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Duncan, Thomas William
(August 15, 1905–September 15, 1987)

–author—was born in Casey, Iowa, the only child of William J. Duncan, a physician. The elder Duncan had grown up in Chicago but chose to practice medicine in a small town. Nevertheless, he retained his love for big cities and a passion for luxury hotels, fine dining, and the theater. His son Tom later wrote in a short autobiography that the combination of small-town life and his family's tastes and travel was ideal for developing the attitudes and creativity necessary for his success as a writer.

    An uncle who published the local newspaper gave Duncan a job and a taste for writing and journalism. At the age of 15, Duncan submitted his first article for publication, an article on agricultural mechanics for which he received one dollar. Over the next few years he was able to sell other articles and short stories, primarily to young people's periodicals.

    In 1922 Duncan entered Drake University with the intention of studying law, a goal he soon dropped in favor of a theatrical career. Inspired by his drama professor, he spent the summers of 1924 and 1925 with a chautauqua theatrical troupe that toured the Midwest. While at Drake, he was chosen as the editor of the college newspaper. Very successful as a student, he was admitted to membership in the English, journalism, and drama honor societies and was active in both debate and campus politics.

    Not satisfied with the challenges that Drake had to offer, Duncan transferred to Harvard in his junior year. Health problems forced him to drop out, but he returned to graduate in 1928 cum laude, with special recognition for his poetry. That year he also completed his first novel, which was rejected by all publishers.

    The promise of a teaching position caused Duncan to return to Drake to work on a master's degree, which he earned in 1931. With the Depression, however, teaching opportunities evaporated. He spent the next 10 years in Des Moines working at a variety of jobs, teaching night classes, and writing for the Des Moines Register and the Des Moines Tribune.

    During his Des Moines years, Duncan became involved in the Iowa literary revival of the 1920s and 1930s. His work with the Des Moines newspapers brought him into contact, both professionally and socially, with such recognized writers as Ruth Suckow, Phil Stong, MacKinlay Kantor, and Richard Wilson. Such contacts inspired him. During the 1930s, he was intensely busy with his writing, producing nonfiction articles, mysteries, and short stories for both pulp magazines and more respectable publications such as Red-book and Good Housekeeping. Three of his novels– O Chautauqua, We Pluck the Flower, and Ring Horse —were accepted for publication, but none achieved much success. The three together sold fewer than 6,000 copies.

    In 1942 Duncan married Actia Carolyn Young, a fellow writer and a former student of his, and he accepted a position at Grinnell College as a teacher and as director of public relations. Health problems led to his resignation and relocation to the more favorable climate of Colorado. The couple supported themselves with their writing and by performing magic shows at dude ranches and mountain resorts.

    Until 1947 Duncan was an obscure writer, hardly able to support himself by his writing. That year success finally came to him with the publication of the novel Gus the Great, a Book of the Month Club selection. The inspiration for the novel came in 1936 when, in traveling around Iowa, he came upon the abandoned winter quarters of a long dead circus. The idea of a circus story intrigued him, and for the next 10 years he immersed himself in circus lore and culture. The book was an immediate hit; its publication and film rights earned Duncan over $350,000. The Iowa Library Association recognized Gus the Great with its 1947 award for the most distinguished contribution to literature by an Iowa author.

    Twelve years later his Big River, Big Man, a novel about the lumber industry in Wisconsin, was published. Although well received, it was not the success of his previous novel. His later novels were Virgo Descending (1961), The Labyrinth (1967), and The Sky and Tomorrow (1974).

    Duncan spent his last years in Las Cruces, New Mexico, where he died of a heart ailment in 1987.
Sources include Clarence Andrews, "The Making of a Novelist," Iowan 30 (Winter 1981), 46–51; "Biographical Sketch of Thomas W. Duncan," Saturday Review of Literature, 9/20/1947; Who's Who in America (1946–1947); and Current Biography (1947).
Contributor: Roger Natte