Cedar Falls: City of Writers
The Cedar Falls Authors Festival (CFAF), 2017-2018
Iowa has produced many excellent writers: poets, playwrights, journalists, short story writers, novelists, academic writers, and bloggers. A 1991 map of Iowa, created by the Iowa Council of Teachers of English Language Arts, showed a sampling of authors from each region. Although outdated now, it shows a remarkable representation of authors from across the state. The Northeast quadrant combines the sister cities of Cedar Falls and Waterloo; however, this article will focus on Cedar Falls, and the five nationally known authors with ties to Cedar Falls: Bess Streeter Aldrich (1881-1954), Ruth Suckow (1892-1960), James Hearst (1900-1983), Nancy Price (1925- ), and Robert James Waller (1939-1917).
In the fall of 2016, a group of retired professors and community leaders formed The Cedar Falls Authors Festival (CFAF) Planning Committee to celebrate these five best-selling, nationally known authors. Rosemary Beach, the former director of the Cedar Falls Historical Society, and Dr. Barbara Lounsberry, retired professor from the University of Northern Iowa (UNI), served as co-chairs. A year-long festival resulted, beginning in May 2017 and continuing through June 2018.
The committee discovered a 2012 website created by the students of Dr. Tom Connors at the University of Northern Iowa, Historical Cedar Falls. The Literature page mentioned all five authors and was a wonderful resource. The committee saw the need for a website to educate the community about the five authors and promote events, which was created during the fall of 2016, www.cfauthorsfestival.org.
Early on, the planners recognized that having five best-selling, nationally known authors from a single community was notable in Iowa—even with the three state university towns—and they discovered two more best-selling writers with Cedar Falls ties later in R. V. (Ronald Verlin) Cassill and the Reverend Charlie Shedd.
Internationally-known Cedar Falls artist Gary Kelley created the Cedar Falls Authors Festival’s poster, depicting a person lying on the ground with a book, by the Cedar River, with quotes from the five writers appearing in the stream overhead:
Cedar Falls Authors Festival events began in May 2017 and continued through June 2018. In all, there were 60 events, including a cemetery walk, an Aldrich radio play, bus and home tours, film screenings followed by panel discussions, a one-day readathon—as well as numerous author programs, readings, and book signings. The Cedar Falls Public Library had already begun a monthly “Local Authors Showcase” which will continue. More than 3,200 attended Festival events, with 40 presenters, focusing first on the nationally-known, best-selling authors and then on other local writers, including a 13-program Cedar Falls History Writers Series.
The festival left a lasting legacy, including:
● A commemorative rock in Seerley Park with a plaque honoring Nancy Price and the many other writers who lived and wrote around the park.
Gary Kelley’s original Cedar Falls Authors Festival artwork which now hangs in the Cedar Falls Public Library.
● A sculpture, “Amongst," by UNI student-sculptor Hanna Seggerman, honoring Ruth Suckow and Ferner Nuhn on three-year display in the Hearst Center Sculpture Garden.
● New book illustrations by Nancy Price added to the Hearst Center for the Art’s permanent collection, following her festival exhibition “Picturing a Book.”
● Planting Red Geraniums: Discovered Poems of James Hearst, 23 previously unpublished poems newly discovered, edited, and published by Dr. James O’Loughlin.
● Reprinting of the 1974 James Hearst tribute issue of the North American Review.
● The Cedar Falls Authors Festival website, www.cfauthorsfestival.org, which continues to provide information on Cedar Falls authors.
Finally, the planning committee was delighted to learn that a new Cedar Falls public school would be named the Bess Streeter Aldrich Elementary School. Other festival projects continue, including a Cedar Falls Writers Directory, plaques on notable writer’s homes, and free book exchange boxes in the city parks.
Now, let’s look at these five remarkable authors. What do the five authors share?
Three of the five were born in Cedar Falls, dubbed the “Garden City” by early town booster and Mayor Peter Melendy. Four of them taught at the Iowa State Teachers College in Cedar Falls which became the University of Northern Iowa, and three first attended school there as students. Several of the writers grew up on farms, visited relatives’ farms, or demonstrated a genuine appreciation for the rich farmland of Black Hawk County.
The poet James Hearst grew up on a farm west of Cedar Falls, helping his brother on the farm as an adult, in spite of an injury that left him partially paralyzed. Hearst wrote about the earth, the soil, the cycle of growing and planting, and the people who tend the soil. Novelist and short story writer Ruth Suckow was known for her realistic, evocative descriptions of the country fields, which bring to mind Grant Wood's paintings of the rich farm fields in spring and fall.
Suckow was a city girl, living in a number of towns around the state, but she often visited relatives on their farm. The earlier novelist and short story writer Bess Streeter Aldrich also deftly depicted the physical environment of her characters, including their fields, homes, and small towns. Aldrich grew up in Cedar Falls and wrote fondly of her own post-marriage small town in Nebraska in an essay from 1933 that includes a picture of a yard filled with trees, bushes, and garden plants that would make Peter Melendy proud.
Novelist and essayist Robert James Waller set several of his novels in small Iowa towns, including Cedar Falls, and filled them with lyrical sentences like this—“There are songs that come free from the blue-eyed grass, from the dust of a thousand country roads.”
Novelist and poet Nancy Price, another city girl, sets eight of her 11 novels—including the best-selling Sleeping with the Enemy— in Cedar Falls, and sprinkles frequent references to local stores, streets, and parks in the stories.
All five writers explore relationships among friends and within families and the community. Aldrich was the pioneer story teller, describing the struggles of early settlers in Iowa battling sickness, bad crops, and loneliness. Suckow told the stories of several families over multiple generations and their struggles with farming, moving to town, raising families, generational misunderstandings, sacrifice, and the challenges women faced, whether single, married, or widowed. Aldrich and Suckow captured the day by day minutia of life, and allow readers to imagine living in bygone eras.
Hearst described the relationship of the farmer to the soil, his neighbors, and his community. He makes the hard work of farming seem gritty and real, and there is a real sense of exasperation when he is questioned about whether or not the field is rocky in the following poem, “Truth.”
“How the devil do I know
if there are rocks in your field,
plow it and find out” begins James Hearst's most famous poem, called (pointedly) “Truth.”
Dr. Robert James Waller wrote the best-selling romantic novella The Bridges of Madison County that captured the imagination of the nation in 1992 and again when it was made into the Clint Eastwood/Meryl Streep film. While he was trained in business and mathematics, Waller had the heart of a storyteller, the soul of a lonesome cowboy, and the gifts of a skilled musician. Nancy Price is the only one of the five authors still alive; her 1987 best-selling novel Sleeping with The Enemy put the topic of domestic violence into the public forum, and many still find those scenes in the 1991 Julia Roberts film unsettling.
Now, let’s look at each one’s life and a sample from his or her work.
The Five Authors
Cedar Falls native Bess Streeter Aldrich, a 1901 graduate of the Iowa State Normal School, published 13 novels and more than 200 short stories. Prior to embarking on her career as a writer, she taught for four years and worked as an assistant supervisor at the Normal School before earning an advanced degree in 1906. Two of Aldrich’s most famous and beloved novels, Miss Bishop (1933) and Song of Years (1939), are set in Cedar Falls. Miss Bishop was the basis of the 1941 hit movie, Cheers for Miss Bishop, which premiered at the Regent Theatre in downtown Cedar Falls. Aldrich moved to Elmwood, Nebraska in 1909, so both states claim her as one of their own.
This excerpt from her 1939 novel Song of Years describes Black Hawk County and the Cedar River, and the area that became Cedar Falls:
The Valley of the Red Cedar is in eastern Iowa—a long strip of fertile land sprawling out beside the river whose name it bears. The Red Cedar River itself is not much more than a sturdy creek until joined by the waters of the Shell Rock and West Fork where it suddenly becomes of importance, a thing of width and depth with the right to boast of having mothered many a sawmill, grist-mill, and factory before a wheel on its banks was turned by electricity.
Ruth Suckow first lived in Cedar Falls after her father, the Reverend William Suckow, married Opal Swindle from Cedar Falls in 1922. Ruth then married Cedar Falls native Ferner Nuhn in 1929. She got her start writing short stories for John T. Frederick’s The Midland, a publication focused on giving Iowa’s writers a voice. Historian Leland Sage credits Frederick with “…the creation and development of a striking new phase of literature, some of which we may call ‘Iowa’ literature.”
In the early 1920s, Frederick introduced Suckow to H. L. Mencken, who published her short stories in The American Mercury and called her “unquestionably the most remarkable woman . . . writing short stories in the republic.” Mencken introduced Suckow to book publisher Alfred A. Knopf, and sent her work to Sinclair Lewis. Mencken put Suckow in the same class with James Joyce, Eugene O'Neill, and Theodore Dreiser.
She wrote 43 short stories, a novella, a memoir, and eight novels as well as numerous essays and articles in national publications. Suckow may be best known for her novels The Folks (1934), Country People, (1924) Odyssey of a Nice Girl (1925), and New Hope (1936). She and husband Ferner Nuhn lived in Cedar Falls off and on from 1931 through the early 1940s.
One of her short stories, “A Rural Community,” captures Suckow’s gift for description:
The feeling of autumn grew more poignant. There was a scent of dust in the stubble.
The trees grew in scattered russet groups. One slender young cottonwood,
yellow as a goldfinch and as lyric in its quality, stood in a meadow, alone. Not
even spring beauty was so aching and so transient – like music fading away.
Yet, under everything, something abiding and eternal.
It is worth noting that Ruth Suckow’s husband, Ferner Nuhn, wrote essays for national publications, as well as short stories, book reviews, and one non-fiction book. Nuhn taught literature and writing at the college level. As a young teacher, he wrote the essay “Teaching American Literature in American Colleges” in 1928, arguing that British literature dominated most U.S. college literature offerings and calling for more American literature to be taught: 60 years later, his work was still being cited by academics analyzing course offerings.
He and Suckow opposed the Second World War and gave writing workshops for conscientious objectors. After Suckow’s death in 1960, Nuhn remarried; with his second wife, Georgia, he established the Ruth Suckow Memorial Association (RSMA) in 1966. Today, it is an international organization that continues to meet annually—usually in Cedar Falls. The association has a website (www.ruthsuckow.org) and works to preserve Suckow’s literary legacy.
Nuhn wrote an insightful essay about midwestern farm auctions during the Depression, “The Farmer Learns Direct Action.”
Here is an excerpt:
A raw, chilly day. The yard of the farm, churned black in a previous thaw, is frozen now in ruts and notes. Where the boots of the farmers press, a little slime of water exudes, black and shiny. Through a fence the weather-bleached stalls of corn, combed and broken by the busking stand ghostly in the pale air. The farm buildings machine-shed, chicken-houses, pig-houses, corncribs—sprawl and gather again in the big, hip-roofed red barn, and strike a final accent in the thrust of the tiled silo. The farm is kempt and has a going air; there is nothing run down about it. The fields spread away, picking up other farm dusters sections off—remote, separate, dim under the big gray sky.
James Hearst and his brother Charles grew up on a farm west of Cedar Falls: Charles farmed, while James became a poet and teacher. When James was 19, a horrific diving accident left him partially paralyzed. Despite his affliction, he drove tractors and helped his brother with the farm. He also attended Iowa State Teachers College and later completed coursework at the University of Iowa. He began writing poetry in the early 1920s. By 1941 he was teaching creative writing at the Iowa State Teachers College; decades later, he retired as a distinguished professor of English. Hearst corresponded with other poets including Robert Frost, Carl Sandburg, and Paul Engle, and was sometimes called the “Robert Frost of the Midwest.” He published more than a dozen collections of poetry, among them Country Men (1937) and Limited View (1962), winning awards and acclaim.
Here is a sample from his poem “No Nightingales, no Nymphs:”
…The farmer keeps his nose to
the grindstone when spring comes—
no pastoral shepherd to dance
in the moonlight, crowned with
vine leaves, singing to nymphs—
he plows himself to bed, tired
beyond dreaming, snores his way
Today, UNI’s Dr. James O’Loughlin maintains the James Hearst digital archive, at https://hearstarchive.uni.edu/.
Poet and novelist Nancy Price is the only one of the five featured authors from the Cedar Falls Authors Festival still living. Price is the daughter of the University of Northern Iowa’s fourth president, Malcolm Price. She lived in the president’s home on campus as a teenager and graduated from the university’s Laboratory school. The president’s home appears in her second novel An Accomplished Woman (1979). A prize-winning poet from the age of fourteen, Price married a UNI history professor and, in the late 1950s and 1960s, began to publish poetry in national popular and literary magazines.
In the 1970s, she turned to fiction.
Her first novel, A Natural Death (1973), explores how slaves and slave-owners are created. Her second, An Accomplished Woman (1979), looks at how American woman are fashioned in the 20th century. An Accomplished Woman has sections set in Cedar Falls—as does Price’s next novel, the best-selling Sleeping with the Enemy (1987), a phrase that has now entered the language. While she wrote, Price earned her master’s degree in English from UNI in 1964 and later taught in the Department of English Language and Literature. She is still writing and loves interacting with her fans, talking about her work, and sharing her artwork. She has illustrated a number of her books, and an exhibition of her illustrations, “Picturing a Book,” was shown in 2017 at the Hearst Center for the Arts in Cedar Falls.
One of the highlights of the Cedar Falls Authors Festival was the 2017 tour of the Seerley Park homes related to Sleeping with the Enemy. Price wrote the book in her Iowa Street home, looking across Seerley Park to three houses that she placed in the novel. The night before the tour, the movie Sleeping with the Enemy was shown to a full crowd in Seerley Park. The next day, the Hearst Center for the Arts hosted a panel discussion on the novel vs. the film, which Price attended. A reception and book signing followed, with a line of readers patiently waiting to chat with Price.
Price has published eight novels since Sleeping with the Enemy, with six set in Cedar Falls, including her most recent novel, Three at the Door (2018). Born in 1925, Price is currently writing and illustrating her next novel, The Woman Who Slept with The Enemy (2020).
While most think of her as a novelist, Price also writes poetry. Here is her poem, “Trick or Treat.”
Trick or Treat
The ghost is a torn sheet,
the skeleton’s suit came from a rack in a store
the witch is flameproof, but who knows
what dark streets they have taken here?
Brother Death, here is a candy bar.
For the lady wearing the hat from Salem: gum.
And a penny for each eye, Lost Soul.
They fade away with their heavy sacks.
Thanks! I yell just in time.
Thanks for another year!
Robert James Waller attended the University of Northern Iowa as a student. He returned as a professor and rose to become Dean of the School of Business. Waller was a polymath: a composer and musician, photographer, and mathematician, as well as a best-selling writer. In the late 1980s, Waller published two collections of essays: Just Beyond the Firelight (1988) and One Good Road is Enough (1990).
He then turned to fiction, and his first novella, The Bridges of Madison County (1992), made him internationally famous. (Oprah Winfrey endorsed the book.) Waller followed this fame with Slow Waltz at Cedar Bend (1993; “Cedar Bend” his fictional Cedar Falls), and five more novels, including A Thousand Country Roads (2002), the sequel to Bridges of Madison County.
Here is an excerpt from The Bridges of Madison County:
It’s clear to me now that I have been moving toward you and you toward me for a long time. Though neither of us was aware of the other before we met, there was a kind of mindless certainty humming blithely along beneath our ignorance that ensured we would come together. Like two solitary birds flying the great prairies by celestial reckoning, all of these years and lifetimes we have been moving toward one another.
Waller planned to launch the Cedar Falls Authors Festival in May 2017 with songs, reminiscences, and readings from his works. Sadly, he died two months before the event; however, one of the Cedar Falls Authors Festival committee members, writer Scott Cawelti, who sang with Waller professionally in their early days, launched the festival with a Waller tribute. Waller was also friends with festival Chair Rosemary Beach and her husband Bob; they visited him in Texas shortly before his death.
Connections between the Authors
After James Hearst died, UNI Professor Scott Cawelti, a member of the Authors festival Planning Committee, published The Complete Poetry of James Hearst (2001). Nancy Price wrote the foreword for the 2001 collection, describing how she met Hearst when he was 40 and she was 15. One summer, while James and Meryl were in Aspen, they let her use their house to write poetry. Robert James Waller reviewed the Hearst poetry collection, writing that “James Hearst wrote eloquently of the land, its pleasures and sorrows, carefully turning the language as one of his farmer heroes turns the soil.”
Hearst also has connections with the other authors. He was friends with Ruth Suckow and Ferner Nuhn; she wrote the foreword for his book Country Men (1937), and both Suckow and Hearst had work published in The Midland. Finally, Aldrich scholar Carol Miles Peterson has found correspondence between Aldrich and Hearst from 1927.
Two more Notable Authors
As the festival progressed, two more authors were identified as nationally known, best- selling writers with ties to Cedar Falls. The first one was R. V. Cassill, also known as Ronald Verlin Cassill (1919 – 2002), who was born in Cedar Falls. He graduated from Blakesburg High School, and then went to the University of Iowa, where he earned a B.A. in art. Cassill served in the United State Army in the Medical Administration Corp, as a First Lieutenant, stationed in the South Pacific.
After World War II, Cassill taught at the University of Iowa’s Writers’ Workshop and Brown University. In addition, he wrote reviews, short stories and novels; he also worked as an editor and a lithographer. Cassill is best known for his novels and short stories, and won awards such as the O Henry short story award. He was the editor of the Norton Anthology of Short Fiction for 25 years.
For more information, visit his author website, which includes a list of his books, www.rvcassill.com/.
The second notable author is pastor Charlie Shedd (1915-2004), who lived in Cedar Falls and graduated from Cedar Falls High School. He married a girl from Cedar Falls, Martha, and served as the youth pastor at Northminster Presbyterian church in Waterloo early in his career. Shedd had a remarkable career, serving as a minister for 50 years while writing books, a nationally syndicated column, and appearing on talk shows on radio and television.
Shedd wrote 40 books that were humorous, inspirational, and motivational. His writing focused on churches, relationships, dating, dieting, marriage and sexuality, parenting, and communication. His best-known books, Letters to Karen and Letters to Philip, sold millions of copies and prepared young couples for marriage.
For his full biography, go to his publisher’s website, www.balconypublishing.com/author_shedd.htm
Community Organizations Hosting Programs
Ferner Nuhn and James Hearst were friends, as has been noted, and shared a love of art. Nuhn established the Cedar Falls Art League in the early 1940s, which later became the Hearst Center for the Arts after James Hearst left his home to the city, asking that it be used for a community arts center. The Hearst Center for the Arts opened in 1989.
The Hearst Center generously hosted a number of the Cedar Falls Authors Festival events, such as the panel discussion on Nancy Price and the book/movie Sleeping with the Enemy, as well as several performances of a the play, “Just Suppose,” about the life of Iowa author Ruth Suckow, held in the summers of 2017 and again in 2019, following the annual meeting of the Ruth Suckow Memorial Association (RSMA). As noted, a sculpture, “Amongst," by UNI student-sculptor Hanna Seggerman, honoring Ruth Suckow and Ferner Nuhn, is on three-year display in the Hearst Center Sculpture Garden, and was installed during the festival.
Several presentations focused on James Hearst: Jeremy Schraffenberger discussed James Hearst and the North American Review, which is the oldest literary magazine in the nation. Scott Cawelti played songs from his 2010 album, Landscape Iowa: 16 James Hearst Poems. UNI professor Jim O’Loughlin shared 18 undiscovered Hearst poems, which he published in a small book,
Beside the Hearst Center, two other hosts were invaluable. The Cedar Falls Public Library, located in downtown Cedar Falls, was the hub of planning committee meetings and hosted the majority of the programs in its large meeting room on the second floor. The library was an ideal partner, because of its helpful staff, location, and technology. In addition, it had a display, labeled “Read Local,” featuring books by our five authors as well as a section on the second floor with books about local history.
The third host was the Rod Library at the University of Northern Iowa, where a set of programs were held, including one about the famous First Amendment case of students wearing black arm bands to protest the war in Viet Nam war, Tinker v. Des Moines,” with Dr. John Johnson. The Library also hosted an exhibition and program on the works of Cedar Falls historian, cartoonist, and radio and television personality Herb Hake. The Festival was an opportunity for collaboration, with multiple staff getting involved with the project, and strengthened bonds between many of the partners. The Rod Library hosts a digital repository called Scholar works, whose “purpose is to collect, preserve and make available the research and creative and scholarly output from the University of Northern Iowa (UNI) community.” Scholar works included key documents and information about the five authors in a collection titled CFAuthors.
One other program was held at another Festival partner, New Aldaya Lifescapes Revue Performing Arts Center, hosted a program with a program focused on a celebrating a book about on the adventures of a young woman who served in the Women’s Army Corps in WW2, based on by Cedar Falls writers’ Lynn & Mary Nielsen’s I’ll Be Seeing You: The Letters & Diaries of an Iowa WAC in World War II. The Cedar Falls Historical Society mounted a Cemetery Walk, with persons in Bess Streeter Aldrich’s novel Song of Years stepping out from their graves to tell their stories. The Cedar Falls Community Theatre not only served as the fiscal agent for the Authors Festival but also screened Cheers for Miss Bishop, the 1941 film of Aldrich’s novel Miss Bishop, about a beloved Cedar Falls college teacher.
From its early days onward, Cedar Falls, Iowa has served as a rich seed bed for a series of talented, nationally known authors like Bess Streeter Aldrich, Ruth Suckow, Ferner Nuhn, James Hearst, Nancy Price, and Robert James Waller. Evidence that Cedar Falls is still the city of writers can be found by the response to the 2017/2018 Cedar Falls Authors Festival. Audiences packed meeting rooms at the Cedar Falls Public Library, the Hearst Center for the Arts, and the University of Northern Iowa’s Rod Library for programs about our five famous authors. Other programs were also well attended and included a A book launch, a blogging panel and workshop. The final series of programs focused on the city’s history writers and included presentations about the role of Cedar Falls in the Civil War, how a book about the infamous murders of a local family was featured on a true crime program, the value of newspapers, and how to write historical fiction.
Almost 40 local writers responded to the survey to become part of our directory of authors, while an informal list compiled by committee members revealed another 50 names of area writers, bloggers, poets, and journalists. Best of all, community groups came together and explored ways to celebrate local authors and rediscover the community’s literary history. Finding all of the ways that the five famous authors intersected as colleagues and friends in the Supper Club, community, and the university, strengthened connections.
With its rich history of pioneers drawn westward to settle new lands, and the influence of the university, the community of Cedar Falls continues to foster creativity, intellectual development, and to writing of many kinds. While Peter Melendy dubbed Cedar Falls “the Garden City,” a more apt description would be “Cedar Falls, City of Writers.”
Last updated March 5, 2021