Sharing the stories of Hoosier authors

Photo by Ted Yoakum La Porte County Historical Society President Bruce Johnson reads James Whitcomb Riley's famed poem, "The Raggedy Man," to a group of visitors to the museum Saturday. Johnson shared the story of Riley and a number of other noted Hoosier authors during his presentation that afternoon.

La PORTE — When it comes to theme and tone, the classic American epic "Ben-Hur" and the beloved fixture of the Sunday funny pages, "Garfield," don't have a lot in common.

One element they do share, however, is that both sprang from the minds of creative geniuses hailing from the great state of Indiana.

On Saturday, La Porte County Historical Society President Bruce Johnson shared the stories of several of Indiana's literary giants with visitors to the historical society museum in La Porte. Johnson talked about the authors' lives, their works and their impact on the state, country and world at large during his presentation.

The historical society president started with one of the first Hoosiers to earn world renown for his writing — Lewis "Lew" Wallace, the author of "Ben-Hur," the best-selling novel of the 19th century.

Wallace was born in Brookville, Indiana, in 1827, the son of future Indiana governor David Wallace. Like his father, the man entered the political realm, serving as an Indiana state senator before serving as a commander in the Union army during the Civil War.

Wallace would continue to pursue politics after the war, serving as territorial governor in New Mexico and later as the U.S. diplomat to the Ottoman Empire.

It was through writing, though, that the Indiana-native would find worldwide acclaim. Seven years after the publication of Wallace's first book, "The Fair God," Harper and Brothers released his magnum opus, "Ben-Hur," in 1880, which caught fire with readers across the earth.

"Except for the Bible, it remained the best-selling book in the United States until Margaret Mitchell's 'Gone with the Wind' in 1936," Johnson said. "It has never been out of print."

Wallace returned to his home state after retiring from politics, though he continued to write up until his death in 1905. The writing studio he built next to his home in Crawfordsville, Indiana, remains open to the public as a National Historic Landmark.

One of Wallace's 19th-century contemporaries, fellow Hoosier James Whitcomb Riley, also found fame and fortune through the pen.

Born in Greenfield, Indiana, in 1849, Riley discovered a love for poetry and literature — the works of Charles Dickens, in particular — at an early age. His passion for reading did not translate into success in other fields of learning, however — he was a terrible student in school.

"He did not graduate from the eighth grade until he was 20 years old," Johnson said. "He stuck to it, though. You have to give him credit for that."

As an adult, Riley spent two years working as a sign painter before becoming a performer with a traveling medicine show, where he began writing and reading poems to crowds. He later began to publish his works in several Indiana newspapers, as well as did live readings to audiences across the state.

His humorous and sentimental works captured the hearts of readers across the country, with compilations of his poems selling in the millions. His performances would sell out venues across the country, making him one of the wealthiest writers of his era.

His death in 1916 made headlines across the nation, Johnson said. His body laid in state inside the Indiana Statehouse for 10 hours, drawing 35,000 visitors to the viewing.

The poet's works would go on to influence another famous Indiana writer, Johnny Gruelle, creator of the beloved Raggedy Ann and Raggedy Andy dolls.

Though he was born in Arcola, Illinois, in 1880, Gruelle and his family moved to Indianapolis when he was 2 years old. 

Gruelle pursued his passion for illustration as an adult, creating political cartoons and single-frame sports comics for several Indianapolis newspapers. 

One day, his daughter, Marcella, brought him a faceless rag doll she found in her grandmothers' attic. Gruelle decorated the toy and named it "Raggedy Ann," in honor of his two favorite James Whitcomb Riley poems — "The Raggedy Man" and "Little Orphant Annie." 

After Marcella fell ill due to an infected vaccine, Gruelle comforted his bedridden daughter with stories of Raggedy Ann's various adventures.

Unfortunately, the 13-year-old died from her illness, which devastated her father.

"After this tragedy, it is said the only thing he could bear to have near him to remind him of his daughter was the rag doll," Johnson said.

After patenting the design of the doll in 1913, Gruelle began to write and illustrate stories focused on his creation, publishing his first book, "Raggedy Ann Stories," in 1918. In addition to the titular character, one of the story's chief protagonists was a young girl named Marcella.

Gruelle would later introduce Raggedy Ann's boy counterpart, Raggedy Andy, in 1920. Both toys became international sensations, becoming inductees in the National Toy Hall of Fame in 2002 and 2007, respectively.

Their creator died unexpectedly of heart failure in 1938, a few weeks after his 57th birthday.

A pair of other Hoosiers, Norman Bridwell and Zerna Sharp, followed in Gruelle's footsteps, creating characters and stories that generations of children have embraced. 

Sharp — a native of Hillisburg, a small unincorporated community in Clinton County, Indiana — created Dick, Jane and Sally, the main characters in a series of readers used in classrooms throughout the country for nearly four decades. 

The educator was inspired to create the characters following her years teaching first-grade at several communities across the state, including a 10-year tenure at La Porte's Maple Elementary School. 

In 1927, she brought her idea of a more illustrative reading instruction textbook to fellow educator William S. Gray. The two worked together to create a reader based on the sketches and concepts of her series of characters.

"Although Ms. Sharp never married, she always said that Dick, Jane and Sally were her children," Johnson said. "She was very proud of her family."

Bridwell, a native of Kokomo, is the man behind Clifford the Big Red Dog, the famed mascot of the Scholastic publishing company. 

At the behest of his editor, Bridwell created a story out of his sketches, choosing one of a horse-sized canine and its owner, Emily Elizabeth, named after the illustrator's daughter. The book, released in 1963, became a bestseller, spawning more than 80 sequels and even an animated show on the Public Broadcasting Service.

Indiana is also responsible for producing the creator of the world's most-recognized comic strip, "Garfield." Jim Davis, a native of Marion, Indiana, created the orange tabby cat after assisting with Tom Ryan's "Tumbleweeds." 

"Garfield" was Davis' second comic with an anthropomorphic animal as the lead character. His first, focused on an insect named Gnorm Gnat, ran for three years in a Pendleton, Indiana newspaper — when he tried to sell it to a national syndicate, though, an editor told him "that people would not relate to a bug."

"Garfield," on the other hand, quickly caught fire with readers. By 1978, the strip was in syndication with 41 newspapers.

"When the Chicago Sun-Times decided to drop it, the public went into an outrage," Johnson said. "As a result, it was reinstated, and 'Garfield' went on to become the fastest-selling comic strip in the world."

Today, the feline and his companions appear in more than 2,500 newspapers. The character also starred in the "Garfield & Friends" Saturday morning cartoon, which ran from 1988 to 1995 on CBS.

Indiana was also home to several other prolific authors, including two-time Pulitzer Prize winner Booth Tarkington; "Slaughterhouse-Five" writer Kurt Vonnegut; and World War II journalist Ernie Pyle, who got his start writing for the La Porte Herald before moving to Washington, D.C.

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