I believe the “Next Indiana” will continue to be a place where writers and literature flourish, as this state has always been, ever since Lew Wallace published his best-selling novel Ben Hur. (It sold more than Uncle Tom’s Cabin in its time, and was revived by a hit movie version in the 1950s and rose to the top of best seller lists again.) Just as Ohio has produced more than its share of Presidents, Indiana has produced more than its share of great authors: Gene Stratton Porter, Booth Tarkington, James Whitcomb Riley, Theodore Dreiser, Lloyd C. Douglas, Ross Lockridge, Janet Flanner, James Alexander Thom, Susan Neville, and Kurt Vonnegut – and now John Green, just to name a few. And those that are on the way, that you’re just beginning to hear, like Ian Woollen.
Writers in Indiana today are given more sustenance than ever, from places such as The Indiana Writers Center, IndyReadsBooks (and their publishing enterprise IndyWritesBooks), and Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library. Not only professional writers are encouraged and nourished in their craft, but also people who simply want to express themselves, and who have heeded Kurt Vonnegut’s advice that “Practicing an art, however well or badly, is a way to make your soul grow, for heaven’s sake. Sing in the shower. Dance to the radio, Tell stories.”
Indiana has been producing writers “nearly as regularly as corn and limestone,” said Arthur Shumaker in A History of Indiana Literature. There is every reason to believe that history will continue to grow. Indianapolis has come a long way from the 1950s, when it was known as “Naptown,” and one of our great jazz musicians, the trombone player J.J. Johnson, did an album called “Naptown, USA.” We were known as a sleepy kind of semi-city. Now our downtown has come alive with hot new restaurants, art galleries, theatre and music, and we have our own new jazz musician, the brilliant young saxophone player Sophie Faught, who keeps that tradition alive at The Chatterbox, the keystone of the Mass Avenue revival.
Greenwich Village in its heyday had John Coltrane’s jazz to inspire its painters and writers; we have Sophie. They had The Village Voice, where young innovative writers got a start; we have Nuvo, with a brilliant new arts editor, Emily Taylor. They had the poet Marianne Moore, we have Karen Kovacik. They had the painters Alice Neal and Larry Rivers; we have Ellen Crabb, Rita Spalding, and the innovative graphic artist Pam Fraizer. Their Greenwich Village predecesors went for drinks and talk at The Cedar Bar; we have The Red Key.
When one of the arts bloom, others come to life, and the spirit of creativity reaches into offices, bistros and coffee houses. The back of a building on Mass Ave has the tall painting of Kurt Vonnegut, appropriately larger than life, watching over us with a sparkle in his eyes and a smile on his bushy, mustachioed face. If I stand still and listen I think I can hear his wise words to all who pass by, passing on his message that never gets old, urging us to “Write a poem to a friend, even a lousy poem. Do it as well as you possibly can. You will get an enormous reward. You will have created something.”
Those are sustaining words for a monumental future; that’s Next.
“Hold on,” as Vonnegut said – “We may end up miles from here!”
Dan Wakefield is a novelist, journalist and screenwriter. His book “Kurt Vonnegut: Letters” is featured on the Next Indiana Bookshelf. This post was written as part of a series celebrating the Next Indiana Bookshelf, a program of Indiana Humanities and the Indiana Center for the Book. Check the Indiana Humanities blog throughout 2016 for additional posts by authors detailing their vision for the Next Indiana.