This is Roald Tweet on Rock Island.
The sophisticated and cultured east coast had always considered Iowa a literary desert—that is, until 1940, when the Prairie Press of Muscatine announced publication of a small volume of poems titled Oh Millersville! by Fern Gravel. Fern Gravel, the brief introduction pointed out, was the pen name of a young girl who had written the poems when she was nine, ten, and eleven years old.
Fern Gravel did what no Iowan had done: she took the east by storm. "We have found the lost Sappho of Iowa!" the New York Times proclaimed. "So good that it hurts," cried the Washington Post.
Eastern critics stood in line to praise the child poetess of Iowa, and her disarmingly simple poems of everyday life in Millersville: poems about the wonders of Pear's Soap, the suicide of a man whose wife stayed too long in Des Moines, a visit from William Jennings Bryan.
The volume's concluding poem, "Before the Looking Glass," was a good example of Fern's style:
I almost never look at myself,
Except when I am brushing my hair—
I know of course, that I am not pretty,
But I do not care.
I am not going to get married,
I expect to travel,
And people will come to hear the lectures
Of the famous Fern Gravel.
Time magazine was charmed: "No American will want to see these poems pass away," they said. The Philadelphia Inquirer agreed, claiming that years from now "you'll remember this book with a good feeling and a smile."
Unfortunately, the smile lasted, but not the good feeling. In 1946, in an article in the Atlantic Monthly, James Norman Hall, co-author of Mutiny on the Bounty, confessed to having written the poems himself on a beach in Tahiti as he recalled his childhood in Iowa. It was just a small practical joke.
Not funny. "You are a criminal," one woman wrote to Hall. "You have destroyed Fern."
The State of Iowa had every right to be upset, too. How would you like to learn that one fake poet could write circles around several hundred serious writers?
Rock Island Lines with Roald Tweet is underwritten by Augustana College, Rock Island, Illinois.