Meredith Nicholson

1866 - 1947
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Nicholson, Meredith (Dec. 9, 1866 - Dec. 21, 1947), author, lecturer, and diplomat, was born in Crawfordsville, Ind., the first of four children of Edward Willis Nicholson and Emily Meredith) Nicholson. His father was a substantial farmer of Kentucky ancestry and a Union officer in the Civil War. His maternal grandfather was a printer-journalist of Centerville, Ind. The family moved to Indianapolis in 1872. Nicholson's formal schooling ended at the age of fifteen after difficulties with mathematics, whereupon he proceeded to become an exceptional example of the self-educated American man of letters. He worked at various jobs, read widely, studied law for a time, taught himself foreign languages, and began in the middle 1880's to publish poems in newspapers. A regular assignment on the ndianapolis News extended from 1885 to 1897. His first book of poetry, Short Flights, was published in 1891. The appearance of Poems (1906) terminated Nicholson's short and undistinguished career in this medium.

On June 16, 1896, Nicholson married the cultured and wealthy Eugenie Kountze of Omaha, Nebr. They had four children: Meredith, Elizabeth Kountze, Eugenie (who died in infancy), and Charles Lionel. In 1898 the couple moved to Denver, Colo., where Nicholson engaged in business for about three years, an experience reflected in his first novel, The Main Chance (1903). During his western residence, Nicholson asserted his loyalty to Indiana in a collection of delightful essays on local history, The Hoosiers (1900), a book as likely to survive as anything he wrote. Returning to Indianapolis in 1901, he began a long career as popular novelist, essayist for a wide range of magazines, and leading Hoosier personality, much in demand as a speaker and lecturer. In company with Booth Tarkington, George Ade, and James Whitcomb Riley, Nicholson was considered a leader in creating a Golden Age of Indiana literature in the first quarter of the twentieth century. His second novel, Zelda Dameron (1904), was a realistic portrayal of Indianapolis business and social life. The House of a Thousand Candles (1905), a best seller and later a popular motion picture, was a Hoosier romance. Nicholson's fiction was governed by the invariable triumph of true, young love over familiar obstacles and by insistence on the virtues of wholesome, bourgeois life. The protagonist is typically an irresistible Hoosier girl who saves honor, fortune, and happiness for family and community. Within this formula Nicholson alternated between light romance and a serious "realism relieved by humor . . . and lifted by cheer and hope," to cite the author's own description of The Lords of High Decision (1909), a novel that depicted conflicts in industrial society. The best novel in this vein is A Hoosier Chronicle (1912), based on Nicholson's intimate knowledge of Indiana politics. Except for the girl's heroism and the happy endings, The Proof of the Pudding (1916), Broken Barriers (1922), The Hope of Happiness (1923), and And They Lived Happily Ever After! (1925) are convincing explorations of changing times in Indianapolis society, dealing with divorce, drinking, illicit love, corrupt business practices, and briefly with class conflicts. Otherwise Phyllis (1913) portrays the same elements in small-town life. Nicholson closed a successful career as a novelist with his twenty-first book, The Cavalier of Tennessee (1928), a competent if old-fashioned historical fiction based on the lives of Andrew Jackson and his wife Rachel (Robards) Jackson.

As The Hoosiers indicated early, Nicholson was at his best as an essayist. His work in this form, including much delightful autobiography, can be surveyed in a number of collections: The Provincial American and Other Papers (1912), The Valley of Democracy (1918), The Man in the Street (1921), and Old Familiar Faces (1929). Most of these essays appeared originally in Scribner's, the Atlantic, and Harper's. The number of his miscellaneous pieces, such as reviews, speeches, introductions to books, is considerable.

Compared with Tarkington the novelist, Riley the Hoosier poet, and Ade the humorist and satirist, Nicholson cannot be said to have produced an impressive body of writing. He was in the service of his city and state, even as a novelist, and therefore wrote much that dated quickly. Riley's own success owed much to Nicholson's speaking and writing about him, including a brief romantic novel, The Poet (1914). As a professional Hoosier and self-styled patriotic, stay-at-home Midwesterner, Nicholson probably scattered a modest talent too thin for permanent recognition. His personal magnetism and charm were very great. With humor and a light touch, he preached the healthy pursuit of happiness and a faith in the goodness of "folks."

To the problems and dangers faced by a democracy of the "folks," Nicholson was actively responsive. He admonished his fellow Hoosiers to clean up local government and participated in Democratic party politics as party leader, candidate, and for one term (19281930) as a "reform" city councilman in Indianapolis. He was a moderate Democrat with Whig-Republican antecedents but began his own political life as a Mugwump in 1884. He could not support Bryan, but his voice against the Ku Klux Klan in Indiana Republican politics of the 1920's was eloquent and much needed. He supported national candidates in sane, practical, bipartisan terms. Upon the election of Franklin Roosevelt, his service to the party was rewarded with three ministries in Latin America: Paraguay (19331934), Venezuela (19351938), and Nicaragua (19381941).

Earlier, Nicholson received local academic honors: master's degrees from Wabash College (1901) and Butler University (1902); Litt.D. from Wabash (1907); LL.D. from Indiana University (1928) and Butler (1929).

Nicholson's first wife died in 1931. On Sept. 20, 1933, Nicholson married Dorothy (Wolfe) Lannon, of Marion, Ind. They were divorced in 1943. Nicholson died of diabetes in Indianapolis at the age of eighty-one. He is buried in Crownhill Cemetery in Indianapolis.

-- Walter L. Fertig

SOURCE: Dictionary of American Biography, Supplement 4: 1946-1950.