|Newspaper advertisement from Des Moines Register, March 1, 1947|
###Prominent Among the Mourners did not once use the name "Grinnell," but nevertheless produced a sharply critical and extremely precise narrative image of Grinnell College and its small-town context. Published in 1946 by J. B. Lippincott as part of its "Main Line Mystery" series, Prominent was authored by "Carolyn Thomas," a pseudonym that seems to have been derived from the names of two people who had lived in Grinnell in the early 1940s: Thomas William Duncan (1905-1987) and his wife, Actea Carolyn (Young) Duncan (1913-1990). Reported by a female narrator who arrives in Larkinville (founded by J. B. Larkin), a small Iowa town, to begin a job in the publicity department of Larkin College, Prominent narrates a series of homicides that interrupted placid, small-town Iowa life; in this respect the novel is perfectly ordinary.
Along the way, however, the mystery's narrator and central character authors some serious character assassination whose waves lapped the Grinnell College pond for some time after publication. According to long-time Grinnell College historian, Joe Wall, Prominent Among the Mourners "was the conversation piece on campus" when Wall arrived back in Grinnell in 1947 to begin teaching. Wall claimed that at the time the book "was virtually required reading for all new faculty members" (Grinnell Herald-Register, May 11, 1978).
But townsfolk as well as college personnel were attracted to a book so closely identified with their home turf. According to a February 9, 1947 article in the Des Moines Register, Grinnell's Stewart Library, which then rented books at two cents a day, could not keep the mystery on the rental shelves. "So heavy has been the demand," the Register wrote, "that the library is keeping no reservation list. Library patrons have to be there when it hits the rental shelf" or miss their chance to check it out.
|Gravestone of the Duncans, Masonic Cemetery, Las Cruces, New Mexico|
|Grinnell College Front Campus (ca. 1900)|
[The Music building] stood at the east edge [of campus], over by the railroad track. A warehouse of a building, it was two stories high, with a steeple like a dunce cap (Prominent, p. 144).
|Alumni Hall (ca. 1910) (https://digital.grinnell.edu/islandora/object/grinnell%3A13531)|
Alumni and faculty were given to drooling about dear old Burma, but to an objective eye the most charitable estimate was that it constituted a fire hazard...Burma looked old, too—old and secretive…The building towered massively, its juttings [sic] and cornices casting gargoyle shadows… (Prominent, p. 25).
|Chicago Hall, 1915 postcard (https://digital.grinnell.edu/islandora/object/grinnell%3A13726)|
I hoped I would never have to work at night in my office; the old walls of Burma were surely alive with mice. Probably even rats in the basement, where the back files were kept…I didn’t think it deserved such a cheerful title as basement; dungeon would have been better. It was a huge, cavernous place, floored with dank concrete and hard-packed earth…The whole basement, for my money, looked the way those midnight broadcasts sound. I mean the ones where werewolves howl and Frankenstein slides down the aerial (Prominent, p. 25).Another building to play an important part in the plot was the college library. Grinnell's Carnegie Library, situated just north of Herrick Chapel in the 1200 block of Park Street, was erected in 1905 with monies supplied by Andrew Carnegie. What had begun as a spacious destination for the college's 29,000 books over the years became a cramped and cluttered facility; by the time Burling Library opened in 1959, the library collection totaled more than 120,000 volumes used by 875 students and some 90 faculty members (see Waldo Walker on "Carnegie Hall" in Digital Grinnell).
Construction presently underway on campus has razed part of Carnegie Hall, but when originally constructed the library building formed a"T," with a west wing that ran north-south parallel to Park Street, and a perpendicular east wing (now razed) intended mainly for book shelves. Beneath the east wing architects had created basement space for the archives as well as storage space for oversize books and old issues of periodicals.
Susan Eyerly, the mystery's narrator, made several trips to the library basement in search of clues to the murders. Her description brings dust to the reader's throat:
I entered the building and descended the stairs to the basement. It was crowded with stacks that contained musty, out-of-date volumes...The huge volumes containing the Everton News [the concocted substitute title for the Des Moines Register] were arranged with the name of the paper and the inclusive dates stamped along their spines...The smell of dust and yellowed newsprint floated up from the bound papers like the moldy stench of charnel shrouds. I stared at the shadowy library stacks, and those dim galleries seemed as intricate and thickly-coated with the years as a catacomb (Prominent, pp. 89, 169, 173).A 1957 photograph of the Carnegie basement demonstrates that the novel's description was not far off the mark (even if the photo does not reveal the dust).
|Carnegie Library Basement (ca. 1957)|
###Immediately across the street from the library still today stands a house at 1205 Park Street. It was at this address—fictionalized as Lowell Street—that Prominent has the newly-arrived college publicity director take a room.
As we lurched away [from the train station], I glanced at the New Marshall [Monroe] hotel...We crawled north along a wide avenue, elm-shaded. Big old houses stood well back from the sidewalk, triumphs of gingerbread and widow's walks...We paused for an east-and-west highway [US 6]...crossed the highway and passed the campus: mellow old buildings, great shade trees...The cab halted at a large frame house on the west side of the street. It was white-painted, with green shutters; and a vine-sheltered porch rambled around the east and south sides...There was an old stable behind... (Prominent, pp. 5-6).What the college now calls Macy House still stands at 1205 Park, although it, too, has seen renovation and alteration over the years, including the demolition of the old stable out back and erection of a sizable addition to the west in 2008. Nevertheless, the structure is still recognizable from its description in Prominent.
1205 Park Street; the large addition on the west was added in 2008
|Professor Charles Payne (1936 Cyclone)|
|Ina Chatterton, Instructor in History, 1925 Cyclone|
[Ball was a] slightly-built man of thirty. He had dark hair and a fox-terrier face; and outsize shell-rim glasses weighed down his small, sharp nose. His voice reminded me of a terrier’s, too: it yapped…Ball has charm when he chooses, which is when he thinks it will do him good…His charm is treacherous. He’ll give you a magnetic smile and you won’t catch on till you notice the knife handle sticking out of your back...Scott Gerard Ball had been straining like a leashed terrier. When the president paused, Ball reared up, yapping furiously…Scott’s canine face twisted in a sneer” (Prominent, pp. 16, 21-22, 20, 30-31).
|1932 Sanborn Insurance Map for 1131 Park Street, showing garage at rear of property|
|Grinnell Herald-Register July 6, 1942|
Scott’s stepson, Charles, had died a year ago last August 15 on his twelfth birthday….It seemed that Scott had burned with jealousy at Elsie’s affection for the boy…Charles lived with his father—Elsie’s first husband—in Chicago, but he always spent summer vacations in Larkinville…Charles had been vacationing a year ago when he fell from a high rafter in the old barn behind Ball’s house. A broken neck…It was thought strange that so sturdy and well-coordinated a lad should have lost his head and fallen. But both Scott and Elsie had been so devastated that nobody supposed it wasn’t an accident. …did Scott Ball kill his stepson?...What if the lad had been driven to suicide by Scott’s acid tongue? (Prominent, p. 127).Throughout the novel Carolyn Thomas mocked the ambition she witnessed in Stuart Gerry Brown, but it seems that Brown's ambition was not misplaced. A member of the English Department at Grinnell, Brown left the college in 1947 to become Professor of Citizenship and American Culture at the Maxwell Graduate School of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Syracuse University where he taught for twenty years. In the mid-1960s he moved to Honolulu, becoming graduate professor of American Studies at the East-West Center of the University of Hawaii. Along the way he authored a dozen books and became a policy adviser to two presidential candidates—Adlai Stevenson and Robert Kennedy. His extensive archive, which includes substantial correspondence with former colleagues at Grinnell, is housed at Syracuse University and attests to the broad contacts Brown had in both academia and politics.
|Tanager Magazine Staff, 1944 Cyclone (Theobald in center of back row)|
[Hadley was]...a fair slender fellow...in his middle thirties. He had a sensitive face with a firm mouth...He had a natural reticence that made talking about himself difficult...[he] rushed over everything that reflected credit on himself, such as the honors with which he'd been graduated from Oxford and his volumes of published verse. He had been born of British parents in the Malay States where his father was a civil servant. He had been sent back to England to a public school and Oxford, and after graduation he taught in Canada... (Prominent, pp. 7, 23).Thomas made small alterations in the biography of the fictional Hadley, but the portrait is unmistakably copied from Theobald. Born in the Indian sub-continent (rather than the Malay States) to missionary parents (rather than civil servants), John Theobald was indeed educated at Oxford, and had immigrated to the United States and Canada, having held teaching positions in both countries before arriving at Grinnell in 1941. According to a 1982 biographical essay, Theobald did not take well to the Grinnell campus, finding it "as stimulating as tundra." Philip Hadley had a similar impression of Grinnell. When the novel's narrator asks Hadley how long he had been at Larkin, he replies:
Two years. And that’s a year and eleven months too long. I knew before I’d seen my first October here that it wasn’t the spot for me…I’m angling for a job at a university on the west coast (Prominent, p. 20).His fictional alter-ego was said to have had a disastrous romantic engagement with a student, but John Theobald in fact became attached to a Grinnell student with whom he developed a lasting romantic attachment. Mary Lee Nugent, daughter of an Algona, Iowa dentist, came to Grinnell in 1939 and majored in English. Like Theobald, she loved poetry, and managed to win several campus poetry prizes, including the 1942 Selden Whitcomb Poetry competition. She and Theobald married (John had been previously married and divorced) in December, 1943, a few months after Mary Lee's graduation from Grinnell.
|John Theobald, ca. 1982 (https://www.sandiegoreader.com/photos/1982/jul/08/98383/#)|
|Fine Arts Department, 1946 Cyclone (John Ryan, far right)|
###There are other college personalities who appear in Prominent under fictitious names, and Carolyn Thomas labored hard to replicate their characters and mannerisms: the college president, named Herron in the novel, but undoubtedly modeled on former president John Nollen rather than Samuel Stevens who was president when the Duncans reached Grinnell; Persis Maxey, a stand-in for Adeline Pruyn, administrative assistant to President Stevens; Leo Shadwell, an interfering alumnus and college trustee from Everton (Des Moines) who was said to have given the college $150,000 for a music building—perhaps a caricature of Fred Darby, class of 1895, who in the early 1940s gave the college $125,000 for a gymnasium (although Darby did not live in Des Moines); and so on. Lining up these characters with their real-life equivalents is fun, and Maggie Kiesel's key can be a big help.
But here I turn attention to how the novel describes the town of Grinnell under its pseudonym of Larkinville, founded by "J. B. Larkin." The physical description of Larkinville—even allowing for exaggeration—comes very close to 1940s Grinnell. Early in the book the author has Susan Eyerly walk through the downtown business district "...with its old facades in red brick and sandstone, its John Deere implement dealer, its J. C. Penney store [914 Main]" (Prominent, p. 8). To file news of the murders Eyerly is obliged to visit the downtown telephone exchange to make long-distance calls, just as 1940s Grinnellians had to do. "It's that old brick building on the corner of Fourth and Emerson," Prominent reports (p. 57). There was no telephone building at Fourth and Broad (Emerson Street in Prominent), but there certainly was a telephone exchange in the 1912 brick building of the former Interior Telephone Company on Fifth Avenue.
|Interior Telephone Company building, 815 Fourth Avenue (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Interior_Telephone_Company_Building)|
In general, however, the novel casts a disparaging glance over the town, often disdained for its small-town attitudes. For example, at one point Susan Eyerly takes a nighttime stroll
through the deserted business section...They didn't actually take up the sidewalks in Larkinville [at night], but they might as well have. A few dim street lights guided my steps, but the store windows were shrouded in darkness. Not even a night light burned in the back of the hardware and grocery stores (Prominent, p. 58).The novel's local newspaper, titled Larkinville Gazette (presumably a stand-in for the twice-weekly Grinnell Herald-Register), comes in for some heavy criticism, too. Eyerly calls it
a horrible example of what journalism should not be. In any given issue—it was published Tuesday and Friday—I could discover so many instances of literary ineptitude that I was thinking of compiling a list of prize specimens to send to my newspaper friends (Prominent, p. 79).
|Advertisement for the Pup above the Raven (Scarlet and Black, October 5, 1945)|
|Advertisement from the Scarlet and Black, November 12, 1943|
It was a place of chromium and white leather, with Bing Crosby crooning from a juke-box, and students milling about...Our food came. My milkshake was too thin, my sandwich soggy. Bing Crosby yielded to the Andrews' Sisters... (Prominent, pp. 8-9).Eyerly also dines at Candy Kitchen, evidently referencing Candyland on 4th Avenue where the daily special yielded "underdone chop and overdone vegetables" (Prominent, p. 202). The novel also has her eat at a "greasy spoon down on the highway [US 6] which was heavily patronized by students...I studied the grease-stained menu. 'What's good?'...'Nothing's good, but the egg sandwiches are edible'" (Prominent, p. 98), the novel reports. The book gives no name to the "greasy spoon," but it seems likely that Thomas was referring here either to the White Spot (910 Sixth) or to the Dixie Inn, both of which were located at the intersection of 6th Avenue and Broad Street—White Spot on the southeast corner, the Dixie on the southwest. Dave Adkins reports in his memories that the White Spot "had great hamburgers and tenderloins and was a place where students worked and hung out and everyone stopped after a game or a movie for a snack" (https://daveadkinsgrinnell.wordpress.com/2017/04/22/merchants-and-a-walk-around-the-square-in-old-grinnell-by-dave-adkins-4-21-17/). The Dixie stood just across Broad Street on the lot once occupied by Pizza Hut.
|Scarlet and Black, September 23, 1941|
###As the earliest Grinnell reports of Prominent noted, the author displayed considerable animus toward both the town and the college—especially toward what the author called "the malicious temper of an ingrown college" (Prominent, p. 19). Adding unnecessarily that at faculty functions one encountered "an unusually high rate of halitosis" (p. 39), Thomas discerned among the college faculty "the smell of antagonism. Old hatreds; smoldering feuds; personality antipathies coiled for action" (p. 29). In those around her she saw "egotists like Kilpatrick who croak louder in a little puddle. Or tadpoles like Scott Ball who think they stand a better chance of growing into frogs where there aren't any big fish to gobble them" (p. 37). In her view, the college faculty had had to endure stunted dreams, and let the bile of disappointment flow freely in their behavior:
Once they had been men with brilliant futures. They had been going to head departments at Chicago and Harvard and Stanford...but unaccountably things had not worked out that way. In their forties and fifties and sixties they found themselves stuck in a small college in a small town. That was a very bitter faculty at Larkin... (Prominent, p. 124).The town of Larkin hardly fares much better in the mystery's description. Thomas reports a deep distrust between townsfolk and the college whose large claim on land goes untaxed. Locals were said to be deeply biased against foreigners, especially those hired to teach at the college. She finds repugnant the extent to which Larkinville lays claim to a New England heritage: "For a hundred years this retrogressive town had fed on rich Midwestern soil, but it still thought beans and cod would taste better" (Prominent, p. 73).
|Actea Carolyn Young (later Duncan), 1931 Roosevelt High School Yearbook|
|Des Moines Register, August 28, 1947|