Hoosier Poet, Novelist, Journalist, and Diplomat Meredith Nicholson
By Mary Giorgio
During his lifetime, Meredith Nicholson excelled as a writer and diplomat. His career as a novelist coincided with Indiana’s Golden Age of Literature (1880-1920), a time when Hoosiers achieved national and international acclaim for their literary talents. It was a quartet of writers, Booth Tarkington, George Ade, James Whitcomb Riley, and Meredith Nicholson, whose books were largely responsible for this designation.
Nicholson was born on December 9, 1866, in Crawfordsville, Indiana. When he was just five years old, the family moved to Indianapolis in search of better opportunities.
As a boy, Nicholson struggled to understand math but developed a love for literature and writing. His struggles to understand advanced math eventually took a toll, however, causing Nicholson to drop out of high school. In spite of this setback, Nicholson’s love of learning never died. He would eventually be awarded honorary degrees by Wabash University, Butler University, and Indiana University.
Despite leaving high school early, Nicholson continued to study literature on his own and hone his writing skills. In 1884, he was hired as a writer for the Indianapolis Sentinal newspaper. A year later, he joined the staff at the Indianapolis News, where he would work for the next twelve years.
In addition to writing for newspapers, Nicholson soon began writing poems, essays, and novels. He slowly began to earn a reputation as an excellent writer. In 1891, Nicholson published Short Flights, a collection of poems. It wasn’t until 1900, however, that his career really began to take flight. That year, Nicholson was asked to author The Hoosiers, a chronicle of Indiana’s history. At the time, he was living in Denver with his wife, Eugenie Kountze, and their children. Nicholson’s Hoosier pride had never dimmed, and the book’s success convinced him it was time to return to his beloved home state and begin writing novels full-time.
Between 1900 and 1928, the prolific Nicholson averaged one published book a year. He also wrote for several national magazines, including The Saturday Evening Post, Cosmopolitan, Atlantic Monthly, and Collier’s. Like his contemporaries, Nicholson’s stories highlighted traditional values at a time when the world was experiencing great change. The stories were comforting and nostalgic to their readers.
In 1904, the family moved into a newly completed home on North Delaware Street in Indianapolis. Designed in the Georgian Revival style, the home would also serve as Nicholson’s writing studio for the entirety of his career. It was here that Nicholson wrote his most famous work, TheHouse of a Thousand Candles, published in late 1905. In the timeless mystery, a young man is forced to live in his deceased grandfather’s home for a year to receive his inheritance. Rumored to have been a wealthy man, the grandfather’s fortune mysteriously vanished but was thought to be hidden inside the home. The mystery traces the young man’s adventure as he tries to uncover clues in the peculiar home.
An instant hit, the book sold over 250,000 copies and was eventually translated into several languages and adapted for film. Following the novel’s success, it became a tradition for the Nicholson family to place candles in their home’s windows each Christmas season to commemorate the popular book. The tradition became so beloved that the Nicholson home began to be referred to as “the House of a Thousand Candles.”
Nicholson continued to write bestselling novels. Some of his most popular books included Zelda Dameron (1904), The Port of Missing Men (1907), A Hoosier Chronicle (1912), and Best Laid Schemes (1922). Many of Nicholson’s novels were set in his beloved Indiana.
Such was Nicholson’s popularity that a number of his books were turned into films. The House of a Thousand Candles was adapted for film on three separate occasions – in 1915 by Thomas N. Heffron, in 1919 by Henry King, and in 1935 by Arthur Lubin. Other popular films based on Nicholson’s novels included The Port of Missing Men (1914), Langdon’s Legacy (1916), The Hopper (1918), and Broken Barriers (1924).
By the late-1920s, the popularity of Nicholson’s writing style had waned. His last novel, The Cavalier of Tennessee, was published in 1928. Following his wife’s death in 1931, Nicholson officially gave up novel writing.
With his career as a novelist over, Nicholson reinvented himself as a politician and diplomat. A lifelong Democrat and respected party leader, Nicholson ran for a seat on Indianapolis’s city council in late 1927. Upon winning the election, he served one term, from 1928 to 1930.
The year 1933 marked another milestone in Nicholson’s career. That year, he married his second wife, Dorothy Lannon, and was appointed American Minister to Paraguay by President Franklin D. Roosevelt. After serving in Paraguay from 1933 to 1934, Nicholson served as a diplomat to Venezuela from 1935 to 1938 and to Nicaragua from 1938 to 1941.
As a diplomat in Central America, Nicholson was well-respected by government officials and everyday people alike. He was known as a kind-hearted and optimistic man and a faithful champion of democracy. When Nicholson retired in 1941 due to failing health, his loss was mourned by many individuals in the Nicaraguan government.
Following his retirement from diplomatic service, Nicholson returned to Indianapolis. He briefly served as a columnist for the Indianapolis Star, before officially retiring. Nicholson divorced Dorothy Lannon in 1943. He died a few years later on December 21, 1947, at the age of 81. Nicholson is buried in Crown Hill Cemetery in Indianapolis.
As a renowned writer during Indiana’s Golden Age of Literature, Nicholson’s books shaped a generation of American readers. Through the years, Nicholson has remained a beloved Indiana novelist. His books, especially The House of a Thousand Candles, continue to be enjoyed by modern readers. Today, Nicholson’s home in Indianapolis serves as the headquarters of Indiana Humanities, an organization whose mission to promote literature, art, history, music, and more, stands as a tribute to Nicholson’s ideals.