From the times when Native Americans lived in the land that became Iowa to the days of Iowa's Civil War soldier/poet to the creation of a creative writers' program at the University of Iowan appreciation of literature has been a part of life for Iowans.
The Native Americans produced stories through their folklore and oral legends. They passed the stories down through the generations. Some of those stories have survived in the 21st century. Native American literature was produced in the form of an autobiography by the Sac leader, Black Hawk. Black Hawk told his story to Antoine Le Claire who translated it to English in 1833.
And as the Europeans moved into the area in larger numbers, the written word was valued by more and more Iowa settlers. Short story and novel writers lived in Iowa and wrote about the people and events related to the state. And Iowa has produced poets who have called the state home.
During the mid-19th century the work of some Iowa poets received some notice. Samuel H. M. Byers of Oskaloosa was a soldier in the Civil War and wrote a poem which was set to music and sung by troops as they marched. It was called "Sherman’s March to the Sea." Byers later wrote "The Song of Iowa," the official state anthem. At about the same time, John Luckey McCreery of Delaware County wrote a poem called "There Is No Death," which became wildly popular in 1863.
Later in the 19th century Oll Coomes of Cass County became well known as an author. It would be difficult to find anyone who remembers his books today, and most of them would not be available on library shelves. Coomes wrote adventure stories and sold thousands of copies. His characters were "Hawkeye Harry" and "Old Optic," and their escapades kept readers on edge as the men escaped from certain death by hanging from the rim of gorges, clinging to the planks of wet bridges and escaping from charging bears. Coomes' most famous book was Omaha, Prince of the Prairie, for which he was paid $1,000—an exorbitant fee for the time.
During the end of the 19th century Iowa produced authors that became nationally known. The first was Hamlin Garland, whose stories of pioneer life in Mitchell County were best-sellers. By the second decade of the 20th century most people who read novels were familiar with A Son of the Middle Border, A Daughter of the Middle Border, Boy Life on the Prairie and other stories. Another novelist, Herbert Quick, wrote about pioneer life in Grundy County. He wrote Vandemark's Folly and The Hawkeye. Ruth Suckow wrote short stories and novels set in northeastern Iowa, including Country People and The Folks.
Bess Streeter Aldrich wrote three famous novels with Iowa settings. A Lantern in Her Hand, Miss Bishop, and Song of Years all were set near Cedar Falls. Another woman who wrote best-selling novels in the early 20th century was Alice French, who wrote under the pen name "Octave Thanet." She was from a wealthy Davenport family and considered an oddity at the time. Davenport produced many other writers during the early 20th century, including Susan Glaspell, George Cram Cook, Floyd Dell and Arthur Davison Ficke. At about the same time Margaret Wilson wrote The Able McLaughlins, about the Scottish colony in northern Tama County.
More Recent Writers
During the middle decades of the 20th century, one of the most creative Iowa authors was Phil Stong of Van Buren County. Stong wrote many books, such as The Blizzard and Captain Kidd's Co. His most famous work was State Fair later made into three movie versions and a musical play. MacKinlay Kantor from Webster City also wrote many books, but only a few of them are set in Iowa. Among the few are For God and Country and Spirit Lake. Kantor is one of the few Pulitzer Prize winning author's from Iowa.
Later in the 20th century Curtis Harnack, from Remsen, wrote two books, We Have All Gone Away and Gentlemen on the Prairie. The first is a reminiscence of growing up in Plymouth County, and the other portrays the short-lived English colony at LeMars. Thomas Heggen from Fort Dodge wrote Mister Roberts, later made into a famous Broadway play.
Among well-known poets of the 20th century, the names of James Hearst and Paul Engle are probably the best known. Hearst wrote and taught at Iowa State Teachers College in Cedar Falls, while Engle headed the famous Iowa Writers' Workshop at the University of Iowa.
By the end of the 20th century Iowa authors became quite numerous. Jane Smiley, who wrote A Thousand Acres, won the Pulitzer Prize. Nancy Price wrote Sleeping with the Enemy, which later was made into a film starring Julia Roberts. Robert Waller’s novelette, The Bridges of Madison County, remained on the New York Times Bestseller List for more then 50 weeks. Waller’s book was also made into a successful movie.
In 2006, Iowa added a second official state song. This song, called "I’ll Make Me a World in Iowa," is a companion to the original state song, "The Song of Iowa." Effie Burt, from Waterloo, wrote this song in 2000 for the annual African-American cultural event in Des Moines and to inspire younger citizens to stay and make their homes in Iowa.
Other Literary Accomplishments
In 1915 Clark F. Ansley began publication of The Midland, a well-known literary magazine. Later, the North American Review, a literary journal devoted to prose and poetry, was edited at Cornell College in Mount Vernon. It currently is edited at the University of Northern Iowa in Cedar Falls.
During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Chautauqua programs provided cultural benefits for rural areas and small towns. The Chautauqua programs traveled around the state offering all sorts of literary entertainment, including dramatic readings and productions. In the mid-20th century two sisters, Esther Pauline and Pauline Esther Friedman from Sioux City, wrote advice columns that appeared in newspapers throughout the U.S. They were known as "Dear Abby" and "Ann Landers."
The Subject of Iowa
Iowa authors have not always written about Iowa subjects. When they did set their stories in Iowa, they tended to portray rural and small town life or ethnic customs. But not all Iowa writers wrote about rural life. Carl Van Vechten wrote The Tattoed Countess, a negative portrayal of life in the author's hometown of Cedar Rapids. Hamlin Garland made pioneer life seem bleak and harsh, but this was balanced by the more comfortable portrayals of Herbert Quick and Ruth Suckow.
A Famous Writers' Project
Iowa is well known for its contribution to the arts in the form of the University of Iowa's Writers' Workshop. The Workshop was founded in 1936 and was the first creative writing degree program in the United States. Over the years the program has drawn well-known writers as teachers and students to Iowa. Poets and writers of fiction who want to develop their crafts attend the two-year program that results in a masters of fine arts degree. Several graduates of the Writers' Workshop have gone on to win one of the most prestigious awards given a writer—a Pulitzer Prize. Other graduates have been awarded the distinguished title of U.S. Poet Laureates. (Poet Laureates are appointed by the Library of Congess to serve one-year terms and to "raise the nation's appreciation of poetry.")
Iowans can claim a long tradition as lovers of literature. Not only do Iowans appreciate literature, they also produce great works. But Iowans are not alone in recognizing the state's status as a home for great literature and superb writers. Many Iowans have received national and international awards for their works of literature. Hundreds of writers compete for coveted positions in a world-famous writers' program that resides in Iowa. In a state that is well known for producing hogs and corn, it's sometimes necessary to remind people that the state also produces great works of literature!
- Writers' Workshop, The University of Iowa. https://writersworkshop.uiowa.edu/