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RETRO: Lowney Handy, James Jones, and Their Colony

Author James Jones and Lowney Handy, founders of the Handy Writers' Colony.

In downstate Illinois throughout the 1950s, legendary novelist James Jones and his patron, mentor, and lover Lowney Handy formed a countercultural writers’ group, known locally as The Colony. Lowney was an older, married, childless woman, whose unconditional support of ex-G.I. Jones between 1944 and 1950 allowed him to write his vast, groundbreaking, National Book Award-winning From Here to Eternity. After incorporating as the Handy Writers’ Colony, their efforts were funded by Jones’s Eternity royalties.

At its peak, The Colony annually harbored one or even two-dozen aspiring authors from all across America. A LIFE Magazine photo-essay about Jones and Lowney was featured in the May 8, 1951 issue. Lowney was described as Jones’s foster-mother, which was plausible due to her being 17 years his senior.

Thanks to LIFE, millions of Americans (and untold numbers of yearning writers) learned about The Colony and its unorthodox protocols; many of those migrating there dreamt of being the next James Jones. Insisting that she could help anyone become a writer, Lowney was written off as a kook by skeptical critics. But many authors were devoted to her.

The bulk of the writing done at the Handy Writers’ Colony in the 1950s was serious fiction (the novel then being the Holy Grail), with a strong emphasis on truth-telling in relation to society; bold writing about all types of sexual relationships; and most of all the struggle of individuals to endure against prevalent bigotry and prejudices.

When Edwin “Sonny” Daly’s novel Some Must Watch was completed at The Colony and then published by Scribner’s in New York in 1957 (the same prestigious publishing house that published Hemingway, Fitzgerald, James Jones and so many others), it was noted by critics to be a startling debut for an author then barely 20 years old. His theme of incorrigible parent-son acrimony dovetailed with the popularity of James Dean and Rebel Without a Cause. On a more scandalous note, a Colony novelist named Gerald Tesch hit a wall with Never the Same Again, his novel about a 30ish gay man’s love affair with a teenage male. Although a major New York house published the book, it scarcely had a chance with reviewers or, for that matter, with libraries in the Age of Eisenhower. Nonetheless, Jones and Lowney Handy encouraged such fearless writing and controversial themes at The Colony.

In January 1958, leading by example, James Jones’s second published novel—Some Came Running—offered up a 1,260-page magnum opus, within which Jones sought to anatomize a macrocosmic array of small-town Midwestern archetypal characters and their behavior patterns by dramatizing, in microcosmic detail, lives of postwar desperation.

SOME CAME RUNNING, James Jones’s second novel

Ten years earlier, in the late 1940s, The Colony had been in its embryonic phase – at that time, most of Jones’s energy, time, and attention were devoted to writing From Here to Eternity. Lowney, however, was already then roping in other ambitious scribes.

In the spring and during the summer of 1950 (while From Here to Eternity was being line-edited at Scribner’s in New York), a new and highly industrious aspect of the vision shared by Jones and Lowney began to emerge. For years they had imagined the possibilities. What they envisioned was, in a way, a campus for aspiring writers that was in no way affiliated with anything academic. Today’s chatty MFA programs are the polar opposite of what Jones and Lowney designed at The Colony.

Their goal was to create an isolated, self-sustaining community of serious writers who were willing to live, work and interact with all the others according to the rules and regulations laid down by Lowney. She believed in no uncertain terms that anyone could be transformed into a powerful, unique, real writer. On one condition: They all had to adhere to Lowney’s Spartan agenda.

That meant rising at dawn and invoking silence in the company of the other writers. Imagine! Writers practicing the art of shutting the fuck up. The Colony dispensed with all the incessant talking, analyzing, and critical commentary of MFA workshops. Instead, they drank Instant Coffee and had a communal breakfast, limited to raisin toast and juice. Then: All alone in separate small cabins, “copying” from Lowney’s list of approved authors ensued each morning. Lowney devoutly believed that everything from writing dialogue to mastering narrative structure could best be learned by retyping dozens of others’ published chapters, as a way of learning by osmosis. After warming up with an hour or two of “copying,” Colony members worked on their own material. They all ate the meals Lowney prepped.

Cut off from the outside world at large, there would be no TV, no radios, no newspapers or magazines cluttering minds of Colony members. All of one’s attention, concentration, focus and energy were to be devoted to cultivating a monastic discipline and a committed vocation as a writer. As Lowney would say to anyone crossing her path: If she’d managed to help Jones, she could help anyone.

That summer of 1950, Jones often wrote to his editor, Burroughs Mitchell, who was waiting for Scribner’s lawyers to examine all of the profanity issues in From Here to Eternity. He was excited about the cross-section of individuals who were heading for The Colony: “Don Sackrider is expecting to get out of the Army any time now, and come up. And a boy named Dan Towns from Ft. Worth . . . And then there is Warren Pearsley of Rapid City, S. D., one of the most erudite individuals with whom I have ever corresponded; he is expecting to pull in some time this summer for a month or two.” The vast majority of the Colony members would always be male. “She teaches tough guys to write,” declared one headline.

Lowney, however, did allow for a few exceptions. In the early 1950s, Alma Isley Akers and Mary Ann Newlin Crank were at The Colony, as was Jones’s younger sister, Mary Ann.

It was during this halcyon period that Jones’s declarations of respect and gratitude for all that Lowney had done for him reached an apex. “It’s really an amazing thing,” he wrote to Burroughs Mitchell: “And of course, behind it all, is the guiding-light, whip-cracker, and guardian-angel which is Lowney. Keen Rafferty, head of the Journalism School at the U. of New Mexico, who has been in town for a short stay and has been up a few times and who will probably be here himself for a while next summer, and is almost wildly enthusiastic about the [Colony] thing . . . [he] said last night that he thought Lowney has the most intelligent, and demanding, and yet most feeling eyes he has ever seen in a human being. I guess that would describe them. Anyway, I know I never would have written neither what nor as much as I have, had she not stood over me with a club, like the mother standing over the future concert-master as he sits at the piano with one eye on the clock.”

It spoke volumes that Jones shared such a paean with his editor at Scribner’s. It’s equally telling that in less than a decade, more than ten Colony writers placed their books with distinguished New York publishers. Aside from Jones, the best of those writers was probably Tom T. Chamales, an Illinois-born Greek-American.

NEVER SO FEW, the debut novel by Tom T. Chamales

One of Chamales’s special attributes was that he wrote about the China-India-Burma theater of World War II. But he wrote about much more than that. His two novels (1957’s Never So Few and 1959’s Go Naked in the World) are laced with spiritual yearning, psychological complexities and meticulous details. Libraries still have his books on hand. Chamales’s life ended far too soon in 1960, when he was only 35. If you locate his novels, you’ll find yourself soon enthralled. Unlike Jones, who told interviewers that he wrote “slowly, and painfully,” Chamales had that rare Stephen Crane-like ability to burst forth with typed pages that were almost already finished and not in much need of revision.

In another of Jones’s letters to Scribner’s editor Burroughs Mitchell, the gifts innate to Tom T. Chamales were highlighted: “We have a new guy here, who is writing like a house afire. His name is Tom Chamales and he has led a fabulous life . . . at nineteen [he] commanded the largest guerilla force in the Far East. He’s been here less than a month and has already done over three hundred pages on a novel of the Far East, all of which is excellent writing . . . only a very small portion will need any structural changes.”

Offering the ultimate salute, both James Jones and Tom T. Chamales wrote glowingly of Lowney in the Acknowledgments of their first two novel.  Enough said.

GO NAKED IN THE WORLD, Tom T. Chamales’s second novel

 

Book of writings from the Handy Colony

For more information about collected writings from the Handy Colony, visit talespress.com or click here.

(M. J. Moore is Honeysuckle Magazine’s RETRO columnist. His novel, For Paris ~ with Love & Squalor, was published by Heliotrope Books last October. He’s now completing a biography of Mario Puzo.)

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