publishers” and would meet to hear literary work produced by its members.

Speaking at the fall gathering, Thompson warned those in attendance that a meeting involving “literary folk for the purpose of forming a close corporation is, in fact, a pretty good joke, and we ought to be thankful that so little has been said about the fine frenzy of our eyes and the cerulean tinge of our hose. When we come to think about it, we do occupy a doubtful ground, and we must be careful what airs we put on.” Members took their president’s words to heart and, in June 1887, decreased their horizons a bit by changing the organization’s name to the Western Association of Writers, “an appellation,” noted Cottman, “not so inept, since not a few who shared in membership came drifting in from beyond the borders of our state.”

Looking for friendlier surroundings to hold its assemblies, the group found the perfect spot for its artistic endeavors in northern Indiana, at a resort near Warsaw known as Spring Fountain Park Assembly on Eagle Lake (now Winona Lake). “Than this spot with its shady groves of forest trees, it profusion of gushing crystal waters, its limpid lake, and withal, its ample hotel and auditorium accommodations, nothing could be more inviting as an Arcadian setting where poets and birds alike might sing their melodious lays,” said Cottman.

From the first, the new surroundings for its annual gathering proved to be a boon for the W.A.W.Taking advantage of special rates offered by the Big Four Railroad Company,members competed for available spaces in the Eagle Lake Hotel (with room rates at $1.25 to $1.50 per day) and in nearby towns. During the morning and evening,those attending the convention listened to poems, stories, and addresses by fellow members while the afternoon, as the convention program stated, “will be given to recreation and social enjoyments,” which included boating, fishing,and swimming.

Cottman had found memories of the association’s conventions, recalling “long sunny June afternoons when earth and sky and sparkling waters were at their best, and our genial fraternity surrendered itself to sweet-do-nothing.” Usually, the W.A.W. had the hotel mainly to itself and its members could explore the “nooks and byways of the shady grounds” tot heir hearts content, Cottman remembered.

The association’s most successful conventions were those that featured its most celebrated member: Riley. “When word got around he[Riley] would be up for the annual jam session,” said James Weygand in his history of the association, “its success was almost assured. Everyone knew he’d be on the program for a poem or two, and that he could be coaxed into a couple more.

Riley’s patronage helped keep interest high at the association’s early conventions, but, with his increasing popularity keeping Riley away, attendance dropped considerably as the organization moved into the new century. The aging of the W.A.W.’s founders and low annual dues ($2 per year) were also factors that helped to speed the association’s downfall. In 1904 an attempt was made to revive the moribund organization by Opie Reed, a leading figure in the Chicago Press Club. On December 16, 1904, the club sponsored a reception honoring “that great organization of writers which has taken so prominent a place in the literature of the west.” Although the Chicago group brought new blood into the W. A. W., it could not breathe new life into the once flourishing organization and it quietly disbanded.

Discerning the association’s effect on the state’s literary history is a difficult task. In its two decades of existence, it did produce a few volumes containing the work presented at the group’s annual convention. Its greatest contribution, however, came through the association’s ability to provide a needed spark to the creative process for hundreds of writers in Indiana and the Midwest. There was, as Cottman noted, “nothing else in existence quite like it.” Even if the organization rested not on “solid accomplishments as on the little vanities of would-be writers,” the fact remains, he continued, that the association stood as “an integral part of our literary history.”

Thursday, April 12, 2012

The Historian as Adventurer

On this day in 1855, Indiana historian, journalist, author, and political reformer Jacob Piatt Dunn Jr. was born in Lawrenceburg, Indiana. A "political man of letters," Dunn wide-ranging interests included campaigning to establish free public libraries across the state, revitalizing a moribund Indiana Historical Society during the 1880s, reforming the state's constitution, and preserving the language of the Miami Indians. Well into his sixties, Dunn left his home in Indianapolis for adventures in a foreign land.

In 1879 a twenty-five-year-old Indianapolis attorney decided to give up the rigors of the law for a potentially more lucrative career—that of a prospector in the Colrado silver fields. That young man, Jacob Piatt Dunn Jr., never did strike it rich through prospecting, but he did discover something far more important, trades other than law that sustained him for the rest of his life: journalism and history.

Forty-two years later, Dunn, now a respected Indiana historian and political reformer, left the Hoosier state on another adventure. This time Dunn, well into his sixties, journeyed to the island of Hispaniola, which includes the present-day countries of Haiti and the Dominican Republic, with the announced intention of attempting to find the lost gold mine of Christopher Columbus. According to a page-one account of Dunn’s trip in the Indianapolis Star, the mine that the historian sought was that from which the gold was taken that was presented to the Spanish court by Columbus on his return from several of his voyages.

In this, as in many other instances during his life, Dunn was exercising his well-known wit by spreading such a story. Actually, the main purpose of his journey to the tropics was to prospect for another rich mineral—manganese. For his trip to Hispaniola, the second largest island in the Caribbean, Dunn, the author of classic histories of Indiana and Indianapolis, was acting as field agent for the Hispaniola Mining Company, a group that included as officers such prominent Indianapolis men as Samuel Ralston, former Indiana governor; Solomon S. Kiser of the Meyer-Kiser Bank; and Elmer W. Stout of the Fletcher American National Bank.

The company charged Dunn with journeying to Hispaniola and, if possible, obtaining a concession for mining manganese under the local laws. Richard Lieber, head of the Indiana Department of Conservation, helped strengthen Dunn’s position with U.S. officials in Haiti (American military forces occupied Haiti from 1915 to 1934) by appointing him as a special deputy geologist for the collection of exhibits for the Indiana State Museum.

As he had many years before as a prospector in Colorado, Dunn threw himself wholeheartedly into his newest enterprise, frequently writing his family back home in Indianapolis and keeping detailed journals of his experiences. Leaving the United States on December 23, 1921, Dunn journeyed south aboard the Panama Railroad Steamship Line's S. S. General Gorgas, in which he occupied a cabin approximately two feet by six feet in size. The room’s small size, and its unfortunate location over some steam pipes, failed to dislodge Dunn’s good humor. He noted that his quarters were no “worse than a Pullman on the Chesapeake & Ohio [railroad].”

Onboard the ship Dunn displayed the same affability he was known for back home. To help the passengers become better acquainted, Dunn organized a Christmas Day celebration for the small number of children on the ship. “There was some difficulty about [obtaining] a Santa Claus costume,” he noted, “but I made some whiskers out of mop furnished by the steward, and with the aid of bath robe, a canvas hat, and some rouge, I got up a fair imitation, or burlesque, of Santa, which satisfied the youngsters.”

Arriving in Port-au-Prince on December 29, 1921, Dunn settled into lodgings provided by the Haytian American Sugar Company (known in Haiti as Hasco), a firm for which his wife’s cousin worked. Over the next few days, Dunn prepared himself for his mineral exploration of Haiti. Before journeying into the countryside he consulted with Professor Edward Roumain, who was in charge of Haiti’s exhibit at the 1904 Saint Louis Exposition. Roumain welcomed the Hoosier explorer “with open arms” and helped to arrange a guide for his trip.

After conferring with Roumain, Dunn next busied himself with purchasing his supplies. He bought a horse, complete with saddle and bridle, for thirty-six dollars and also furnished himself with a pickax, frying pan, small stew pan, two teaspoons, two tin cups, two small cans of Armour pork and beans, and three cans of sardines. Also, on the advice of American officials worried that Dunn might be set upon by thieves during his journey, he received permission from Haiti’s chief of police to carry a 44-caliber Colt revolver and twenty rounds of ammunition.

For his ambitious trip into the Haitian interior, Dunn hired a guide named Oceart Noël, a bespectacled black man he described as being only four feet, six inches tall. Noël agreed to be Dunn’s guide for five days, to furnish his own horse, a pack animal, and an interpreter, all for twenty-nine dollars. The interpreter, named Salomon Télamour, “proved to have command of about thirty words of English, but is quite proud of them,” Dunn said.

The elderly Dunn managed to make his excursions into the mountainous countryside without too much difficulty. The local food did upset his “internal workings,” which he later calmed with liberal doses of milk of magnesia, and when arising in the morning after trying to sleep on a hammock (the cold night air kept him awake), he had to “do gymnastics for several minutes” in order to relieve his cramped muscles. Although his companions claimed he spoke the native French “like a French oyster,” Dunn was able to build good relations with the Haitians he encountered on his travels due to tendering a “substantial reward for any service rendered.”

Dunn may have had good luck in charming the native Haitians with his largesse, but he failed in his quest to discover sufficient quantities of manganese to risk large-scale mining operations in the country. Returning with his specimens to Port-au-Prince on January 17, 1922, Dunn had his first bath and shave in almost a week. His adventure, it seems, had taken a toll. “Appearance somewhat improved,” he noted in his log, “but a trifle gaunt. The trip had evidently been some strain.”

A refreshed Dunn took the specimens he collected to be analyzed at the sugar company’s laboratory by a Dr. Joy, a Haitian chemist employed by the firm. “We satisfied ourselves,” Dunn noted, “that there was not a particle of manganese in any of them. He later wrote his wife, Charlotte, the following about his unfortunate news: “I am including the log herewith, and there is little else to say. The manganese scheme is gone glimmering, and I expect to know pretty soon whether there is anything in the gold proposition.”

Coming up empty in Haiti, Dunn hoped for better luck in the neighboring Santo Domingo, which since 1916 had been occupied by the U.S. Marine Corps. While in Santo Domingo, Dunn conferred with American officials in charge of public works for the country and was able to obtain motor transportation into the countryside where he could investigate reports of large manganese and gold deposits. He found neither. Charlotte sympathized with her husband's misfortune, writing: “Too bad about the manganese. I hope other things will look more promising—but you know I was never very optimistic. Still, success would be most welcome! At any rate, you are getting this out of your system, and having a complete change and a good time. Perhaps something good will ‘turn up’ when you return.”

A disappointed Dunn returned to the United States the same way he had gone: by boat. The Hoosier historian arrived in New York Harbor on March 2, 1922, and made his way overland to his Indianapolis home. His bold adventure in the West Indies may have failed to provide Dunn with riches from precious metals, but it did offer him the opportunity to investigate and write about Haitian dialects and the island’s voodoo cult for Indianapolis newspapers.

Unfortunately, during his travels in Haiti Dunn had contracted some form of tropical disease that left him susceptible to jaundice. He died on June 6, 1924. Dunn’s death received front-page coverage in both the Indianapolis Star and Indianapolis News. Commenting on his fellow Democrat's death, former governor Ralston expressed his “great admiration” for Dunn. Ralston noted that the first time he heard Dunn make a speech its subject was the value of circulating libraries to citizens. “It was characteristic of him to be most interested in those things that most benefited the people,” said Ralston. Dunn was not only loyal to the truth, at whatever the cost, Ralston added, but also loyal to his friends. “And trustworthy—absolutely so,” said Ralston. “I shall miss him.”