Monday, August 29, 2011

Marquis James: A Tribute to the Unqualified Master of Understated Metaphors

Today, August 29, is the birthday of Marquis James. Marquis, raised in Enid, Oklahoma, won the Pulitzer Prize twice. The first Pulitzer Prize was awarded him in 1930 for James' epic biography of Sam Houston entitled The Raven. It is said that President John F. Kennedy was so captivated by The Raven that the book became one of the first gifts he gave to his fiance Jacquelin Bovier.  The second Pulitzer was awarded eight years later, in 1938, for the massive two volume The Life of Andrew Jackson. Marquis James would eventually write sixteen epic historical books.

A Yale University textbook of the late 1940's declared, "The greatest masters of the understated metaphor are Marquis James and William Butler Yeats." When told of the quote, Marquis James allegedly replied mildly, "Who is this man Yeats?" 

Many of you might be saying,  "Who is this man Marquis James?"  

Marquis James is a literary giant and a master of the understated metaphor, and it is through reading his books that I have learned the importance of adding the color of metaphor to both speaking and writing.

A metaphor is a figure of speech which expresses the unfamiliar in terms of the familiar. For example, the metaphor "love is a rose" takes the abstract concept of love and makes it understandable by using the visible, tangible and familiar rose (i.e."love blossoms and grows over time, is sweet to the senses, is in close proximity to the pain of thorns, etc...). The imagination is illumined to understand life better by use of metaphors.

The best speakers and writers are those who most often and most naturally use understated metaphors. Marquis James was a master, and anyone who speaks or writes for a living ought to be familiar with him.

120 year ago, on August 29, 1891, Marquis James was born to Houstin and Rachel Marquis James in Springfield, Missouri. Marquis' father would leave his bride and young son two years later to participate in the infamous September 16, 1893 Cherokee Land Run. With the services of a swift horse, Houstin James became the 15th settler to file a land claim at the government land office in Enid, outracing between 90,000 and 100,000 other land seekers. Houstin laid claim to a quarter section of land located two miles southeast of Enid on the banks of Boggy Creek (SE Quarter of Section 17 Township 22 N, R6W).

Two months later Houstin's wife and son joined him in Enid. Marquis, called Mark or Markey while a youth,  attended the Enid public schools,  graduating from Enid High School in 1910. Marquis only attended one year of college at Oklahoma Christian University in Enid (later called Phillip's University) before leaving Enid and traveling the country working for the next five years as a reporter for various newspapers in major cities including Kansas City, St. Louis, New Orleans, and Chicago, winding up in New York City as a rewrite editor for the New York Tribune.

Marquis formal education was limited to his one year of college, but his enthusiasm for self-learning and his natural abilities led him to become a successful writer. Marquis turned down a job  at the start of World War One to be the Tribune's war correspondent and he volunteered for the American Expeditionary Force and fought on the front lines in France. Marquis was wounded in battle and received the Purple Heart. Upon his return to the United States in 1919, Marquis took a job as the National Publicity Director for the newly formed American Legion. It was in 1925 that Marquis James and Harold Ross, an editor for the American Legion monthly magazine, joined together to found The New Yorker.  Marquis then went to work as a writer for the magazine he helped found.

In 1925, while covering the Scopes Trial in Dayton, Tennessee for the New Yorker, Marquis took a break from the coutroom and went to the local library where he came across a large collection of books on Tennessee's native son, Sam Houston. Reminded that he once met Sam Houston's son, Temple Houston, when living in Enid, and that Temple Houston regaled him with stories about his father, Marquis James determined in that Tennessee library to write a biography on Sam Houston. James spent the next four years researching the life of Sam Houston, and then published his manuscript The Raven in 1929. He won the Pulitzer Prize the following year.

Marquis James eventually wrote sixteen epic books, two of which won the Pulitzer Prize, but his favorite book of all was his autobiography of growing up in Enid, Oklahoma within what was formerly known as the Cherokee Outlet. The book, entitled The Cherokee Strip: A Tale of an Oklahoma Boyhood, was published in 1945, and though it did not win a Pulitzer, it remains one of the finest first hand accounts of early Oklahoma life.

Marquis James died suddenly of a brain aneurism on November 19, 1955 at his home in New York. He was working on the definitive biography of Booker T. Washington at the time of his death. After his death, his wife donated James' original manuscripts of The Raven and The Cherokee Strip to the Enid Public Library, where they remain encased and on display in the Oklahoma Room. One of these days someone is going to write a biography on the master biographer we know as Marquis James.

Happy Birthday, Marquis James. Thanks for illustrating how history can be told in a colorful style with metaphorical flair. We would all be better if we turned off the television for a while and read The Raven or The Life of Andrew Jackson or The Cherokee Strip: A Tale of an Oklahoma Boyhood. Maybe this little birthday wish will point a reader in the right direction.


Anonymous said...

Very interesting. Writing is kin to that saying of a person planting trees they will never sit under.

Speaking of a rose, my father once wrote: “When life hangs in the balance and a friend tossed on a rose.”

That may portray Jesus receiving a kiss.

I think of the present BFM as legalistic walls to prevent sin but actually make prisoners within.
Rex Ray said...


"Legalistic walls to prevent sin but actually make prisoners within."

That's pretty good Rex :)

John Wylie said...

I read that book twice as a young teenager. I had forgotten the author's name, and I never imagined that the original manuscripts would be in the library at Enid. I remember I loved that book as a kid, thanks for the article that brought those memories back.

Steven Stark said...

My mother is a bit of an amateur Sam Houston historian. Thanks for the reminder (of her suggestion) that I need to read this book by Marquis James!

Anonymous said...

I guess choosing to fight than switch was not a good example for my kids as they left the Southern Baptists’ turmoil of fighting.

I say “fighting” but it’s more like one side had arrows and the other was the bull’s-eye.

Instead of a clean break, it reminds me of a guy that asked his neighbor why his dog howled so loud every day about sundown.

“I want him bob-tailed and don’t want to hurt him too much so I’m cutting a little at a time.”

I believe Jimmy Carter nailed it when he said, “I didn’t leave Southern Baptists; they left me.”

They replaced my conservative name with ‘liberal’. As a boy I wondered why the song; “I shall not be moved” had a verse: “Thought the church is moving, I shall not be moved.” Now I understand.

Hanging on with fingernails is not fun…I think my gravestone may have: “Raised Southern Baptists…died a Believer.”
Rex Ray

Julie... said...

Wade -
I checked out both recommendations (Raven & 2 volume Jackson bio) from the Oklahoma State library today. Planning for these to be my beach reads on the Alabama coast in a few weeks. (I've got some fiction, too. Graham Greene's "The Comedians" and a few others.)

Anyway, the circulation worker at the OSU library said that the Jackson biography showed no evidence of having ever been checked out, based upon the circulation card/date due slip being several iterations in the past. I asked her if that meant all the way back to the 40's when they were published, and she said she thought so. I told her I thought that was tragic as these merited a Pulitzer award and were written by an Oklahoman.

Anyway, I don't know how accurate her assessment was, but for sure, the circulation cards were blank, they were typewritten with a pre-1970 typewriter (no Selectrix here), and they've for sure not been read for dozens of years. Hope that anecdote is not a proxy for Oklahoma literacy!!?!

Timothy Snider said...

Wade - The comment above by Julie was actually by me - I didn't realize she was still signed into Blogger. But, drop by her blog site some time - she does awesome photography and some good writing on a variety of things.

Tim Snider said...


A fascinating comment from the OSU library employee and an even more fascinating website by Julie!

I hope you enjoy your vacation and the books! I was fascinated by little antedotes throughout the books. For example, when Sam Houston was injured in the Battle of To-ho-pe-ka (War of 1812), a Captain Montgomery who was injured next to him would die from his wounds. Montgomery, however, lives on with his name as the capital of Alabama. Houston was also content to die from what he believed to be mortal wounds that he received, knowing that he had fought heroically and his kin folk back home in Tennessee would be proud of him. Providence, however, directed that Houston recover from his wounds, and from this heroic battle--the first occasion that Andrew Jackson had to observe the young Houston--Sam Houston would go on to infamy in Tennessee, Oklahoma and Texas, with the fourth largest city in the country named for him (Houston).

I find history more fascinating than fiction.


Ryan said...


There are many reasons why I enjoy reading your blog, but I especially enjoy reading what you write about American and American Indian history.

That's not to say I don't enjoy your writings on theology and the Church, I hope you continue to write about American/American Indian History.

God Bless,


Anonymous said...

Wade, I agree with Tim, and your saying: “…fascinating website by Julie!”

I printed her article “When perfectionism & to-do lists overwhelm”.
She writes from the view point of a housewife, but it applies to everyone…at least I found myself in her shoes.

Reminds me of what my mother said at the age of 94 when she turned down a request to play the piano for their singing at the rest home.
She said, “I’ve got too much to do.”

That was the day she met the Lord as her smile was still on her lips, and she might have heard our father’s usual question, “Elizabeth where have you been?”
Rex Ray

Steven Stark said...

I read "Cherokee Strip: A Tale of An Oklahoma Boyhood " and I enjoyed it immensely. Thanks for the recommendation!

Anonymous said...

The old Marquis furniture building in downtown Enid, now Broadway Exchange, held Enid High School upstairs. This is described in Marquis James book "Cherokee Strip: A Tale of An Oklahoma Boyhood". They sell the book in the store.