Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Interview with Nicholson Biographer

Ralph D. Gray is professor emeritus of history at Indiana University–Purdue University at Indianapolis and founding editor of the Journal of the Early Republic. He is the author of the new IHS Press biography Meredith Nicholson: A Writing Life. He recently answered a few questions about Nicholson.

What drew you to writing about Nicholson?
When I compiled a “reader” on Indiana history in 1979-80, I realized that only Meredith Nicholson, among Indiana’s Big Four writers, had no biography. So I looked into filling that gap. But when I started, I found another person, a Butler professor, also trying to fill the gap, but her work, eventually completed shortly before her death, has not been published. So Ray Boomhower gave me a second chance, more than 20 years later, to resume my Nicholson study and contribute to the Indiana Biography Series.

What’s the most interesting thing you learned during the writing of this book?
I suppose two things. First would be fascinating details about his personal life (both triumphs and tragedies--his father’s suicide, the loss of his first wife in 1931, after which no more novels were written, and much more) and the quality of his writings besides his novels--short stories, trenchant social and political commentary essays and good poetry.

What do you wish more people knew about Meredith Nicholson?
First of all, I’d like people to recognize Nicholson’s humor, sly and understated, but omnipresent. I also think his life story is fascinating, given his lack of formal education and a difficult home life, but he persevered and did outstanding work in at least four areas--as a newspaperman, a poet (an unlikely close friend, Riley, was his idol), a novelist and a diplomat. He was also a good businessman, but he disliked such work.

That flap copy for the book says “Nicholson stands as the most Hoosier of all Indiana writers, serving as an outspoken advocate for his state.” Give an example of what makes this true.
The totality of his writings--as I say somewhere, he never failed to boost all things Hoosier, and he repeatedly sprang to his state’s, and to his adopted city’s, defense if he detected a slight by someone.

What can we learn from Nicholson?
As he himself said in an autobiographical essay, “Without Benefit of College” (which could have been titled “Without Benefit of High School”), he was not bragging but wanted to assure parents concerned about their children’s lack of success in school, that there were other ways a person, if properly self-motivated and diligent, could make their way in society. Obviously, too, I hope people will think of Nicholson as a true, worthy member of the Big Four, not the one often forgotten in listing them all.

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