Edward Eggleston was born on December 10, 1837,
in Vevay, Indiana. His
father was a lawyer and politician, and his mother was the
daughter of frontiersman Captain George Craig. Most of Eggleston’s
childhood was spent in Vevay and at the Craig farm in the
countryside, so he attended both a country school and a town
school. Both models would figure heavily in his writing. Following
his father’s death in 1846, Eggleston lived in different
parts of southeast Indiana,
including Decatur County, New Albany, and Madison. Eventually,
the family, which now included his stepfather, a Methodist
preacher, moved back to Vevay in 1853. His high school teacher
there, a local poet named Julia Dumont, nurtured Eggleston’s
desire to become a writer.
In 1854, he was sent to live with his father’s
family in Amelia, Virginia. There he studied at the Amelia
Academy, but after thirteen months in Virginia, his moral
opposition to slavery, as well as his poor health, necessitated
his return to Indiana.
Back in Indiana, Eggleston tried a brief stint as
a grammar school teacher but soon decided to move west. Instead,
he abandoned this plan and settled in Minnesota, where he made his
living as a laborer for the summer of 1856, which apparently benefited
his respiratory problems. He returned to Indiana and spent six months
as a Methodist circuit rider, preaching throughout the Southeastern
part of the state.
Again, Eggleston’s health began to suffer,
and he abandoned the circuit to move back to Minnesota, where
he spent the next nine years of his life in various preaching
jobs. He married Lizzie Snider of St. Peter, Minnesota, in
1858, and they had three daughters, Lillie, Blanche, and Allegra.
His family inspired him to write children's stories, several
of which were published in the Little Corporal. In
1866, he moved to Evanston, Illinois, to become the associate
editor of the Chicago based magazine. One year later, he landed
a position as editor of the National Sunday School Teacher.
In 1870, Eggleston moved to New York, becoming literary and
superintending editor of a well-known journal called the Independent.
This position was short-lived, however, as he soon left to
become editor-in-chief of Hearth and Home. While
Eggleston’s tenure there also lasted only a year, the
weekly family magazine allowed him the opportunity to publish
his short stories.
A series of
stories loosely based on the teaching experiences of his brother,
George Cary Eggleston, was eventually
transformed into a full-length work, The Hoosier
Schoolmaster, published in 1871. The story followed
the experiences of a new teacher at a country school in southeast
Indiana. Although his characters were flat, his stories predictable,
and his style formulaic, Eggleston's fiction was remarkably
popular in its time. Today however, his novels are noted for
their stark realism and valued chiefly as period pieces rather
than fine literature. They allow readers a glimpse into the
lives of Hoosiers in the years following Indiana's settlement
by white people.
The rugged landscapes of the state, while not
a primary focus, form a constant stage for his stories. The
struggle to claim the land for agricultural use inspired Eggleston
to touch on the theme of deforestation,
and here one of his characters in The Hoosier Schoolmaster
sympathizes with nature's plight:
"Poor old tree!" said Shocky, pointing
to a crooked and gnarled elm standing by itself in the middle
of a field. For when an elm, naturally the most graceful
of trees, once gets a "bad set," as ladies say,
it can grow to be most deformed. This solitary tree had
not a single straight limb.
"Why do you say 'poor old tree'?"
"Cause it's lonesome. All its old friends
is dead and chopped down, and there's their stumps a-standin'
jes like grave-stones. It must be lonesome. Some
folks says it don't feel, but I think it does. Everything
seems to think and feel. See it nodding its head to them
other trees in the woods, and a-wantin' to shake hands!
But it can't move" (53-4).
autumn view of Madison
the unexpected success of The Hoosier Schoolmaster,
Eggleston began to write novels exclusively, publishing four
more in the next four years. In his 1874 novel, The
Circuit Rider, Eggleston employs a traveling
Methodist preacher as his protagonist. For the story, Eggleston
drew upon his own knowledge of circuit preaching in southeast
Indiana. While another formulaic, melodramatic work, The
Circuit Rider contains several references to the natural
world. Here, the narrator admires the beauty of autumn:
Did you ever have the happiness to see a quiet autumn
Sunday in the backwoods? Did you ever observe the stillness,
solitude, the softness of sunshine, the gentleness of wind,
the chip-chip-chlurr-r-r of great flocks of blackbirds
ready for migration, the lazy cawing of crows, softened
by distance, the half-laughing bark of a cunning squirrel,
nibbling his prism-shaped beech-nut, and twinkling his
jolly, child-like eye at you the while, as if to say,
wish you might guess?' (32-3).
Roxy is perhaps his most mature
work, in part because it was written at a time when he was
questioning his strict religious doctrines. A sense of awe
toward nature permeates the novel, as his characters often
reflect on the beauty of the Ohio River
Valley. This passage comes from the narrator:
One can never have done admiring the beauties
of a late afternoon on the Ohio.... At some seasons of
the year, when onion
buying and hay shipping were active, the town had some
appearance of life; but it was never so peaceful and sleepy-looking
as about the first of August.... The roses have long since
ceased blooming. The red seed-vessels look bright among
the green leaves of the rose-trees. One can hear everywhere,
on such a day, the voices of the red-bird and the twittering
of the martins and the chatter of chimney-swifts . The
grapes are hardly reddening yet, but you can hear at this
the thud of the ripe summer apples, as they fall from time
to time upon the ground (424).
Following Roxy, Eggleston traveled in
Europe for nearly a year. When he returned to the United States,
he decided to write about American History, and published
several articles and full-length books over the last twenty
years of his life. He also managed to find time to write three
more novels. Eggleston suffered a stroke in 1899, and another
in 1902 took his life. Although he is not remembered as a
literary great, his contributions to the study of American
History and his realistic portrayal of the landscapes and
backwoods dialects of nineteenth century Indiana have secured
his place in the canon of American writers.
Banta, R.E. Indiana Authors and
their Books 1816-1916. Crawfordsville, IN: Wabash College,
"Edward Eggleston." Dictionary
of Literary Biography, Volume 12: American Realists and Naturalists.
Eggleston, Edward. The Circuit
Rider. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1878.
---. The Hoosier Schoolboy.
New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1882.
---. The Hoosier Schoolmaster.
New York: Orange Judd and Company, 1871.
---. Roxy. New York: Charles
Scribner's Sons, 1878.