Susan Swain, host of C-SPAN’s special TV series from 2013-2014 on the lives and influence of the nation’s First Ladies, described Caroline Harrison as “one of the more underrated” First Ladies. Caroline Harrison, wife of Hoosier President Benjamin Harrison, served as First Lady from 1889-1892. Previously cast off as simply a tactful housekeeper, historians now recognize that Caroline did more, including using her influence to advocate for the arts, women’s interests, and the preservation of the White House.
On July 4, 1888, Caroline stood next to her husband Benjamin in the parlor of their home on North Delaware Street in Indianapolis surrounded by guests. Caroline had filled the house with patriotic decorations, including red, white, and blue flags and flowers. However, this was not a normal 4th of July celebration: at the party, Benjamin gave a speech, accepting the Republican nomination for president. For the next four months, their home became the center of Benjamin’s political campaign. Parades marched up and down the street in front of the house Benjamin gave more than 80 speeches on their front porch.
On Election Day, the Harrison family waited anxiously for a telegraph operator set up temporarily in a nearby bay window for election results. The next morning, Caroline and Benjamin discovered they had won. The Harrison family was moving to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
Though the Harrisons had lived in Indianapolis since 1854, the couple’s story began in Ohio. Benjamin had been a student of Caroline’s father at the Farmer’s College in Pleasant Hill, Ohio. Benjamin followed Caroline to Oxford, Ohio. She enrolled in the Oxford Female Institute and he attended Miami University. Soon after they earned degrees, the two got married and moved to Indianapolis.
As Benjamin built up his law practice, Caroline became an integral part of Indianapolis’ charity network. Through membership at the Presbyterian Church, Benjamin and Caroline became active in the Indianapolis Benevolent Society, one of the city’s earliest charity organizations. Members were assigned their own district in the city, serving as “donors, fundraisers, friendly visitors and distributors of aid” in their assigned area. During the Civil War, Caroline expanded her efforts, volunteering with various women’s organizations that aided the war effort, like the Ladies Patriotic Association and the Ladies Sanitary Committee. She also started her 30 year long career with the Indianapolis Orphans Asylum, joining the board of managers in 1862. After the war, she became involved with a new charity, the Home for Friendless Women, created to care for an influx of widowed and transient women who flocked to the city after the war. The home operated until 2003, most recently under the name Indianapolis Retirement Home.
Throughout the 1870s, Caroline’s reputation as a capable organizer for charities grew. She sat on the board of many temporary relief funds and charitable events. When Benjamin served as Senator, she added a number of Washington, D.C. charities to her roster, including the Washington City Orphans Asylum and the Ladies Aid Society for Garfield Hospital. An avid painter, she also found time to make pieces to display at early exhibits for the Indianapolis Art Association, which pioneered formal art education in Indiana and influenced the development of fine arts in the state.
When the Harrisons moved to Washington, D.C. for the Presidency, Caroline worked hard to have impact as a First Lady. Though her predecessor, the young and fashionable Frances Cleveland made Harrison look old and dowdy by comparison in the press, Harrison became a more publicly active figure than Cleveland had by advocating for the arts, women’s interests, and the preservation of the White House.
Four generations of relatives moved into the White House when Benjamin took office, which brought the household total up to 12. After the whole family crowded into the White House, Caroline became “concerned over the condition of the house provided for the Chief Executive and his family.” The private spaces for the family amounted to five bedrooms, one bathroom, and a hallway. The rest of the building was reserved for offices and public functions. In addition to the lack of space, the White House had fallen into disrepair. The threadbare carpets, shabby furniture, unwelcome presence of vermin made the White House unsatisfactory to say the least. Caroline reached out to former First Ladies and discovered that previous administrations had struggled with coming up with enough space to entertain and host important foreign leaders and dignitaries. There had been an embarrassing situation during the Buchanan administration where the Prince of Wales and the rest of the royal family could not all be accommodated because of the lack of space.
Caroline began lobbying for congressional funds to refurbish and expand the White House. She gave interviews with journalists and took Senators and Representatives on personal tours of the White House to plead her case. She told reporters,
We are here four years. I do not look beyond that, as many things occur in that time, but I am anxious to see the family of the President provided for properly, and while I am here I hope to get the present building into good condition.
A few Representatives on the Committee on Public Buildings and Grounds had already kicked around the idea of expanding the White House. The building had remained largely unchanged since its completion in 1800 (though it was rebuilt after the War of 1812 after the British set fire to it). These Representatives had voiced a number of plans, including adding another story to the White House or constructing an exact replica of the building across the lawn. Some even wondered if an entirely new mansion for the President should be built. Caroline, however, recognized the historical significance of the mansion and articulated a new plan that would preserve the structure. Architect Frederick D. Owen drew up her ideas, which included adding wings to either side of the White House. The press widely circulated her plans, which Owen even titled “Mrs. Harrison’s Suggestion for the Extension of the Executive Mansion.”
Despite Caroline’s lobbying, her bill to provide funding to expand the White House did not pass. Though it went through the Senate, it failed in the House because President Harrison had ignored the Speaker of the House’s choice for collectorship of Portland, Maine. However, she did receive approximately $60,000 in appropriations to redecorate and renovate the interior and add the first electric lighting. Throughout her First Ladyship, Harrison directed painting, installing additional private bathrooms, renovating the kitchen, replacing all the dirty and moldy floors, rebuilding the old conservatory, adding greenhouses, and redecorating many of the public parlors.
During the renovations, Caroline had the entire contents of the White House inventoried. The Cleveland Leader reported,
Even the old bits stored away in the attic are to be listed, for Mrs. Harrison is anxious that pieces which have historic value or connection with presidential families of the past shall be preserved.
She stopped the old practice of selling off furniture, china, and silver at the end of each president’s administration, not only to save money, but so the historic mansion would maintain pieces from past presidents. Through this process, Harrison laid the foundation for the celebrated White House China Collection. Harrison’s acquaintance, Harriet Foster wrote “she immediately began a valuable collection to be preserved, in cabinets, of the scattered remnants of the china of former Presidents.” She even designed the Harrison china set, which featured corn ears, stocks, and tassels.
Harrison didn’t stop at the White House, but took on additional causes. As First Lady, Harrison advocated the federal government place more emphasis on fine art. She told the Evening Star,
this government has reached that point where it should give more attention to the fine arts—that is, a judicious expenditure for works of merit.
She made sure to include a large gallery of historical paintings in her plans for the White House expansion and supported the addition of paintings to the White House’s fine arts collection, including the first example of a non-portrait piece purchased for the mansion with federal funds. Her plans and actions set precedent for the introduction of a professional curator to care for the White House’s art collection, a position filled during the Kennedy Administration seventy years later. Lastly, in 1892 she became Honorary President of the National Art Association, joining forces with prominent artists like William Merritt Chase and Albert Bierdstadt, to lobby to exempt imported works of art from taxation. The tariff was eventually lifted.
Harrison lent her name to other organizations that promoted women’s interests. She agreed to head a local Washington, D.C. committee of women dedicated to securing women’s admission to the new Johns Hopkins Medical School. Johns Hopkins trustees promised five Baltimore women connected to the institution if they raised $100,000 (later increased to $500,000), the school would accept women on the same terms as male applicants. These women began recruiting prominent women across the nation to raise money in their own locales. According to historian Kathleen Waters Sanders, Caroline’s agreement to help the cause “was important, lending the campaign credibility and national visibility.” Due to women’s work, the medical school opened in 1893 as the first coeducational, graduate-level medical school in the nation.
Harrison also agreed to become the first President General of a new organization, the Daughters of the American Revolution. The organization formed in 1890 after the Sons of the American Revolution refused to accept female applicants. The DAR’s goals were “the securing and preserving of the historical spots of America and the erection thereon of suitable monuments to perpetuate the memories of the heroic deeds of the men and women who aided the revolution and created constitutional government in America.”
The founders of the organization asked Harrison to lead, hoping her status as First Lady would elevate the DAR, give it credibility, and attract more members. Though she delegated day-to-day operations to other DAR board members, Harrison helped guide the fledgling organization through its early years and helped it become a political force. In 1892, the DAR had grown from a handful to over 1,300 members. Since 1890, the DAR has accepted over 950,000 members and served as an important political lobbying group. It has also restored and maintained numerous historic sites and preserved countless genealogical records and artifacts.
Unfortunately, Caroline’s career as First Lady was cut short. She died in the White House from tuberculosis October 25, 1892. Benjamin lost reelection soon after. However, a new historical marker at the Benjamin Harrison house in downtown Indianapolis will honor Caroline Harrison’s achievements, both in Indiana and as First Lady. Please check our website and Facebook page for more information about the marker dedication ceremony, scheduled to take place in October.
After a period of hitchhiking their way towards the West Coast, camping, and living on cold food, the twenty two-year-old burgeoning poet Kenneth Rexroth and his new artist wife Andrée, arrived in San Francisco in the summer of 1927. Rexroth biographer, Linda Hamalian, referred to them as “forerunners of the flower children who flocked to Northern California during the fifties and sixties.” In San Francisco they found exactly what they had been hoping for: a rich cultural environment without the pretense they sensed in the East Coast artistic community.
They quickly met other artists and writers and found jobs painting furniture. They moved into an apartment on the Montgomery Block, often called the Monkey Block, that had long housed artists and writers, including the Hoosier author Ambrose Bierce. Rexroth wrote that they had little money, but “limited needs” and were able to live “the kind of life that I’ve lived almost always since, a sort of semi-monastic life devoted to writing and painting.”
The young couple also spent time enjoying the lush and varied natural environment surrounding San Francisco which Rexroth wrote “kept me in California all these years.” They swam and hiked and noted the unique flora and fauna. This love for nature deeply influenced Rexroth’s writing and he worried about destruction of the natural world by developers. In later years, he described himself as a sort of early environmentalist writer:
My poetry and philosophy of life became what it’s now fashionable to call ecological. I came to think of myself as a microcosm in a macrocosm, related to chipmunks and bears and pine trees and stars and nebulae and rocks and fossils, as part of an infinitely interrelated complex of being. This I have retained.
By the 1930s, in the midst of the Great Depression, Rexroth was employed by the Work’s Progress Administration (WPA) contributing to the “American Guide” series of handbooks for each state. Rexroth and several other local poets and writers created the California guide and were able to inject information on natural conservation and into the otherwise standard guidebook.
While he had contributed scattered “cubist poetry” to what Hamalain described as “ephemeral publications” upon his arrival in San Fransisco, by the 1930s he was regularly writing and publishing work in journals and small volumes of poetry. Much of this poetry combined natural imagery with his radical leftist political beliefs and strong anti-war sentiment. For example, his poem “At Lake Desolation,” published in the magazine The New Republic in 1935, contrasted the stillness of nature with the horrors of war. The poem begins:
The sun is about to come up and the regiments lie
scattered in the furrow their large eyes
wet in the pale light and their throats cut
He explored similar themes in his poetry throughout the 1930s and became a staunch pacifist. In 1937, the New Republic journal published Rexroth’s poem “Requiem for the Dead in Spain,” lamenting the horrors of the Spanish Civil War. He began the work by describing his walk through the beautiful Sierra Mountains under the stars, the tone changes as he suddenly feels sick thinking about the war. He laments:
I see the unwritten books, the unrecorded experiments,
The unpainted pictures, the interrupted lives,
Lowered into the graves with the red flags over them.
I see the quick gray brains broken and clotted with blood,
Lowered each in its own darkness, useless in the earth.
Alone on a hilltop in San Francisco suddenly
I am caught in a nightmare, the dead flesh
Mounting over half the world presses against me.
That same year, the influential independent publisher James Laughlin included Rexroth’s work in his second annual New Directions in Poetry and Prose, a publication the Academy of American Poets referred to as “pivotal.” In 1940, Macmillan published Rexroth’s first major collection, In What Hour. The work was considered wholly original and cemented his place at the forefront of the San Francisco literary movement. A reviewer for the Oakland Tribune wrote: “Rexroth is wholly and essentially a poet in the new manner. Usually a poet’s first work, and this is Rexroth’s first book, enables the acute reader to name his literary progenitors. But Rexroth’s poetical parents, if he has any, are not known.” The critic continued, “Despite this break with tradition, or it may be, as the apostles of the modern poetry claim, because of this independence, Rexroth’s book is important and tremendously interesting.” Hamalain wrote that the poems that make up In What Hour “demonstrate his remarkable ability to render plausible the possibility of spiritual presence and a sense of unity in the natural world” despite the threats of the modern age.
While his writing career was taking off, his marriage was dissolving. Rexroth moved out and began a relationship with Marie Kass, a “whipsmart” nurse, who would become his second wife in 1941. While he was happy with Marie, he was devastated when Andrée died October 17, 1940 from a seizure. He wrote of Andrée in a poem published in The Phoenix and the Tortoise:
I know that spring again is splendid
As ever, the hidden thrush
As sweetly tongued, the sun as vital —
But these are the forest trails we walked together,
These paths, ten years together.
We thought the years would last forever,
They are all gone now, the days
We thought would not come for us are here.
This idea, that love and nature could serve as spiritual refuge in troubled times, became even more significant with the outbreak of World War II and the entry of the United States into the conflict in 1941. Rexroth maintained his pacifist stance and applied for conscientious objector status February 19, 1943. Throughout the war, Rexroth worked with pacifist organizations such as the Fellowship of Reconciliation, the American Friends Service Committee, and the local branch of the National Committee for Conscientious Objectors. He wrote that at one point he received a notice from his draft board that his status had been changed from 4-E, conscientious objector to 1-A, available for armed service. He wrote, “I immediately appealed. The process dragged on for over a year while the FBI investigated the claim as by law they were required to do . . . There was no question that I was a bona-fide Conscientious Objector.”
After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, some Americans began questioning the loyalty of Japanese Americans, a large number of whom lived on the West Coast. In February 1942, President Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066 which relocated Japanese Americans, including native born citizens, inland, away from the coast (which had been identified as the Pacific military zone) and confined them to internment camps. Thousands were forced to leave their homes and businesses. However, some Americans, including Rexroth, opposed internment as racist and unconstitutional.
Rexroth wrote in his autobiography that even before the U.S. declared war on Japan, that he worried Japanese Americans would face persecution. He wrote a letter and sent it to various pacifist groups and religious groups, stating that when war was declared, “the persecution of Japanese and Americans of Japanese ancestry, because they are marked by their color and features, will be worse than that of the German-Americans of the First World War.” He wrote in his autobiography, “I managed to persuade them to set up a committee with the absurd title of the American Committee to Protect the Rights of Americans of Oriental Ancestry.” When Rexroth and other members of the Friends Service Committee got word from a “contact in the White House” about the order for internment, they “immediately got on the phones,” and urged each person they called to call five more people. They also called university and political contacts and civil liberties organizations. While perhaps an aggrandizement, Rexroth credited this work with mobilizing opinion in the Bay Area against internment.
Rexroth took more direct action as well. Again according to his autobiography, Rexroth explained a scheme that saved several Japanese-Americans, including a personal friend, from internment. He contacted the Midwest Art Academy in Chicago, which he called a “phony correspondence school” that advertised scholarships “in cheap pulp magazines” for classes on “photo retouching, art, dress design, and knitting.” He convinced the school to sign registration papers for Japanese American students for a fee. He then contacted the “colonel in charge” of evacuation in San Francisco who agreed to provide educational passes for such students despite the school’s organization being “kind of a racket.” He located funding through Jewish residents of San Francisco and worked with Quakers to “set up a student relocation program.” In this way, Rexroth wrote, “we started shoveling people our of the West Coast on educational passes.” The poet Robert Duncan wrote that both Kenneth and Marie were also “working in the camps . . . taking messages back and forth.”
Rexroth’s practice of Buddhism, Taoism, and yoga also influenced his pacifist views and actions. He incorporated this worldview, along with a belief of the transcendental power of love, into his writing. In 1944, New Directions Press published Rexroth’s The Phoenix and the Tortoise, a rumination on history and humanity’s major failings: war and its threat to the natural landscape. In this lengthy poem, there is still hope for humanity in nature and through love. While the tortoise represented the earthly and the mortal, the phoenix represented the transcendent, sublime, and immortal power of love. Likewise, the ocean symbolized nature’s power to transform and serve as sanctuary in a world threatened by war. Literary critic John Palattella explained, “Nature’s indifference to human death is not a threat but a source of consolation, since the ocean’s one unchanging characteristic is that it changes everything.”
While Rexroth and a small number of avante-garde writers flourished in the San Francisco area for several years, the end of the war in 1945 saw an influx of new artists and writers. Many of these new voices were drawn to the area because they had read Rexroth’s works and heard about the creative coterie he had organized: a group of rebellious writers who were exploring anti-establishment and far left politics in their literature along with other cultural critiques. Rexroth believed it was the war itself that created this cultural climate. He wrote in SanFrancisco Magazine:
Just as London under the buzz bombs enjoyed a literary renaissance and a profound change of social relationships . . . so San Francisco during the War woke up from a long provincial sleep and became culturally a world capital.
Rexroth also maintained what Beat scholar John Tytell called “a sort of western salon, a weekly literary gathering,” where Rexroth introduced poets to each other and hosted readings. Out of this meeting of minds came “an entirely new cultural synthesis,” which produced new movements in theater, art, and poetry. One newspaper described this literary gathering in 1948 as “the San Francisco bay area poetry forum,” but the broader movement became known as the San Francisco Renaissance. Rexroth considered the combination of political discussion, poetry, and jazz to be the foundation of the movement. Over the following decade, this San Francisco Renaissance ushered in the rise of the Beat Generation. Rexroth’s role as bandleader of the San Francisco movement was responsible for his gaining the title “Father of the Beat Poets,” though he would later reject the title and the movement.
According to the Academy of American Poets, “Beat poetry evolved during the 1940s in both New York City and on the West Coast, although San Francisco became the heart of the movement in the early 1950s.” The Beat Generation rejected mainstream culture and politics and expressed themselves through new and non-conventional forms of poetry. Beat scholars point to the salon-type meetings organized by Rexroth as essential to bringing the Beats together. In the gatherings, the Beats would explore and embrace influential themes in Rexroth’s prolific writings like anarchism, pacifism, mysticism, and environmentalism. Beat scholar Ann Charters also credits Rexroth’s writings on Asian philosophy as influencing the Beat writers’ interest in “Buddha consciousness.”
Rexroth also helped establish jazz as an essential element of Beat poetry. During this period, Rexroth gained fame for combining his poetry with the music of local jazz groups. In San Francisco, he often performed at the Cellar, which became known for jazz and poetry performances and at the Blackhawk club with jazz bands like the Dave Brubeck Quartet. Two such performances were released on vinyl in 1957 and 1959.
Rexroth toured the country, performing regularly in New York City. According to the Academy of American Poets:
Rexroth was among the first twentieth-century poets to explore the prospects of poetry and jazz in tandem. He championed jazz and its musicians, publishing appreciations of players like Charles Mingus and Ornette Coleman, defending jazz in print against critics who deemed the music less than serious, and most importantly, he played in a jazz band himself, helping to define a role for the poet in the jazz world and a role for jazz in the poetry world.
In the liner notes for his 1959 recording Poetry and Jazz at the Blackhawk, Rexroth wrote that jazz poetry “takes the poet out of the bookish, academic world” and returns the poetry to the realm of public entertainment. Rexroth believed that combining music and spoken word connected the audience and poet directly (as opposed to the mediation of the written word) and restored poetry to oral tradition.
Mainly, however, it was his rejection of mainstream culture that aligned Rexroth with the Beat movement early on. For example, in 1951, in a syndicated review of Rexroth’s poem “The Dragon and the Unicorn” one critic noted that these rebellious writers were reacting to the post-war period with disgust. He stated that though in their writing style, they break with tradition, but their rebellion makes them part of a long tradition of creativity.
On October 7, 1955, at a poetry reading at the Six Gallery in San Francisco, Rexroth introduced Allen Ginsberg who read his revolutionary poem “Howl.” Scholars often point to this as the culminating event of the San Francisco Renaissance and solidification of the Beat movement. Charters described the movement as “awakening a new awareness in the audience (at the Six Gallery) of the large group of talented young poets in the city, and giving the poets themselves a new sense of belonging to a community.”
Rexroth championed many of the new writers in a 1957 article for The Nation, including high praise for Ginsberg. He described the scene at the height of the movement:
Poetry readings to large and enthusiastic audiences are at least weekly occurrences – in small galleries, city museums, community centers, church social halls, pads and joints, apartments and studios, and at the very active Poetry Center at San Francisco State College, which also imports leading poets . . . Poetry out here, more than anywhere else, has a direct, patent, measurable, social effect, immediately grasped by both poet and audience.
Rexroth argued that the Beat movement started as a radical literary movement, but quickly turned into a “hipster lifestyle,” that is, the pursuit of fashionable trends and not larger truths. He soon distanced himself from the movement because he felt the East Coast Beats, and especially Jack Kerouac, were opportunists seeking fame and mainstream acceptance. Rexroth was quoted by a reporter in 1958 as saying, “This beat thing, which is a publicity gimmick in the hands of Madison Avenue, will die away.”
Regardless, Rexroth had directly influenced the Beat movement probably more so than any other poet. In 1958, one reporter astutely wrote that Rexroth “seems to fix the entrance requirements.” Charters explained that Rexroth was one of a handful of writers who had “sown the seeds” for the flowering of the Beat movement. She refered to Rexroth as a “mentor” for the younger Beats and “the dominant force in the cultural life of San Francisco for more than half a century.”
Although the Beat movement melted into the counterculture movements of the sixties and rock and roll became the dominant outlet for rebellious youth, Rexroth remained a central figure in American literature. He continued to write poetry and extensive cultural and literary criticism. In addition to his original contributions, his translations of foreign poetry and his writings on literature such as his “Classics Revisited” column in the Saturday Review increased his importance to the literary world.
Writing for the Chicago Review, Rexroth scholar Ken Knabb looked back on the over 800 columns that Rexroth wrote for the San Francisco Examiner, the San Francisco Bay Guardian and San Francisco Magazine during the 1960s and 1970s. Knabb wrote in admiration of the diversity of topics that Rexroth covered: reviews of jazz and classical concerts, operas, films, Chinese theater, performances of Shakespeare; discussions of art, literature, fishing, architecture, drugs, wine, Civil Rights, war, and politics; observations from his world travels; arguments for the women’s liberation and ecological movements; and criticisms of the past cultural movements through which he lived and participated. Knabb concluded that “as an ensemble . . . they add up to a social document and critical commentary of remarkable range.”
While Rexroth had begun translating poetry from other languages in the 1950s, he dedicated more and more of his time to the task later in life. He paid special attention to translating the work of women poets starting in the 1970s in works such as The Orchid Boat: Women Poets of China (1972) andThe Burning Heart: The Women Poets of Japan (1977). By this point, his own work incorporated imagery and meter learned through decades of translating Chinese and Japanese poetry.
In his review of Rexroth’s collection The Morning Star (1979), critic Emiko Sakurai praised these poems especially as “extraordinary poems, rich and sensuous, always immediate, febrile and powerful” and called Rexroth “a poet of the first rank.” However, Sakurai had a hunch about Rexroth. He noted that “The Love Poems of Marichiko” were “ostensibly” written by a young Japanese woman. Indeed, they were actually written by Rexroth from this imagined perspective. Critics noted the transformative power his work as a translator had on his own original work and his ability to write convincingly from the a feminine perspective of his invented character.
Upon Rexroth’s death in 1982, the New York Times described this “poet, author, critic and translator of Chinese, Japanese and classic Greek poetry” as greatly influential on later generations of writers. The Times obituary noted that he received acclaim from both radical literary and political circles as well as “honors and awards from more orthodox literary corners,” such as Guggenheim fellowships and a prestigious grant from the National Institute of Arts and Letters in 1964.
Although he came to despise being called “Father of the Beats,” Rexroth created a cultural movement that influenced the voice and worldview of some of America’s best poets. Frankly, there would be no Ginsberg or Kerouac without Rexroth. However, it is his own unique voice that will forever hold his place in this country’s literary canon. Perhaps the best summary of his significance comes from poet and publisher James Laughlin, who described his friend Kenneth Rexroth aptly as “an American cultural monument.”
Linda Hamalian, A Life of Kenneth Rexroth (New York and London: W. W. Norton & Company, 1991).
Ann Charters, ed., The Portable Beat Reader (New York: Penguin Books, 1992).
At times described as cantankerous, paranoid, and bitter, Kenneth Rexroth, the trail-blazing Hoosier poet, cajoled and harangued some of the best poets of the Beat Generation. At the same time, he worked tirelessly to promote their work. Rexroth’s own radical poetry both preceded and inspired the Beats, though at times he refused to be associated with the movement that he thought had lost its meaning by the late 1950s, and especially that “hipster” Jack Kerouac.
As important as Rexroth’s poetry is to American literature, his life story is perhaps even more fascinating. And while much has been written about his years in San Francisco laying the groundwork for a literary renaissance in that city that grew into the larger Beat movement, little has been written about his time in Indiana, Illinois, and Ohio – a period when the budding poet rubbed elbows with anarchists, burlesque dancers, criminals, and the artistic and literary elite of the Midwest and the world.
Kenneth Rexroth was born on December 22, 1905 in South Bend, Indiana. Young Rexroth’s first residence was a house at 828 Park Avenue in South Bend which still stands and will soon be the site of an Indiana State Historical Marker commemorating his life and career. In Kenneth Rexroth:An Autobiographical Novel, he described the house as “substantial and comfortable,” near to the Oliver Hotel and Mr. Eliel’s drug store. According to a 1905 article in the Elkhart Daily Review, Rexroth’s father was working as a traveling pharmaceutical salesman.
In 1908, the Rexroth family moved to a home on East Beardsley Avenue in Elkhart, Indiana, a relocation that made the local newspaper.
Rexroth wrote a description of the Elkhart home as well:
This was a quiet residential street above the river where all the best homes in the town were in those days, where the patent-medicine people, the musical-instrument people, the buggy-works people, the corset people, and all the other leading citizens of the town lived in their wooden, sometimes Palladian or Romanesque mansions, and we had our own little Palladian house.
While Rexroth was born into a comfortable life, his family’s circumstances soon deteriorated. His parents, Charles Marion and Delia Rexroth, had difficulties with alcohol, chronic illness, and each other. Rexroth wrote that his mother was drinking champagne when she went into labor and bluntly called his father a “drunk” and a “constant gambler.” When he was five, circa 1910, they left the lovely house on East Beardsley due to his father’s diminishing finances. The family moved more often then, mostly renting, but Rexroth remembers living in a “run-down Victorian house” on Second Street that he believed they owned. Despite setbacks, he remembered his childhood in Elkhart fondly. His mother taught him to read early and immersed him in classical literature. He spent time at the library, learned French, explored the neighborhood, and fell in love with Helen, “the little girl next door,” when they were just six or seven. His parents were able to afford a family tour of Europe, which made quite an impression on young Rexroth.
However, his mother continued to succumb to a chronic illness that multiple doctors were unable to diagnose, and his father intensified his drinking and gambling. Sometime around 1914, when Rexroth was nine, the family moved briefly to Battle Creek, Michigan, and then to Chicago the following year, where they lived with relatives. Rexroth’s father’s alcoholism put him near death on at least one occasion and he left the family, likely for some sort of sanitarium. Rexroth moved with his mother into a small apartment and they rarely saw his father. After a painful period fighting what was likely tuberculosis, Delia Rexroth died in 1916. Eleven-year-old Rexroth went to live with his father and grandmother in Toledo, Ohio. Here, Rexroth began to seek and find trouble.
Rexroth had little supervision in Toledo. He began running around town with a gang of boys who would rob cash registers and, despite his young age, he ran various money-making hustles that involved running errands for “brothels, cardrooms, and burlesque shows.” He also witnessed the Willys-Overland labor strike that turned riotous. Rexroth wrote that this was a significant moment in his youth and he “started off in the labor movement.” In 1919, at this uncertain juncture in Rexroth’s early adolescence, his father also died.
Rexroth’s aunt, Minnie Monaham, retrieved the thirteen-year-old trouble maker and brought him back to Chicago to live with the rest of the Monahams. The 1920 U.S. Census shows that the nine person household was located on Indiana Avenue, but they soon moved to an apartment on South Michigan Avenue in the Englewood neighborhood on the South Side of Chicago. Rexroth enrolled in the nearby Englewood High School. School administrators quickly expelled him for his poor attitude and attendance. It was outside of the Chicago public school system, however, that Rexroth pursued a more profound education.
Perhaps in the same manner he was able to gain access to the burlesque theaters of Toledo, Rexroth found access to the clubs of the poets and writers gathered in this Midwest city during the second wave of the Chicago Literary Renaissance. Among these were important local poets such as Carl Sandburg and Harriet Monroe, writers and intellectuals such as Hoosier-born Theodore Dreiser, and political thinkers such as famous Hoosier socialist, Eugene Debs, as well as the “big names” of the international art and literature worlds. This intellectual elite met at formal and informal clubs and locations around the city.
Rexroth also explored the radical political movements of the period at venues such as the Washington Park Bug Club, also known as Bughouse Square, which met in a “a shallow grassy amphitheater beside a lagoon off in the middle of the park,” according to Rexroth. Bughouse Square was, for a time, “the most celebrated outdoor free-speech center in the nation and a popular Chicago tourist attraction,” according to the Chicago Historical Society. Here, people with a host of different ideas would get on their soapboxes (sometimes literally) and orate to the crowds that would gather. Rexroth wrote that “here, every night until midnight could be heard passionate exponents of every variety of human lunacy” such as:
“Anarchist-Single-Taxers, British-Israelites [or Anglo-Israelite], sell-anointed archbishops of the American Catholic Church, Druids, Anthroposophists, mad geologists who had proven the world was flat or that the surface of the earth was the inside of a hollow sphere, and people who were in communication with the inhabitants of Mars, Atlantis, and Tibet, severally and sometimes simultaneously. Besides, struggling for a hearing was the whole body of orthodox heterodoxy — Socialists, communists (still with a small “c”), IWWs [International Workers of the World], De Leonites, Anarchists, Single Taxers (separately, not in contradictory combination), Catholic Guild Socialists, Schopenhauerians, Nietzscheans — of whom there were quite a few — Stirnerites, and what later were to be called Fascists.”
Another inspiring haunt for Rexroth was the Dill Pickle Club, not far from Bughouse Square, where artists and writers along with socialists and anarchists gathered for social and artistic experimentation. Rexroth wrote that there were independent theater productions Wednesdays, Thursdays and Fridays. On Sunday night, there were lectures on various topics. On Saturday nights “the chairs were cleared away and the Chicago jazzmen of the early Twenties played for a dance which lasted all night.” Rexroth remembered the actors and sets as being awful but somehow they produced plays that were “the very best.” Lectures were given by “every important scholar who came through the town, and all those who were attached to the universities.”
Most significantly, however, Rexroth gained entrée to the salon at the home of Jake Loeb, where he encountered the leaders of the local literary movement, international visitors such as D. H. Lawrence, and access to books of artists and writers who would greatly influence him, such as Gertrude Stein. In his autobiography, Rexroth referred to Loeb’s home as “a more important Middle Western cultural institution in 1923 than the University of Chicago, the Art Institute, the Symphony, and the Chicago Tribune put together.” He wrote that he met “everybody who was anybody in the Chicago of the Twenties and everybody who was anybody who was passing through town.” He continued:
“Besides the famous transients, many of whom stayed in the place, the house was full every night of the cream of Chicago’s intellectuals in the brief postwar period of Chicago’s second renaissance. It seems rather pointless even to list them — any of them — because they were all there. . . It is not that I met famous people — it is that I learned by listening to impassioned discussion among mature people, all of whom were out in the world putting their ideas into effect.”
Rexroth was also starting to put his ideas into effect. Although he had shown little academic or literary promise thus far, Rexroth became “a prolific painter and poet by age seventeen,” according to the Poetry Foundation. By this point he was running from one cultural hot-spot to another, performing the poetry to which he was being exposed. He wrote in his autobiography that if he hustled he could make over fifty dollars in a weekend. He continued, “Thus began my career as a boy soapboxer, bringing poetry to the masses.”
He began working a number of odd jobs, and in his free time, experimenting with oil paints and piano. One such job was at the Green Mask on Grand Avenue and State Street. Rexroth referred to the Green Mask as a “tearoom,” but it was probably more accurately a cabaret, and it was located in the basement of a brothel. Rexroth wrote, “The place was a hangout for bona-fide artists, writers, musicians, and people from show business.” He continued, “In the Mask there gradually formed a small, permanent family of oddities who were there every night and never paid for their coffee.” Here Rexroth was able to see and perform poetry with some of the era’s best poets and musicians, both black and white, local and national. These included the “seclusive and asocial” poet Edgar Lee Masters, local African American poet Fenton Johnson, nationally-acclaimed black poet and playwright Langston Hughes, the local jazz drummer Dave Tough (who Rexroth called Dick Rough in his autobiography), and an assortment of dancers, singers, and drag queens. This group held weekly poetry readings and lectures and jazz performances. Rexroth and others began combining jazz and poetry, a technique he would become known for by the time he headed out west and one that would greatly influence the Beat Generation. He wrote that here, at the Green Mask, “happened the first reading of poetry to jazz that I know of.” About this early Chicago jazz scene, he wrote:
“I’m afraid that I can’t provide any inside information about the formative years of jazz, for the simple reason that none of us knew that this was what was happening. We didn’t know we were making history and we didn’t think we were important. . . Jazz was pretty hot and made a lot of noise. People talked loud to be heard above it, got thirsty and drank too much and made trouble, so we tried to keep the jazz small and cool . . . I remember many nights going over to the piano and saying, ‘For Christ’s sake, cool it or you’ll get us all busted!'”
As he predicted, the Green Mask did get busted. In 1923, the Chicago Tribunereported that thirty-five “Bohemians” were arrested in a raid at the Green Mask. The Tribune article stated: “The police entered the place after standing outside for some time listening to what they say was the reading of indecent poetry by George Lexington.” The owner was booked as “keeper of a disorderly house.” Rexroth was also arrested because he was considered part owner for investing some small amount of money into the place. He was sentenced to a year in jail.
He described the conditions on his arrival to the Chicago House of Corrections, or the “Bandhouse” as it was called:
This was quite a place. It had been built back in the Seventies or Eighties, with long, narrow windows like the archers’ slots in medieval castles, and a warped and muddy stone floor where the water oozed up in winter between the paving blocks. This was the only running water in the place. Each cell was given a one-gallon pail of water once a day and provided with a battered old bucket for a privy. It was a cage-type cell house. The cells were all in the center about thirty feet away from the walls, so the only view was through the heavy iron grilles and door which looked out on brick walls and filthy windows through which it was impossible to see anything. The inner cells looked out on the tier opposite. The whole thing was built of iron, and any movement in it resounded as though it had happened inside a bell; any cough or groan or cry was magnified as if by an immense megaphone. In each cell there were four iron-slatted bunks that folded up against the wall. There were no mattresses, and each fish [inmate] was provided, along with his slops, with a filthy khaki Army blanket full of holes.
Rexroth spent the winter in these circumstances and explained that he “got a little closer to the underworld.” When he got out of the Bandhouse, he spent most of his time pursuing various young women, two of whom lived in the same building, and writing them poetry. He became more involved in local theater productions and continued pursuing radical social theories and chasing down works of avant-garde literature. He began reading more spiritual works and even spent a few months in a monastery. He also began a period of traveling and recording his observations of nature in his poetry – something else he would become known as a master of in later life.
In late December 1926, Rexroth met the artist Andrée Schafer through friends, just briefly outside their door. When his friends asked him what he thought about her, Rexroth replied, “I intend to marry her.” They began working on paintings together, both of them working on the same canvas, “like one person,” according to Rexroth. They married a few weeks later in January 1927 and left for a new life on the West Coast that spring. In San Francisco, instead of experiencing a cultural Renaissance, Rexroth would create one.
Check back next week for more about this Hoosier rebel in part two of this story: Kenneth Rexroth: Poet, Pacifist, Radical, and Reluctant Father of the Beat Generation
For more information:
Kenneth Rexroth, An Autobiographical Novel (Garden City, New York: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1966).
Linda Hamalian, A Life of Kenneth Rexroth (New York and London: W. W. Norton & Company, 1991).
During his 50 year career, Norman Norell crafted beautiful costumes, worked under war-time limitations, resisted pressure to substitute quality for quantity, and worked to bring the NYC fashion houses on Seventh Avenue on par with those of Paris. During his time in the industry, Norell managed to escape the pomp and circumstance of New York City and is remembered for leading a simple, “moral” life in the often cutthroat world of high-class fashion design.
Norman Norell was born Norman David Levinson on April 20, 1900 in Noblesville, Indiana. His father, Harry, owned and operated a men’s clothing store in the town and this is undoubtedly where he developed an eye for fashion. Harry soon opened a men’s hat store in Indianapolis, and in 1905 moved the family to the city once the business experienced success. Norman completed high school in Indianapolis then moved to New York to begin his fashion education at Parsons Institute. At 19, he began studying at the Pratt Institute, where he studied drawing and fashion illustration. It was here that he combined the first syllable of his first name with the “l” sound of the beginning of his last name and adopted the name Norell.
His early years in the fashion industry were spent designing costumes. He designed for a variety of projects, including silent film, burlesque, vaudeville, and nightclub acts. Norell costumed Rudolph Valentino in The Sainted Devil and Gloria Swanson in Zaza, but soon shifted his focus to women’s apparel. In 1928 he began a 12 year stint working for Hattie Carnegie. While a “fierce perfectionist . . . brilliant in her own way,” her process was considered fairly unoriginal – she bought pieces from Parisian couturiers, pulled them apart in New York, and turned them into more affordable clothes for her American clientele. Original or not, working with Carnegie gave Norell invaluable experience by visiting the Paris fashion houses and allowed him to fully understand the construction of women’s clothing. After a falling out with Carnegie over his designs for the Broadway production Lady in the Dark, Norell left and joined forces with Anthony Triana to form Triana-Norell in 1941.
Although he was a salaried employee of Triana, Norell was the designer of the company and as such was making waves in the fashion world. Bonwit Teller said of the new fashion house in the October 1941 edition of VOGUE, “The House of Traina-Norell comes on the season like an electrical storm. Its designer, young Mr. Norell, creates a collection so alive that everyone’s talking.” Just two months after that article ran, the United States’ entry into World War II changed nearly every industry in America, including fashion.
Up until this point in the 20th century, women’s clothing styles changed at a faster pace than ever before. Silhouettes changed entirely about every 10 years, much more quickly than in previous eras. War time restrictions stopped this fast progress in its tracks. On March 8, 1942 the War Production Board issued limitation order number 85, or L-85, which set rules for the production of women’s clothing. Manufactures were banned from making blouses with hoods, blouses with more than one pocket, coats with epaulets, coats with sleeve circumference larger than 16 ½ inches, and reversible skirts. All of these measures reduced the use of material used for clothing production. Hems, which for the previous years had been widening from the sleek, narrow skirts of the 1920s, were reduced from 81 inches to 78 inches. These restrictions challenged American fashion designers, one which Norman Norell met.
Drawing inspiration from his favorite era of fashion, the 1920s, Norell introduced the chemise dress, or shirt dress in 1942. This design featured a simple round neckline, a departure from the “fussy” necklines of the time. The simplicity of this trend worked well within the restrictions imposed by L-85 and chemise dresses, along with a fur-trimmed trench coat, became the staple of the Traina-Norell label.
World War II cut American designers off from their long time inspirational lifeline of the Paris fashion houses. Until this point, American designers took their lead almost exclusively from Paris (recall Hattie Carnegie’s method of deconstructing Parisian pieces previously discussed). In 1942, Coty, Inc. introduced the Coty American Fashion Critic’s Awards to address this issue by promoting original American fashion design during the war. Fashion editor Bernadine Morris later wrote, “What Norman Norell had accomplished in the first collection was to give American fashion – producers and wearers alike – a freedom from dependence on foreign sources of inspiration. The American industry felt it could set its own directions, its own styles.”
Norell never compromised on quality; oftentimes, a single suit jacket would take a week to stitch. This quality came with a price tag, though. One article said, “Women purchasing a Traina-Norell garment were buying, at great cost, an American-made status symbol that would likely remain in their closets for decades.” The prices for a Traina-Norell piece ranged from $500 for a simple jersey dress to upwards of $4,000 for an evening gown.
The Traina-Norell brand continued to set trends throughout it’s nearly twenty year existence. Oftentimes, competitors would copy his designs and sell them for much less. This was so common that the year before he introduced his revolutionary wool culottes suit, he offered the pattern to any manufacturer who wanted it in order to prevent the manufacture of inferior versions of the design. One of his signature evening looks, the “mermaid dress” would not look out-of-place at a gala today. Other signature designs of Norell included the 1961 wide-flaring skirt, impeccably designed coats, the evening jumpsuit, and sweater topped dresses.
In 1960, Anthony Traina retired and Norell began his solo carter with the Norell fashion house. Although the name of the brand had changed, the reputation for high quality, long-lasting clothing stayed the same. During his career, Norell won the Coty award three times and was inducted into the Coty Hall of Fame. When the Coty Awards were discontinued in 1985, Coty’s parent company said it was because they had achieved their goal of bringing American fashion houses to the same level of those in Paris, and there’s little doubt that Norell played a big role in that.
Norman Norell became known as the dean of American Fashion and was active in the industry up until his death on October 25, 1972, just before a retrospective exhibit of his work was to open at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City was to open. Even today, Norell pieces are highly sought after and sell for high prices in vintage clothing shops. In December 2010, former First Lady Michelle Obama wore a vintage Norell dress at a White House Christmas party, one of the few times a first lady has worn a vintage piece at an official White House event.
View over 200 Traina-Norell and Norell pieces on the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s website.
Beulah Bondi’s is not a recognizable name today, but her face certainly is. You’ve likely seen it in classics such as It’s a Wonderful Life and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. The Valparaiso, Indiana native portrayed Jimmy Stewart’s mother four times on film, including Vivacious Lady and Of Human Hearts, in addition to Wonderful Life and Mr. Smith. According to the Chicago Daily Tribune, Stewart affectionately called Bondi “Mom.” By the ripe old age of 39, Bondi was cast to play characters well beyond her age and she became the equivalent of “Hollywood’s mother,” despite herself never marrying or having children.
“America’s greatest character actress,” according to United Artists, MGM, and Paramount, was born Beulah Bondy in 1888. She got her start at the age of seven as “Little Lord Fauntleroy” at Valparaiso’s Memorial Opera House. After the lead actress fell ill, she had one week to memorize 47 pages worth of lines and became hooked on acting after delivering them on the stage. The young actress was drawn to “dramatics” and the stage throughout her public education, including her time at the Convent of the Holy Name and Valparaiso University.
After graduation from university, she traveled the Midwest with a theatrical touring company. The Valparaiso Vidette Messenger reported that she changed her last name to “Bondi” at the suggestion of an Indianapolis journalist. Bondi noted, laughing, that “‘He said all of the letters in my name should be above the [credit] line.”
Following her work with an Indianapolis stock theater company, Bondi began her professional acting career in 1919. She was promptly informed by her first director that she “‘had no more talent than on the head of a pin.'” This criticism equipped her to endure even the most difficult directors of stage and film. In 1925, Bondi made her Broadway debut, beginning a prolific Broadway career that would eventually deliver her to Hollywood acclaim. According to the Valparaiso Vidette Messenger, film producer Samuel Goldwyn viewed her Broadway performance as a bigoted neighbor in the three-year run of Elmer Rice’s “Street Scene” and brought her to Hollywood.
From “dowagers to harridans,” Bondi deliberately chose character work, embodying each of the characters she played. In 1929, the Valparaiso Vidette Messenger printed excerpts of colorful New York reviews of Bondi’s portrayals:
“As a catty and scandal mongering neighbor Miss Beulah Bondi never overplays a role that would tease a lesser actress to do so.”
“Beulah Bondi who was so good in ‘Saturday’s Children’ and so amusing in ‘Cock Robin,’ turns out a gossipy busy body with remarkable detail and rare effect.”
In “Street Scene:” “the comedy relief is intrusted [sic] to the greatest character actress in America, Beulah Bondi. Hers was a magnificent performance.”
Bondi reflected in 1976 that “With each part, I ‘meet the woman’ for the first time when I read the script . . . And then I imagine her past life-what made her into the character she is.” She appeared in over 50 major films, appearing with Hollywood greats such as Clark Gable, Greta Garbo, Joan Crawford, Fred MacMurray, Barbara Stanwyk, and of course her “son” Jimmy.
The Vidette Messenger noted that Bondi came to be greatly respected by directors because she:
“was never given ‘The Grand Build-up’ by inspired press agents. She is just one of the ‘old timers’ on the various lots, highly capable and highly dependable. Neither temperamental nor demanding, she is an actress to delight both producers and directors. She choses [sic] her parts with great discrimination, asking always the best, and always giving her best.”
Bondi received recognition and accolades for her supporting roles, receiving commendation by the New York Times for her role in the 1939 film On Borrowed Time, in which she played opposite Lionel Barrymore. She was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress in 1936 for The Gorgeous Hussy and 1938 for Of Human Hearts. At the sunset of her career, Bondi received an Emmy award in 1977 for Outstanding Lead Actress for a Single Appearance in a Drama or Comedy Series for her portrayal as Aunt Martha on an episode of The Waltons.
The Vidette Messenger aptly concluded in 1976 that Bondi “deserves a place in the series of local celebrities-and unlike some who have gone off to conspicuous success in the entertainment world-she never belittled the town that was the scene of her childhood. She is a product of Valparaiso-and proud of it.” In her 80s, Bondi quipped to the newspaper that same year “‘I never played an actress my own age . . . I now play girls of 16.'” The acclaimed Hoosier passed away on January 12, 1981 in Hollywood, leaving behind a legacy of compelling silver screen characters.
The release of the new Ben-Hur movie this summer reminded us of the story’s Hoosier origins. This latest production from Mark Burnett and Roma Downey is the fifth time that film producers have interpreted Crawfordsville native Lew Wallace’s best-selling novel for the screen. Many are familiar with the 11 Academy Award winning adaptation starring Charlton Heston in 1959 and most film buffs know that there were two earlier versions in 1907 and 1925. The 1907 film prompted a landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision that protected copyrighted works from unauthorized motion picture adaptation. The 1925 film arguably has a better chariot race than the 1959 movie. There was also a forgettable and regrettable Canadian mini-series reboot of Ben-Hur in 2010.
In a world of constant movie reboots, one ponders: if Lew Wallace were alive today and re-wrote Ben-Hur in a contemporary setting, would he have Ben-Hur racing in the Indianapolis 500?
What if we told you that Ben-Hur did, in fact, race at Indianapolis? Of course, the race did not take place at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway; instead it took place in 1902 at English’s Theater during the Ben–Hur stage play’s first visit to Indianapolis.
On November 13, 1902, the Indianapolis News reported “J.J. Brady is here in advance of ‘Ben-Hur,’” and “brings with him a corps of stage carpenters and mechanics, who have practically to reconstruct the stage . . . so that the play may be given properly.” Although English’s stage was new, crews needed to rebuild it in order to accommodate the chariot race. Producing that scene called for eight live horses running at full gallop on treadmills, cycloramic scenery and, other apparatus. All this equipment and animals imposed an estimated weight of over 50 tons on the stage, which required pouring a special cement foundation. The public was anxious to see the spectacle, even if it meant staking out a place in line many hours in advance. The Indianapolis News reporter observed:
“A few individuals sat and shivered all night in the lobby of English’s waiting in patience and with an unwonted supply of cash in their pockets for the box office to open. They were men who had been hired to buy seats for some of the performances of ‘Ben-Hur.’”
Ticket prices ranged from fifty cents to two dollars. Even at that rate, a day after the tickets went on sale, the English Theater reported “over $10,000 was taken in at the box office window” and representatives for the producers of the play (Marc Klaw and Abraham Erlanger) announced that the sales “beat all records for the play in advance sales.” The Supreme Tribe of Ben-Hur, a national benevolent society headquartered in Wallace’s hometown of Crawfordsville, nearly bought out one performance by itself. The Tribe planned to run an excursion via train for its members from Crawfordsville to see the play.
However, a few members of the Hoosier public were dubious about purchasing tickets. In particular, one woman was of the opinion that the play was to take two weeks to complete. When the box office manager informed her that the entire play was presented every night, she remained quite suspicious that anyone “could put all that book into a one-night drama.”
Production managers sought to cast extras from Indianapolis’s denizens, advertising a salary of $4.25/week. That was enough to encourage a crowd of men, women, and children to stand outside in a late Indiana autumn for an hour and a half waiting for their opportunity at show business. An assistant stage director eventually made an appearance and sorted through the crowd. One “gray beard” was turned away because the assistant director believed him not to be “nimble afoot.” The rejected man futilely protested to the assistant director and argued “he could get around faster than two-thirds of the younger fellows that had been accepted.”
With the extras cast, the production opened on Monday, November 25, 1902. After witnessing opening night, an Indianapolis reporter wrote, “There [will] be critics who see nothing good in the American stage or in the works of American dramatist: if the American stage had done absolutely nothing worthy in its long career but this, had its fame to rest solely on this production of ‘Ben-Hur’ it has justified its existence.”
The cast, as it appeared in Indianapolis, included William Farnum as Ben-Hur and Basil Gill as Messala. Farnum’s performance was described as realizing the part to the fullest degree. Among the other actors and actresses in the production, Mabel Bert’s portrayal as the mother of Hur is worth noting because she was the only cast member with a major role to be with the company continuously since the production opened on November 29, 1899 in New York City. Mrs. Bert told a reporter,
“I have always been the mother of Ben-Hur – various Ben-Hurs, however, for Mr. Farnum is the third I have mothered on the stage…It does make me a trifle lonely sometimes to lose my stage children and stage friends that way. But then, too, it affords a certain amount of variety that is interesting and keeps my work from becoming at all monotonous.”
The public certainly found nothing monotonous about the play. In fact, the production was originally slated to run for two weeks in Indianapolis, but four days after opening night the Indianapolis News reported that the high demand for tickets had prompted producers to extend the play for another week. Box office receipts for the first two weeks alone were estimated in excess of $35,000. That figure broke all box office records for Indianapolis and was the highest figure for all productions of Ben-Hur to that date.
“‘Ben-Hur’ occupies a unique position on the native stage, since it appeals alike to habitual theater patrons and those who seldom find enjoyment in offerings of the stage. While the elaborate scenic equipment and realistic chariot race command the admiration of the spectators, the rare beauty and force of ‘Ben-Hur’ as a drama give a lasting distinction to this most uplifting, inspiring and soul-stirring play.”
This description of the popularity of Ben-Hur, while no doubt true, neglects that a major reason for the large turnouts was because the author of Ben-Hur was a native Hoosier son. Some Indiana cities, such as Covington, Franklin, and Noblesville, brought large numbers of their population and sold out individual performances. In fact, Covington could not secure as many tickets as they had citizens who wanted to attend; the Indianapolis Sentinel reported that a small riot broke out as a result.
While various Indiana cities were hoping to witness the performance, Crawfordsville was no exception, as it was Ben-Hur’s birthplace. A contingent of Athenians and Montgomery county residents had the theater to themselves for a performance on December 2. Among those in attendance at that performance was James Buchanan Elmore, aka the Bard of Alamo. After witnessing the arrest of the Hur family, Buchanan leaned over to a newspaper reporter and said, “Seems to me if I was bossing that show I would make the actors speak softer and not so rough, it don’t seem like Scripture voices.”
Although the December 2 performance hosted one Montgomery County literary celebrity, another one was conspicuously absent, that being General Lew Wallace, the author of Ben-Hur. Wallace was recovering from an illness during the Crawfordsville excursion. However, he was sufficiently recovered to attend a matinee with his son, daughter-in-law, and his two grandsons on December 12. Wallace watched most of the play from a private box and tried to remain as inconspicuous as possible, lest he be called upon to deliver a speech. Wallace and his party were invited behind the stage so that they could witness how some of the scenes were produced, especially the chariot race. Wallace took special interest in watching the race and all of the mechanization that was involved. While backstage, Wallace met the starring members of the cast and reportedly chatted for several minutes with the actor incarnating his literary creation. Before returning to his box Wallace remarked to a stage manager that the production had reached a state of perfection. Ben-Hur ended its stay in Indianapolis the day after Wallace’s visit, before moving to Milwaukee for a two-week engagement.
Eleven years later, when Ben-Hur was making another visit to Indianapolis, Hector Fuller aptly noted in the Indianapolis Sunday Star,
“If Indiana had contributed nothing else, save this one play to the American stage it might be counted that the Hoosier state had done its part. For ‘Ben-Hur’ is the dramatic marvel of the age. It has held the stage now for fourteen years, and in that time over 10,000,000 people have seen it.”
Ross Lockridge Sr. and Jr. left an indelible mark on Indiana history through traditional history publications and fictional depiction. However, the father and son have yet to be cemented in the annals of state history. We hope to contribute to that reversal.
The senior Lockridge was born in Miami County, Indiana in 1877 and went on to graduate from Indiana University in 1900. He married and returned to his north central Hoosier home. He became the principal of Peru High School, and later earned a law degree from IU in 1907. Not long after, he moved to Fort Wayne and worked as employment manager and welfare director at Wayne Knitting Mills. He also served three years as executive secretary of the Citizen League of Indiana, which lobbied for a new state constitution and advocated for women’s suffrage.
While in Fort Wayne, Lockridge Sr. helped organize the Allen County Fort Wayne Historical Society. During this time his reputation grew as a writer of pioneer Indiana history. According to Larry Lockridge, his grandfather, Ross Sr.,”developed his own brand of ‘Historic Site Recital,’ combing public speaking, drama, and local history.” Between 1937 and 1950, Lockridge Sr. served as a director of IU Foundation’s Hoosier Historic Memorial Activities Agency. Some of his published works include: George Rogers Clark (1927), A. Lincoln (1930), LaSalle (1931), The Old Fauntleroy Home (1939), and Labyrinth (1941), Theodore F. Thieme (1942). His The Story of Indiana (1951) was primarily used as a text in Indiana at the junior high school level.
The historian also wrote about Johnny Appleseed, the Underground Railroad, and Indiana’s trails, rivers, and canals. Another extended work, which continues to aid transportation history researchers, is Historic Hoosier Roadside Sites, commissioned in 1938 by the Indiana State Highway Association. He worked tirelessly to mark the state’s landscape with monuments and markers, preserve records, and execute historical pageants. His clear and concise writing style has added to Hoosier’s knowledge of their past.
According to Larry Lockridge, his grandfather “didn’t exactly whitewash history,” but he “certainly edited it. He attempted to bind people to their own local history through heroic narrative.” After the tragic drowning of Ross Sr.’s 5-year-old son, Bruce, in Fort Wayne, his dedication to historical work intensified. Larry contends:
“Preaching history as resurrection of the worthy dead was his idealistic, nonmetaphysical challenge to time and mortality, grounded in the tragedies of his own life and the pettiness of the contemporary scene.”
Ross Jr. assisted his father with historical projects, but according to Larry was “not his father’s puppet at such performances” and “never approached his father’s ease of performance and lack of self-consciousness.”
Ross Jr. was born in Bloomington, Indiana and moved to Fort Wayne. When he was 9-years-old the family returned to Bloomington and his literary dreams took root.
According to an Indiana Public Media article (IPM), Junior attended Indiana University, where he was known as “A+ Lockridge,” graduating with the highest GPA ever awarded by the school (4.33). Scarlet fever precluded his plan to join IU’s English Department, leaving him bedridden for eight months. He was later accepted as at doctoral student at Harvard University, where he began his famed novel.
According to an Altered Books Arts article, he withdrew from his studies and taught at a nearby college, so he could focus on his literary magnum opus. The IPM article reports that he studied abroad in Europe in 1934, where he “first had the vision of writing a novel that would draw upon the would-be literary heritage of his maternal grandfather, a schoolteacher and poet who had lived in Indiana’s Henry County.” This evolved into the character of John Shawnessy, who after losing his wife went on to fight in the Civil War, attempted to write the Great American Novel, and ended up in the fictional Raintree County.
Although Johnny had his successes, the character flashed back in memory wondering about the country’s future. He is influenced by several cultural concepts, one of which is to find the legendary Rain Tree, supposedly planted somewhere in the Raintree County by the celebrated Johnny Appleseed, who is buried in Allen County. The tree Lockridge sought to feature is based on a real Golden Rain Tree, which blooms in the summer with subtle yellow flowers that drop like a raining of yellow pollen dust.
In addition to Allen County, Monroe County is represented in the book. Larry noted, “We have county fairs and patriotic programs and outdoor sex and footraces and weddings and temperance dramas and rough talk . . . all of this he picked up in the culture of Bloomington” (IPM). Ross Jr.’s wife, Vernice, did the final typing of the novel, an 18 month endeavor and, unlike many writers, her husband gave her full credit for her help in constructing the 1060-page novel.
Altered Books Arts summarizes the novel’s themes, stating:
“In the course of its thousand pages philosophy, religion, sex, and history all flow together in a narrative that spans 40 years, recollected in a single day. In some ways it is an Indiana Ulysses, though Lockridge said that whereas Joyce wished to make the simple obscured, he wished to make the obscure simple. When it came out Thomas Wolfe and Walt Whitman were frequently cited for comparison, but it seems closer to in technique and feeling to the panoramic narrative of John Dos Passos’ U.S.A.“
Ross Jr.’s labor of love was met with much anticipation from his publisher, Houghton Mifflin. However, in order to win MGM’s high-profile contest for best new literary work, an award of $150,000, he was pressured to revise and cut several sections from his masterpiece. His likely selection as Book of the Month club winner, meant that he had to make many more extensive cuts. He conceded reluctantly and worked tirelessly to trim it for publication. His publisher Dorothy Hillyer wrote “Ross was quite capable of fussing eighteen hours a day over that manuscript. He was in love with it, almost sexually.” (He ended up cutting out a 356-page dream sequence, which is retained at Bloomington’s Lilly Library).
These compromises, the killing of his darlings, so to speak, and the completion of his life’s work plunged him into a deep depression. Despite generally rave reviews about the novel and winning MGM’s literary award, Lockridge’s depression worsened and he returned to Bloomington. His son regarded this as a mistake, “not because of Bloomington’s particular atmosphere but because it felt to him as if he had come full circle. . . . It was the symmetry of fate that he was returning home to die.”
Larry noted that his father began exhibiting bizarre behavior, inspecting knives in the kitchen and opening and closing cupboards, claiming he was “looking for a way out.” Public backlash about the book’s sexuality and irreverence, especially by his Bloomington neighbors, made him doubt the quality of his work and worsened his fragile state. (According to IPM, the publication of his neighbor Alfred Kinsey‘s Sexual Behavior in the Human Male promoted Lockridge to quip “It seems Mr. Kinsey and I have succeeded in making Bloomington the sex center of the universe”).
Ross Jr.’s father hoped to combat his son’s malaise with recitation, the memorization of the Declaration of Independence, hearkening back to their old historical endeavors. Ross Jr. reluctantly entertained his mother’s Christian Science ministrations, but remained in a debilitated state. Ross Jr. was not alone in his distress; his cousin Mary Jane Ward suffered from mental illness, which she depicted in her successful autobiographical novel The Snake Pit.
Witnessing her husband’s ongoing suffering, Vernice convinced him to seek treatment at Indianapolis’s Methodist Hospital, where he underwent electroshock convulsive therapy and insulin-induced coma. Further distressed and embarrassed by the procedures, he gave staff the impression he had recovered and was released.
According to Larry, his father tried to write a second novel, a “thinly disguised autobiography, from Fort Wayne days to the present.” He had planned to begin the story with his young brother’s tragic death and,
“the tranquil Avenue of Elms, Creighton Avenue in Fort Wayne, whose backdrop was the Great War. It is in this city that his brother Bruce drowns, that his house catches fire, that there is a great strike at the mill, that he falls in love with Alicia Carpenter, that he decides to become a writer, and that through ‘the brutality of fate’ his personality is set by the age of ten.”
He was never able to finish a second novel. On March 6, 1948, the day after Raintree County was declared a number one best seller, Ross Lockridge, Jr. took his own life at age 33 in Bloomington. Unable to locate her husband, Vernice went out to their garage. There she discovered his limp body in the running car, a vacuum cleaner hose piping exhaust into the car. The death of the new literary star stunned the nation, attracting over 2,000 to his funeral and prompting an obituary on the front page of the New York Times.
In 1957, MGM produced a big screen depiction of Raintree County, featuring Montgomery Clift, Elizabeth Taylor, and Eva Marie Saint.
Weeks after the death, Vernice found a note written by her husband, stating “‘Dearest, Have gone for early morning walk to clear head. Love, Ross.” On the back side he wrote:
“The purpose of Raintree County is to present life in its many-sided variety with idealism triumphant. An irreverent character in a book does not mean an irreverent book. In any event it is an old and good rule that every reader is entitled to his own opinion of a book.”
Surviving the death of a second son, Ross Sr. passed away a few years later in 1952.
Robert Green Ingersoll (1833-1899) remains one of the most influential leaders and intellectuals in “The Golden Age of Freethought” in the United States from the 1870s to the 1910s. Its adherents advocated for skepticism, science, and the separation of church and state. Ingersoll, a Civil War veteran, parlayed his success as a lawyer into an influential career in Republican politics, social activism, and oratory. Ingersoll served as a counterpoint to rising participation and influence in government of religion in the United States, delivering speeches to sell-out crowds that decried religiosity and its public entanglements. Ingersoll was also an early champion of women’s rights, influencing such early feminists as Elizabeth Cady Stanton and later ones such as Margaret Sanger.
He also spent considerable time and energy in Indiana, a state whose own religious diversity towards the late nineteenth century expanded, including German Lutherans to Catholics and other protestant denominations. From giving lectures throughout the state to influencing some of Indiana’s well-known historic figures, Ingersoll left a profound impact on the state and its development during the Gilded Age. As an example, Ingersoll delivered lectures at the illustrious English’s Opera House several times. The Indianapolis News wrote in 1899 that his lecture on “Superstition” was well attended and that “several people were shocked by the lecturer’s utterances, and left, some of them stopping in the lobby to ‘talk it over.’ The remainder seemed to enjoy the walk.”
To get a further sense of this influence, one particular story bears recalling, which involved a train ride with an old Civil War colleague. Lew Wallace, Indiana native, Civil War general, and the author of the novel Ben-Hur, cited Ingersoll as his influence in writing the Christian epic. As Wallace biographers Robert and Katharine Morsberger noted, Wallace “had written the story [Ben-Hur] partly to refute Robert G. Ingersoll’s agnosticism. . . .” The story surrounding this influence is near apocryphal to scholars of both Ingersoll and Wallace. However, Wallace intimated the story’s veracity in the preface to a selection from Ben-Hur entitled The First Christmas.
On September 19, 1876, both Wallace and Ingersoll supposedly shared a train ride to Indianapolis to attend a Civil War soldiers’ reunion (although one of Wallace’s accounts says it was a Republican convention); both men served the Union Army during the Civil War and fought at the battle of Shiloh. Wallace recounted the highlights of their conversation in his preface to The First Christmas:
[I] took a sleeper [car] from Crawfordsville the evening before the meeting. Moving slowly down the aisle of the car, talking with some friends, I passed the state-room. There was a knock on the door from the inside, and some one [sic] called my name. Upon answer, the door opened, and I saw Colonel Robert G. Ingersoll looking comfortable as might be considering the sultry weather.
Ingersoll invited Wallace to join him in conversation. Wallace accepted on the condition that he could dictate the subject. From there, Wallace asked Ingersoll if he believed in the afterlife, the divinity of Christ, and the existence of God, with the “Great Agnostic” answering in the resounding, “I don’t know, do you?” Then, Wallace asked Ingersoll to present his best case against the doctrines of Christianity, which Ingersoll did with such “a melody of argument, eloquence, wit, satire, audacity, irreverence, poetry, brilliant antitheses, and pungent excoriation [concerning] believers in God. . . .” Ingersoll’s views of both theological and biblical skepticism shook Wallace to the core, with the latter remarking that, “I was in a confusion of mind unlike dazement.”
Lew Wallace’s own theological confusion, what he called “absolute indifference,” seemed spurred into action by Ingersoll’s words: “. . . as I walked into the cool darkness, I was aroused for the first time in my life to the importance of religion.” Thus, Wallace began his own investigation into the doctrines and traditions of Christianity, culminating in the authorship of Ben-Hur and a “conviction amounting to absolute belief in God and the divinity of Christ.” This story found its way into newspapers as well, with reporters recounting the meeting in the Terre Haute Sunday Evening Mailand the Indianapolis News. According to Wallace’s accounts and its echoes in newspapers, his evening with Ingersoll led to a full conversion to Christianity and the writing of one of the most successful religious novels of the period.
Wallace’s conversation with Ingersoll spurring him on to a religious awakening is indeed a compelling story. However, a recently uncovered letter from Ingersoll gives cause to question the tale’s veracity. In 1887, seven years after Ben-Hur‘s publication, Ingersoll responded to a correspondent, Joseph Vardamann, asking about his role in inspiring Wallace’s novel. Ingersoll wrote that he was “never well acquainted with” Wallace and did “not remember ever to have had a conversation with him on the subject of religion.” Ingersoll stressed that the story of their meeting on the train appeared to him as “without the slightest foundation.”
For Wallace’s part in creating Ben-Hur, we know from documentary evidence that he was already well-advanced in writing the novel before the time he claimed the interaction with Ingersoll took place. In 1874, Wallace wrote in a letter to his half-sister, “I have just come out of the court room, and business is over for the day. Now, for home, and a Jewish boy whom I have got into terrible trouble, and must get out of it as best I can.” This letter clearly alludes to some of Judah Ben-Hur’s trials, whether being charged with the assassination of Valerius Gratus, being enslaved in a Roman galley, or surviving the sea battle.
While Wallace’s recollections with the “Great Agnostic” may have been a fiction, the story’s enduring popularity among Wallace scholars nevertheless speaks to Ingersoll’s intellectual and rhetorical power. The story of their supposed train ride in 1876 continues to interest scholars and the general public, but whether the event actually happened may be lost to history.
Elvis Presley, known around the world as the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll, thrilled audiences for decades with his legendary swagger, good looks, and unique vocal stylings. Among his many concerts over the years, the one that garners much historical attention is the final one, at Indianapolis’s Market Square Arena on June 26, 1977. His final performance, to a crowd of nearly 18,000 people, inspired copious press attention.
An article in the Indianapolis News on June 25 listed it as a requisite event for music fans. The Indianapolis Star noted playfully “If you admire Elvis Presley’s back you still can buy $15 seats behind the stage for his concert at the Market Square Arena tomorrow night.” While $15 doesn’t sound like much, that’s the equivalent of nearly $60 today.
He reportedly told the audience “We’ll meet you again, God bless, adios” as he left the stage. Based on filmed footage, the crowd appeared enthusiastic about the performance; the local press, however, was a bit skeptical.
The Indianapolis press seemed divided on the quality of his performance. Rita Rose’s piece in the Indianapolis Star provided a sympathetic take of the show, even as it criticized his appearance. Rose wrote comically:
The big question was, of course, had he lost weight? His last concert here, nearly 2 years ago, found Elvis overweight, sick and prone to give a lethargic performance. As the lights in the Arena was turned down after intermission, you could feel a silent plea rippling through the audience: Please, Elvis, don’t be fat.
She assuaged readers, writing “At 42, Elvis is still carrying around some excess baggage on his midsection, but it doesn’t stop him from giving a performance in true Presley style.” She noted glowingly how well he sang some songs, including “It’s Now or Never,” and “This Time You Gave Me a Mountain.” Rose’s piece emphasized the better elements of the concert and the excitement of the crowd.
Conversely, critic Zach Dunkin’s piece in the Indianapolis Newswas the consummate bad review:
“Elvis Presley led another crowd of screamers in bananaland last night during his concert at Market Square Area and the question is why,” wrote Dunkin at the start of his piece. He added, “He obviously doesn’t need the money. He apparently doesn’t care about the way his concerts are packaged either.”
Dunkin went on to call Elvis’s mix of opening acts and his performance a “sideshow,” writing:
“It’s like waiting through the sword-swallower and the fire-eater before seeing the REAL attraction in the back room.” He also heavily criticized the “hawking” of souvenirs by vendors, who he said “came on the P.A. three times and urged the crowd to visit the souvenir stand. He even listed the prices.”
However, Dunkin’s strongest criticism was of the King himself, who he said could “sing when he tries.” His best numbers, in Dunkin’s view, were his renditions of “Hurt” and “Bridge over Troubled Water,” even though Elvis “for some reason had to read the lyrics from a sheet.” Dunkin’s lackluster impression of the King ended with this final take: “It’s time ardent Presley fans quit protecting their idol and start demanding more. They know ‘the King’ can do better.”
Sadly, Presley never got the chance to do better, for his show in Indianapolis was his last. After the concert at Market Square Arena, Elvis took a break from touring and returned home to Graceland. Nearly six weeks after his Indianapolis concert, Elvis died in his home on August 16, 1977 from heart failure, likely caused by years of prescription drug abuse.
For months afterward, Dunkin received scores of angry letters from fans of Elvis for his unfavorable review. In an interview with John Krull, Dunkin talked about the hate mail he received, particularly attacks against his personality and his supposed “envy” of Elvis. Yet, other letters (in his estimation about “20 percent”) were sympathetic, with one letter saying the King “should’ve stayed home.” Dunkin’s review still receives attention from fans of Elvis and students of music history.
Elvis Presley’s mark on American music and culture is permanently etched into stone, but his controversial final concert showed the complications and problems associated with his final years. Regardless of the quality of the concert, it will be remembered forever as the place where the King took his final bow.
The German-American community in Indianapolis, largely a product of mid-nineteenth century immigration, had a strong heritage of freethought (open evaluation of religion based on the use of reason). In particular, Clemens Vonnegut, the patriach of the Vonnegut family and lifelong freethinker, openly displayed his religious dissent through writings and community activism. This, in turn, influenced his family and the literary style of his great-grandson, novelist Kurt Vonnegut, especially the younger man’s ideas concerning God, religion, science, and ethics. The junior Vonnegut’s own midwestern brand of freethought, in the form of what literature scholar Todd F. Davis called a “postmodern humanism,” displayed a deep sense of skepticism about the irrationalism of his time, while simultaneously championing an ethical responsibility to ourselves and each other devoid of supernatural influences. Yet, true to his form as a freethinker, Kurt forged his own humanist identity. [*]
Clemens Vonnegut was born November 20, 1824, in Münster, Westphalia. In his early years, he studied in German public schools and apprenticed as a mercantile clerk. As recorded in the Indianapolis Press, a young Vonnegut came to the United States in the early 1830s, on assignment from his employer, J. L. de Ball and Company, which sold specialty fabrics. His year in New York convinced the young Vonnegut that America would be his permanent home. He then traveled to Indianapolis with his friend Charles Volmer to start a new life.
He founded the Vonnegut Hardware Store in 1852, and was considered by the Indianapolis Star as “one of the city’s most respected citizens….” Like fellow Hoosier freethinker Hermann Lieber, he was a co-founder of the Socialer Turnverein and a forceful voice for public education. Clemens founded the German-English Independent School and served on its board for over 30 years. He also served as the first president of the Freethinker Society from 1870-1875, gave lectures to the society on occasion, and even translated the celebrated agnostic orator Robert Ingersoll’sOpen Letter to the Clergy of Indianapolisinto German for publication. His actions and beliefs heavily impacted the inception and growth of the Freethinker Society of Indianapolis.
After the end of the Freethinker Society in 1890, Clemens Vonnegut continued his activism more than any former member, mostly through writing. A Proposed Guide for Instruction of Morals, published in 1900, enunciated Vonnegut’s philosophy of freethought, both in theory and in practice. This treatise also displayed a rhetorical flourish that Kurt would later cite as an influence in his autobiographical work, Palm Sunday. Echoing Ingersoll and Heinzen before him, Vonnegut declared that, “No religious creed has any real proofs. It rests simply on assertions.”
However, that does not mean that humanity cannot be moral. In fact, Vonnegut argued the opposite:
True virtue is its own reward, which is not enhanced but rather misled by belief. Belief deprives us of the joys of this world by teaching us that we must detest them, and instead of them we must hope for a heaven. Belief forms the germ for persecution of those who differ from us in their religious convictions.
Vonnegut saw morality as the wellspring of the “intrinsic quality of human character which ought to be nourished and cultivated early, continually, and carefully.” In subsequent pages, Vonnegut explained how such “cultivation” is achieved. Public education, family instruction, physical fitness, and social activities presented the means by which individuals perfected a moral life without the supernatural. Like Ingersoll, Vonnegut’s morality was clear, traditional, based in the family, and demonstrated a moral life without the need of God. While Clemens Vonnegut presented his philosophy clearly, the events surrounding his death were anything but.
Clemens Vonnegut’s death in 1906 created somewhat of a mystery for his family, and later his great-grandson. It was said that he died in the snow . . . or so the story goes. Kurt Vonnegut recalls this story in his autobiographical work, Palm Sunday. In the winter of 1906, Clemens Vonnegut supposedly went for a routine stroll. Having lost his way, he wandered the streets of Indianapolis for hours before he was found dead by the side of the road by a search party. This story bewildered Kurt, whose own freethought can be traced to his great-grandfather and his own extended family. However, as with many family stories, this one stretches the truth a little.
Clemens did not die by the side of the road, but was rather found unconscious. The Indianapolis News reported that C. W. Jones, a local construction worker, found the 82-year-old Vonnegut nearly five miles from the city on Crawfordsville Pike. He sustained injuries to his head and right shoulder, but doctors feared that exposure to the elements might be his biggest challenge. After fighting for his life for five days, Clemens Vonnegut succumbed to pneumonia on January 13, 1906. His obituary cited his charity and love for knowledge, his activities within the Socialer Turnverein and the Freethinker Society, and his 27-year service for a local school board. True to his iconoclastic nature, Vonnegut wrote his own eulogy back in the 1870s and asked for its recitation when he died. As recorded in the Indianapolis Star, he railed against the creeds of Christianity:
I do not believe in the atonement to the blood of Christ or in the sin of incredulity. I do not believe in a punishment in a future life. I believe neither in a personal God nor a personal devil, but I honor the ideal which man has created as the tenor of all virtues and perfections, and has named God.
Until the very end, Clemens believed in the power of humanity to throw off the shackles of religion and embrace the values of inquiry and human-based ethics.
Nearly a century later, famed author Kurt Vonnegut (born in 1922 in Indianapolis) wrote in Palm Sunday that his great-grandfather’s freethought was his own “ancestral religion” and that he was “pigheadedly proud” of the heretical nature of his family. Kurt Vonnegut, a future honorary president of the American Humanist Association, carried the torch of freethought for his grandfather, and in some respects, introduced his ideas to a new generation.
In many of his works, Kurt would openly criticize religion, spirituality, and faith, so much so that it even contributed to the end of his first marriage. Nevertheless, echoing his grandfather in a 1980 speech at the First Parish Unitarian Church, Vonnegut declared, “Doesn’t God give dignity to everybody? No—not in my opinion. Giving dignity, the sort of dignity that is of earthly use, anyway, is something that only people do. Or fail to do.”
His most popular novel, Slaughterhouse-Five(1969), displays Kurt’s intense abhorrence of war (influenced by his own WWII POW experience) and a belief in a common humanity. Specifically, “so it goes” is a phrase that Vonnegut peppered throughout the novel, often after horrible events or even banal ones. This phrase conveys that no matter how bad things get, no matter how high one can get, the world (and indeed the universe) goes on. As an example, this passage from the novel, describing the protagonist Billy Pilgrim’s memory of a sculpture of Jesus, is fairly apt:
A military surgeon would have admired the clinical fidelity of the artist’s rendition of all Christ’s wounds—the spear wound, the thorn wounds, the holes that were made by the iron spikes. Billy’s Christ died horribly. He was pitiful.
So it goes.
“So it goes” becomes the novel’s panacea; a way for the narrator to deal with the grim realities of war without the comfort of religious beliefs. In some respects, it can be seen as a mantra for humanism.
Kurt Vonnegut’s humanism continued until the end of his life, as displayed by an address he meant to give on April 27, 2007 for Indianapolis’s “Year of Vonnegut” celebrations (he died on April 11; his son Mark gave the address in his stead). In this address, from the posthumous work Armageddon in Retrospect (2008), Kurt espoused his continued commitment to humanism. He wrote:
Am I religious? I practice a disorganized religion. I belong to an unholy disorder. We call ourselves “Our Lady of Perpetual Consternation.” We are as celibate as fifty percent of the heterosexual Roman Catholic clergy.
Actually—and when I hold up my right hand like this, it means I’m not kidding, that I give my Word of Honor that what I’m about to say is true. So actually, I am honorary President of the American Humanist Society, having succeeded the late, great science fiction writer Isaac Asimov in that utterly functionless capacity. We Humanists behave as well as we can, without any expectation of rewards or punishments in an Afterlife. We serve as best we can the only abstraction with which we have any real familiarity, which is our community.
This emphasis on “community” squares nicely with Clemens’s own commitments to community, both with the Freethinker Society and with his advocacy of public education. Both Vonneguts believed that the values of sociality and comradery are essential to the flourishing of a community, and you can achieve that system without a supernatural element.
Clemens Vonnegut’s humanism carried through many generations of his family and left an indelible mark on Kurt Vonnegut. The two men’s rejection of religion and the supernatural reinforced their love for humanity, their desire for community, and their commitment to the truth, no matter how horrifying it may be. Kurt’s own success as a writer and social critic would have delighted Clemens, who participated in many of the same literary pursuits and civic activities decades before Kurt was born. As such, their two lives, separated by time, nevertheless became entwined by their ideals. Their humanist legacy reinforces the diversity of intellectual and moral philosophies that embody the American Midwest throughout the 19th, 20th, and early-21st centuries.
Both Vonneguts were proud to be from Indianapolis and the city proudly remembers them.
[*] Kurt Vonnegut’s humanism may also be described as “Modern Humanism,” or “Naturalistic Humanism, Scientific Humanism, Ethical Humanism, and Democratic Humanism, [is] defined by one of its leading proponents, Corliss Lamont, as “a naturalistic philosophy that rejects all supernaturalism and relies primarily upon reason and science, democracy and human compassion.” Modern Humanism has a dual origin, both secular and religious, and these constitute its sub-categories” (Fred Edwords, “What is Humanism,” American Humanist Association, last updated 2008, accessed March 19, 2016, americanhumanist.org).