© 2024 WGLT
A public service of Illinois State University
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

McHistory: Noted author Harold Sinclair of Bloomington

McLean County Museum of History
Writer Harold Sinclair, center, with actor John Wayne, left, and director John Ford during the making of the movie "The Horse Soldiers."

Bloomington-Normal has a tie to famed actor John Wayne and legendary filmmaker John Ford — hardware store clerk turned author Harold Sinclair. The literary giant had a humble life.

“Harold Sinclair was a singular talent in the mid-century, a wounded soul in many ways, but he had keen insights into the human condition,” said McLean County Museum of History librarian Bill Kemp.

In his early 20s, Sinclair played cornet in a Florida dance band and led a somewhat bohemian life in Chicago for a time, Kemp said, before returning to Bloomington, the city where he grew up.

Harold Sinclair, the writer, never took to schooling. He dropped out of Bloomington High School to become a telegrapher for Western Union.

“He could also be a little snappy and a workplace dispute led him to leave the profession of telegraphy and he ended up working as a hardware clerk for much of his adult life,” said Kemp. “He would work in the hardware store in the day and then write late into the night while playing jazz records too loudly.”

Sinclair’s wife, Ethel Louise Moran, a schoolteacher, was the breadwinner of the family for much of their lives. She became the longtime librarian at the Daily Pantagraph newspaper back when newspapers had libraries and research sections. They had six children.

He was a Guggenheim fellow in creative writing in 1939-40 just as his first novel, "American Years," was taking off.

“I always wanted to write and just kept trying until something gave and I was published, more or less,” said Sinclair in a letter to a prominent editor.

He wrote plenty of short stories and for many of the most popular magazines of the day, such as Colliers and the Saturday Evening Post. But his reputation today really rests with a half a dozen historical novels, said Kemp

“Unlike a lot of historical fiction, Sinclair’s protagonist was not a war hero, soldier, statesman, hearty pioneer or someone remarkable. It was a small city he called Everton, for every town, a clear stand in for Bloomington,” said Kemp.

Sinclair did a research which traced the city of Bloomington from its founding in the 1810s and '20s through the Civil War. He had a habit of including historical characters from Bloomington in "American Years" — some like city founder James Allin and lawyer Abraham Lincoln in their own names.

“For others, he changed their names. For instance, the land baron and cattle king Isaac Funk, became Ike Frink in the novel,” said Kemp.

"American Years’ was published in 1938 by Doubleday Doran. It was the June selection of the Literary Guild, a popular monthly book club during the Depression, which gave him a lot of attention.

The book sold a couple hundred thousand copies in paperback, wrote Sinclair.

“American Years," "The Years of Growth," and "Years of Illusion" made up a trilogy written about 100 years in the history of a middle western town.

“Typical, I hope, generally high praises, mighty poor sales,” wrote Sinclair.

That pattern was one Sinclair saw for two decades. He became a critical darling, but never sold as much as he thought he could have, said Kemp.

The Sinclair letter quoted is to Evan Welling Thomas, who edited among other well-known books, John F. Kennedy's "Profiles in Courage."

The letter was written on April 10, 1955, because Thomas was interested in a new historical novel about a Civil War incident.

McLean County Museum of History
The movie "The Horse Soldiers starred John Wayne and William Holden came from Sinclair's Book about a cavalry raid during the Civil War.

“This thing has had a curious, at any rate, highly varied history. I first came on the material in the late ‘30s when I was working on some other Civil War material. You know, you're looking for one thing and find another,” wrote Sinclair. “I promptly saw it as a potential novel and since that time have written three or four versions of it, none of them successful, unless this one is.”

The novel, "The Horse Soldiers,” was Sinclair’s only best-seller.

Famed film director John Ford adapted it into a film starring John Wayne and William Holden.

“For better or worse, a bit of my stuff has found its way into the schoolbooks here and there. And just recently, a friend who teaches English in Dartmouth told my son, he gives some of my stuff to his people as required reading. Maybe that's one of the things that's currently wrong with colleges,” wrote Sinclair.

The sequel to "The Horse Soldiers" was "The Cavalryman," the last novel Sinclair published, said Kemp.

Sinclair died on May 24, 1966 after surgery for cancer at the age of 49.

“It is here from the dust of the fields, bursting the fetters of drab precedent, and flaunting purple banners and defiance in the face of gray bare tradition, that genius is sometimes born,” wrote Sinclair in a poem.

The series McHistory is a co-production of WGLT and the McLean County Museum of History.

WGLT Senior Reporter Charlie Schlenker has spent more than three award-winning decades in radio. He lives in Normal with his family.