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Picture of AuthorJohn Bartlow Martin

Hoosier Connection: John Bartlow Martin was raised in Indianapolis, attended college at DePauw University in Greencastle, and spent a large part of his life living throughout Indiana.

Works Discussed: Indiana: An Interpretation

John Bartlow Martin was born in 1914 in Hamilton, Ohio, to John W. and Laura Martin. When John was a young child his family moved to a residence on Brookside Avenue in Indianapolis. He grew up in this rough part of the city, which had a distinct impact on his style of writing—a focus on the underprivileged members of society. Eventually he completed a degree at DePauw University in Greencastle, Indiana, and pursued a job as a reporter.

Martin's contemporaries considered him "the best living reporter" in America, and his articles were set apart by their deep concern for the "common man." His work frequently appeared in magazines such as Saturday Evening Post, Life, Look, Colliers, Atlantic Monthly, Reader's Digest, and Harper's. Four years consecutively he won the magazine publishing industry's highest honor, the Benjamin Franklin Award. His successful career in journalism led him to such endeavors as a speechwriter and adviser for the presidential campaigns of John F. Kennedy, Robert Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson, and others. These connections also led to a position as the U.S. ambassador to the Dominican Republic.

The work most significant to the topic of natural Indiana is Indiana: An Interpretation, published in 1947. Martin spent a great amount of time traveling the state digging up information and interviewing everyone from politicians to homemakers. He states in the preface to the book:

The purpose of this book...is to interpret a state, Indiana, and the people who inhabit it.... This book is not history; it is journalism. It is one man's interpretation of Indiana—that is the Hoosier character, the Hoosier thought, the Hoosier way of living. (vii)

His portrayal of Indiana's natural world is shown through his investigation of historical accounts, specifically the effects that the land had upon the people. Martin writes of Indiana's pioneers and their relationship with the natural world:

At the end of the long journey from the East, over the mountains or down the rivers, across broken hills and dismal forests and prairies covered with head-high grass, lay only forest to settle in. And after the trees were cut and the cabin built and the brush cleared and the stumps uprooted and the rails split and the rail fence built and, at long last, the earth broken with the plow and the first crop gathered.... This was the place where a man could come with nothing but his hands could clear the forest and build a home and, build a fortune. (33, 37)

Martin presents the Indiana wilderness as a very harsh and dire place until the pioneer settled it by manipulating nature to his own needs. These things had to be done, Martin states, for the settler to even consider the land his own property. The natural world was valued only for the ways it could directly benefit civilization, as in this example from the northern town of Yellowbank:

True, the wild pigeons no longer roosted up at Yellowbank so thick that they broke the tree limbs, but there were still plenty of squirrels and quail, and any farmer could put a net across a stream and get a wagonload of fish. (90)

The population of passenger pigeons, once numbering in the billions, was already diminishing during the settlement of Indiana in the mid-1900s; other animals, however, were considered endlessly abundant food sources.

Martin saw change as a progressive and positive, including the urbanization of Indiana:

Many farmers were moving to the hamlets, and hamlet dwellers were moving to the towns, and townsfolk were moving to the cities. Every town felt a great yearning to be called a city. (89)

The strong attraction of industrialization held by earlier Hoosiers was clearly felt by Martin himself:

Up at Whiting, a tiny hamlet in the Calumet district, Standard Oil built the world's largest refinery, the first step in transforming desolate dunes and swamps into Indiana's greatest industrial region, and one of the nation's greatest. (89)

The Sand Dunes at Lake Michigan

Like so many Hoosiers of the time, Martin thought it wise to transform the "waste land" of northwest Indiana into useful industrial development. He failed to recognize what many modern Hoosiers have realized: that the "desolate dunes" and swamplands are valuable for their ecological diversity and place in the habitat systems of northwest Indiana. Besides, they possess unique beauty and make great recreation areas.

John Bartlow Martin's views of Indiana are, as he stated himself, "one man's interpretation," but they reflect widely held opinions of Indiana's natural environment at the time he writes about. Many Hoosiers have since realized the value of conserving and preserving the state's natural assets. We can only speculate that Martin today might have different opinions as well.



Boomhower, Ray. "A Voice for Those from Below." Traces 9.2 (1997): 4-13.

Martin, John Bartlow. Indiana: An Interpretation. New York: Knopf, 1947.


Boomhower, Ray. "A Voice for Those from Below." Traces 9.2 (1997): 4.