William D. Ellis, Novelist
1967 CLEVELAND ARTS PRIZE FOR LITERATURE
Although William Donahue Ellis was born to be a writer, his readers might be forgiven if they assume he once received formal training in other disciplines. Seemingly part archaeologist, part anthropologist, part genealogist, and part psychologist, Ellis mined the centuries to unearth the raw material he would mold into his fiction and nonfiction books. With no instrument more elaborate than a typewriter, he managed to create popular regional histories and award-winning volumes of historical fiction that brought Ohio’s past to life in a manner that was not just informative and entertaining, but as vivid as an epic film.
Born in 1918 in Concord, Massachusetts, Ellis began writing at the age of 12, at the urging of an elementary-school teacher who early on discerned his talent. Over the course of the next seven decades his teacher’s judgment would be validated again and again by readers and critics alike.
Ellis began delving into Ohio’s history quite by accident, during a 1946 visit to his wife’s family in suburban Lakewood. He showed a sample of his writing to a local advertising agency, which hired him immediately and assigned him to write the scripts for a radio program called The Ohio Story. The series of shows—vignettes recounting events and milestones in the state’s development since settlers first arrived—would continue for the next 14 years.
Ellis’s ongoing research for The Ohio Story revealed such an abundance of fascinating material that he eventually used much of it as the foundation for a trilogy of novels: Bounty Lands, Jonathan Blair: Bounty Lands Lawyer and The Brooks Legend. Each of the books reflected the reality of life on the frontier at a time when Ohio was considered “the West” and the hardships of daily existence far outweighed the pleasures. Ellis portrayed the vicissitudes of pioneer existence with an unsparing attention to detail, reminding complacent mid-20th century Ohioans of the strength and courage of their forebears. Each of his novels appeared on best-seller lists, and the trilogy itself eventually earned its author a Pulitzer Prize nomination.
In 1952, Ellis founded Editorial, Inc., which specialized in commissioned histories of Ohio corporations and institutions. With other local writers he produced or oversaw the completion of dozens of volumes, including histories of, among others, Hawken School and the J.M Smucker Company. At the same time, Ellis worked on individual projects that looked back even further in time. His The Cuyahoga (Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1966), for example, is still considered the definitive account of the river and its historical importance to Cleveland and northeastern Ohio.
William Ellis served in the Army during World War II, commanding a rifle company in the South Pacific. Somehow, he continued to write even in the midst of battle. In fact, he was already working on a history of the 77th Infantry Division when his company was ordered to storm the beaches of Guam. He lost the manuscript during the invasion—a disaster that was eclipsed only when he was later wounded by machinegun fire in the Philippines and had to spend a full year in convalescence to recover his health.
Yet something good came out of that painful episode after all. Ellis did not write about his war experiences, but they certainly informed the novels he wrote about the tenacious pioneers of early Ohio. Indeed, in many ways the most important recurring theme in his books is the same one he encountered during the war: quite simply, the triumph of survival.
In view of its empire-building career the Cuyahoga is a surprisingly small stream.
Smallness, in fact, is the constant surprise about this river. Though it is nearly a hundred miles long, its unique course allows its whole watershed to drain less than seven hundred and fifty square miles. It travels in such an extreme U-shape that its fork-tongued double source is only thirty crow-flown miles east of its mouth. . . .
The East Branch rises near a dairy farm and flows through woods and into East Branch Reservoir, a shining jewel surrounded by young Christmas trees. The West Branch grows from a score of rivulets coming out of the hollows between the great hilltop houses in the Chardon Woods.
Both these south-flowing sources are north of the Cuyahoga mouth at Cleveland. Their confluence is ten miles south of the sources, near Brady’s Pond. The river flows thence through beautiful farmland widening from the strength of a thousand brooks.
After wandering by the peaceful college towns of Hiram and Kent in a pastoral valley, the Cuyahoga flows into Munroe Falls, where suddenly it strips off its green shore and puts on rust. From here on it is strictly a downtown river. It picks up warehouses and railroad tracks, and then just short of Akron, it runs smack up against the great escarpment which turns it north. Off that hogback, at Akron, the Little Cuyahoga (not to be confused with the Cuyahoga) also runs north to plunge down a stairway of falls to Lake Erie.
After its sudden sharp turn, the Cuyahoga sometimes becomes so narrow that it runs through a lane of trees whose leafy branches meet over it, whispering history. For the Cuyahoga was the key to settlement of all the towns from the bend to its mouth. And the downstream towns of Peninsula and Boston and Brecksville and Independence still cherish their history, and preserve it in restorations like the Jonathan Hale House in the area that includes Everett, Bath, and Peninsula. . . . Here and there manicured lawns slant down to the river’s edge.
It is this stretch of the Cuyahoga which, with the Portage Path and the Tuscarawas River, formed the earliest known inland road on the continent. It appeared on European maps over four hundred years ago, even before the cartographers could draw the Great Lakes or the Gulf or the eastern seaboard correctly. Being the only well-established interior route from the Gulf to the Great Lakes, it suggested military planning to Europeans.
—The Cuyahoga (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1966)
Cleveland Arts Prize
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