Monday, May 16, 2022

Ward Dorrance, Jefferson City's Distinguished Creative Writer

C-SPAN visited Jefferson City June 4, 2012, to prepare a TV program that was aired nationally on July 8. Producers said the program was to showcase the “literary life” of Jefferson City. It turned out that C-SPAN was interested only in nonfiction writing. Except for Jean Carnahan’s brief account of her fine book on the Governor’s Mansion, the other fifty minutes of the program had nothing to do with the “literary life” of Jefferson City! Two segments described some rare holdings of the Lincoln University and the University of Missouri–Columbia archives, none of which had to do with Jefferson City. At least half of the TV hour was devoted to three abstruse works that had nothing to do with Jefferson City, and they were written by university professors unknown to Jefferson City residents.

Unfortunately, by restricting Jefferson City’s “literary life” to nonfiction writing, C-SPAN overlooked one of Jefferson City’s most distinguished creative writers. For not only did the program omit the many distinguished writers at Lincoln University, they ignored Jefferson City’s native son Ward Dorrance: Guggenheim fellow, folklore preserver, prolific creative writer, who rubbed shoulders with Erskine Caldwell, Eudora Welty, and Flannery O’Connor. He taught at the University of Missouri, then advanced to professorships at Cambridge, Oxford, and Georgetown universities. He was a World War II veteran, and he won the prestigious O. Henry Prize. And he was born and grew up in Jefferson City.

Ward Allison Dorrance was born in Jefferson City April 30, 1904, and raised in Jefferson City’s Southside, at 602 Madison, next to Wear’s Creek. That site is now a Central Dairy parking lot. At that time, the Southside was nearing completion of its transition from German-speaking Muenchberg to the English-speaking Southside. Young Ward attended Jefferson City public schools (probably Central School around the corner on Dunklin Street) and graduated from Ernst Simonsen High School in 1922. He was valedictorian of his class and editor of both the Marcullus yearbook and the Jeffersonian student newspaper. Here is his photo, at age 18, from the Marcullus.

Dorrance went to the University of Missouri in Columbia where he majored in French and English and began teaching French there immediately upon receiving his B.A. in 1926. He received his M.A. in 1928. He then went to Paris to study for a doctorate at the Sorbonne, but he returned without it in 1930 when his mother died. He resumed teaching at the University of Missouri. He received his Ph.D. from MU in French in 1935. His dissertation, Survival of French in the Old Ste. Genevieve District, was published by the university in its academic series, which was quite an honor for a graduating student.

His published dissertation, based on field work especially in the rural Ozarks community of Old Mines, Missouri, brought attention to the remnants of Missouri French culture and became one of the foundations upon which the revival of French heritage and tourism in Missouri was based. Dorrance located a few hundred people who spoke a vanishing French Creole dialect and meticulously documented their speech and culture. The work also greatly helped promote the study of Missouri folklore in general, as later folklorists readily acknowledged.

But Dorrance’s broader fame was yet to come, and very shortly. Now an MU professor, he bought a historic Civil War–period mansion in Columbia and named it “Confederate Hill” (also known as the Guitar Mansion, it’s now on the National Register of Historic Places). As he continued to teach French and English at the university, he began a prolific period of creative writing.

Three Ozark Streams: Log of the Moccasin and the Wilma appeared in 1937 (Richmond, Mo.: The Missourian Press). Dorrance floated the Black, Current, and Jack’s Fork and captured the flavor of the rivers and the people who lived along them. The lyrical beauty of his writing caught the attention of many. It was among the first of a long string of expressive writing by others on Ozark streams that led to popular support for the establishment of the National Ozark Scenic Waterways in 1964.

We’re from Missouri (Richmond, Mo.: The Missourian Press) appeared the next year. Thomas Hart Benton, who had just completed his murals in the Capitol, supplied a special frontispiece, possibly because Dorrance’s previous book caught Benton’s attention as a soulmate in portraying the nature of the real Missouri and everyday Missourians.

Though only 97 pages in length, We’re from Missouri is a rich collection of thirteen short essays about the good life in Missouri. One essay, “Repulse of Texas at Potosi,” has been frequently cited. It tells the story of audacious Texans’ nighttime attempt to steal the body of Moses Austin from its grave in the Ozark town of Potosi. Another is “Preëminent Sons of Bitches of Boone County, Missouri,” a title that speaks for itself. The delightful collection ends with a prayer to the Lord: “With due respect, I hope you will do nothing more for me but just go away and leave me alone. . . . The time you might have spent on me . . . can be used on the Legislature. Or the D.A.R.’s. Singly they’re fine folks. But collectively they pass resolutions.”

Where Rivers Meet (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons) came out in 1939, a third consecutive year of book publishing! Dorrance noted that leaders in St. Louis never had been to the confluence of the Missouri and Mississippi rivers and didn’t appreciate the huge role of the confluence of interior rivers in the nation’s history. He personally traveled seven major rivers (Osage, Missouri, Mississippi, Ohio, Tennessee, Cumberland, and Wabash) to report, in beautiful prose, the rich history and life along them.

By now, Dorrance was well established as a “river man” in American literature. These three works, appearing in 1937–1939, captured the beauty and essence of Missouri. Yet Dorrance’s Southern heritage and his pride in Southern ways also impelled him to bring folklore into his creative writing.

In 1940 he received a prestigious Guggenheim Fellowship to write The Sundowners (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1942). Here is Professor Dorrance at age 36 when he received the Guggenheim Fellowship.

The Sundowners is a novel about a boy of French descent growing up in the Callaway County bottoms (Cote Sans Dessein, Tebbetts, Cedar City) across the Missouri River from Jefferson City. The young boy in the novel walks across the Missouri River Bridge into Jefferson City and pays a dime at the tollbooth. Dorrance includes a lot of his hometown Jefferson City in this novel. He describes, from a young boy’s view, Dallmeyer’s big store (a skylight and balcony at the far end, with “cash baskets riding up to the glass booth in the balcony”); Linhardt and Delmonico grocery stores; the Madison House bar; Tolson’s Drug (where the “town sports read westerns, opened pimples by the mirror over the magazine rack, and told one another how they had got ‘fixed up’ last night”); the Busy Bee Candy Kitchen (where his banana split cost a quarter); the Cole County Courthouse (with its “lariat of pigeons” and a cannon on the lawn); the Monroe House; and the fire station on High Street (where firemen shadowboxed on the sidewalk).

The boy in the novel goes to the Carnegie Library, where he is introduced to a world of fascinating books. He walks along the railroad tracks, looks at river boats and explores the old, original jail and stone warehouses along the tracks. In September, he enters Ernst Simonsen High School and, as a freshman, he studies English, algebra, Latin, ancient history, and music.

Dorrance’s extraordinary seven years of published creative writing were interrupted by military service in World War II from 1942 to 1946. He served as a lieutenant in the Coast Guard in Newfoundland.

After the war, he returned to his position at the University of Missouri and resumed writing, this time shorter pieces. They were published in major literary journals like the Hudson Review, the Sewanee Review, and the Atlantic Monthly. “The White Hound,” about the death of a little boy, received the O. Henry Prize in 1949.

In 1959, the University of Missouri Press, just founded by his colleague, English professor Henry Belden, selected for its first publication a collection of four of Dorrance’s short stories and four of a Tennessee friend. The book was named The White Hound from the title of the republished prizewinning essay. Two other Dorrance stories in the collection, “A Stop on the Way to Texas” and “The Devil on a Hot Afternoon” had previously been selected to appear in Best American Short Stories for 1954 and 1956 respectively. One reviewer noted that Dorrance “is a writer with a sixth sense of things hidden in the ordinary course of events.”

Professor Dorrance encountered major personal difficulties with the Missouri University administration and withdrew from the faculty in 1953. He gave up his comfortable, historic Confederate Hill home in Columbia and abruptly left the state he loved so deeply, never to return. He lived in England for a while, teaching at both Cambridge and Oxford as a visiting professor. He moved to Washington, D.C., and in 1958 joined the English Department of Georgetown University, where he remained on the faculty until his retirement in 1974.

After leaving the University of Missouri, Dorrance’s creative writing changed significantly. There was much less of it, and it consisted primarily of short pieces. The dual themes of the social history of the state and its environmental beauty waned. Once he left the state and lived as an exile, his former sources of inspiration—the land and people of Missouri—dried up.

In 1969 his novel The Party at Mrs. Purefoy’s appeared, about a flood on the Missouri River in central Missouri, and in 1972 the University of Missouri Press published A Man about the House, a novella of 116 pages, which was set in Jefferson City. Dorrance also carried on correspondence with some of the most notable contemporary writers like Erskine Caldwell, Eudora Welty, and Flannery O’Connor.

Ward Allison Dorrance, Jefferson City native, died at age 92 in Washington, D.C., on September 16, 1996. His body was cremated; a memorial marker next to his mother’s parents’ graves in Jefferson City's Woodland/Old City cemetery notes his military service, but there is nothing on it about his distinguished career as a creative writer. Nothing about his great love of his native Missouri.

Missouri’s late, beloved wildlife writer Joel Vance was a student in the last French class Dorrance was teaching at MU when he abruptly left. Vance spent a decade researching the life of Dorrance—whom he had admired as a teacher and as a writer—and wrote a biography of him. In it, he exposed the reason for Dorrance’s MU departure (Dorrance was run out of the university, and the state, because he was gay) and the university administration’s subsequent cover-up. Vance could not find a publisher for the manuscript, and the monograph is archived at the State Historical Society of Missouri in Columbia, Missouri. Still awaiting a publisher.

Thanks to the State Historical Society of Missouri for allowing use of the two photographs of Dorrance and the Benton frontispiece.

Copyright © Walter A. Schroeder, 2012