Margaret Hill McCarter. No one had succeeded so well in translating the atmosphere of Kansas prairies and the experiences and ideals of Kansas men and women as had Margaret Hill McCarter, author of Middle West fiction. It had been her task to search out and clothe with fitting words the simplicity and the real grandeur of the people who made Kansas and are still its breath and life.
Doubtless, many will find the source of Mrs. McCarter’s insight and sympathy in her Quaker ancestry. She is the daughter of Thomas Thornbury and Nancy (Davis) Hill. Through her mother she is descended from the Davis family of Wales and the Parker family of Yorkshire, England. The home of her ancestors was Bingley, Yorkshire, and at that place, under an oak tree, some of the first meetings of the sect of Quakers or Friends were held. Later ancestors accompanied William Penn’s followers to Pennsylvania. From these Mrs. McCarter possesses an unbroken lineage of ten generations. The original seat of the Hill family was in Virginia, and later they were also North Carolina Quakers. Mrs. McCarter is a birthright Quaker. She had some of her educational advantages in one of the old and most famous Quaker schools of the Middle West, Earlham College at Richmond, Indiana. As a girl she attended Indiana public schools and in 1884 received her A. B. degree from the State Normal School at Terre Haute. In 1909 Baker University of Kansas conferred upon her the honorary degree Master of Arts.
Mrs. McCarter spent her girlhood and early womanhood in Indiana, and that state, so rich in literary men and women, had at times contested the honor of her achievements with the Sunflower state. An Indiana historian recently spoke of her as perhaps the greatest of Indiana woman authors.
The story of Mrs. McCarter’s life had been well told by May Belleville Brown in a sketch entitled “A Life of Busy Days,” written several years ago. As the only sketch that affords a somewhat intimate knowledge of her busy life, it is appropriate to quote from it somewhat at length.
“Mrs. McCarter herself describes her parents as ‘plain farmer folk, believing in higher education and simple, honest living.’ Margaret was a shy child, sometimes looked upon by her quick-learning brothers and sisters as a bit slow, because they did not see through the fabric that she wove about herself in her day dreams.
“After she had finished with the country schools, however, her career in the Indiana State Normal School vindicated her in the point of scholarship, as she completed her four year course in a little over half the time and was considered one of the most brilliant students ever sent out from that institution. She first specialized in Latin, and afterwards by chance took up English and History, and in the English she found her life work and paved the way for her entrance into the world of letters. Her first educational work was as principal of the High School at Rensselaer, Indiana. Later she became head of the English department in the high school of Goshen, Indiana. It was in the autumn of 1888 that Margaret Hill came to Topeka to take charge of the Department of English in the high school of that city, a position she held for six years. In 1890 she became the wife of Dr. William Arthur McCarter of Topeka.
“Mrs. McCarter had always been and will always be a student and a teacher. Her services in the schoolroom covered fifteen years, and after she left it she continued in other ways–coaching students for eastern universities, instructing study clubs and other lines of work, while her term of service as a teacher in Sabbath School had covered more than a quarter of a century. Also, she had been a teacher and a leader in the great work that women’s clubs have been doing, first in Rensselaer, Indiana, and after that in continual service in Topeka in different organizations. In 1894 she was one of the founders of the Western Sorosis, one of the most prominent women’s clubs in the Middle West, and was its president for seven years. She is a charter member of the Topeka Women’s Club and of the Topeka Federation of Clubs and for two terms was its president. Besides this local work she had been prominently identified with the State Federation of Women’s Clubs and twice represented Kansas women on the program of the National Federation of Clubs. Mrs. McCarter founded the Club Member, a periodical much loved of women in its too short life, and was its editor during two and a half years. Many a Kansas scrapbook bears evidence of the attractiveness of the work which she did in her editorial capacity.
“Mrs. McCarter’s platform work had extended beyond the limits of school or club, and today she is ranked as the best woman speaker in Kansas and one of the best in the country. During the summer seasons many Chautauqua assemblies vie with one another for her services. Critics say that her lecture on Abraham Lincoln is one of the most thrilling and comprehensive that had ever been delivered on this subject. In season and out her services are in demand, until, if she would permit it, her whole time might be given to platform work. A certain Kansas editor heard her talk and then wrote down the statement that with her cool, equable, and sagacious temperament, she would be admirable material out of which to make a Supreme Court Justice. Well, Kansas had watched this woman excel in so many lines of activity that it had no doubt of her ability to succeed on the bench.”
Mrs. McCarter is a republican in political beliefs and was a campaign speaker in the state campaign of Kansas in 1914 and again in the national campaign in 1916. In the latter year she was a member of the Woman’s National Republican Committee.
All these activities alone would constitute material for a real career, but in addition she had reared a family and for the past fifteen years authorship had been her real profession. By her marriage, celebrated on June 5, 1890, she is the mother of three children: Katherine Davis, now Mrs. John R. Dean of Ryan, Oklahoma; Jessie Isabel McCarter, who recently graduated from Baker University at Baldwin City, Kansas; and William Hill McCarter, a student at Dartmouth College at Hanover, New Hampshire.
Mrs. McCarter began story writing in 1901. The best known works from her pen and which have established her fame as an author are referred to briefly as follows: The Cottonwood’s Story, 1903; Cuddy’s Baby, 1907; In Old Quivira, 1908; Cuddy and Other Stories, 1908; The Price of the Prairie, 1910; The Peace of the Solomon Valley, 1911; A Wall of Men, 1912; A Master’s Degree, 1913; Winning of the Wilderness, 1914; The Cornerstone, 1915. In October of 1917 Harper and Brothers of New York City published her fourth large novel, “Vanguards of The Plains, A Romance of the Santa Fe Trail.” Mrs. McCarter is a member of the Author’s League of America, of the Society of Midland Authors, and of the Cordon Club of Chicago.
Many of her books have an unsurpassed value for their interpretation of Kansas life and times and therefore deserve a more than passing mention. Quoting again from “A Life of Busy Days.”
“In 1903 came The Cottonwood’s Story, which was a piece of prose poetry befitting the fine old tree and a finer man and woman who grew to love each other under the shade of its enameled leaves. This same year was one of the darkest that Topeka’s citizens had ever known, and they shudder there, even yet, when the flood year is mentioned. In the relief work that had to be done for the sufferers from that great disaster the Topeka Federation of Clubs was foremost and indefatigable. When the autumn came and the unfortunate people had been helped to piece up the gaps in their lives, a problem had to be met. There were something less than a thousand children whose books had gone down in the flood, or whose parents could not, because of that disaster, buy books for their children. The Federation of Clubs volunteered to help once more, and to raise the necessary funds Mrs. McCarter wrote ‘The Overflowing Waters,’ the history of that flood. Moved as she had been by the relentless advance of the water upon the city, and by the harrowing experience of one who was active in rescue and relief, she wrote from her heart, and this record is thought by many to be the best bit of writing she ever did. Its sale paid for the school books for more than five hundred children.
“In 1907 ‘Cuddy’s Baby’ was published, with its pictures of Kansas pioneer, country and college life. The next year Mrs. McCarter sought a new field and found it ‘In Old Quivira.’ This is a romance of Father Juan Padilla and that yesterday when the Spanish conquerors came. These small books gained for the writer a wide publicity and paved the way for the more pretentious books to come.
“Late in 1909 Mrs. McCarter started east on an important quest, carrying with her the MS. of her first novel. She did not have to go far, nor did she have to knock more than once before the door opened. The great western publishing house of McClurg & Company gave welcome to the visitor from the Kansas plains, and ‘The Price of the Prairie’ found a home. This book–which is just what its title says, a story of the price that men and women paid for Kansas, came out in 1910 and at once took rank among the best of the year. If modern fiction shows anything finer than the story of the Arickaree battle in this book, it had not appeared. This book in its first three weeks run in Kansas broke all records of Kansas books and afterward it kept the pace which it set for itself.
“In 1911, in the intervals of greater work, Mrs. McCarter put out ‘The Peace of the Solomon Valley.’ This proved so popular as a gift book that its sale surpassed all others in the history of the fiction output of the publishing house.
“In 1912 ‘A Wall of Men’ appeared, and by this time Mrs. McCarter’s name led the list of fiction writers of the publisher. ‘The Price of the Prairie’ had set the pace. Within three months ‘A Wall of Men’ had sold as many copies as ‘The Price of the Prairie’ did in three years, and it had not yet fairly started. Like its predecessor and companion volume ‘A Wall of Men’ is just what its title says–the men who stood like a living wall between Kansas and slavery when such service meant ‘battle, disaster, and sudden death.’ These two books are significant, dramatic, and at the same time idealistic. Also, they are historically correct.
“In 1913 Mrs. McCarter left the field of Kansas history for a brief but wonderfully strong romance of young western life. Of her story ‘A Master’s De gree’ published in the fall of this year her publisher said: ‘Never before have we presented a book with as much confidence as we now feel. There is reason for this. We know it to be a noble work, virile in its protrayal of strong and worthy manhood, vigorous in its splendid and practical idealism, and uplifting in as much as it will influence, help and inspire this and the future generations.’
“The third large novel from Mrs. McCarter’s pen, appearing in the autumn of 1914, was entitled ‘Winning the Wilderness.’ It follows logically and chronologically after ‘A Wall of Men’ and ‘The Price of the Prairie.”‘
Her biographer had properly called attention to Mrs. McCarter’s attitude toward the man who tames the land. “She dignifies and makes holy the tilling of the soil while not glossing over the hardships of life. It is drugery but she makes it a blessed drudgery, glorified by the loves of life, brightened by the higher vision–a drudgery which brings its own reward.” Practically all the readers will justify the appreciation of her powers of description. “From tender and pathetic bits of description in her smaller books we are led to her larger canvases, the martial scenes, the thrilling tragedies, the exquisite moods of nature, the glimpses of idyllic childhood, the love of men and women. She visualizes the prairies, the men and women who bought them for civilization, and the price they paid–nothing is omitted. It is the epic of the plains which she had written in these three books.”
Mrs. McCarter’s first books were published by Crane & Company of Topeka. Her second publisher was A. C. McClurg & Company of Chicago, while her present publishers are Harper and Brothers of New York.
This brief article on Mrs. McCarter may close with two other paragraphs from the sketch already used.
“And in spite of all this magic which she had worked before our eyes, she is still Margaret Hill McCarter–wife, mother, home maker, friend. With a keen sense of humor and a never-failing good nature, she is an ideal companion; and with her many activities she still had time for a passing friend. The old proverb, ‘A prophet is not without honor save in his own country;’ is not regarded in her case, for all Kansas honors Mrs. McCarter for herself, not merely because of her accomplishments.
“From the shy child on the Indiana farm to the busy woman who had earned for herself both gold and fame is a far cry–and yet not so far. She began life as a dreamer, she is still a dreamer. ‘Is your castle in the air?’ asks Thoreau. ‘Good, that is where it should be. Now put a foundation under it.’ And the foundation which Margaret Hill McCarter had put under her air castles is builded on the solid rock.”