The University of Iowa LibrariesThe Biographical Dictionary of Iowa: Jacket Art - Agriculture - Cresco, Iowa by Richard Haines ca 1934 -  Photo by Scott Christopher courtesy of Gregg Narber


University of Iowa Press Digital Editions
Quick, Herbert John
(October 23, 1861–May 10, 1925)

–schoolteacher, lawyer, reform politician, journalist, and government administrator—is best known for his novels Vandemark's Folly and The Hawkeye and his autobiography, One Man's Life, with their realistic descriptions of native prairie, pioneer farming, and the social and political life of early Iowa towns.

    Born on his parents' farm near Steamboat Rock, Iowa, and stricken with poliomyelitis in 1863 that left him partially disabled, Quick grew up having to do his full share of exhausting farm labor–something for which he was not sorry. "I was fortunately not recognized as an invalid," he wrote. That work also made him keenly aware of the physical and economic hardships of farmer When he started teaching at age 17 in the local country school, he turned over part of his pay to his father. In 1881 the family moved to a farm in Cerro Gordo County, and Quick began teaching in Mason City. Popular and successful, he soon was hired by the county superintendent of education to teach in a summer institute for teachers. Carrie Lane (later Chapman Catt), who was then head of the Mason City schools, refused to take part because Quick had no college degree, making him unqualified, she thought, and lowering standards. Her reaction, Quick said, "burned itself into my very being," and he tried for years to go to college. He even applied to West Point, because it was free, but was rejected because of his physical disability.

    For a time he was school principal in Wesley, Iowa, but returned to Mason City in 1886 to read law in the office of a local attorney, John Cliggitt. He also read Henry George's Progress and Poverty. Although he knew George was regarded as "a mischief-maker and disturber" by his Mason City crowd, Quick was open-minded, and the book influenced his thought for the rest of his life. Land speculation was rife in early Iowa, and Quick believed the single tax, of which George was a leading advocate, was the way to keep land out of the hands of speculators and promote the welfare of farmer and small business owners.

    In 1890, having passed the Iowa bar examination, he married Ella Corey of Syracuse, New York, whom he had met when she was visiting Mason City. They moved to Sioux City, then a bustling railroad and meatpacking center, and Quick began his struggles as a young lawyer. To supplement his income and also widen his acquaintance, he directed a church choir (although he was not religiously active), participated in local intellectual clubs, and became active in reform politics. He was asked to investigate the accounts of the bank that brokered many Sioux City and Woodbury County bonds but that failed in the financial panic of 1893. Quick discovered corrupt practices by the county supervisors, some of whom resigned, and he became a hero to local reformers, including Jay N. "Ding" Darling, who was then a Sioux City cub reporter. In 1898 Quick was elected mayor, although he soon proved too radical for both Democrats and Republicans and served only two years.

    But Quick had literary ambitions. He had already published a poem, "A Whiff of Smoke," in the Century, and in 1899 he wrote a satiric poem on American imperialism in the Philippines that was accepted in the Public, the Chicago weekly magazine that had an influential circulation among single-taxers and muckrakers. He followed it with more poems and tales, and by 1908, when he left Sioux City, he had published three novels. He had also cultivated connections with established writers and political leaders such as Edward Markham; Cleveland, Ohio, mayor Tom Johnson; and William Jennings Bryan.

    Thus, when Quick moved his family to Madison, Wisconsin, where he became associate editor of La Follette's Weekly Magazine, he was well on his way to fame as a writer of both fiction and political-social journalism. Work for Progressive Wisconsin Governor Robert La Follette gave Quick more contacts with prominent reformers, professors, and writers, and the opportunity to write on rural education, railroad rates, water power, canals, and river transportation. In 1911 he moved to Springfield, Ohio, where he had accepted the editorship of Farm and Fireside. There he again wrote about agricultural problems; promoted younger writers, including Vachel Lindsay; and also wrote On Board the Good Ship Earth (1911). Subtitled A Survey of World Problems, that prophetic book anticipated such modern problems as soil depletion, overpopulation, and global warming (although taking a more optimistic view). The Brown Mouse (1915) expanded on his work in the Country Life movement and argued for locally controlled agricultural education and farm cooperatives. During those years, he was also planting an orchard and building a house outside Berkeley Springs, West Virginia.

    A man with enormous energy, Quick soon moved to that idyllic spot and in 1915 resigned from Farm and Fireside to become a staff writer for the Saturday Evening Post and Country Gentleman. In 1916 he became a member of the new Federal Farm Loan Board, at $10,000 a year, and began touring the country to set up a system for federally guaranteed credits to farmer Yet his writing continued. In 1919 he published The Fairview Idea, promoting the kinds of changes and improvements in rural life that would preserve the family farm, and From War to Peace, advocating the economic and agricultural policies that Quick believed would protect democratic institutions from Bolshevism. Quick was one of the first to realize that farm amalgamation threatened not only farmer but also country towns. He resigned from the Farm Loan Board, only to accept an appointment from President Wilson in February 1920 to go to Vladivostok to close American Red Cross work there. That assignment–his first trip abroad–resulted in a dangerous hemorrhage and in a book protesting the Bolshevik revolution, We Have Changed All That (1928), based on the experiences of an aristocratic woman refugee, Elena Stepanoff MacMahon.

    Back from Russia, Quick finally had the time and freedom to work on a long-planned trilogy covering the history of a fictional Iowa county, "Monterey," from the 1850s to 1900, the books that he called "my principal bid for fame."The first two, Vandemark's Folly (1922) and The Hawkeye (1923), are, in the words of Clarence Andrews, "the two best novels ever written about the Iowa farm and town scene in the 19th century."Unlike the work of his friend and rival Hamlin Garland, who mainly traced his own and his family's history, Quick drew on his broader experience as a teacher, politician, lawyer, and reformer in a range of small towns, counties, and bustling little cities. These he fictionalized as "Lithopolis" (for a time actually the name of Steamboat Rock), "Monterey County," and "Monterey Center."

    Invisible Woman (1924) never received the praise of the first two books in the trilogy. Readers have preferred One Man's Life (1925) because of its further descriptions of 19th century rural and small-town Iowa and its account of Quick's education (or self-education) and the origins of his ideas.

    Quick's death in 1925, from heart failure, came while he was at the University of Missouri to speak on the relationship between journalism and fiction. He had planned to go on to Des Moines and Sioux City to do research on a second volume of his autobiography.
Sources Quick published 19 books in all (7 besides those mentioned above). The only biography is a dissertation by Richard Whitt Ferguson, "Herbert Quick and the Search for a New American Frontier: A Biography" (University of Minnesota, 1977). Useful essays on Quick are by Clarence A. Andrews, "Herbert Quick: The Social Life of the Prairie," in A Literary History of Iowa (1972); and Allan G. Bogue, "Herbert Quick's Hawkeye Trilogy," Books at Iowa 16 (April 1973), which was used as the introduction to the 1987 edition of Vandemark's Folly .
Contributor: Robert F. Sayre