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August Derleth (1909-1971)

I WAS BORN FEBRUARY 24, 1909, IN SAUK CITY, A small, largely German village, pleasantly situated on the west bank of the Wisconsin River, in south-central Wisconsin, one of two children of William Julius and Rose Louise (yolk) Derleth, who were, respectively, of FrenchBavarian and Prussian-Pennsylvania Dutch ancestry. My writing career had been decided before I left St. Aloysius parochial school at Sauk City, and, indeed, at thirteen I wrote my first stories, certain that I could do as well-or as badly--as the authors of the short "filler" stories which followed the feature accounts of Old and Young King Brady: Detectives, in Secret Service, which supplemented my reading of The Young Catholic Messenger, the novels of Father Finn, the nature lore of Thornton Burgess, and the mysteries of A. Conan Doyle and Sax Rohmer. Three years later I sold my first story to Weird Tales, proving that I could indeed write as badly as the anonymous hacks who wrote for Secret Service.

If anything had been needed to shore up my determination to become a writer after discarding inclinations toward the law and musical composition, publication of that first story in 1926 served. I began to write in earnest-for a while in collaboration with Mark Schorer, a schoolmate who has since become firmly established in academic circles as a critic and novelist-but primarily on my own, devoting myself initially to detective stories and supernatural tales, and gradually expanding into realistic studies of life in my home milieu, which I called "Sac Prairie." I wrote throughout my four years at the University of Wisconsin (B.A., 1930), part of the time under the sympathetic guidance of novelist Helen Constance White, and throughout a brief editorial post with Fawcett Publications (as an editor on Mystic Magazine), then in Minneapolis. During my university years I wrote the first version of my autobiographical novel, Evening in Spring, and also the first group of my pastiches of Sherlock Holmes, the Solar Pons stories, which, though immediately published in magazines, were not to see book publication until 1945 and after. By 1932, my serious work-the first portions of the Sac Prairie story-was appearing in such distinguished little reviews as The Midland, This Quarter, Prairie Schooner, and others.

During this time I had evolved the plan to tell the story of Sauk City and its twin village, Prairie du Sac, in a sequence of approximately fifty books, combining novels, novellas, short stories, poetry, journal extracts, and miscellaneous prose under the collective title of the Sac Prairie Saga. This plan might have been stillborn had it not been for the encouragement of my maternal grandmother, Mrs. Elizabeth yolk, and the patience and forbearance of my parents, who permitted me to live at home for almost a decade after I left my position in Minneapolis early in 1931 and came home determined to do or die as a writer. The summer of 1931 was spent once more in collaboration with Mark Schorer in the writing of a series of pulp stories, one a day, and every day was given over in large part to writing, with my only recreations then-as now-being swimming and long hikes into the hills and lowland areas of my native country.

In 1933, a notice of the formation of a new publishing company, Loring & Mussey, appeared in Author & Journalist, tempted me to try the mystery novel as a form. I wrote my first Judge Peck mystery, Murder Stalks the Wakely Family, in ten days, and with it won a contract with Loring & Mussey. This first book was published in February 1934. Its writing was followed by a rapid sequence of favorable events--the achievement of Roll of Honor status in the Edward J. O'Brien best-short-story anthologies; acceptance of serious short stories by Scribner's, Household, The Atlantic Monthly, and other magazines of like status; the writing of three more mystery novels; the beginning of experimental work in poetry, much of it readily placed with magazines; the publication in 1935 of my first serious book, a collection of related novelettes, Place of Hawks; a contract with Scribner's, then under the editorial guidance of the astute Maxwell Perkins; publication in 1937 of my first Sac Prairie novel, Still in the Summer Night, fulsomely praised by Sinclair Lewis, among others; and the awarding to me in 1938 of a Guggenheim Fellowship to continue my Sac Prairie Saga.

It should not be thought that after all my energies were devoted solely to writing. I found time also from the mid-1930's onward to conduct a Ranger's Club for young people; to serve as clerk and president of the local Board of Education; to serve as a parole officer for the County Court; to help organize a local Men's Club and a Parent-Teacher Association, and to serve both in various official capacities; to lecture in American Regional Literature at the University of Wisconsin; to further my collection of comics (as against adventure strips for morons), the world's largest, of which I hope to do a comprehensive study some day; and, in 1939, to found Arkham House: Publishers, devoted to publication of the work of the late H. P. Lovecraft, Lord Dunsany, Algernon Blackwood, A. E. Coppard, and others, with its associated imprints, Mycroft & Moran and Stanton & Lee. In 1941 I became literary editor of The Capital Times, of Madison, Wisconsin, a position from which I resigned early in 1960.

In 1939 I bought ten acres of land just west of Sauk City, a locally historic, heavily wooded spot, and there had a house of stone built for me, largely by my father, a skilled carpenter, one large enough to house my comics collection, my personal library (12,000 books), my record collection, and my even larger Arkam House stock, a house from which I sallied forth to lecture chiefly within Wisconsin now and then (though I took a swing west and a post at Los Angeles State College in 1953), and to fulfill such posts as Visiting Lecturer in English at the University of Wisconsin. In 1953 I married and have two children, April Rose and Walden William. They share in the same quality of affection which my parents lavished upon my sister and myself, for my parents live with me to help rear the children. In 1960 I began editing and publishing a new little magazine of poems of man and nature, Hawk & Whippoorwill.

I have been called the most prolific and versatile of writers in the quality field. Something upwards of 3,000 individual works of mine have been published in approximately 350 magazines here and abroad, including The Commonweal, Holiday, Story, The Catholic World, The Yale Review, Extension, The New Republic, Redbook (the purchase of five novels by which caused my home, now named Place of Hawks, to be referred to as "the House that Redbook built!), Coronet, Country Gentleman, The Voice of St. Jude, The Dalhousie Review, The New Yorker, Think, Good Housekeeping, The American Mercury, The Saturday Review, The English Journal, Scholastic, etc., etc. As of mid-1960, 90 of my books have been published, and some twenty are ready for publication.

My writing is in several distinct veins--apart from occasional history (The Wisconsin, The Milwaukee Road), biography (Still Small Voice, H.P.L.: A Memoir), journals (Village Year, Village Daybook), etc.-historical novels of (a) the Sac Prairie Saga (Wind Over Wisconsin, Restless Is the River, Shadow of Night--which was rated one of the best Catholic books of 1943 by the Cardinal Hayes Literature Committee) and (b) a secondary Wisconsin Saga (Bright Journey, The House on the Mound, The Hills Stand Watch); short stories of the Sac Prairie Saga (County Growth, Sac Prairie People, Wisconsin in Their Bones); poetry (fifteen volumes, for the Selected Poems, among which, Edgar Lee Masters wrote one of his rare introductions); modern novels (Sweet Genevieve, Evening in Spring, The Shield of the Valiant); juveniles (The Moon Tenders., The Mill Creek Irregulars, The Pinkertons Ride Again, Country of the Hawk, The Captive island), etc., and three Vision Books, Father Marquette and the Great Rivers, St. ignatius and the Company of Jesus, Columbus and the New World-part of a series for which publishers and authors received the Apostolic Blessing of Pope John XXIII; supernatural fiction (The Lurker at the Threshold, Someone in the Dark, The Mask of Cthulhu, etc.); pastiches ("In Re: Sherlock Holmes," The Memoirs of Solar Pons, The Return of Solar Pons); mystery novels (No Future for Luana, Mischief in the Lane, etc.)

I have never thought of myself as a Catholic author, but rather only as a writer who is a Catholic, and, apart from a novel in progress (The Lock and the Key) and juveniles, have made little attempt at Catholic writing. The principal influences of my formative years were Thoreau, Emerson, H. P. Lovecraft, H. L. Mencken, in that order; such Catholic influences as I am aware of are but two in number, St. Augustine and Jacques Maritain, though I ought not discount my admiration for Hilaire Belloc, G. K. Chesterton, Francois Mauriac, and Monsignor Ronald Knox, among outstanding Catholic authors. My literary influences, apart from Thoreau, were Thomas Hardy, Edgar Lee Masters, and Robert Frost, and, in work written purely for entertainment, H. P. Lovecraft and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

My prolificity is a matter of economic necessity, and I have no doubt that the quality of my work has suffered to some extent because of its necessary quantity. The variety of my writing in itself keeps me from tiring of the creative process. One critic said of me in reviewing Village Year that it was evident I had "traveled as widely in Sac Prairie as Thoreau did in Concord," which has always been my intention, since Sac Prairie is not only the center of my world but also the microcosm which reflects the macrocosm. I am much attached to this corner of the earth, not only because my family has lived here for more than a century, but because it possesses great natural beauty in abundance, and it affords me that continuity in time and place which I find necessary for my well-being as a person and as a writer.

Originally published in The Book of Catholic Authors, Walter Romig, Sixth Series, 1960.


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