“Here I met my first true radicals…” : Literary Naturalist Theodore Dreiser

Today his works are commonly listed among the best novels of the twentieth century but when Theodore Dreiser Bulletin001entered Indiana University in the fall of 1889, the campus was then home to only 324 students and 28 members of the faculty and staff (this included a Registrar, 3 librarians and 2 janitors). The Annual Catalogue for that year described the campus as “twenty acres of elevated ground, covered with a heavy growth of maple and beech timber. The commanding position of the land, and the beauty of the natural forest render this one of the most attractive college sites in the country.” Wylie and Owen Halls, two framed buildings that housed some of the literary departments, the chapel and an observatory were the only structures on campus. The new Library (Maxwell Hall) was almost complete.

Born in Terre Haute, Indiana on August 27, 1871, Dreiser attended high school in Warsaw, Cover001Indiana. Reportedly, his teacher Miss Mildred Fielding sensed his potential and paid for his freshman year expenses to attend IU. In his memoir A Hoosier Holiday (1916)he remembered, “As Miss Fielding, my sponsor and mentor, had predicted, I learned more concerning the seeming import of education, the branches of knowledge and the avenues and vocations open to men and women in the intellectual world than I ever dreamed existed – and just from hearing the students argue, apotheosize, anathematize, or apostrophize one course or one professor or another. Here I met my first true radicals…”

As an IU student, Dreiser lived in a small rooming house in town (apparently rooming with “a popular, good-natured football player”) and took meals at the local boarding clubs.

Cavers, 1890 ((Front Row, L to R) Walter S. Chambers; Howard J. Hall; Raymond C. Morgan is seated behind Hall and has a rifle barrel next to his head; Professor of Romance Languages and Philology Gustaf Karsten; Russell Ratliff with arm on Karsten's leg; and Mark P. Helm. (Back Row, L to R) Walker (this is probably Orie Walker); Samuel M. Knoop; William Alonzo Marlow, Theodore Dreiser (seated), and Francis Elmer Kinsey)
Cavers, 1890 ((Front Row, L to R) Walter S. Chambers; Howard J. Hall; Raymond C. Morgan is seated behind Hall and has a rifle barrel next to his head; Professor of Romance Languages and Philology Gustaf Karsten; Russell Ratliff with arm on Karsten’s leg; and Mark P. Helm.
(Back Row, L to R) Walker (this is probably Orie Walker); Samuel M. Knoop; William Alonzo Marlow, Theodore Dreiser (seated), and Francis Elmer Kinsey)

It is evident from his later personal memoir Dawn: History of Myself (1931) that he was charmed with Bloomington and his surroundings. He reportedly spent much of his spare time exploring the local countryside and in particular the cave system to the south (he even dramatically describes being lost in one of the limestone caverns near town). Of the University he said, “There were, in addition, six or seven other buildings, of brick or wood scattered rather casually over a large and physically varied campus, which to me as I first saw it…seemed very beautiful. A wide brick walk led from the principal street of the town up the hill, at the crest of which and to the sides as one approached stood these several buildings….And to the east, northeast and southwest, were hills and seemingly heavy growths of trees leading interminably hence.”

His courses included elementary Latin, Anglo-Saxon English, geometry and algebra, Philology, study of words, and Virgil’s Aneid.  He later reminisced,

Circa 1890 (Theodore Dreiser is in the back at right. The other individuals are unknown)
Circa 1890 (Theodore Dreiser is in the back at right. The other individuals are unknown)

“if ever, physically, at least, a year proved an oasis in a life, this one did. For much to my astonishment, the lessons, outside of Latin, were not so very difficult, though as for algebra and geometry, I could not quite see the import of these, to me if to life. They seemed, I having no turn for mathematics or the technique of the sciences to which they so aptly apply, such a useless waste of calculation. Yet history, English literature and the study of words fascinated me, since thusward was the bent of my temperament, but far and above these again in import to me was the life og the town, the character of its people, the professors and the students, and the mechanism, politics, and social interets of the University body proper.”

Dreiser, however, was not meant for formal education and only continued his studies for the one year before returning to Chicago to work for the Chicago Globe. In addition to writing several other works of fiction and nonfiction, he later worked in other positions in St. Louis, for McClure’s, Harper’s, Cosmopolitan, and as editor-in-chief of Butterick Publications. While Dreiser was often criticized for his poor grammar and sentence structure and lack of formal education, today he is recognized as an outstanding American example of naturalism. With the release of his second novel Jennie Gerhardt  in 1911, the Indiana Student reported that “critics said that it was not a gem but in reality a chunk cut out of the life of today, and the author a man who cuts it with no pink manicured hands. It is gratifying to those who believe that the teaching of a university should powerfully model public opinion to find men who have gone out from Indiana University analyzing life keenly with virile earnestness and serious purpose….Like many other Indiana authors, Theodore Dreiser impresses those who know his work, with his absolute sincerity; he writes of real people and compels you to see them as he knows them.”

Ernest P. Bicknell – Red Cross Humanitarian

BicknellRedCrossBefore the onset of the First World War, the Red Cross was still a small organization, with only some 17,000 members. The outbreak of war in Europe in July of 1914 created an unprecedented need for civilian aid as the war brought a level of suffering and destruction unknown in previous wars. Membership in the Red Cross increased dramatically during the course of the war, and by 1918, the organization had 20 million members. In addition, $400 million in aid was raised by the American public. Because July 28th of this year marks the 100th anniversary of the start of World War I, we thought that it would be appropriate to share some of the World War I materials found in our collections.



An 1887 graduate of Indiana University, Ernest P. Bicknell was born on February 23, 1862 in Vincennes, Indiana. He spent his first six years after graduation working in the newspaper business in Indianapolis followed by serving as a secretary for the Indiana Board of Charities. In 1906, while working as the director of the Chicago Bureau of Charities, Bicknell was called to aid the Red Cross in San Francisco, California which was devastated by earthquake and fire and many were in need of charitable relief. This event led Bicknell to twenty-seven years of service to the American Red Cross.   

His work in San Francisco was admirable and almost immediately he was offered the newly created post of National Director of the Red Cross. He initially declined because of concerns that the Red Cross was still a young organization with few resources, but in 1908 he accepted after his salary was guaranteed for five years through the Russell Sage Foundation. This assignment was followed by several years as the director-general for civilian relief.  With the outbreak of World War I in 1914, Bicknell traveled to Europe to direct several relief and aid efforts. He served as Deputy Commissioner to France, Commissioner to Belgium, and Special Commissioner to the Balkan States, as well as serving as a member of several international relief organizations. While working in Belgium, he was given the military title of Lieutenant Colonel. 

Ernest P. Bicknell in 1918
Ernest P. Bicknell in 1918

The armistice signed on November 11, 1918 meant even more work for Bicknell, as the Red Cross sought to provide aid to those who had been displaced, impoverished, or otherwise affected by four years of war in Europe. Bicknell was first named Red Cross Deputy Commissioner to Europe in 1919  and finally Commissioner to Europe in 1921. Colonel Bicknell and his wife, Grace, in Constantinople in 1919.He then moved on to serve as Director of the Rockefeller Foundation War Relief Committee, which sought to aid non-combatants who had suffered due to the war. Additionally, he also periodically worked for the Office for Insular and Foreign Operations, finally becoming the Vice Chairman in April of 1923.

Bicknell’s commendable humanitarian work earned him numerous distinctions and awards of service from the countries he aided. Bicknell004Among his awards, he was named “Commander of the Crown” by King Albert of Belgium, and was awarded the Legion of Honor from the French government, the Order of the Crown of Italy, Order of the Red Cross and Order of Prince Danilo of Montenegro, the Order of the Red Cross of Serbia, Order of Saint Anne of Russia, Order of St. Savior of Greece, and Order of Poland Restituta of Poland. In the United States, he was awarded the gold medal from the National Institute of Social Science and an LL.D. from Indiana University for his work abroad.  Additionally, his wife, Grace, was awarded the Order of Elizabeth by the Queen of Belgium.

Ernest Bicknell passed away in September of 1935 of heart complications and was buried in Crown Hill Cemetery in Indianapolis. In his honor, State Road 159 from Bicknell to Freelandville in Knox County, Indiana, is officially known as the “Ernest P. Bicknell Highway.” One note of condolence said of Bicknell that “his life was spent in service to his fellowmen.  His admirable qualities won him a host of friends all over the world.”

If you’re interested in learning more about this fascinating man and his work with the Red Cross contact the IU Archives to view the Ernest P. Bicknell papers