- Historic Sites
December 1966 | Volume 18, Issue 1
This revelation inspired a rain of letters and telegrams from irate Hoosiers as soon as the book was published. “If Dreiser wrote the verses of that song,” one lndianian protested, “Hoosiers will have to learn their history all over again and Terre Haute will have to rename its bridge.” The Indianapolis Star ran an editorial denouncing me for my calumny and referring to me toploftily as “a downstate schoolmaster,” although at that time I dwelt in Rhode Island, had not lived in Indiana for twelve years, and had never presided over a Hoosier schoolroom. The Chicago Tribune published a story about the controversy, pointing out that even in Illinois people knew that Dreiser did not write “On the Banks of the Wabash.” And annually thereafter, for more than a decade, I received indignant letters from a local historian of Terre Haute who always concluded, “Yours maybe.”
I half-expected the protests I received from residents of Indiana, but I did not expect the response that came from Theodore Dreiser himself. Dreiser wrote to Lewis Gannett, who published the letter in his column in the New York Herald Tribune :
“It troubles me no little that William E. Wilson should have credited me with the authorship of ‘On the Banks of the Wabash.’ If I had written ‘My Brother Paul’ after I achieved an international literary reputation I certainly would never have as much as mentioned the fact that I had contributed one word—for, knowing the weight of influence that goes with a wide reputation as I came to know it later, I would then have understood how a part of the public, at least, might have swung to the belief that I had written it of course. There was no lie told, but had I realized for an instant that with some my statement might have taken a little of the glitter from my brother I certainly wotdd not have written what I did.”
Years later, I learned from W. A. Swanberg’s biography of Dreiser that the Hoosier novelist composed this equivocal message while he was in California “trying to sell to the films the story based on Paul’s career, called My Gal Sal , making use of ‘On the Banks of the Wabash’ and others of his songs.”
Another product of local pride is the deliberate changing of history to suit the historian’s convenience, especially if such changes make history more dramatic. No less a man than Theodore Roosevelt fell into this habit from time to time: witness his imaginative account of George Rogers Clark’s capture of Kaskaskia in The Winning, of the West . Roosevelt, I suspect, was the model for a Hoosier Herodotus of the 1920’s and iggo’s who, posing as a professor at Indiana University, which he never was, used to conduct “historical” tours of the state (for a financial consideration) and describe the dramas of the past in the neighborhoods where they occurred. This man was a master at wrong emphasis, legerdemain with facts, conscienceless sceneshifting, and spellbinding oratory. In New Harmony, scene of the Utopian experiments of German Harmonites and of Robert Owen’s advocates of the New Moral World, the story is still told of one occasion when the tour conductor stood at the New Harmony ferry landing and described the arrival of the Owenites’ Boatload of Knowledge. (Actually the boatload of philosophers and scientists was unloaded in 1826 several miles upstream from the ferry landing of a century later, but that point had become inaccessible in modern times and, anyhow, at the ferry landing there was a little park suitable for a gathering of tourists.) After the speaker finished his dramatic story, a native of the region who happened to be nearby stood up and said, “Mister, that’s a goddam lie. In them days the Wabash didn’t flow within three miles of here.”
Most exasperating, if perhaps the least harmful, of all the wiles of Prudence Goodchild’s Indian in any locality are the boosterism, sanctimony, and hokum that emphasize the inconsequential and trumpet the improbable. In the twelve-month which began in Indiana on April 19, the date when President Madison in 1816 signed the Enabling Act that admitted our state to the Union, the Hoosier version of Uncle Sam is being resurrected, as is “the Betsy Ross of the Northwest,” one Madame Godare of Vincennes, and we are being told again—and often (whether true or not, who cares?)—that the first night baseball game was played in Fort Wayne in 1883, that Anne Baxter, actress, Red Skelton, comedian, Norman Norell, fashion designer, and Dan Patch, racehorse, were born in Indiana.
Throughout this sesquicentennial year, many Hoosiers will continue to believe that the Old Oaken Bucket, for whose possession the football teams of Indiana and Puidue universities battle annually, is the “subject of the famous James Whitcomb Riley poem,” to quote a Hoosier public-relations firm, although Samuel Woodworth of the New York Mirror wrote those verses thirty years before Riley was born. Memorial beards will continue to grow in profusion, although beards were not in fashion in 1816; attics will be rifled for anachronistic costumes to be worn in inaccurate local pageants; and the governor will dub a whole tribe of “Sagamores of the Wabasli,” honoring prominent residents of a state which, although named for Indians, was never thickly populated by them.