This month, we continue the celebration of our state's literary heritage with a new post by James H. Madison in our Indiana Bicentennial Bookshelf blog
series. This series is written by Hoosier authors about their favorite Indiana books and writers.
So many books, such fond memories. The favorites in my study are underlined and have notes scribbled in the margins. Some I’ve pulled off the shelf dozens of times, returning to old friends.
How can any reader select a favorite? Much depends on my mood and the particular subject on my radar. I read lots of contemporary fiction, including mysteries, but most of my favorite books have some connection to the past.
My list begins with Ernie Pyle. Before my sixteenth birthday I’d read the collections of his World War II columns, part of my effort to understand a father who served in combat in Europe in 1944. Pyle made it impossible to forget that war and eventually spurred me to teach the subject regularly as part of my day job. World War II is also part of the reason Kurt Vonnegut became so important to me. I heard him speak twice, both talks among the most memorable of my life.
When it comes to Indiana fiction I just love Edward Eggleston’s Hoosier School-master. Published in 1871, the book is so old-fashioned and yet so modern in getting the reader inside the one-room schools and the culture of early Indiana pioneers. And then there is Booth Tarkington, especially the Magnificent Ambersons. I learned a lot thinking about the arrogant George Amberson Minafer asserting that “automobiles are a useless nuisance...They had no business to be invented.” Tarkington reminds us that the world is always changing. This simple truth informs my understanding of the struggles Hoosiers have had through two centuries of change and tradition.
Among my non-fiction favorites are the two Middletown books. Two social scientists with humanities tendencies, Robert and Helen Merrell Lynd, came to Muncie in the 1920s to find a typical American town. The Middletown volumes are full of juicy details about marriage and child rearing, religion, work, social class, and so much more. And, like Tarkington, the Lynds open up the on-going challenge of living in changing times.
I’ve never gotten over reading the journalist John Bartlow Martin. His book Indiana: An Interpretation, published in 1947, displays some affection for Indiana, particularly ordinary Hoosiers. But unlike most Hoosiers of his day, Martin wrote with hard edges. He didn’t duck the state’s tendencies toward ignorance and denial that times were changing. He criticized Hoosiers for hiding behind a screen of rustic contentment in order to ignore pressing social and economic challenges. Ray Boomhower’s recent biography of Martin brings home his skills of connecting past and present.
Pushed to select a favorite Indiana book it has to be Emma Lou Thornbrough’s The Negro in Indiana Before 1900. Thornbrough’s meticulous account of nineteenth-century African-American life starts with a foundation of deep and thoughtful research in primary sources and adds careful, understated, but powerful writing. Only a few specialists noticed the book when it appeared in 1957. The civil rights movement was just becoming visible. But as Indiana and America changed the implications of Thornbrough’s scholarship became apparent. For young historians like me, eager to find a past that was connected to our present, this book with the dull, old-fashioned title gave us the foundation to tell the stories of African American Hoosiers. Not only my own book, A Lynching in the Heartland, but almost everything I’ve written in the last four decades has caused me to pull this little volume off the self and read it again. It’s simply the most important Indiana history book published in the twentieth century.
I’m influenced too by knowing Professor Thornbrough and her life beyond scholarship. Born in Indianapolis, she was by the time I knew her a distinguished historian at Butler University. Always carefully dressed and exceedingly gracious and modest, she eventually displayed some of the fire within. When I was preparing to do research in the NAACP Papers at the Library of Congress, she gave me the research notes she had gathered from that magnificent collection. And she quietly mentioned that she was a member of the Indianapolis branch of the NAACP in the 1950s, a time when the city was deeply segregated. At some NCAAP meetings she the only white woman in the room.
So many books. So many great books, so many that prove Milton’s seventeenth-century assertion that "A good book is the precious lifeblood of the master spirit."
James H. Madison is the Thomas and Kathryn Miller Professor Emeritus of History, Indiana University Bloomington. His most recent book is Hoosiers: A New History of Indiana (2014). That book served as the inspiration for a four-part documentary, Hoosiers: The Story of Indiana, produced by WFYI and showing on Indiana PBS stations.