Between 1880 and 1920, Indiana produced authors such as James Whitcomb Riley, Booth Tarkington, and Meredith Nicholson. This period became known as the Golden Age of Literature in Indiana. However, as J. W. Carr points out in his Indiana State Sentinel newspaper article, “Indiana’s Literature: The State in the Republic of Letters,” Indiana was the birthplace and home to numerous authors throughout the state’s history. Carr acknowledged that beyond the breathtaking landscapes and the hard working men who transformed the state from forests to homes, schools, churches, and the like, all connected by the man-made railroad, sat a far greater achievement produced by the State of Indiana: a man of culture, scholar, and genius.
Weaving a brief synopsis of Indiana’s history with biographical sketches and sample pieces from early Indiana authors, Carr discussed why Indiana’s literature deserved special attention.
First, Carr stated the territory of Indiana did not receive its first governor until 1800, thereby limiting the development of the state for the past seventy-five years. Carr exclaimed, “How short a time in which to uproot savagery and plant civilization in which to produce a literature! Such progress is wonderful. If it had occurred in ancient times it might probably have been called the eighth and greatest wonder of antiquity, but occurring in the nineteen century it is only a part of the last and greatest wonder of the world—the development of a great American state.”
Second, he pointed out the difference between the authors of Indiana and other states. Indiana produced so many poets or prose writers that “genius is the rule and not the exception.” Furthermore, Indiana had more than just poets and prose writers, the state’s writers encompassed historians, novelists, journalists, those who write on the subjects of legal, philosophy, and science. This was important to note because despite producing “more than 200 writers who have achieved at least a local reputation in the republic of letters,” very few authors achieved national recognition and praise.
The Republic of Letters is an overarching term for philosophical ideas and principles spread through the written word. Particularly prevalent during the Age of Enlightenment in Europe, ideas, concepts, and critiques were spread internationally where it then transformed/merged to fit various political, social, culture, religious, etc. groups. Overall, the Republic of Letters is a term used to describe the way ideas were spread within societies.
Third, within his biographical sketches of the authors, in particular those who also taught, Carr compared their work to well-known poets and teachers of Milton, Longfellow, and Lowell. By doing so, he drew the connection between well-known poets and Indiana poets to show why Indiana authors deserved fame and recognition.
The biographical sketches and sample works of five poets from Indiana’s early history Carr provides are: Julia L. Dumont, John Finley, John B. Dillon, Laura M. Thurston, and M. Louisa Chitwood.
Julia L. Dumont (neé Corey) was one of the first writers in Indiana’s history. She was born in October 1794, in Waterford, Ohio and received an education at Milton Academy, in Saratoga County, New York. In August 1812, she married John Dumont, and in March 1814, the couple moved to Vevay, Indiana, where she resided until her death on January 2, 1857. Carr states, “she was a poet of considerable ability, but she is chiefly remembered as the preceptress [a female teacher] of Edward Eggleston.” Carr published a few lines from her poem, “Poverty.”
John Finley was a state and local politician (he served as a member of Indiana Legislature, Enrolling Clerk of the State Senate, Clerk of Wayne County Courts, and the Mayor of Richmond, Indiana for eight years) and the editor of the Richmond Palladium. However, primarily, he was remembered for his poems, “The Hoosier’s Nest” and “Bachelors Hall.” He was born on January 11, 1797 in Brownsburg, Virginia and moved to Richmond, Indiana in his early twenties. He was married twice; first in 1826 to Rachel H. Knott in Yellow Springs, Ohio and after her death, he married Julia Hanson on April 9, 1830 in Indianapolis. In 1830, Finley wrote “The Hoosier’s Nest” for the Indianapolis Journal, which Carr published a portion of in his newspaper article. Additional information on John Finley can be found here.
John B. Dillon was an historian, state librarian, secretary of the State Historical Society, and an early poet of the State of Indiana. He was born in Virginia, relocated to Cincinnati as a child where he subsequently learned the printer’s trade, and moved to Logansport, Indiana when he was 30 years old. Between 1846 and 1857, Dillon wrote the first history of Indiana, which received high praise and literary merit. Part of Dillon’s poem, “The Burial of the Beautiful,” was published in Carr’s article. Additional information on Dillon can be found here.
Laura M. Thurston (neé Hawley) was not only a poet, but also one of Indiana’s early teachers. She was born in Norfolk, Connecticut in December 1912 and educated at the Hartford Female Seminary. She taught in Hartford, New Bedford, Connecticut, Philadelphia, and New Albany, Indiana. In September 1839, she married Franklin Thurston, a New Albany merchant. On July 21, 1842, just shy of being 30 years old, she died in New Albany, Indiana. Two of her most popular poems are “Green Hills of My Fatherland” and “Crossing the Alleghanies.” Carr published a portion of “The Paths of Life,” which he described as “a farewell address, or rather, a parting song to a graduating class. This poem is a model of its kind—beautiful, didactic—a literary gem—a sermon.”
M. Louisa Chitwood was born on October 29, 1832 and educated in the small village of Mt. Carmel, Indiana in Franklin County. Prior to dying at the age of 23 on December 17, 1855 in Mount Carmel, Indiana from typhoid fever, Chitwood wrote beautiful poems that showed her extraordinary gifts as a writer. George D. Prentice, an editor, politician, and Chitwood’s friend, published her poems after she died. Carr included a stanza of “The Graves of the Flowers” to highlight Chitwood’s gift as a poet.
In addition to a stanza of “The Graves of the Flowers,” Carr included a sonnet that Benjamin S. Parker wrote as a tribute to Chitwood.
For additional information on Indiana’s early poets and poetry, see Poets and Poetry of Indiana: A Representative Collection of the Poetry of Indiana During the First Hundred Years of its History as Territory and State, 1800-1900. Compiled and Edited by Benjamin S. Parker and Enos B. Heiney. (New York: Silver, Burdett and Company, 1900).