On a recent Saturday morning, a visitor to the Special Collections Room on the sixth floor of the Central Library downtown stared into a glass display case containing part of a woman writers' exhibit that opened early this year.
"I didn't know that," she said, pointing to the work of writer Catherine Moore, whom the exhibit says "paved the way for other female writers of speculative fiction."
Moore, who wrote under the pseudonym C.L. Moore, and 23 other female writers make up the Indianapolis-Marion County Public Library's exhibit, Published! She Wrote! The small yet impressive exhibit showcases the mostly unheralded works of women who blazed trails, from Moore and Janet Flanner, to Barb Shoup, director of the Writers' Center of Indiana, and poet Mari Evans.
The goal of the exhibit is to show that female writers with local connections may not be as nationally recognized as James Whitcomb Riley, Meredith Nicholson, Booth Tarkington and Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., the four iconic male authors in the 20th Century, but that they still had serious writing chops.
Searching for the Big 4
The exhibit started as an idea in early 2010, said librarian Chris Marshall, the team leader of the Special Collections Room who spearheaded the research for the exhibit.
"I said, 'Who are the Big 4 women writers?' We have people (in the area) who didn't know who they were. And so this was a perfect idea for us," he said.
With support from the Indianapolis-Marion County Public Library Foundation through a gift from the ChristelDeHaan Family Foundation, the team researched and built the women writers collection.
"We featured only 24 (writers) from the list of 300 we started with," Marshall said. "We looked for women who were dedicated to writing as a career."
As with most areas in the public library, the Special Collections Room is quiet and respectful, and its atmosphere is enhanced by the panoramic view of downtown through floor-to-ceiling windows. There is ample seating and desk space for reading, research or just introspection.
The exhibit is contained in four cabinets and two glass display cases. All the books and other materials are old and, while all are now part of the library's permanent collection, none are available for loan.
"It will stay here and will be available for research [once the exhibit closes early next year]," Marshall said. But "some of the books are really fragile. It's why the room has temperature and humidity controls."
To answer the question of who were the Big 4 female writers, the researchers started with four criteria - A), she had to be dead, as were the Big 4 male authors; B), she had to have at least 10 books; C), she had to have gained the national recognition of critics and the public by way of literary awards or other national influence; and D), she had to be born, raised or educated in Indianapolis, or had spent a significant amount of time in Indianapolis.
While the end result did not strictly follow those guidelines, the Big 4 named by the library were Janet Flanner, Mabel Leigh Hunt, Jeannette Covert Nolan and Augusta Stevenson.
Janet Flanner (1892-1978) was born in Indianapolis to embalmer Frank Flanner and Mary Ellen Hockett Buchanan - Flanner's father founded Flanner and Buchanan funeral home business - but gained international renown as the Paris correspondent for The New Yorker magazine from 1925 until her retirement in 1975. She published only one novel but covered many of the people and events that shaped the middle half of the 20th Century. She wrote under the pen name Genet, and two volumes of her writing - Paris Journal, 1944-1965 and Paris Journal, 1965-1971 - are part of the collection, alongside works by her sister, poet June Hildegard Flanner.
Mabel Leigh Hunt was born to prominent Quaker parents in Coatesville in 1892 and later lived and worked in Indianapolis. She focused on family relationships and biographies, but also touched on Quaker themes. Her first book, Lucinda, A Little Girl of 1860, published in 1934, was based on her mother's Quaker childhood. At the time of her death in 1971, Hunt had written more than 30 books and short stories, including Better Known as Johnny Appleseed (1950), which was a Newbery Honor recipient in 1951.
Jeannette Covert Nolan was born and educated in Evansville and later lived in Indianapolis. She was the author of numerous children's books, especially dealing with American history. Her titles include: Spy for the Confederacy: Rose O'Neal Greenhow, O. Henry - The Story of William Sydney Porter, The Story of Ulysses S. Grant, The Story of Joan of Arc and Andrew Jackson.
Nolan also wrote some mysteries for adults. Born in 1897, she died in 1974.
Stevenson, who taught in the Indianapolis Public Schools, was born in 1869 and, at the time of her death in 1976, was the author of more than 400 books. She wrote the internationally known series, Childhood of Famous Americans. Hardback copies of Abe Lincoln: Frontier Boy and George Washington: Young Leader are part of the exhibit. She also wrote about Paul Revere, Clara Barton, Buffalo Bill and Sitting Bull.
Origins of "I Love Lucy"
Being prolific doesn't necessarily mean being well known today.
"I knew nothing of C.L. Moore. I had never heard of her but she was quite important for her time, which was the 1930s and 40s," Marshall said.
She was one of the first female writers of science fiction or fantasy. "She figured she'd get read more if people didn't think she was a woman," Marshall said. Her first paid story, Shambleau, appeared in Weird Tales magazine in 1933 under her pen name.
Another aspect of the exhibit is that not all of the authors are deceased and not all wrote books.
Toledo, Ohio, native Mari Evans, best known as a poet, taught African-American literature at Indiana University-Purdue University at Indianapolis starting in the late 1960s. Among her notable works was I Am a Black Woman, published in 1970. As a member of the Black Arts Movement, her poetry sought to "spread the message of black cultural, psychological and economical liberation."
Indianapolis native Kathryn Lasky, who was born in 1944, is a prolific author of children's and young adult books. Her Ga'Hoole trilogy was the basis for last year's animated film, Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga'Hoole. She also authored a series of Royal Diaries books, which are fictional accounts of the childhoods of historical women, including Mary, Queen of Scots, Marie Antoinette of France and Princess Jahanara of Japan. One book on Elizabeth I of England was the basis for a 2000 television movie.
Madelyn Pugh Davis graduated from Shortridge High School in 1938, two years before fellow Shortridge grad Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.
"She was the one, with Bob Carroll, Jr., who came up with the original vaudeville act for Lucille Ball and DesiArnaz," Marshall said. On television, it became the classic, I Love Lucy. Though she and Carroll wrote hundreds of television programs for numerous TV shows - they served as executive producers for seven years on the long-running TV series Alice - Davis' association with Lucy lasted for four decades.
She died on April 20 at the age of 90.