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
Stong, Philip Duffield
(January 27, 1899–April 26, 1957)

–author—was born to Ben Stong, a store owner, and Ada (Duffield) Stong in Pittsburg, Iowa (near Keosauqua), in 1899. He graduated from Drake University in 1919. After teaching school in Minnesota and Kansas, he enrolled as a graduate student in English at Columbia University, then returned to Iowa in 1924 to teach journalism at his alma mater. Stong soon embarked on a career as a journalist, writing features, reviews, and editorials for the Des Moines Register. In 1925 he married Virginia Swain and moved to New York, where he supported himself by working as a journalist and an advertising man while pursuing his ambition to become a novelist. In 1927 Stong interviewed convicted murderers Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti shortly before their execution, and his account of the condemned men's words was widely published.

    Stong's big break occurred in 1932, when he published his first novel, State Fair, which recounted the journey of an Iowa farm family, the Frakes, from the mythical town of Brunswick to the annual state fair. At the depth of the Great Depression, State Fair attracted readers and moviegoers by telling the story of a happy, prosperous farm family. While the critics were divided, the novel climbed the best-seller lists in many American cities, and its selection by the Literary Guild boosted sales further. Fox studios purchased the screen rights to the story, and the 1933 film version of State Fair, directed by Henry King and starring Will Rogers and Janet Gaynor, generated substantial box office receipts and received an Academy Award nomination for Best Picture. As a testament to his devotion to his Iowa roots, Stong used some of his newfound wealth to purchase Linwood, a farm that had been owned by his maternal grandfather, in southeast Iowa.

    After the resounding success of his first novel and film, Stong published a string of novels, sometimes dubbed the "Pittsville series" in reference to their fictional setting, modeled on his boyhood home in Pittsburg (near Keosauqua). In Stranger's Return (1933), an aging man is determined to pass his family farm to his granddaughter, who had since left Iowa. Village Tale (1934) chronicled a feud between the scion of one of the county's most eminent families and a poor farmer

    Stong aspired to write about other locales and themes and hoped to earn a place alongside F. Scott Fitzgerald and Sinclair Lewis as a significant figure in American literature. But the withering critical response to Week-End (1935), in which a socialite's 33rd birthday party in Connecticut (where Stong had also purchased a home with the royalties from State Fair) becomes an occasion for drunken revelry and adultery, led Stong to abandon his goal and to revert to writing tales about Iowa capitalizing on the popularity of regionalist fiction in the 1930s. The farmer in the Dell (1935) tells the story of a retired Iowa farmer who lands a movie role. Career (1936) focuses on the life of a small-town storekeeper, inspired by Stong's father. Buckskin Breeches (1937) is based on his grandfather's diaries and recollections about life in frontier Iowa. By the end of his career, he had published six more novels set in Iowa: The Rebellion of Lennie Barlow (1937), The Long Lane (1939), The Princess (1941), One Destiny (1942), Return in August (1953), and Blizzard (1955). The protagonist in Ivanhoe Keeler (1939) also briefly visits his hometown, Pittsville. In 1940 Stong published two nonfiction works, Hawkeyes: A Biography of the State of Iowa, which recounted the state's history from his idiosyncratic and humorous perspective, and If School Keeps, an autobiography focused on his experiences as a student and teacher.

    Best known for State Fair, Stong traded on the novel's popularity throughout his career. In 1938 he published County Fair, a nonfiction work lavishly illustrated with photographs, and he wrote several magazine articles on fairs. In 1953 he authored a sequel to State Fair, titled Return in August. The story also continued to be popular on the silver screen. Fox released a musical version of State Fair, written by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein, in 1945, starring Jeanne Crain, Dana Andrews, and Dick Haymes. A subsequent musical version (this one set in Texas, released in 1962) starred Pat Boone and Ann-Margret, and stage versions of the musical have been produced on Broadway, on countless high school stages, and at the Iowa State Fair.

    At age 58, Stong died in Washington, Connecticut, from a heart attack. His obituary in the New York Times was less than charitable, declaring, "Although he was a popular writer, he disappointed serious-minded admirers and critics. Those who had hoped that he might contribute more profoundly to American literature felt that he had betrayed his talents."The Des Moines Register was kinder, hailing Stong as one of Iowa's favorite native sons. Over the course of his career, Stong published some two dozen books chronicling Iowa's history and culture, a body of work that establishes him as one of Iowa's best-known and best-loved authors.
Sources include Clarence Andrews, A Literary History of Iowa (1972); John T. Frederick, "Iowa's Phil Stong," Palimpsest 38 (1957), 520–24; Roy Meyer, The Middle Western Farm Novel in the Twentieth Century (1965); William Petersen, "Phil Stong in Retrospect," Palimpsest 38 (1957), 525–30; Chris Ras mussen, "Mr. Stong's Dreamy Iowa," Iowa Heritage Illustrated 79 (1998), 146–55; and Phil Stong, If School Keeps (1940).
Contributor: Chris Rasmussen