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Indiana University Bloomington

April 6, 2009

A Writer Struggles: Necessity as the Mother of Invention

Filed under: Illustration,Manuscripts — David Frasier @ 2:00 pm

Cards on the table by Emmett Gowen

Not every American regional writer is destined to become a Mark Twain, a William Faulkner, or even a modest success. Such is the case of Emmett Gowen (1902-1973), an obscure Tennessee-born writer who published two forgettable novels in the early 1930s with Indianapolis publisher Bobbs-Merrill. Court-martialed from the Marine Corps, Gowen served three years in the Naval Prison at Parris Island, South Carolina before being dishonorably discharged in 1923. He taught himself the craft of writing as a reporter on several Memphis newspapers while churning out stories for pulp magazines.

In 1932, Bobbs-Merrill published Gowen’s first novel, Mountain Born, a chronicle of the lives and loves of Tennessee hill folk, to mild critical acclaim, but lackluster sales. Undeterred, Gowen pressed on with the writing of a second novel contracted by the publisher, but ran into a problem faced by many would-be professional scribes — lack of money to complete their work. On October 29, 1932, Bobbs-Merrill received “Cards on the Table,” Emmett Gowen’s clever and artistic plea for a life-saving advance against royalties that would enable him to finish a racy novel on the trials and tribulations of Southern tenant farmers. The ploy worked. The amused publisher advanced Gowen $200.00, but their relationship ended after Dark Moon of March (1933) generated fewer sales than his first book. Gowen persevered, becoming a regular contributor of articles featuring rugged men in the “great outdoors” to magazines like Field and Stream, Argosy, True, and Outdoor Life. In the late 1950s, he assumed the presidency of Emmett Gowen, Ltd., an outfitting and guide service for hunters and fisherman vacationing in Mexico and Central America. His most successful book, The Joy of Fishing, was published by Rand McNally in 1961.

Gowen is among the several hundred authors (Irvin S. Cobb, Ring Lardner, James Whitcomb Riley) represented in the Bobbs-Merrill mss. (1885-1957) housed at the Lilly Library. The papers of the Indianapolis publisher are arranged by author and include autobiographical questionnaires, correspondence, reader’s opinions, promotional material, and royalty records. The 131,056 items in the collection have been partially described in “Studies in the Bobbs-Merrill Papers,” edited by Edwin H. Cady, in The Indiana University Bookman, no. 8 (March, 1967), pp. 1-166. A dissertation in 1975 by Jack O’Bar entitled A History of the Bobbs-Merrill Company, 1850-1940: With a Postlude Through the Early 1960′s (LZ2 .O124) was derived largely from the Bobbs-Merrill mss.

– David Frasier, Reference Librarian

View larger images of Gowen’s letter

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