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


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Sigmund, Jay G.
(December 11, 1885–October 19, 1937)

–author—was born to farmer Herman R. and Sarah Jane (Bruce) Sigmund in Waubeek, Iowa, northeast of Cedar Rapids, on the Wapsipinicon River. Sigmund attended school in Central City. He married Louise B. Heins of Cedar Rapids on August 9, 1910. They had three children.

    At age 19, Sigmund moved to Cedar Rapids, eventually entering the insurance business and rising to the position of vice president of the Cedar Rapids Life Insurance Company. When that company merged with Mutual of Omaha in 1936, Sigmund was offered a vice presidency in Omaha. He remained in Iowa, however, joining with his son James in operating the Minnesota Mutual Life Insurance Company in Cedar Rapids.

    Sigmund maintained a home in Waubeek, spending, by his own account, all his leisure time there. Feeling deeply rooted in eastern Iowa, he seldom left the area, and he never traveled abroad. Sigmund's poems and short stories focused largely on the rural folk and landscape of the Wapsipinicon River valley. He believed in the profound importance of folk and local culture to the overall American character, and he emphasized the close relationship between people, their community, and the land. Sigmund also took a strong interest in American Indian cultures, contributing to the revived interest in American Indian history and culture in the 1920s. His amateur archaeological expeditions in search of arrowheads and other artifacts along the banks of the Wapsipinicon River played an important part in his "Indianist" writing.

    Sigmund's early work was published in such newspapers as the Cedar Rapids Republican, Dubuque Telegraph Herald, Waukon Republican and Standard, and the Witness. His first book of poetry was published in 1922. His short stories appeared in such magazines as the Tanager, Overland Monthly, Hinterland, the Gammadion, the Frontier, and the Hub. He often published in the Midland, John T. Frederick 's renowned literary journal. Sigmund's stories and poems are noted for their directness and simplicity, displaying an insightful, sympathetic sense of everyday people and situations, yet capturing the depth of experience in rural and folk cultures, often both tragic and humorous. He attracted the attention and praise of such literary luminaries as H. L. Mencken, Carl Sandburg, Sherwood Anderson, and Robinson Jeffers. Sigmund also wrote a number of one-act plays, usually coauthored with Betty Smith, author of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, and primarily dealing with religious themes. He maintained a great interest in the Catholic faith and frequently visited the New Melleray Abbey near Dubuque and the Sinsinawa Dominicans in southwestern Wisconsin.

    Sigmund met Paul Engle, another renowned poet and eventual director of the Iowa Writers' Workshop at the State University of Iowa, in the early 1920s while Engle was a high school student working at a Cedar Rapids neighborhood drugstore. Engle was occasionally publishing poems on the school page of the Cedar Rapids Gazette, and Sigmund encouraged his interest in verse. A lifelong friendship bloomed, and Engle wrote a tribute to Sigmund and his work as an introduction to a collection of Sigmund's selected poetry and prose, edited by Engle and published by Carroll Coleman 's Prairie Press in 1939. Engle placed his friend and mentor's writing in the regionalist context of artists Grant Wood and Marvin Cone. Sigmund also befriended Grant Wood himself and is credited with influencing Wood's interest in focusing on regional subject matter in his painting.

    Sigmund died at age 51 of a gunshot wound as a result of a hunting accident near his home in Waubeek. At the time, he was working on a novel titled Purple Washboard (a type of Iowa clam).
Sources Sigmund's books include Frescoes (poetry, 1922), Pinions (poetry, 1923), Land O'Maize Folk (poetry, 1924), Drowsy Ones (poetry, 1925), Wapsipinicon Tales (short stories, 1927), Merged Blood (short stories, 1929), The Ridge Road (short stories and poetry, 1930), Burroak and Sumac (poetry, 1935), The Least of These (short stories, 1935), Heron at Sunset (poetry, 1937), and Jay G. Sigmund: Select Poetry and Prose, ed. Paul Engle (1939). His papers are in Special Collections, University of Iowa Libraries, Iowa City, and at the State Historical Society of Iowa, Iowa City. For biographical information and literary analysis, see the obituary in the Cedar Rapids Gazette, 10/20/1937; Paul Engle, "The Poet and the Man," in Jay G. Sigmund: Select Poetry and Prose (1939); Frank Paluka, Iowa Authors: A Bio-Bibliography of Sixty Native Writers (1967); Clarence A. Andrews, A Literary History of Iowa (1972); and E. Bradford Burns, Kinship with the Land: Regionalist Thought in Iowa, 1894–1942 (1996).
Contributor: Thomas K. Dean