He’s nearly forgotten these days, but Ernest Taylor Pyle, the journalist whose World War II reporting of the general infantryman made him famous, is a Hoosier worth noting during Indiana’s bicentennial.
Ernie Pyle, as his byline read, isn’t in the annals of noteworthy literary masters. In fact, Pyle’s work is sometimes criticized for its simplicity. What books he published were not complex, lengthy tomes; they were collections of his columns, a short-form of writing that demanded simplicity and clarity.
It is Pyle’s mastery of the everyday language that made him so adept at understanding his subjects, especially his fellow Hoosiers. The latest published volume of Pyle’s work, At Home with Ernie Pyle, out this year, celebrates the author’s Indiana roots and contains his observations and reflections on the state and its people.
Owen V. Johnson, retired journalism professor at Indiana University, has compiled this first-ever collection that focuses only on Indiana, writing in its introduction how Pyle learned over the course of his career to “use ordinary language with authority.
“It was deceptively simple, yet powerful,” Johnson writes.
I have often written about Pyle. After all, he is a namesake for many Indiana journalists, especially those who come from small towns. Moreover, we community journalists like to think that we, too, know our fellow Hoosiers well and that we can tell their stories with plain and simple language, too. Whether we can create prose as powerful as Pyle’s, however, is up for our readers to determine.
They would have to know Pyle’s work. At Home with Ernie Pyle is a good way for modern Hoosiers to get a glimpse of the mid-20th Century, most of it written before, and some during, the catastrophic war that ultimately claimed Pyle’s life. His ability to connect to the average G.I., the soldier on the ground, and his careful way of sharing the raw reality of boredom, fear and death endeared Pyle to the American public.
Make no mistake, this Indiana collection of Ernie Pyle’s writing isn’t a comprehensive examination of the state or its cities and towns. He wrote a lot of folksy pieces about his hometown of Dana, located just north of Terre Haute in Vermillion County. He wrote about returning to his college town of Bloomington. He had a steak dinner with Indiana University president Herman Wells in 1940. He wrote a few columns from Evansville, and he looked into coal mining in Pike County.
He must have never visited Vincennes, for there are no observations of our town’s historic sites or its legacy as one of the oldest communities in Indiana. He heard lots of stories, though, and the only mention of Vincennes is an anecdote about a fellow “from down around Vincennes” who left Indiana for a grapefruit ranch in Texas, and how the fellow returned to talk of his good fortune with little effort, and how work is “just a money-making scheme.”
Pyle heard lots of stories. During his time as a roving correspondent during the 1930s — he was the “Hoosier Vagabond” — and throughout his time as a war correspondent, the writer from Indiana seemed to always find a connection to people. He wrote as things were, then, and put the facts up front where we could see them. His work today gives modern-day Hoosiers the flavor of a time long since passed.
I was struck by one of Pyle’s earliest columns, written while he was a student on the campus of IU in Bloomington in 1922. Titled “It’s in the Air,” it is a unabashed and wistful discussion about how there is “no place in the world like Indiana.” He describes what alumni likely think about with regard to their alma mater:
“They are thinking of spring days when the campus is bursting with fragrance, vivid with the color of blossoms and new leaves, and when the moon is bright — it is undeniable that spring is nowhere in the world as it is at Indiana … ”
“ … They are thinking about hundreds of wholesome, pleasant people, who were their friends. They are thinking something about Indiana which none of them could ever express in words.”
It seems that Ernie Pyle was able to do that and much more.
A freelance writer and photographer, Bernie Schmitt also is an assistant professor of English at Vincennes University. He lives with his wife, Nancy, and family in Vincennes.