JAMES JONES literary society
HANDY COLONY COLLECTION, 1930-1964
Web Site for Handy Writers' Colony Archives at The University of Illinois-Springfield
The following is reprinted from an introduction to James Jones
in Illinois: A Guide to the Handy Writers' Colony Collection (1989),
by Thomas J. Wood and Meredith Keating (Sangamon State University,
Springfield, Illinois). Note: The institution has since been renamed The
University of Illinois at Springfield. The article is used here (in
slightly altered form) with permissions from the copyright owners.
Copyright 1989 by Illinois Issues and Sangamon State
The Wabash Valley of southeastern Illinois is known to produce abundant crops, fat hogs, and crude oil, but is not especially noted for producing good writers. And yet, Robinson was the home of James Jones, who published his acclaimed novel From Here to Eternity in 1951. And the little town of Marshall, for more than a decade, was the scene of an active writers' colony which produced more than a dozen published novels. This colony, called the Handy Colony, was the creation of Lowney Turner Handy, her husband Harry Handy, and James Jones. It began unofficially about 1949, was incorporated as a non-profit organization in 1951, and ended completely with Lowney's death in 1964. Jones and Harry Handy supplied much of the financial backing for the colony, but Lowney Handy was the guiding force, supervising and instructing the writers who worked there.
Harry and Lowney Handy, married in 1926, occupied a prominent place in Robinson society. Harry (called "Hap" by his friends) made a good living as the manager of the Ohio Oil Company's refinery. Since the marriage produced no children, Lowney devoted her restless energies to a number of social causes, to the study of Eastern religions and mysticism, and to writing. Lowney was known for helping young people with their problems, and taking them under her wing. She also began instructing students in creative writing in her home.
One of the young people Lowney was to take an interest in was James Jones. Jones, born in Robinson in 1921, had suffered an unhappy childhood. His father, a dentist and alcoholic, lost his money in the Great Depression. Jones joined the Army in 1939, and in 1941 was stationed at Schofield Barracks in Hawaii, where he witnessed the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. His mother had died earlier in 1941, and his father committed suicide in 1942. Soon after his unit was sent to Guadalcanal in 1943, he was wounded in action. He was then shipped back to the United States to recover from his injuries.
In the fall of 1943 Jones was on furlough in Robinson, and on 3 November his Aunt Sadie sent him to see Lowney. Jones, who was suffering from depression and heavy drinking, was just the kind of "hard case" that Lowney was accustomed to helping. They immediately became friends and, when Jones went AWOL in 1944, Lowney, through her correspondence with his commanding officers, helped him to obtain a discharge. After Jones left the Army on 6 July 1944, he moved into the Handys' home. There, with Lowney's encouragement and advice, he worked on his unpublished novel, "They Shall Inherit the Laughter".
In 1945, Jones, working with literary agent Maxwell Aley, decided to submit a draft of "Laughter" to Maxwell Perkins at Charles Scribner's Sons. Perkins, who had edited such writers as F. Scott Fitzgerald, Thomas Wolfe, and Ernest Hemingway, was impressed by Jones' writing, but did not think "Laughter" was good enough to publish without substantial revision. Jones continued to work on "Laughter" in New York, and attended classes at New York University. In June Jones left the university and later dismissed Aley as his agent.
By early 1946, Jones had completely rewritten "Laughter" and sent the revised manuscript to Perkins. Perkins still was not entirely satisfied with the work, but was intrigued by the idea for another novel based on Jones' army experiences in Hawaii. Perkins encouraged Jones to stop work on "Laughter" and start on the new novel, which would later be titled From Here to Eternity.
In March 1946, Jones began devoting his efforts full-time to writing Eternity. During this period, he was staying with Lowney and Harry, who built an addition onto their home at 202 West Mulberry in Robinson for him. It was in this room that he wrote the bulk of From Here to Eternity.
In writing Eternity, Jones would write a section, and then obtain opinions on it from Lowney, Perkins, and others. After Perkins' death in 1947, he worked with Burroughs Mitchell. Lowney continued to provide encouragement and editorial assistance, with financial support from Harry. By the fall of 1947, Lowney was also teaching Donald Sackrider, and in 1948, Jones and Sackrider were joined by Willard Lindsay.
After the addition of Lindsay to the group, Lowney began to develop a system for training writers. Working with Lindsay, she realized the value of having her students compose short sketches or skits. By the time Robert Smith joined the group in 1949, Lowney was convinced of the efficacy of her system and was not tolerant of other theories and ideas. With the publication of Lindsay's short story, "A Busy Day," in Ladies Home Journal, September 1949, she felt her methods were vindicated.
By the summer of 1949, the Handy Colony was taking shape. Lowney's students stayed in tents on the Handy cow pasture in Marshall which was owned by Harry's mother and used with her permission. Improvements, such as plumbing and electricity, began to be made on the site. The students worked on their writing in the morning under the supervision of Lowney, who commuted to Marshall from her home in Robinson. In the afternoon, the students performed maintenance jobs and other chores on the grounds. Later, they might have a conference with Lowney about their writing. Lowney was strict, but this did not deter those who really wanted to write and who believed in her.
By the end of the summer of 1949, Jones was almost finished with Eternity; Lowney now had other regular students, and the group was forming itself as an entity, as the colony. As Lowney declared in a letter to Tinks Howe in September, "Harry has just moved one cabin up at Marshall--that is the beginning of the colony."
Lowney, Jones, and Lindsay left Illinois at the end of the summer and headed for a winter site. They traveled west to Colorado Springs, traveled south from there to Albuquerque where Sackrider joined them for a visit, and arrived in Tucson in November. Sometime in early 1950, the group left Tucson and headed for Hollywood, California. In the Valley Trailer Park in North Hollywood, on 27 February 1950, Jones completed From Here to Eternity.
Now Jones began the task of editing, with the help of Mitch, Lowney, and others. He also began to provide financial support to the colony and some of the individual writers, which relieved Harry of some of the burden. During the summer of 1950, Jones continued to edit Eternity while four other resident writers stayed in tents, taught by Lowney, who still commuted from Robinson.
Finally, amid tremendous publicity, Eternity was published early in 1951. The film rights to the novel were sold in March to Columbia Pictures for $82,000. An article by A. B. C. Whipple, "James Jones and His Angel," published in Life, 7 May 1951, brought much attention to Jones, Lowney, and the colony. Especially after the appearance of the Life article, Lowney began to receive mail from would-be writers all over the country asking her for advice, or to read their manuscripts, or for permission to join the colony.
Amidst the new attention and publicity being given to Jones, Eternity, Lowney, and the colony, the major construction phase of the colony began in the summer of 1951. Jones donated much of his earnings to the colony; some of his donations built a five-room barracks and furnishings, the dining hall and recreation center known as the "Ramada," and new sanitary facilities. Jones' donations also helped to pay maintenance and support of the colony and the stu- dents.
The construction of permanent buildings at the colony coincided with the further systemization of Lowney's methods for training writers. Before prospective students were allowed to come to the colony, they had to do "at least six months of correspondence work with [Lowney] which consist[ed] of a lot of reading, some copying, some writing of their own."
Of these prerequisite activities, Lowney considered copying the most crucial. In a letter of advice to a prospective student, Lowney wrote:
THE WHOLE KEY TO SUCCESS IN THIS WRITING SYSTEM is ever the copying. Everything in life we do is copying --from the mannerisms we pick up to the way we learn to drive a car, eat our food--anything.
Copying usually consisted of retyping all or part of a novel by one of the writers Lowney admired, such as John Dos Passos, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Thomas Wolfe, Conrad Aiken, William Faulkner, Raymond Chandler, and Ernest Hemingway. Lowney believed that copying good writing in this way would force the beginning writer to assimilate, unconsciously, essential points of structure, dialog, and style.
Copying often continued even after a student was admitted to the colony. If the student survived the copying regimen, he was allowed a personal interview with Lowney, which sometimes included Jones, as well. Ultimately, it was Lowney's judgment that decided whether or not the student would be allowed to attend. As Jones wrote in notes about the Handy Colony, "In a general way, an applicant is selected or turned down because of whether Mrs[.] Handy thinks he will make a good writer or not."
Lowney had distinct expectations of her students. She thought a writer "must have left the social-mores, the environmental and endoctrinated [sic] PAST--the old ideas and the old mass thinking far behind." She believed that this rejection of conventional ideas would make writers unpopular with the people around them: "He is out in front, and his ideas are not only shocking, but they anger the people he knows." Frequently, she quoted "the Masters of the East" or Christ to add credence to what she said: "'A prophet is without honor in his own home town.'"
Lowney felt that writers needed to be completely honest with themselves to achieve a level of consciousness beyond "mass think- ing." She said, "honesty is necessary [for] a relaxing of ourselves which is another way of escaping form." To help her students achieve this "higher" plane of thinking, she would first motivate them "by misleading [and] by encouraging them." Later, she would become more critical of their work "after [they were] hooked and climbing."
If a prospective student satisfied Lowney's requirements and expectations, he would be granted probationary status as a resident student. Once at the colony, the new resident would be subjected to Lowney's strict schedule, which involved rising early (5:30 and in later years 6:30), coffee but no breakfast, then a morning spent copying (veteran students were allowed to work on their manuscripts). At noon the writers had lunch, and afterwards they did physical labor and chores. Dinner was about 5:30 PM and bedtime was at 8. At no time were the writers permitted to talk to anyone but Lowney about their writing. The food was plain but abundant, and no liquor was allowed at the colony (except in Jones' trailer). One night a month or so, Lowney would let the writers (who usually were all male) drive to Terre Haute, Indiana, to visit the bars and brothels.
Because the tents and barracks could not be heated in cold weather, the colony operated in Marshall from about May to September. In the fall, Lowney took her best students (usually those closest to finishing their books) with her to a winter site in Florida, Arizona, or California. Some students might spend the winter in Marshall with Loudell Handy, Harry's mother, but most students found work or returned to school at the end of the summer.
Lowney set the schedule and the rules, and she would not permit anyone at the colony to question her. She wrote to one student in 1953, "the [students] who do not WASTE MY TIME BY ARGUMENTATION and trying to teach the teacher or weaken my ideas so they can feel vastly superior--(WELL, don't try it)." She also disliked intellectuals and intellectualism: "I DISLIKE TALKING ANY KIND OF INTEL- LECTUAL YAK-YAK and find that the people who talk inflate their egos and never work." Lowney forbade colony inmates to read the works of certain writers, such as Marcel Proust, T. S. Eliot, D. H. Lawrence, Dylan Thomas, and others she judged as being "intellectual and sissy-like." If a student did not hold to Lowney's regime, if he disagreed with her ideas, or if he started intellectualizing, he was likely to be told to leave.
Encouraged by the success of Eternity and of Lowney's teaching methods, the Handys and Jones sought to incorporate the colony as a not-for-profit corporation. On 21 September 1951 the Handy Colony was officially incorporated by the Illinois secretary of state. The purpose of the Handy Colony, according to the Articles of Incorpora- tion, was:
To develop and further creative writing in the United States, and in connection therewith to operate a home or colony to assist writers and authors, and, in general, to carry on educational activities of a general literary nature.
In compliance with the dictates of incorporation, the Handy Colony elected a board of directors: Lowney, president; Jones, vice- president; and Harry, secretary-treasurer. This board of directors, along with the colony attorney Kenneth B. Hawkins, also wrote by-laws for the colony. Contained in these by-laws were three stated types of membership: charter members, active members, and honorary members. Charter members were those who were members within twelve months of incorporation; these were given to James Jones (certificate number 1), Lowney Handy (certificate number 2), and Harry Handy (certificate number 3). Active members were those who were producing manuscripts, and honorary members were those who contributed to the colony in other ways, such as by donating money or expertise.
The first active member certificates were issued to Willard Lindsay, Donald Sackrider, Robert Smith, Bert Bliss, and James Jones' sister, Mary Ann. Mary Ann Jones' certificate was given posthumously following her death at the colony on 5 June 1952.
This tragedy in 1952 cast a shadow over what was otherwise a good year for James Jones. Early in the year, Jones had received the National Book Award for Eternity. The novel ontinued to sell well, and Lowney and the colony benefitted materially from Jones' success. Jones had arranged for Lowney to receive ten percent of his earnings from Eternity for her editorial assistance. In 1952, Lowney had earned enough money from her percentage that she was able to build and to furnish an additional five-room barracks for the colony.'
The new barracks was not the only addition to the colony. A pool was donated to the colony by Lowney and Harry, and Lowney now had her own cabin at the colony, so she no longer needed to commute. Jones donated money for another trailer for the colony, athletic equipment, a shuffleboard machine, and money for other necessities such as maintenance and food.
Also during 1952, Jones began work on a new novel, Some Came Running, but the influence of Eternity was still strong. Duzing the winter of 1952-53, Lowney, Jones, and some students stayed in Tucson, Arizona. There Montgomezy Clift, who was to portray the character Prewitt in the movie From Here to Eternity, visited to consult with Jones on how to play the role. The movie premiered in August of 1953 to critical and popular acclaim, and brought Jones even greater fame. Clift, who had become a good friend of Jones, visited him at the colony in Marshall that summer of 1953.
Also that summer Jones' $85,000 "bachelor palace" was completed on the edge of the colony grounds, complete with all the latest electrical appliances, a bidet, a secret liquor storage area, and "a secret passageway...to a secret chamber (purpose unannounced)."
By 1953, the scarcity of women writers at the colony had become an issue of concern to Lowney. She claimed to have tried "to develop at least one female," but apparently without success. Lowney came to the conclusion that women could not make good writers because they were egotistical and tended to shift the blame for their problems onto others. She claimed that women reacted defensively when faced with criticism, and tried to argue with her about their writing. Lowney observed about herself: "Even I don't seem to write, but teach, so I guess women haven't got what it takes." In frustration, Lowney wrote to a woman pupil, "...I will stop trying to find a female writer and give up and go back to the people I can work with."
Part of the problem was that Lowney had extremely negative views regarding women. She wrote:
Nature says to a woman you are here to breed -- so she looks around and hunts for what will make the best mate to help her watch over the nest and take care of and fight for the young. Certainly she isn't looking for some young buck who has a roving eye and is out catting around when she needs him.
This attitude toward "women the parasites" was reflected in most of the books produced at the colony: few had any believable female characters. Some critics noticed the male orientation of the colony: Richard Gehman of the Chicago Tribune, for example, referred to "that strange circle in Marshall, Ill., den mothered by Mrs. Lowney Handy, which gave us James Jones, Tom T. Chamales, and other members of the masculinity-is-meaning school."
Lowney's ideas about sex were also reflected in the writings of her students. She believed that sex must be the "prime ingredient" of the modern novel, and yet she also asserted that "SEX IS A BATTLE" and wrote that "SEX -- like all other things that man waste[s] his energy on --are simply a snare and a [d)elusion." Probably through a combination of Lowney's views and Jones' presence, most of the literature that came out of the colony was male- oriented, with liberal doses of graphic sex and strong language.
Also in 1953, Lowney was expressing concern about the number of uninvited visitors/sightseers, who she felt were violating the privacy of the colony. She also worried about outsiders circulating misinformation about the colony. For example, an article about the colony written by George Taubeneck in Air Conditioning Refrigeration News set her off into a letter-writing rage. In addition, the occasional frictions between the colony, the increasingly famous James Jones and the townspeole of Marshall caused her much con- cern.
An "expose" by a former short-term student of the colony, David Ray, appeared in Chicago Magazine in 1956. Ray's article portrayed Lowney as being erratic, intolerant, and hypocritical. Ray claimed that some friends who came to visit were run off by Lowney, who heaved bricks at them as they were leaving because they had expressed admiration for T. S. Eliot. He claimed that Lowney ordered him to leave, and then changed her mind and told the other writers at the colony to watch him and prevent him from escaping. Ray contended he finally had to resort to trickery to break away from Lowney and the colony.
Jones, the colony, and Lowney were still in the limelight but the colony was not producing published authors. From the summer of 1953 through the summer of 1956, there were no major publications by writers from the Handy Colony. Finally, in 1956, Jezry Tschappat, writing under the pseudonym Gerald Tesch, published his novel, Never the Same Again.
Tschappat apparently broke the colony's dry spell, because 1956 also saw the sale of the movie rights to Tom Chamales' book, Never So Few, which was published in 1957. Edwin Cole Daly's book, Some Must Watch, was also published that year. Finally, the completion of Jones' long-awaited second novel Some Came Running in 1957 and the sale of the movie rights to it again put the colony in the news.
But the real turning point in the history of the Handy Colony occurred when, in February of 1957, Jones married Gloria Mosolino in Haiti. That summer, Jones and his bride returned to Marshall, where he planned to complete the editing of Running and considered rewriting his first novel, "They Shall Inherit the Laughter." But Jones' return to the colony was not to last. The tensions between Jones, Gloria, and Lowney rose to an intolerable level. After a violent argument between Lowney and Gloria, the Joneses left Marshall and the colony, never to return. Some Came Running was published early in 1958, and sold well, despite a poor reception by the critics.
After the departure of its most famous resident, the colony began to experience financial problems. Despite the contributions of Lowney and Harry, Jones had been the major supporter since the publication of From Here to Eternity. Jones had donated a sizable percentage of his earnings to the colony, but he ceased contributing after he left.
Among the students at the colony were two talented young black writers, Charles Wright and William Duhart. Duhart's novel, The Deadly Pay-Off, was published in 1958. Despite such successes, the number of students at the colony diminished and donations were not forthcoming. In 1954, Jones and Harry had tried to convince Lowney to enforce an agreement by which she would receive ten percent of the royalties from books written under her tutelage. None of Lowney's students were honoring the agreement and Lowney refused to make the effort to hold them to it. The failure to tap this potential source of income worsened the financial situation of the colony.
By 1961, Lowney was working with writers mainly by correspondence. The death in 1960 of Tom Chamales, one of Lowney's star pupils, had been a severe blow to her. One of the last writers who actually stayed at the colony was Jere Peacock, who published Valhalla in 1961.
As early as 1957, Lowney had begun to express doubts about her work. She wrote:
So today Hemingway and Jones have to BE SPORTSMEN...men, which means that they are fighters, drinkers, fornicators...with the best of the animal type. You know looking back over my work for 14 years I feel that I have failed utterly. That instead of bringing enlightenment to the world I have sold them into deeper and darker slavery... I'm glad to be quitting. And I admit I have failed in what I tried to do.'
Lowney did not quit, but the death of Harry Handy in March of 1963 left her feeling confused and lonely. She wrote:
I[')ve done more figuring than eve[r] in my life. I used to act, and accept the consequences, yell if I had to, but take it if I could.
Now all that seems to be reversed. And I am brought up against the past--or a facet of myself I've never thought about.
Lowney spent less and less time helping writers, although she did continue to work with some of her more promising students such as Jere Peacock, and corresponded with writers such as Robert Kendall and Jon Shirota.
Lowney continued teaching writers until her death on 27 June 1964. When Lowney died, the Handy Colony came to an end.
Despite her occasional self-doubts, what Lowney Handy accomplished was actually quite astonishing. This housewife from Robinson, Illinois, who had no significant literary training or experience, became the head of a nationally-known writers' colony. The writers connected with the Handy Colony produced more than a dozen published novels, and even more stories, most of which probably would never have been written, much less published, without Lowney's supervision. Certainly, the transformation of James Jones from a bitter young man AWOL from the Army into a major novelist would have been impossible without Lowney's encouragement and discipline.
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