The Ink-Stained McCutcheons of Indiana

“Injun Summer”, John T. McCutcheon, 1907

We don’t mean to pigeonhole the three estimable McCutcheon Brothers with the title of this post (although they are closely identified with their region), but to separate them from two other important McCutcheons, father and son both named Wallace, who were early pioneers of cinema, and from New York City. We’ll eventually give those ones a post of their own. The three we treat of today are closely identified with the Hoosier Renaissance of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and who like their fellow Indianans James Whitcomb Riley, Lew Wallace, Theodore Dreiser, Paul Dresser, Booth Tarkington, Robert John Wildhack, George Ade, and others, have slipped somewhat from the mainstream public’s consciousness over the past century. The brothers were George Barr McCutcheon (1866-1928), John T. McCutcheon (1870-1949), and Benjamin “Ben” Frederick McCutcheon (1875-1934).

Hailing from Lafayette, Indiana, they were the sons of Colonel John Barr McCutcheon, a Civil War officer, farmer and local law enforcement officer in Tippecanoe County. McCutcheon was appointed manager of the farms at the Purdue University ag school, and this is how his sons came to attend that institution and became men of arts and letters.

The youngest, Ben was to become a columnist and editor at the Chicago Tribune and later a publisher in his own right. He was the least well known of the brothers, outside of the midwest. He wrote a couple of novels under the pen name of Benjamin Brace: Sunrise Acres (1905) and The Seventh Person (1906). Notably these were published AFTER his two older brothers had become famous.

Do Hoosiers have a look, or what? Like, how is this NOT Charles Butterworth?

Ben’s older brother George Barr McCutcheon happened to be George Ade’s room-mate at Purdue. For many years he was the editor of hometown newspapers in his native Lafayette. Like Ben, he would not publish books until his younger brother John had made good, although George arguably went farther in fame. In 1901 he launched his series of six “Graustark” novels, romances sets among the royalty and nobility of a fictional European nation. Popular in their day, they were adopted into a 1908 Broadway show and numerous silent movies, notably Beverly of Graustark (1926) starring Marion Davies, which we wrote about a few days ago. Much better remembered today is his 1902 novel Brewster’s Millions, also adapted for Broadway and numerous movies, most of which we wrote about here. McCutcheon wrote close to four dozen novels, the last of which was published posthumously.

Several other McCutcheon novels became films, including What’s His Name (1914), directed by Cecil B. DeMille; The Circus Man (1914), adapted by DeMille and directed by Oscar Apfel; The Mystery Girl (1918), directed by William C. de Mille with Ethel Clayton in the title role; In the Hollow of Her Hand (1918) with Alice Brady; Black is White (1920) with Dorothy Dalton; The Butterfly Man (1920) with Lew Cody, adapted by Ida May Park and Louis Gasnier; Sherry (1920) with Pat O’Malley; and Mr. Bingle (1922) with Macklyn Arbuckle, among others.

McCutcheon also wrote the plays Broodhouse (1910), Mary Midthorne (1911), and Daddy Dumplins (1920), the latter cowritten with and directed by Earl Carroll, and starring Macklyn Arbuckle and Helen Chandler. Thus, through novels, theater and movies, McCutcheon was a prominent pop cultural figure through the first three decades of the 20th century.

Yet it was the middle brother, John T. McCutcheon who helped lift the other two as well as family friend George Ade, into the limelight. Like George, John started out writing for the local papers in Lafayette. In 1890 however he moved to Chicago, where he secured work as an illustrator, initially at the Chicago Record, then trading up to the Chicago Tribune, where he worked from 1903 until 1946. He was initially an illustrator of news (in the days before newspapers published photographs), which meant also working as a correspondent. Among the major news events he covered (as both a print correspondent and a sketch artist) were the Spanish American War, the ensuing Philippine American War, the Boer War, Pancho Villa’s border disturbances, Teddy Roosevelt’s safaris, and World War One. But he also became a political cartoonist starting with the McKinley-Bryan Presidential election of 1896, winning a Pulitzer Prize for his work in that line in 1931.

In 1892, McCutcheon and Ade covered the World’s Columbian Exposition (Chicago World’s Fair), the former illustrating the latter’s humorous observations. McCutcheon illustrated many of his brother George’s novels, as well as many of Ade’s humor collections over the decades. He also wrote numerous book of his own, mostly accounts of his travel and war adventures, and compendiums of his drawings. He, too, dabbled a little in show biz. In 1902 he designed costumes for Ade’s Broadway show The Sultan of Sulu. In 1904, his book of drawings provided the inspiration for the Broadway play Bird Center, directed by Julian Mitchell.

The illustration at the top of this post was one of his most critically praised at the time. There is text that goes with it, which can be found here. The very phrase that underlies it would be under scrutiny today, and it’s interesting to read this dialect patter now, which both invokes stereotypes but which also reveals what we now can read as the zeitgeist’s consciousness of guilt when it comes to America’s native inhabitants. It’s definitely something I am going to fold into this project, which I premiered late last year.

For more on show business history, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous.