- Historic Sites
December 1966 | Volume 18, Issue 1
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.”