"The Best Book On Indiana": On John Bartlow Martin's "Indiana: An Interpretation"

"The Best Book On Indiana": On John Bartlow Martin's "Indiana: An Interpretation"

John Bartlow Martin | Indiana: An Interpretation | Knopf | 1947 | 336 Pages | Bi-Centennial edition published by Indiana University Press | July 7, 2016


For millions of veterans following the end of World War II, their return home resembled what they had gone through upon their induction into military service—long waits in interminable lines. On Friday, February 16, 1946, after filling out the necessary paperwork at an army separation center located on the outskirts of Rockford, Illinois, John Bartlow Martin achieved what he had been seeking for many months—a discharge from the U.S. Army and regaining his civilian status. He took a train to Chicago and by 8:00 p.m. was back home in Winnetka with his wife, Fran, and daughter, Cindy. Upon walking through the front door, Martin hugged his wife, turned to hug his daughter, and then the three of them embraced one another.

Trying to readjust to peacetime, Martin, who before the war had started to carve out a solid freelance writing career for national magazines, set out to finish what had been interrupted by his stateside wartime service—a book about Indiana for Alfred A. Knopf Sr.’s publishing house, which in 1944 had released Martin’s regional history Call It North Country: The Story of Upper Michigan. In March 1946 Martin wrote to Knopf reminding him that two years ago the New York publisher had approved an outline of the Indiana book. Since Martin had been home, he told Knopf, Life magazine, impressed by his work for Harper’s, had asked Martin to travel the Midwest for an article on the region’s postwar mood. He spent six weeks traveling between Columbus, Ohio, and Smith Center, Kansas, and between Louisville, Kentucky, and Bismark, North Dakota, collecting hundreds of pages of notes on such issues as race relations in Louisville and Indianapolis; farmers’ cooperatives in Minnesota; life on an assembly line in Kansas City; the conversion from tank manufacturing to building automobiles for the civilian market in Michigan; and labor strife in Ohio and Indiana. A Muncie bank president had confided to Martin that people in his community were confused and worried about the possibility of future economic turmoil, with many saying, “I’ll be darned if I know where we’re going.” They longed for reassurance in a troubled world.

Martin told Knopf he believed there could be a “good book” based on his research—“a profile view of the Midwest today,” which he described as a cross between Julian Street’s “Abroad at Home” magazine serial done in the 1910s and John Dos Passos’s 1944 book State of the Nation. Knopf responded by thanking Martin for the notes he provided but said he and his editors believed it was best that he first do the book he had previously discussed about Indiana. “We think this would be much better for you and for us,” Knopf wrote, “and that a book on a single state would have a better sale. There is a widespread feeling that books dealing with a whole section of the country taken at a given point in time never go over very well.”

Most writers who examine a region of the country do so customarily with the idea that the region under study encapsulates all others—an idea Martin had considered as “nonsense” when he started his project on the Hoosier State. Still, he could see America was, in fact, a “larger Indiana,” and if he could discover what had gone wrong with the state, “we might well know what has gone wrong—and right—with the nation. Indiana is a good place to look for clues, the Hoosier wind carries many a straw.”

Researching his book Martin, who grew up in Indianapolis and lived in Indiana from 1919 to 1938, interviewed newspapermen, labor organizers, businessmen, workingmen, policemen, politicians, local historians, realtors, taxicab drivers, veterans, farmers, hotel doormen, waitresses, editors, and publishers. Institutions he consulted included the Indiana Farm Bureau, Indiana Historical Bureau, Indiana Chamber of Commerce, Indiana Society of Chicago, Purdue University, and the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. In gathering information, he discovered that his Indiana book would be quite different from the one he had written about Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. “Instead of the earlier book’s picturesque explorers and lumberjacks and miners,” he noted, the characters for his new book were “politicians, union leaders, industrialists, writers.” Instead of the vast wilderness of the Upper Peninsula, the atmosphere “was that of farm revolt, strikes, violence, industrialization, and bored farm-town life.

Published in 1947 with the title Indiana: An Interpretation, Martin’s book set out from its start to confound the expectations of readers looking for just another romantic paean to the state’s steady rise to greatness. Convention had it that regional writing should be “rhapsodic, not critical,” he wrote in the book’s preface. His was not a book designed to “advertise or praise (or, for that matter, to condemn) Indiana.” Instead, it was one man’s interpretation of the state—the Hoosier character, thought, and way of life—and was not intended to be a comprehensive chronicle of Indiana’s past. “This book is not history; it is journalism,” said Martin, adding that it focused on people rather than events. He set out to examine the idea of Indiana and Hoosiers held by the rest of the nation; a conception, a good deal of which was myth, on their part of “Indiana as a pleasant, rather rural place inhabited by people who are confident, prosperous, neighborly, easygoing, tolerant, shrewd.”

Martin viewed the 1880s and 1890s as the nineteenth state’s golden age, when Hoosiers were “confident of the future.” After the 1900s, the state had suffered from a “hardening of the arteries” and had lost its way. Between World War I and World War II the magic and wonder of Indiana’s past—James Whitcomb Riley’s poetry and Elwood Haynes’s inventiveness, for example—had disappeared from the scene to be replaced by robed figures from the Ku Klux Klan. “A suspicion had arisen that bigotry, ignorance, and hysteria were as much a part of the Hoosier character as were conservatism and steadfastness and common sense,” Martin wrote. “One of Indiana’s chief exports had long been ideas, but so many of these had turned out to be wrong-headed, wicked, or useless.”

The most likely suspects for the vein of bigotry and intolerance could be seen in the careers of Klan leader D. C. Stephenson and homegrown bigot and isolationist Court Asher, but other possibilities included small-town capitalists who, fearful of labor unions, discouraged outside manufacturers from moving to their communities; labor union leaders more worried about jurisdictional disputes than the interests of their members; and politicians obsessed with the day-to-day business of garnering votes rather than the social and economic ends of politics, which Martin labeled as “the little trickeries that make Presidents and ward heelers alike.”

In addition to a skeptical view of the Indiana idea, the book featured vignettes of figures outside of the Indiana mainstream. Some of the book’s best writing is featured in the “Voices of Protest” section covering the careers of Socialist Debs, workplace democracy pioneer William Powers Hapgood, and his son, labor organizer Powers Hapgood. Debs is given the longest chapter, and Martin later said that the man from Terre Haute, Indiana, “almost ran away with the book,” one of the reasons why, Martin believed, “conservative booksellers from Indianapolis did little to sell the book.” They may have also been upset by how honestly Martin treated Terre Haute’s bawdy early twentieth-century, when gambling and prostitution ran rampant in the District, the area north of Second and Third Streets, with establishments such as Madame Brown’s whorehouse. Born near the District, Debs stayed away from its wickedness (but not drink, calling temperance “this mean and narrow fanaticism”) and, through his work organizing railroad workers and representing workingmen as five-time Socialist Party candidate for president, he stood in the vanguard of Indiana protest, what Martin called “the ceaseless quest for the better life begun by Robert Owen [of New Harmony], the uprising against authority begun in William Henry Harrison’s time. . . . They left an impress and a heritage—Debs most of all. He was the greatest of Indiana protestants, the most effective.”

Hoosier critics were hard on what Martin had written. “It is not a lovely book,” noted an anonymous reviewer in the Indiana Magazine of History, a quarterly periodical published by Indiana University’s history department. The reviewer accused Martin of administering a “shock treatment,” comparing the author to a Jove hurling bolts of lightning at the state’s citizens. A reviewer in the Indianapolis Times offered an accurate assessment of the view many people in the state would have of the book at the time when he noted that true believers seldom liked to have their “articles of faith described as myth.”

The interpretations of the state presented by Martin, who died on January 3, 1987, at the age of seventy-one, have stood up well over the years. Harvard University historian Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., who became a close friend of Martin’s, referred to him as “the author of the best book on Indiana,” and longtime Indiana University professor of history James H. Madison, the author of two modern histories of the state, noted that although Indiana: An Interpretation has its faults (it excludes, for the most part, discussions of the roles of women and African Americans), it remains “a modern and compelling piece of writing.” IU Press recognized the book’s status as an Indiana classic, producing two republications, one in 1992 and a second in time for the Hoosier State’s bicentennial celebration in 2016.

Reflecting about Indiana: An Interpretation in 1981 in response to a letter from a Hoosier reader who praised the book, Martin said he made a habit of not rereading anything he had written after it had been published. In preparing to write his memoirs that summer, however, he had found it necessary to review some of his old work. “I must say,” he related to his fan, “the Indiana book stands rereading.” It still does.


This review was written as part of our series on Midwestern history, a collection of reviews on histories and texts of historical significance in the region. Writers interested in contributing to this series are encouraged to contact its editor, Jacob A. Bruggeman.

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