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THE BIOGRAPHICAL DICTIONARY OF IOWA

University of Iowa Press Digital Editions
Hall, James Norman
(April 22, 1887–July 5, 1951)

–novelist, travel writer, essayist, and poet —was born in Colfax, Iowa. Although he fought under three countries' flags during World War I and traveled widely, the bulk of his adult life was spent working at his craft and enjoying simple domestic comforts on the remote island of Tahiti. Hall is most popularly known as the coauthor (with Charles Nordhoff) of Mutiny on the Bounty. Although no stranger to extraordinary adventure and accomplishment, he was an unassuming man whose Tahitian neighbors hardly realized at his death in 1951 that their quiet but generous and likable neighbor had been a decorated military pilot and a world-famous writer.

    One of five children, Hall's upbringing in a small prairie hamlet was fairly typical of his era. He attended the Colfax public schools and worked at various part-time jobs, including handyman and clerk in a local dry-goods store. His attachment to that locale is evident from the many references to it in his writings. His life in the South Seas was not an exile from that background but a distinctive attempt to hold to the reflective and serene pace he valued and which seemed to him threatened by the frenetic hubbub of modern machinery and materialism.

    During his boyhood, already under the spell of reading and dreaming of a career as a world wanderer and poet, surreptitious trips to nearby Grinnell on the cowcatcher of the night train were among Hall's favorite escapades. The Grinnell College campus and the sounds of the men's glee club had their effect on young "Norman," as he was known at home, and he worked his way through that college as a student and graduated in 1910. He spent the following four years in Boston as a case worker for the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children. He left those duties in the spring of 1914 for a sojourn in England, hoping to come to terms with his ambitions as a writer. Instead, when England declared war on Germany that August, Hall enlisted as a private in the Royal Fusiliers. His experiences training as a recruit and as a machine gunner at the front resulted in Hall's first success as an author. Discharged after 15 months of service, he received an invitation from Ellery Sedgwick, editor of the Atlantic, to write a series of articles that were subsequently published as a book titled Kitchener's Mob (1916).

    Returning to France, ostensibly to prepare more articles for the Atlantic (reporting on Americans serving in a French flying squadron known as the Escadrille Lafayette), Hall ended up joining that dashing group of volunteers. That first encounter with the romance of flight was both thrilling and hazardous, as Hall recounts in High Adventure: A Narrative of Air Fighting in France (1918). After both victories and misadventures in combat, Hall was shot down behind enemy lines on May 7, 1918, and spent the remainder of the war as a prisoner of war. Upon America's entry into the war and the absorption of the Escadrille into the U.S. Air Service, Hall's rank changed from sergeant to captain. He was awarded military decorations from both France and the United States.

    In Paris after the Armistice, Hall was assigned to write a history of the Lafayette Flying Corps in collaboration with Charles Nordhoff, a fellow corps member. That was the beginning of a friendship that took both men to Tahiti in 1920 to pursue their writing careers, both separately and jointly. For some time Hall found it difficult to settle into the writer's tasks, but after travels around the South Seas, then to Iceland and back to Iowa and other mainland destinations, in 1925 he married Sarah Winchester, the 16-year-old part-Polynesian daughter of an English sea captain, and his literary efforts became more regular and productive.

    Resuming their collaboration, Hall and Nordhoff wrote Falcons of France (1929), a novel for boys based on their experiences as airmen during the war. Their next joint project, far more ambitious, grew out of Hall's suggestion that the pair undertake a fictionalized version of the events surrounding the notorious mutiny aboard the HMS Bounty in 1789. The resulting trilogy, Mutiny on the Bounty (1932), Pitcairn's Island (1934), and Men Against the Sea (1934), met with great success, especially the first volume, which has been made into at least two popular motion pictures.

    Other notable products of the Nordhoff-Hall collaboration followed, but none rivaled the Bounty novels in popularity. As Nordhoff's energies as a writer began to ebb in later years, Hall increasingly assumed the impetus of their joint efforts and continued to publish separately and in a variety of forms: poems, essays, reminiscences. Although deeply distressed by the coming of war to the Pacific, his happy and peaceful Tahitian existence was never directly threatened by it.

    In 1950 Hall received an honorary doctorate from his alma mater, Grinnell College. While in Boston during that visit to the United States, Hall was found to be suffering from a degenerative heart condition to which he succumbed the following year at his home in Arué, Tahiti. His wife, Sarah, and their two children, Conrad and Nancy, survived him.
Sources Hall's letters and papers, his typescripts, and most of his publications are in the Iowa Room of Grinnell College's Burling Library, Grinnell, Iowa. For more on Hall, see Paul L. Briand Jr., In Search of Paradise: The Nordhoff-Hall Story (1956); Robert Roulston, James Norman Hall (1978); and Ellery Sedgwick, "James Norman Hall," Atlantic, September 1951, 19–21.
Contributor: James Kissane

Cite as: Kissane, James. "Hall, James Norman" The Biographical Dictionary of Iowa. University of Iowa Press, 2009. Web. 17 December 2017