Content Note: This video reproduces a panel of art depicting the Ku Klux Klan. It appears at 10:55 in the video and continues to 11:55. Viewer discretion is advised.
Thomas Hart Benton, one of America’s premier artists during the twentieth century, painted series of murals about Indiana for the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair. A controversial collection of artworks, the Indiana Murals engaged viewers in a dialogue about Indiana’s complex history—a dialogue that continues to this day. The murals stayed in storage of the Indiana State Fairgrounds until someone believed they deserved a new home. That someone was Herman B Wells, the newly elected president of Indiana University.
Music: “Fresno Alley” by Josh Lippi & The Overtimers, “Lazy Boy Blues” by Unicorn Heads, “Progressive Moments” by Ugonna Onyekwe, “Creeping Spiders” by Nat Keefe & BeatMower, and “Plenty Step” by Freedom Trail Studio
At just 110 pounds, Sullivan, Indiana-native Will Hays was not exactly the imposing figure you’d expect to be the film industry’s regulator, but he nevertheless left a substantial mark on the movie industry during the first half of the twentieth century.
First, here is some historical context. After the bombshell revelation of the Zimmerman Telegram on March 1, 1917, in which “German Foreign Minister Arthur Zimmermann promise[d] the return of Texas, New Mexico and Arizona to Mexico as reward for siding with Germany if the U.S. enters the war,” Americans increasingly became pro-war. Then, the breaking point occurred. Exactly a month later, a German U-boat torpedoed an American cargo ship, the S.S. Aztec, in British waters. The next day, April 2, 1917, President Woodrow Wilson addressed a Joint Session of Congress, and called for action to make the world “safe for democracy” (we’ll come back to this phrase later). Wilson’s address likely inspired one of the earliest Abe Martin cartoons about America’s impending involvement in World War I. In the April 2, 1917 issue of the Indianapolis News, Hubbard’s Abe Martin quipped: “What’s become o’ the ole-fashioned patriotic citizen who used t’ say, ‘Well, I didn’t vote for him, but he’s my President jist th’ same’? Actions speak louder’n flags.” Hubbard, through Martin, is expressing an earnest, trusting patriotism that became a common theme for his cartoons during the war.
Congress declared war on Germany four days after Wilson’s address. For the next two and half years, Hubbard’s Abe Martin routinely commented on the war and its influence on the home front. As an example, Hubbard promoted an essential war-time product in his columns, the Liberty Bond. Liberty Bonds were the brainchild of William G. McAdoo, President Wilson’s Secretary of the Treasury, and facilitated a revenue stream for the federal government to finance the war. Within his cartoons, Hubbard encouraged purchasing Liberty Bonds and connected them to patriotism. In a cartoon from May 30, 1917, Hubbard opined that “Talkin’ big an’ flyin’ a flag from your radiator cap won’t keep an army goin’. Buy a Liberty loan bond!” The very next day, the News ran an advertisement for Liberty Bonds, available for purchase from the Fletcher American National Bank, with Hubbard’s passionate call the day before. A year later, another mention of Liberty Bonds emerges in Hubbard’s column. “One o’ th’ best returns from a Liberty bond is an eased conscience,” declared the humorist through his down home alter-ego, Abe Martin.
Hubbard also criticized what he saw as empty forms of patriotism through his Abe Martin cartoons. “Patriotism,” wrote the cartoonist, “that don’t git below th’ neckband, don’t help much t’ win th’ war.” Patriotism in wartime, in Hubbard’s eyes, also manifested itself through sacrifice. “It begins t’ look like we’d all have t’ wait till [former Secretary of State William Jennings] Bryan is President before git our hair cut,” Hubbard penned. Bryan left his post at the State department in 1915 over objections with Wilson’s pro-British support in the Lusitania’s sinking. Conversely, Wilson’s response also led to growing antagonism toward Germany. Hubbard is implicitly saying that until a peace-candidate like Bryan won the presidency and the war came to a close, consumer luxuries like haircuts must be jettisoned. In another cartoon from May 2, 1917, Hubbard wrote that, “It begins t’ look like even th’ feller that kin whittle out a wooden chain will be made t’ feel th’ war.”
Hubbard’s cartoons received national recognition from former Indiana governor, vice president, and jokester in his own right, Thomas Marshall. The News reported on December 19, 1917 that Marshall wrote to Hubbard and noted his precarious position as Vice President:
Dear Kin Hubbard—Not the least among your many admirable qualities is your memory of the needs of a Vice president [sic] to be cheered upon his lonely way. He is supposed not to talk, but the right chuckle is guaranteed to him. As a chucker in the laughter rib you never miss.
I thank God for you and for your friendship.
Despite Marshall’s kind words, Hubbard nonetheless continued his appraisals of American involvement in the war with Abe Martin as his proxy. In an April 12 1918 cartoon, Hubbard wrote that “if the United States would jest wake up an’ take t’ th’ war like it t’ belted overcoats an’ high shoes we’d git on faster.” Another column from May 28, 1918 encouraged leaders to “wait till we win th’ war an’ we’ll all have a banquet.” That doesn’t mean he was unwilling to rhetorically rough up the enemy. A May 2, 1918 piece noted how “th’ only time th’ kaiser’s [sic] six sons ever git in th’ front line is when somebuddy comes along with a camera.”
In the fall of 1918, Hubbard’s Abe Martin Publishing Company released a compendium of Abe Martin cartoons and musings under the title, On the War and Other Musings. Multiple ads for the book ran in the News, particularly during the holiday season. “Hundreds of Abe Martin’s inimitable paragraph’s touching on everything under the sun from sassafras to world peace,” read an ad from December 2, 1918. It was also fairly easy to purchase to book. For the low price of $1.06 ($15.71 in today’s dollars), readers could have their copy shipped to them as long as they were within 200 miles of Indianapolis. It’d be “return to sender” if the postage was farther.
Kin Hubbard’s “Abe Martin” earned him the respect of his readers, political leaders, and the broader general public. His cartoons during World War I showed a commitment to his community, his country, and his craft. Hubbard, through Abe Martin, gave readers a Midwestern, “crackerbarrel” embodiment of the home front: rustic, altruistic, and patriotic. While certainly idealized, Hubbard’s art represented a commonplace, earnest notion of America during the war.
From James Whitcomb Riley to Kurt Vonnegut, Indiana is well-known for its literary heritage. This heritage developed, in-part, through personal appearances, where authors read from their works and shared new material with audiences. Of the lecturers, one of the most successful during the Gilded Age was Mark Twain. Born in Missouri as Samuel L. Clemens, Mark Twain became one of the late-19th century’s most popular and acclaimed authors. Alongside his successful career as a novelist and cultural critic, Twain crisscrossed the country, regaling packed theaters with stories, readings from new written material, and plain-old good jokes.
One of his first visits to Indiana as a lecturer was January 4, 1869, when he performed a reading of “The American Vandal Abroad.” As reported by the Indianapolis Daily Sentinel:
We caution our readers not to forget the treat prepared for them this evening by the Library Association. Mark Twain, one of the real humorists of the day, will deliver his lecture entitled “The American Vandal Abroad,” and his merits entitle him to a large audience. The lecture will be delivered at Metropolitan Hall, and reserved seats may be secured without extra charge at Bonham’s Music Store.
While the exact content of his performance from that night was not reported, he had repeatedly given the lecture through 1868-69, and a compiled version was published by literature scholar Paul Fatout, in his book, Mark Twain Speaking. In this lecture, Twain referred to the “American Vandal” as someone who “goes everywhere and is always at home everywhere . . . His is proud and looks proud. His countenance is beaming. He does not fail to let the public know that he is an American.” Twain’s lecture, like his broader work, represents an American voice that spoke to the Midwest, especially places like Indiana.
In 1872, Twain returned to Indiana and gave a lecture sharing snippets from his then-upcoming work, Roughing It. According to the Indianapolis News, Mark Twain gave his lecture at the Y.M.C.A. Association hall on January 1, 1872, at a cost of 50 cents at the door, 75 cents for reserved seats (what a bargain!). As the News reported:
Mark Twain, the noted humorist and author, lectures here to-night [sic] on “Passages from Roughing It.” Mr. Twain has a national reputation and should appear before a hall of people; besides the Y. M. C. A., under whose auspices he lectures, are in absolute want through lack of means. Let Association Hall be crowded to-night [sic].
This lecture was a marked departure from “Vandal,” both in style and in subject. Twain shared with audiences his experiences out west, from camping in the outskirts of Carson City, Nevada to riding colt horses and getting in duels.
Twain’s stories were printed in newspapers during his time in Indiana in 1872 as well. For example, the Terre Haute Evening Mail published an article entitled “Mark Twain on His Travels.” Among the witty stories than were shared by the Mail, this one is golden:
When we got to Rochester I called for a bowl of bean soup. I send you the receipt for making it: “Take a lot of water, wash it well, boil it until it is brown on both sides; then very carefully pour one bean into it and let it simmer. When the bean begins to get restless sweeten with salt, then put it in air-tight cans, hitch each can to a brick, and chuck them overboard, and the soup is done.”
The above receipt originated with a man in Iowa, who gets up suppers on odd occasions for Odd Fellows. He has a receipt for oyster soup of the same kind, only using twice as much water to the oyster and leaving out the salt.
However, not everyone was taken with Twain’s sardonic lectures. The Indianapolis People wrote that “It is the decided opinion of all we heard speak of Mark Twain’s lecture that it read better than it was spoken.”
When Twain returned to Indiana in 1885, he came with a traveling lecture partner. George W. Cable, novelist of the southern-creole experience and an influence on William Faulkner, shared selections from his novels while Twain shared early pages from Huckleberry Finn as well as stories like “The Golden Arm.” Twain and Cable couldn’t have been more different. Twain was described by the Indianapolis Sentinel as “awkward and lanky” whereas Cable was more reserved. As Fatout observed, Twain often bristled as Cable’s religiosity and rigorous commitment to formality while Cable scoffed at Twain’s unorthodox and scattered disposition. To get a sense of their differences, review this blurb from the Indianapolis News: “Mr. Cable eats chocolate ice cream at midnight, after his readings, and still lives. His yoke-fellow, Mark Twain, hurls his bootjack at St. John, and uncorks a bottle or so of pale ale.”
That evening, Twain shared with the audience his short story, “Dick Baker’s Cat,” a short tale about a special cat who had a propensity for mining. Here’s a short snippet from the story:
‘Gentlemen, I used to have a cat here, by the name of Tom Quartz, which you’d ‘a’ took an interest in, I reckon—, most anybody would. I had him here eight year—and he was the remarkablest cat I ever see. He was a large grey one of the Tom specie, an’ he had more hard, natchral sense than any man in this camp—’n’ a power of dignity—he wouldn’t let the Gov’ner of Californy be familiar with him. He never ketched a rat in his life—’peared to be above it. He never cared for nothing but mining. He knowed more about mining, that cat did, than any man I ever, ever see. You couldn’t tell him noth’n’ ’bout placer-diggin’s—’n’ as for pocketmining, why he was just born for it.’
The rest of story involves a hilarious scenario where the mining-savvy cat gets stuck in a quartz shaft, which explodes, and he flies out of there all covered in soot and his whiskers burned off. It was exactly the kind of zany, improbable yarn that Twain was so gifted at and the audience at Plymouth Church agreed.
Twain’s and Cable’s appearance would be the last time they would appear together in Indiana and Twain’s last lecture in the state. Over the next 20 years, Twain continued to travel the county and the world, going so far as India and New Zealand, to share his lectures and stories. His last known lecture, according to the Mark Twain Project, was a reading for Mary Allen Hulbert Peck on the Island of Bermuda on March 27, 1908. Mark Twain died on April 24, 1910 at the age of 74 from heart failure, at his home near Redding, Connecticut. An obituary in the Plymouth Tribunecomplimented Twain’s success as a novelist, humorist, and lecturer. It also cited the loss of much of his family, particularly his daughter, and friends as one of the main reasons for his passing.
Reflecting on what was referred to as the “American style” of humor, Mark Twain shared his thoughts to a reporter from the Detroit Post, later reprinted in the Terre Haute Express:
“Is the American taste for humor still growing, in your opinion?”
“Yes, I think so. Humor is always popular, and especially so with Americans. It is born in every American, and he can’t help liking it.”
“Is it true that the American style of humor is becoming very popular in England?”
“Yes, the liking of American humor over there has become immense. It wakens [sic] the people to new life, and is supplanting the dry wit which formerly passes for humor. American humor wins its own way, and does not need to be cultivated. The English come to like it naturally”
In his lectures in Indiana and elsewhere, Twain exhibited the type of natural humor “born in every American” that characterizes the American cultural identity.