Sunday, December 11, 2016

Ross Lockridge, Jr. (1914-1948)

Today, December 11, 2016, is the two-hundredth birthday of the State of Indiana. I had hoped to be within the bounds of my home state for the occasion. Instead I will observe it from a distance.

There was once a Golden Age of Literature in Indiana. The bulk of that age came closer to the beginning of the Hoosier State than to our own time. Its luminaries--Booth Tarkington, Maurice Thompson, George Barr McCutcheon, Edward Eggleston, Meredith Nicholson, James Whitcomb Riley, Gene Stratton Porter--are now largely forgotten to readers outside the state. Indiana's prominent writers since the Golden Age can hardly be called a group. Rather, they are scattershot and include men and women as disparate as Jessamyn West (1902-1984) and Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. (1922-2007) or Philip José Farmer (1918-2009) and James Alexander Thom (b. 1933).

No one can say what the Great Indiana Novel might be, if there has ever been one. One candidate--in fact, one candidate for the larger honorific of Great American Novel--is Raintree County by Ross Lockridge, Jr., published in 1948 by Houghton Mifflin. Born on April 25, 1914, in Bloomington, Indiana, Lockridge was prodigious in his powers as a student, scholar, and writer. Before Raintree County, he pounded out a 400-page poem called The Dream of the Flesh of Iron and a 2,000-page fragment of a novel with the working title American Lives, neither of which has since been published. In starting over with a new novel--what would become Raintree County--he simply turned over the pages of American Lives and began typing on the reverse side.

In the making for half a decade and originally extending to 600,000 words, Raintree County was generally well received in its time. The New York Times liked it. The New Yorker, on the other hand, did not. There is reason to believe that the unfavorable opinion of that magazine precipitated Lockridge's suicide on the same day that it appeared in his hometown Bloomington newspaper, on March 6, 1948. Lockridge's novel had been in print only two months when he asphyxiated himself with the exhaust from his car. He left behind a wife and four children, among other family members. He also left behind his lone novel, running, in the Book-of-the-Month Club edition shown here, to 1,066 pages. In that he joined Harper Lee and others whose fame rests almost entirely on one book.

Raintree County was adapted to the silver screen in 1957. Of the principal actors, which included Montgomery Clift, Elizabeth Taylor, Eva Marie Saint, Nigel Patrick, Lee Marvin, Rod Taylor, and Agnes Moorehead, only Russell Collins (1897-1965) hailed from Indiana. Despite being set in the Hoosier State, the movie was filmed in the South, in Kentucky, Tennessee, and Mississippi. Like many of the works of Mississippi's own William Faulkner, Raintree County is set in a fictional locale. Both Faulkner and Lockridge provided maps of their respective fictional counties in their respective novels. In his prodigious output, Lockridge bore some resemblance, too, to Thomas Wolfe, another Southern author. I might add that I have been to the homes of both Faulkner and Wolfe. (Both were closed for repairs or renovations when I was there.) As for Ross Lockridge, Jr., I can't say that I have been to his home. However, I very often drive through Straughn, situated on beautiful flat ground along U.S. Highway 40, the National Road, in Henry County, Indiana, and the basis for Lockridge's fictional town of Waycross. I can't say, either, that I have seen the mythical golden raintree supposed to have been planted near there by Johnny Appleseed, who has his own final connection to Indiana by having been buried in Fort Wayne. Lastly, I would like to mention Lockridge's cousin, the author Mary Jane Ward (1905-1981) of Fairmount, Indiana, who wrote The Snake Pit (1946) and other novels. That book, too, was adapted to film, in 1948, and it, too, featured a Hoosier, actress Beulah Bondi (1889-1981) of Valparaiso.

So, Happy Birthday, Indiana, the Land of Indians, the Hoosier State, my home state, and a place of which Hoosiers are and can be justly proud.

Original text copyright 2016 Terence E. Hanley

Sunday, July 3, 2016

E. Harper Johnson (1920s-2016)

I have written before about E. Harper Johnson, but at the time I knew only a little about him. The book-jacket biography above tells a little more than that, but more of what I know now comes from Mr. Johnson's granddaughter Kisha, who has generously provided more information on him in her comments on my original article.

H. Harper Johnson was born in Birmingham, Alabama, in the 1920s. He was a painter, muralist, cartoonist, and illustrator who lived and worked in New York, Africa, and I believe the Arabian Peninsula. His art training came at the American Academy, the National Academy, and the Art Institute of Chicago. Mr. Johnson's illustrations and cartoons appeared in newspapers, magazines, and more than 100 books. The illustrations and book-jacket biography above are from The Story of George Washington Carver by Arna Bontemps (New York: Grosset & Dunlap, 1954). Like the subject and the illustrator of his book, Arna Bontemps (1902-1973) was a black southerner and a man of great accomplishment.

Harper Johnson was married to Mildred Anita Johnson and to Salma Tahira Malik (1928-1979). He died on March 24, 2016. I hope to find more on E. Harper Johnson, his life, and his work. I invite and welcome comments and email messages.

Original text copyright 2016 Terence E. Hanley

Thursday, March 10, 2016

Morrie Turner (1923-2014)

Morris Nolton "Morrie" Turner was born on December 11, 1923, in Oakland, California. He served as a mechanic with the Tuskegee Airman during World War II and contributed to Stars and Stripes, the newspaper of the Armed Forces. In the 1960s, he traveled with other cartoonists to entertain the troops in Vietnam.

Turner began drawing cartoons and comic strips in the mid 1960s, mostly for the Chicago Defender, a black newspaper. Titles included Dinky Fellas (1964-1965), Press Gremlins (1964-1965), Reverend Smiley (1964-1965), Sepia Smiles (1964-1965), Dogbert (1965-1969), and Classified Chuckles (1966-1969). In 1965, Turner's syndicate rebranded Dinky Fellas as Wee Pals, the comic strip for which he will always be known. Wee Pals began on February 15, 1965, and is still running today, two years after the cartoonist's death.

Morrie Turner was a friend of Charles Schulz and Bil Keane, two other cartoonists of childhood. His Wee Pals is very much like Peanuts, with a large cast of kids who have their own distinct personalities, backgrounds, dress, and interests. It was and is a great strip. By the way, Nipper, the boy with the soul food stand on the cover of Doing Their Thing, wore a Confederate cap, though without the crossed swords. When asked why, he replies,"'Cause I'm non-violent!"

Morrie Turner died on January 25, 2014, in Sacramento, California.

Text copyright 2016 Terence E. Hanley