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Hush-a-bye, Indiana

July 2024
7min read

During my undergraduate years at Harvard College, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts was preparing for an official celebration of the three-hundredth anniversary of the royal charter that created the Massachusetts Bay Colony. One of my favorite professors in those days was Charles Townsend Copeland, known affectionately among his students as “Copey;” a man to whom legends clung like steel filings on a magnet; and one of my favorites among those legends—whether true or apocryphal I cannot say—was the story of Copey and the Massachusetts Tercentenary Committee for Monuments and Memorials. When asked by the committee to suggest appropriate sites for historical markers, Copey, so the story ran, proposed a tablet in the heart of Cambridge Common bearing an inscription that read: On this spot on April 1, 1630, Prudence Goodchild was raped by a friendly Indian .

Most of us laughed at Copey’s little joke for the wrong reasons. The predicament of a Puritan maiden encountering an oversodable redskin within our academic purlieus was too beguiling an image for us to realize that Copey had something else in mind, to recognize that he was holding up to sly ridicule the rape of history itself by local pride and press agentry. Now, many years later, confronted as I am at this writing by a sesquicentennial celebration in my native state of Indiana, I find my old professor’s April-Fool’sDay joke often coming to mind. Once more Prudence Goodchild is in for a fate worse than death, for Hoosiers are not only a pridelul breed; they are also, like Prudence’s Indian, famous for their sociability.

It does not require an official celebration to bring out these characteristics and to give local mythmakers self-justification for the ravishing of truth. I grew up in southern Indiana, where my father used to say the fence rails he had seen in his lifetime that were attributed to Abe Lincoln’s axe and maul were enough to make all creation bull-sale and hog-tight. At the same lime, he contended—and rightly, too, as I later discovered in research and conversations in that region while writing a book about Lincoln—if every ancestor so claimed had indeed been Abe’s “constant companion” in his youth, Abe would have been at all times so crowded by a press of cronies in his Spencer County days that he would never have had room to swing an axe. Apparently the first principle of excessive enthusiasm for a region’s past is to assert significant relationships with history—whether they exist or not.

Another principle on which such pride operates at the risk of Prudence’s chastity is the recognition of only those facts that will be popularly and comfortably received in one’s neighborhood, cherishing and perpetuating ignorance of anything that might be unpopular and uncomfortable. This grim determination on lhe part of local historians was demonstrated to me often while I was writing a Rivers of America volume about the Wabash country, and most notably perhaps in relation to my pursuit of information about Theodore Dreiser, Indiana’s extra-territorially most renowned and intramurally least admired of literary figures.

In the 1880’s, ten-year-old Theodore Dreiser and his mother were brought to Evansville, Indiana, and established in a brick cottage on East Franklin Slreei by Theodore’s older brother, Paul, who had changed his name to Dresser and who himself lived at that lime with a mistress, Sallie Walker, alias Annie Brace, madam of the most sumptuous house of prostitution on the city’s waterfront. When I visited the Franklin Street cottage in 1939, there was a large sign on the front lawn that read: Home of Paul Dresser, Composer of “On the Banks of the Wabash.” I could not restrain myself from telling the woman who showed me through the cottage that Paul Dresser had not lived in it but his more famous brother, Theodore Dreiser, had. “Who,” she asked me, suspiciously, “is Theodore Dreiser?” Obviously she did not know; but even after I told her, she preferred the myth about the sentimental songwriter to the truth about the naturalistic novelist, for the sign remained as it was for several years thereafter. (Today that sign is gone, but now there is a sign over the door of the cottage, and it reads, The Dresser . As for the fancy house on the waterfront, it continued to flourish until a lew years ago, but to my knowledge it never bore a marker of any kind to advertise the apartment that was once shared by the beloved Hoosier vaudeville singer and the madam of the place.)

At the end of a chapter on Indiana authors in The Wabash , I gave Theodore Dreiser credit for writing the words of the famous nostalgic song composed by his brother, basing my statement on a passage from Dreiser’s own portrait of Dresser, “My Brother Paul,” in the volume entitled Twelve Men . In that essay Dreiser said, “I took a piece of paper and after meditating a while scribbled in the most tentative manner imaginable the first verse and chorus of that song almost as it was published.”

This revelation inspired a rain of letters and telegrams from irate Hoosiers as soon as the book was published. “If Dreiser wrote the verses of that song,” one lndianian protested, “Hoosiers will have to learn their history all over again and Terre Haute will have to rename its bridge.” The Indianapolis Star ran an editorial denouncing me for my calumny and referring to me toploftily as “a downstate schoolmaster,” although at that time I dwelt in Rhode Island, had not lived in Indiana for twelve years, and had never presided over a Hoosier schoolroom. The Chicago Tribune published a story about the controversy, pointing out that even in Illinois people knew that Dreiser did not write “On the Banks of the Wabash.” And annually thereafter, for more than a decade, I received indignant letters from a local historian of Terre Haute who always concluded, “Yours maybe.”

I half-expected the protests I received from residents of Indiana, but I did not expect the response that came from Theodore Dreiser himself. Dreiser wrote to Lewis Gannett, who published the letter in his column in the New York Herald Tribune :

“It troubles me no little that William E. Wilson should have credited me with the authorship of ‘On the Banks of the Wabash.’ If I had written ‘My Brother Paul’ after I achieved an international literary reputation I certainly would never have as much as mentioned the fact that I had contributed one word—for, knowing the weight of influence that goes with a wide reputation as I came to know it later, I would then have understood how a part of the public, at least, might have swung to the belief that I had written it of course. There was no lie told, but had I realized for an instant that with some my statement might have taken a little of the glitter from my brother I certainly wotdd not have written what I did.”

Years later, I learned from W. A. Swanberg’s biography of Dreiser that the Hoosier novelist composed this equivocal message while he was in California “trying to sell to the films the story based on Paul’s career, called My Gal Sal , making use of ‘On the Banks of the Wabash’ and others of his songs.”

Another product of local pride is the deliberate changing of history to suit the historian’s convenience, especially if such changes make history more dramatic. No less a man than Theodore Roosevelt fell into this habit from time to time: witness his imaginative account of George Rogers Clark’s capture of Kaskaskia in The Winning, of the West . Roosevelt, I suspect, was the model for a Hoosier Herodotus of the 1920’s and iggo’s who, posing as a professor at Indiana University, which he never was, used to conduct “historical” tours of the state (for a financial consideration) and describe the dramas of the past in the neighborhoods where they occurred. This man was a master at wrong emphasis, legerdemain with facts, conscienceless sceneshifting, and spellbinding oratory. In New Harmony, scene of the Utopian experiments of German Harmonites and of Robert Owen’s advocates of the New Moral World, the story is still told of one occasion when the tour conductor stood at the New Harmony ferry landing and described the arrival of the Owenites’ Boatload of Knowledge. (Actually the boatload of philosophers and scientists was unloaded in 1826 several miles upstream from the ferry landing of a century later, but that point had become inaccessible in modern times and, anyhow, at the ferry landing there was a little park suitable for a gathering of tourists.) After the speaker finished his dramatic story, a native of the region who happened to be nearby stood up and said, “Mister, that’s a goddam lie. In them days the Wabash didn’t flow within three miles of here.”

Most exasperating, if perhaps the least harmful, of all the wiles of Prudence Goodchild’s Indian in any locality are the boosterism, sanctimony, and hokum that emphasize the inconsequential and trumpet the improbable. In the twelve-month which began in Indiana on April 19, the date when President Madison in 1816 signed the Enabling Act that admitted our state to the Union, the Hoosier version of Uncle Sam is being resurrected, as is “the Betsy Ross of the Northwest,” one Madame Godare of Vincennes, and we are being told again—and often (whether true or not, who cares?)—that the first night baseball game was played in Fort Wayne in 1883, that Anne Baxter, actress, Red Skelton, comedian, Norman Norell, fashion designer, and Dan Patch, racehorse, were born in Indiana.

Throughout this sesquicentennial year, many Hoosiers will continue to believe that the Old Oaken Bucket, for whose possession the football teams of Indiana and Puidue universities battle annually, is the “subject of the famous James Whitcomb Riley poem,” to quote a Hoosier public-relations firm, although Samuel Woodworth of the New York Mirror wrote those verses thirty years before Riley was born. Memorial beards will continue to grow in profusion, although beards were not in fashion in 1816; attics will be rifled for anachronistic costumes to be worn in inaccurate local pageants; and the governor will dub a whole tribe of “Sagamores of the Wabasli,” honoring prominent residents of a state which, although named for Indians, was never thickly populated by them.

Indiana is not, of course, an isolated phenomenon in this respect. Such hubris as Copey held up to ridicule with his story of Prudence Goodchild is manifest everywhere. I have lived in seven states of the Union and have endured a heptad—if I may extend the official idiom for such celebrations—of tercentenaries, bicentennials, centennials, and semicentennials, and a quindecad of lesser decennials and quinquennials, and I have witnessed the same rapacious prevarication and exaggeration in each of them. Everyone knows that if all the New Englanders who claim ancestors on the Mayflower were telling the truth, that tiny ship would have sunk at its moorings from overloading before it left Plymouth Harbor; that George Washington did not live enough nights to sleep in all those cherished beds up and down the Atlantic Coast; that Daniel Boone must have been permanently and ubiquitously “bewildered,” it not indeed “lost,” if he wandered over all the western territory claimed as his stamping ground; that Fort Knox itself could not contain the gold nuggets reputed to have come from Sutter’s Mill; and that the Confederate colonels who populated the South for almost a century after the Irrepressible Conflict could have slaffed the combined armies of the First and Second World Wars. Human nature being what it is, Prudence Goodchild’s friendly Indian will probably never become a Vanishing American.

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