Maurice Thompson was born on
September 9, 1844, to Grigg and Diantha (Jalgger) Thompson
in Fairfield, Indiana.
Soon after Thompson's birth, the family moved to Missouri,
returned to Indiana for a short period, then moved on to Kentucky.
By the time the family reached Kentucky, Thompson was a boy
of ten years. It was at this time that the impressionable
youth became interested in ornithology, the study of birds.
In the mid-1850s, the family
moved once again, this time to Georgia. The Georgia landscape
and Cherokee Hills of Thompson's boyhood greatly influenced
much of his work. However, it was the practice of an "outdoor
study period" during this time that cemented his interest
in nature and writing. Diantha Thompson was a cultured New
York native who took her children's educations seriously.
She home-schooled the children in every subject, except math
and foreign language, for which she hired a private tutor.
Apparently, as Thompson became older and more curious, Diantha
allowed "the woods [to replace] the schoolroom in a sense"
(Wheeler 9). From this intense outdoor study, Thompson acquired
two fruitful habits: "the habit of sketching, at which
he was quick and passably accurate, and that of taking copious
notes on the ground at the moment of impression" (Wheeler
10). Out of these habits grew a fondness for outdoor sports,
namely archery, and an even more acute interest in ornithology.
When Thompson was a young man,
he served for two years in the Confederate Army. After the
war, he began to study law.
house in Crawfordsville, Indiana
In the spring of 1868, Thompson
moved to Crawfordsville, Indiana, where he began work
as a civil engineer for the I.B. & W. railroad.
During this time, he met his future wife, Alice, and they
soon married. In 1871, Thompson began practicing law. This
is also about the time that he began contributing articles,
which were mainly made up of local color sketches, to newspapers
like the New York Tribune.
Thompson has said that he felt
his literary career began with the publication of his nature
poem "At the Window," which appeared in the Atlantic
in April, 1873. Although this may be true, Thompson also wrote
a dime novel entitled The League of Guadalupe in
the early 1870s, which he sold to Street and Smith publishers
for one hundred dollars.
began a very prolific career, contributing fourteen poems,
seven reviews, and six essays to Crawfordsville and Indianapolis
newspapers in the 1870's alone. By 1875, some local color
sketches were collected in the short story volume, Hoosier
Mosaics. The tales all involve unrequited love
and are played out against the backdrop of Indiana towns and
villages. Although Thompson focuses on the sketches of Indiana
inhabitants, he touches on the state of the natural environment
in the nineteenth century. In fact, like many of
his peers, Thompson believed that the wetlands
of west central Indiana
were actually responsible for negative effects on the residents.
He called this supposedly marsh-induced state "ague,"
which is actually the modern-day equivalent of malaria.
I went to Colfax, simply,
which is a little dingy town, in Clinton County, that was
formerly called Midway, because it is halfway between Lafayette
and Indianapolis. It was and is a place of some three hundred
inhabitants, eking out an aguish subsistence, maintaining
a swampy, malarious aspect, keeping a bilious, nay, an atra-bilious
color, by sucking like an attenuated leech at the junction,
or, rather, the crossing of the I.C. & L., and the L.C.
& S.W. railroads. It lay mouldering, like something
lost and forgotten, slowly rotting in the swamp. (7)
the publication of Hoosier Mosaics garnered Thompson
some attention, a collection of his archery essays entitled
the Witchery of Archery, published in 1878, became
one of Thompson's two most famous works, the other being the
historical romance Alice of Old Vincennes,
(read full text) published in 1900.
Alice is a romantic story set against the backdrop
of a French settlement located in Vincennes,
Indiana, during the Revolutionary War. Interspersed between
historical fact and a love story are vivid descriptions of
the Indiana landscape in the eighteenth century.
Alice walked along under cover
of the slight landswell which then, more plainly marked
than it is now, formed the contour line of hummock upon
which the fort and village stood. A watery swale grown full
of tall aquatic weeds meandered parallel with the bluff,
so to call it, and there was a soft melancholy whispering
of wind among the long blades and stems. (76-77)
Alice was Thompson's most
popular novel; unfortunately its success was short-lived due
to his untimely death in 1901.
published two more Indiana-related books in his lifetime:
Banker of Bankersville and Stories of Indiana.
Banker of Bankersville is a semi-autobiographical
sketch of a man's adjustment to his return to Crawfordsville
after a long sojourn. Much of the novel is composed of sketches
of the locals. In contrast, Stories of Indiana, a
loose historical account of the land and early life of Indiana,
deals more directly with Indiana's historical natural environment.
The collection of stories and reports begins with the following
statement, made by Thompson in the preface:
There is no romance more picturesque and
more wonderful than the story of actual life; and life in
Indiana has not been less romantic than life elsewhere,
as these true stories from her history will tend to prove.
From the first footfall of the white man in her forests
down to this hour, our State, as wilderness, territory,
and commonwealth, has been a theater for tragedy, melodrama,
comedy, song, and farce. (3)
Through various stories, Thompson
paints a picture of a state rich with history and culture.
The collection is filled with little-known facts about Indiana.
It is a powerful historical account, as well as an interesting
collection of creative stories that aims to inspire curiosity
about the natural history of Indiana.
to books and stories, Thompson was also a prolific contributor
to periodicals. Although many of his contributions were later
collected in his three books of predominately nature poetry,
Songs of Fair Weather (1883), Poems (1892),
and Lincoln's Grave (1894), several pieces are essays
dealing with Indiana. Two of these are "A Stroll
in Indiana with a British Critic" (May 9, 1895),
and "A Hoosier Triangle" (July 20, 1899), both published
in the Independent. Most of Thompson's articles pertaining
to Indiana deal with his defense of the state as a cultural
and environmentally sound place. In "A Stroll,"
Thompson relates an account of a walk he takes with author
Edmund Gosse. In the piece, the narrator convinces Gosse of
the beauty of Indiana and Indiana authors. For example, the
A park on the left? No, that is a cattle
pasture. Yes, the trees are grand, older than yours in Merry
England, deeper rooted, wider buttressed against the rush
of winds: and this grass was never sown by man; it is indigenous,
springs up whenever a wood is thinned to let in the sun;
and it flourishes, sweet and lush as any your poets of the
rainy, little self sufficient island ever sang of, with
claytonias and blue violets and anemones shining all through.
example of Thompson's defense of Indiana is "A
Hoosier Triangle," a historical account similar
to his novel Alice of Old Vincennes. The article
discusses the topic he explores at greater length in Alice,
which is the French post at Vincennes. Once again, he begins
his essay with a subtle, defensive tone:
There lies in the State of Indiana an area
of a few square miles which is, perhaps, deserving of as
much historical honor as any space its size in America.
It is bounded on the west by the beautiful Wabash, on the
south by the la belle riviere, and on the north and east
by a line of low hills called the "Knobs." At
present it is a rich and peaceful country-side, remarkable
for its well tilled farms, its fine cattle and horses, its
superior yield of wheat and corn and its beautiful towns
and villages where churches and schools abound. (1946)
Thompson's periodical contributions
are impressive, but he was also an active outdooorsman. He
not only established the National Archery Association in 1879,
he was also its first president. Also, Thompson served as
state geologist of Indiana from the years 1885-1889. Although
his input as state geologist was minimal (he only produced
eighteen items in three department records) and his ornithology
records were considered "nonscientific,"
Thompson is still remembered for his nature contributions.
In all his work, novels, poetry, and periodical articles,
Thompson demonstrates an intense love and respect for the
land. Through his local color pieces and factually based historical
accounts, he also reveals a deep and sometimes defensive loyalty
to his homeland, Indiana, and her residents. Maurice Thompson
may never be known as a master of literature, but his written
contributions to the state of Indiana are an irreplaceable
lifespring of rich cultural and natural history.
Thompson, Maurice. Alice of Old
Vincennes. Brooklyn: Bowen-Merill, 1900.
---. Hoosier Mosaics. American
Short Story Ser. 81. New York: Garrett, 1969.
---. “A Hoosier Triangle.”
The Independent 20 July 1899: 1946-48. APS II
Years 38/39 51: microfilm 3200, reel 1458.
---. “A Stroll in Indiana with
a British Critic.” The Independent 9 May 1895:
616-17. APS II Years 38/39 47: microfilm 3200, reel
---. Stories of Indiana.
New York: 1898.
Wheeler, Otis B. The Literary
Career of Maurice Thompson. Humanities Ser. 14. Baton
Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 1965.
"Maurice Thompson." Archives,
Crawfordsville District Public Library. Local History--Picture
File. P63 #65. Crawfordsville, IN.
"Maurice Thompson Home."
Archives, Crawfordsville District Public Library. Local History--Picture
File. P41 #3. Crawfordsville, IN.