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Hough, Emerson
(June 28, 1857–April 30, 1923)

–novelist—was the fourth child of Joseph and Elizabeth Hough of Newton, Iowa. The elder Hough changed professions often. As one of a long line of native-born Virginians, he instilled in young Emerson a sense of cultural superiority and many of the social attitudes of the antebellum South. The boy learned to read, fish, and hunt from his father and became passionate about all three.

    After completing high school, Hough taught for a year and then entered the State University of Iowa. Upon graduating, he found it difficult, as his father had, to choose a career. He tried his hand at civil Engineering, then decided his nature was better suited to law. Formal legal education was not required at that time, so Hough took up studies with a Newton attorney. He passed the bar examination less than two years later.

    Offered the chance to join a friend's practice, Hough moved to the gold-mining town of White Oaks, New Mexico, in 1882. Quickly tiring of his profession, he was nonetheless fascinated by the natural beauty and violent recent history of his new home. He also found distraction in writing for the local newspaper. Within two years he returned to Iowa and used that experience to secure a position as business manager of the Des Moines Times. But after only nine months he drifted on to yet another job.

    Hough and a friend started a business producing "instant histories" of midwestern boom towns. He was happy in that work and might have stayed with it had the friend not skipped town with their advance money, leaving him to reimburse their clients and rebuild a shattered reputation. Hough became deeply depressed and considered suicide.

    Salvation came from an unexpected source: the monthly Forest and Stream, which hired him in 1889 to manage its Chicago office. The magazine's editor also published Hough's first, minor book and arranged for him to pen the nonfiction work that would start him on the road to fame: The Story of the Cowboy (1897). Theodore Roosevelt liked the book and wrote its author a congratulatory letter, which so cheered Hough that he became confident of his chances as a professional writer. Thereafter he churned out a continuous stream of westerns, juvenile adventure novels, historical romances, and outdoor sport and nature collections—37 in all, at the rate of a book or more per year.

    The avid sportsman also played a role in the U.S. conservation movement. While researching a story at Yellowstone National Park in 1894, Hough realized that poachers were on the verge of exterminating the nation's few remaining bison. When reporting them had no effect, he took his cause to the newspapers: within months of his exposé, new federal legislation put teeth into the antipoaching laws. Hough continued to promote environmental and conservationist causes for the rest of his life.

    Of all the author's works, two novels best demonstrate his ability. Heart's Desire (1905) is a seriocomic account of a midwestern family's civilizing influence on a band of New Mexican misfits. The dramatic epic The Covered Wagon (1922) describes westward migration as seen by two groups: the newcomers—in particular, one strong-willed farm woman—and the unwashed but noble mountain men who made Oregon their home decades before the "pioneers" invaded.

    Although very much the hearty outdoors-man, Hough was also frequently ill. In the early 1920s he suffered several consecutive bouts of sickness, culminating in emergency surgery in April 1923. The operation was successful, but complications set in. The novelist died four days later with his wife and manager, Charlotte (Cheesbro) Hough, by his side.

    Hough's critics called his plots simplistic and derided his sometimes flowery romantic dialogue. He also had an unfortunate tendency to malign every character type but native-born Anglo-Saxons (and was taken to task for it even in the less-than-tolerant 1910s and 1920s). Nevertheless, Hough was popular with readers—and for good reason. He knew his American West, particularly its plains and mountains, and he did painstaking research to fill in historical details. The adventure sequences that drove his plots—floods, wagon train attacks, prairie fires—were genuinely suspenseful and well paced. His descriptive passages conveyed everyday sights, smells, and textures in such detail that readers felt they were experiencing western life as it had been lived.
Sources Hough's anonymously published autobiography, Getting a Wrong Start (1915), is interesting but too vague to be helpful to the serious researcher. The best source of information on Hough and his key novels is Delbert Wylder's meticulous monograph, Emerson Hough (1981). Some correspondence and other archival materials are in Special Collections, University of Iowa Libraries, Iowa City.
Contributor: Katherine Harper