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THE BIOGRAPHICAL DICTIONARY OF IOWA

University of Iowa Press Digital Editions
Frederick, John Towner
(February 1, 1893–January 31, 1975)

–editor of the Midland and author—was born in Corning, Iowa, the only child of farmer Oliver Roberts Frederick and Mary Elmira (Towner) Frederick. Frederick entered the State University of Iowa in 1909. With money tight, he spent 1911-1913 as principal, coach, and sole high school teacher in Prescott, Iowa. Returning to the university, he was elected to Phi Beta Kappa and the presidency of his senior class, and headed the Athelney Club, a group of student and faculty writers. English professors such as Edwin Ford Piper and C. F. Ansley influenced Frederick's conviction that authentic writing sprang from native soil and that young midwestern writers needed a regionalist publication. He began publishing the Midland: A Magazine of the Middle West in 1915, the same year he graduated from the university.

    Frederick married Esther Paulus—an Athelney Club member and a Midland associate editor—on June 22, 1915. The marriage produced two sons, John Joseph and James Oliver. After receiving an M.A. from Iowa in 1917, Frederick became chair of the English Department at the State Normal College at Moorhead, Minnesota (now Minnesota State University, Moorhead). By then the Midland was publishing authors such as Bertha Shambaugh, Howard Mumford Jones, and John G. Neihardt, and receiving critical praise from the likes of Edward J. O'Brien and the New Republic. With short story submissions increasing dramatically by 1918, the magazine soon specialized in rural midwestern fiction, with some poetry and book reviews.

    In 1919 Frederick established a wilderness farm near Glennie, Michigan, attracted by the "pioneering" that his mentor Ansley had undertaken there after leaving Iowa. The Fredericks lived on the farm for two years and subsequently spent summers there, often hosting Midland colleagues.

    With no steady income, Frederick decided in 1921 to go on the lecture circuit. When he contacted the State University of Iowa for a possible venue, he was instead invited to join the English faculty. Headquartering the Midland at Iowa, Frederick became a congenial, inspiring teacher, including contemporary writers in his American literature classes, which was uncommon. Frederick encouraged the English Department to hire Frank Luther Mott—later a renowned journalist, writer, and critic—based on his impressive Midland submissions. Mott became coeditor of the burgeoning magazine in 1925.

    In the 1920s noted critic H. L. Mencken called the Midland perhaps America's most important literary magazine, published some of Frederick's own fiction in the influential Smart Set, and encouraged Alfred Knopf to publish Frederick's first novel, Druida (1923), which he then reviewed positively. The novel Green Bush appeared in 1925, followed by Stockade, published serially in Wallaces' farmer in 1927-1928. These novels tell stories of closeness to the land and the importance of farming to midwestern character, but also portray rural economic hardship, loneliness, spousal and child abuse, adultery, alcoholism, and suicide.

    By 1930 Edward J. O'Brien had reprinted many Midland stories in his Best Short Stories annuals and encouraged Frederick to give the magazine a more national presence. As well, Frederick was frustrated by the time teaching took from editing and writing and by the English Department's direction under new leadership. He moved to Chicago, keeping the Midland in the Midwest while giving it a venue for a stronger national profile. Frederick returned to sole editorship, changed the subtitle to A National Literary Magazine, and taught part-time at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, and at the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Indiana.

    Briefly, the Midland prospered. But with its history of precarious finances and publication delays, the magazine succumbed to the Depression and folded in 1933. In its 18 years, the Midland made a significant literary mark, publishing the early work of writers such as Ruth Suckow, Paul Engle, James Hearst, and James T. Farrell.

    Frederick continued teaching at Northwestern and Notre Dame, becoming a full-time faculty member at Notre Dame in 1945 and chairing the English Department from 1959 to 1962. From 1937 to 1940 he was the regional director of the Works Progress Administration (WPA) Writers' Project, and from 1937 to 1944 hosted a CBS radio program, Of Men and Books. Frederick's wife, Esther, died in 1954, and he married Lucy Gertrude Paulus, the widow of Esther's brother, in the early 1960s. At his retirement from Notre Dame in 1962, Frederick was awarded an Honorary Doctor of Literature degree. He then returned to Iowa as a visiting professor and in 1973 earned a Distinguished Alumni Award.

    Frederick published short stories, poetry, book reviews, academic literary criticism, and literature and rhetoric textbooks. Books in cluded A Handbook of Short Story Writing (1924, rev. 1932), the collection Stories from the Midland (1924), several edited or coedited literature anthologies, and two major critical works: The Darkened Sky: Nineteenth-Century American Novelists and Religion (1969) and William Henry Hudson (1972). Frederick died in 1975 and was buried in Harrisville, Michigan.
Sources Frederick's papers are in University of Iowa and University of Notre Dame libraries' Special Collections. Midland history and biographical and critical information on Frederick are in Roy Meyer, The Middle Western Farm Novel in the Twentieth Century (1965); Frank Luther Mott, A History of American Magazines, 1741–1930 (1968); Sargent Bush Jr., "The Achievement of John T. Frederick," Books at Iowa 14 (April 1971), 8–30; Clarence A. Andrews, A Literary History of Iowa (1972); Milton M. Riegelman, The Midland: A Venture in Literary Regionalism (1975); and E. Bradford Burns, Kinship with the Land: Regionalist Thought in Iowa, 1894–1942 (1996). The Frederick family Web site at www.themidland.org focuses on the history of the Midland, the work and biography of Frederick, and Frederick family history.
Contributor: Thomas K. Dean

Cite as: Dean, Thomas K. "Frederick, John Towner" The Biographical Dictionary of Iowa. University of Iowa Press, 2009. Web. 13 December 2017