The author Harlan Hatcher was born 116 years ago today on September 9, 1898 in Ironton, Ohio. He lived for nearly a century, dying at the age of 99 in 1998. Harlan Hatcher was a true man of letters: a novelist, editor, historian, and literary critic, as well as a teacher who became a successful college administrator, eventually assuming the post of president at the University of Michigan (no easy task for an Ohio State man!) from 1951 to 1967. Harlan Hatcher was also one of the rare men who served in both World Wars. He served in the Army in WWI and the Navy during WW II.
A descendant of Ohio pioneers, Harlan Henthorne Hatcher spent much of his boyhood playing along the Ohio River, fascinated by the barges and steamboats that plied her waters. An interest in the midwest’s inland waterways would surface in his work later in life. He attended public schools in Ohio and Kentucky, and after his service in WWI, he entered Ohio State University.
It was the beginning of a long connection with the university. Hatcher would earn his bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral degrees at OSU, then take a post as professor of English after some additional post-doctoral work at the University of Chicago. Hatcher would eventually become dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, and then vice president of OSU.
Let’s take a look at Hatcher’s career as a man of letters. One aspect of his career is his work as literary critic and editor. His first work was The Versification of Robert Browning, published in 1928. He also wrote the critical study Creating The Modern Novel, first published in 1935 and revised thirty years later. He also edited the anthology Modern Drama (1944).
Hatcher embarked on a career as a novelist during the 1930’s, producing the novels Tunnel Hill (1931), Patterns of Wolfpen (1934), and Central Standard Time (1937). These works draw upon his own family history in the Ironton area, which is located in southern Ohio. Tunnel Hill and Patterns of Wolfpen concern early rural life in the state, while Central Standard Time shows an Ohio town entering the industrial age.
The 1930s also saw Hatcher taking on a vital editorial role. He became director of the Federal Writers’ Project in Ohio, helping to oversee the production of various regional guides, and he was also the editor of The Ohio Guide. The Federal Writers’ Project was a New Deal program to put writers to work, preserve American history and folklore, and educate Americans about their country. There were numerous city and county guides as well as one large volume for each of the then 48 states.
By the late Thirties Hatcher had acquired a rich and deep knowledge of the history and geography of Ohio, and began writing cultural history works about the state and the Great Lakes region, starting with The Buckeye Country: A Pageant of Ohio in 1940. He followed this with The Great Lakes in 1944 and Lake Erie in 1946. In 1963 he published the handsomely illustrated volume A Pictorial History of the Great Lakes.
Hatcher wrote two other important works of Ohio cultural history. The Western Reserve: The Story of New Connecticut in Ohio (1949) examines this northern portion of the state and how New England cultural influences left their mark on the culture there. A Century of Iron and Men (1950) is another work on Great Lakes history, this time focusing on mining history and lore.
Harlan Hatcher’s life was crowded with activity and accomplishments. He taught and lectured abroad, served on numerous boards, and was active in civil and scholarly organizations. In 1944, the U.S. Navy placed Hatcher on inactive duty so he could return to Ohio State to help prepare the campus for the anticipated flood of returning veterans. Then in 1951 he assumed the presidency of the University of Michigan, a position he held until 1967. The heavy demands of the presidency made it difficult to complete books during this period, although he still completed his illustrated history of the Great Lakes, the revised version of Creating The Modern Novel, and The Persistent Quest for Values: What Are We Seeking? (1966), a book in which Hatcher reflects upon the challenges of modern life in the late 1960’s. During his lifetime he also completed many articles and short pieces of fiction.
Hatcher garnered many awards, including a dozen honorary doctorates. He was a Kentucky Colonel, and received honors from the Netherlands and Thailand as well. He did a great deal of work to strengthen the collections at the University of Michigan library, and the graduate library was named after him.
I hope that in some small way this entry helps to keep his legacy alive. As scholar, novelist, historian, teacher, and man of letters, he made great contributions to understanding the history of this part of the United States and strengthening two of its most vital and prestigious universities. He is a wonderful example of the writer, teacher, and man of letters as citizen and public intellectual–his is a legacy of a life well-lived, and work well done.
Dictionary of Midwestern Literature: Volume One—The Authors. Philip A. Greasley, General Editor. Entry on Harlan Hatcher by David D. Anderson, one of our most important scholars in the field of Midwestern literature. Indiana University Press, 2001.
Ohio Authors and their Books 1796-1950. Edited by William A. Coyle. The World Publishing Company. Cleveland and New York, 1962.