Stratton-Porter, Gene (1863–1924)

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Stratton-Porter, Gene (1863–1924)

American writer and naturalist who publicized her concern for the threatened wildlife habitats of North America through enormously successful magazine columns, novels, photograph collections, and films. Name variations: Gene Stratton Porter. Born Geneva Grace Stratton on August 17, 1863, in Wabash County, Indiana; died on December 6, 1924, in Los Angeles, California; daughter of Mark Stratton (a farmer and minister) and Mary (Schallenberger) Stratton; left Wabash high school without a degree, 1883; married Charles Darwin Porter (a chemist), on April 21, 1886; children: daughter Jeanette Porter-Meehan (b. 1888).

Began publishing photographs and nature essays in magazines (1900); published first book, The Song of the Cardinal (1903); was a bestselling fiction author and sought-after columnist (1905); began financing and producing films based on her work (1922).

Selected writings:

The Song of the Cardinal: A Love Story (Bobbs-Merrill, 1903); (illustrated by E. Stetson Crawford) Freckles (Doubleday, Page, 1904 [other editions illustrated by Wladyslaw T. Benda, Doubleday, Page, 1912, Thomas Fogarty, Doubleday, Page, 1921, Ruth Ives, Junior Deluxe Editions, 1957, and Michael Lowenbein, Whitman, 1965]); What I Have Done with Birds (Bobbs-Merrill, 1907, also published as Friends in Feathers, Doubleday, Page, 1917); (illustrated by Oliver Kemp) At the Foot of the Rainbow (Outing Publishing, 1907); Birds of the Bible (Eaton & Mains, 1909); (illustrated by W.T. Benda) A Girl of the Limberlost (Doubleday, Page, 1909); Music of the Wild (Eaton & Mains, 1910); (illustrated by W.L. Jacobs) The Harvester (Doubleday, Page, 1911); Moths of the Limberlost (Doubleday, Page, 1912); After the Flood (Bobbs-Merrill, 1912); (illustrated by Herman Pfeifer) Laddie: A True Blue Story (Doubleday, Page, 1913); Birds of the Limberlost (Doubleday, Page, 1914); (illustrated by Frances Rogers) Michael O'Halloran (Doubleday, Page, 1915); (self-illustrated) Morning Face (Doubleday, Page, 1916); A Daughter of the Land (Doubleday, Page, 1918); Homing with the Birds: The History of a Lifetime of Personal Experiences with the Birds (Doubleday, Page, 1919); Her Father's Daughter (Doubleday, Page, 1921); (illustrated by Gordon Grant) The Fire Bird (Doubleday, Page, 1922); (poems, illustrated by Edward E. Winchell) Jesus of the Emerald (Doubleday, Page, 1923); The White Flag (Doubleday, Page, 1923); (illustrated by G. Grant) The Keeper of the Bees (Doubleday, Page, 1925); Tales You Won't Believe (Doubleday, Page, 1925); Let Us Highly Resolve (Doubleday, Page, 1927); (illustrated by Lee Thayer) The Magic Garden (Doubleday, Page, 1927).


Michael O'Halloran (produced by Gene Stratton-Porter, 1923, Republic Pictures, 1937, Windsor Pictures, 1948); Girl of the Limberlost (produced by Gene Stratton-Porter, 1924, Monogram Pictures, 1934, Columbia Pictures, 1945); Keeper of the Bees (produced by Gene Stratton-Porter, 1925, Monogram Pictures, 1935, Columbia Pictures, 1947); Laddie (produced by Gene Stratton-Porter, 1926, RKO Radio Pictures, 1935, RKO Pictures, 1940); Any Man's Wife (based on Michael O'Halloran, Republic Pictures, 1937); Romance of the Limberlost (based on Girl of the Limberlost, Monogram Pictures, 1938).

During the first two decades of the 20th century, Gene Stratton-Porter was one of the most famous women in the United States. Her writing reached an audience of 50 million Americans and was translated into 14 languages abroad. Although her work is no longer popular with critics or the general public, its importance cannot be discounted. Stratton-Porter played a major role in the cultural life of the United States. She brought messages of hope to families struggling to better their situations and of support to women struggling with the arduous tasks expected of turn-of-the-century homemakers. Most important, through her novels and essays she helped all Americans rediscover the beauties of the natural world and gain an awareness of the need for cautious development and conservation practices.

Stratton-Porter grew up on a farm in the Wabash Valley of Indiana. Geneva (later shortened to Gene) was the youngest of 12 children, and by the time of her birth in 1863 her parents had already spent 25 years transforming their frontier territory into a beautiful, comfortable, and profitable home. Her father Mark Stratton was not only an energetic farmer but an active citizen. He encouraged the improvement of local roads, canals, and schools and served as minister for the nearby Methodist church. Her mother Mary Schallenberger Stratton served as the model for Gene's ideal of womanhood: she was "capable." She transformed the wild and domestic plants of her fields into food, medicine, and even perfume. Several older siblings remained at home, and Stratton-Porter benefited from hearing them recite their lessons, while their labor allowed her to escape the household chores that usually would have fallen to a farm daughter.

Stratton-Porter always referred to the years of her farm life as an idyll, just as she portrayed them in her novel Laddie, a fictionalized account of her childhood. She drew on her memories to describe the traditions of country weddings and courtship, the round of chores and labor needed to run the farm, and the rules of rural social life. Laddie also offers a record of young Stratton-Porter's early love affair with nature. Gene enjoyed the run of the barns, woods and fields surrounding her home. She made friends with the birds and delighted in discovering their nests and their habits. She tended her own wildflower garden and nursed a steady stream of injured animals. As a child, Stratton-Porter explained to her parents that she could hear the rhythm of the earth, a pronouncement that led her father to call in the family doctor. The doctor confirmed what the family already suspected: there was absolutely nothing wrong with the child, but she was undeniably different from other girls.

Unfortunately, the image of the happy home portrayed in Laddie was not entirely accurate. Although her father was loving and always encouraged Gene's love of nature and her writing career, he was also imperious with his children and notoriously frugal with his cash. As an adolescent and young woman, Stratton-Porter chafed at his control. Nor is the portrait of the mother exact. Mary Porter had given birth to 12 children and built a homestead, but, a few years after Gene's birth, Mary contracted typhoid and never completely recovered her strength. Part of the reason Gene enjoyed such unusual freedom as a child was that her mother was increasingly confined to a chair or bed.

Most important, the real Laddie, Gene's older brother Leander, did not live to return from college and pursue his sweetheart as did the "Laddie" of Stratton-Porter's novel. Instead, Leander was drowned while swimming one hot summer day in 1872, at age 18. For Gene, it was a double tragedy. Not only did she lose a beloved older brother, but she soon lost her country home as well. Leander was the only brother who loved farming, and his parents had planned for him to take over their homestead. After his death, the father, now 60, had little heart for continuing the heavy work, and in 1874 he leased the farm and moved his family ten miles away into the town of Wabash, where they lived near an older daughter, Anastasia , her husband, and children. Leander's death also hastened his mother's decline. Mary Porter died early in 1875, only a few months

after the move to town. By age 12, Gene had lost her brother, her mother, and the magical world of her childhood.

The move to Wabash deprived Stratton-Porter of her plants and animals, but it gave her access to the public schools and to girls her own age. After recovering from the initial shock at the differences between country and town manners (an experience she described in her novel Girl of the Limberlost), she enjoyed her new social life. The schoolhouse, however, was another matter. "In the whole of my school life," she wrote later, "I never had one teacher who made the slightest effort to discover what I cared for personally, what I had been born to do, or who made any attempt to help me in any direction I evinced an inclination to develop." She had great difficulties with mathematics and withdrew from school without graduating in 1883. Stratton-Porter never regretted her lack of a high school diploma; she always insisted that her most profitable learning came from self-education and solitary reading.

What measure of success I have had comes through preserving my individual point of view.

—Gene Stratton-Porter

The year 1883 was also a time of family tension. With Gene's sister Anastasia dying at a cancer clinic, Mark Stratton had volunteered to move in with her husband and had committed his daughters to running the house and caring for Anastasia's young children. Gene resented her father's disposition of her and her sister's lives, and she was angry at his constant refusal to grant them the money they requested for clothes or entertainment. She knew her father was not poor; the battles they fought over money had less to do with finances than with a contest of wills between two strong individuals.

For several summers, Gene had accompanied her older sisters to Sylvan Lake, an Indiana resort that offered a "Chautauqua"—a series of educational and religious lectures held in a natural setting. In the summer of 1884, Stratton-Porter arrived home to find a letter from a young man who had also been vacationing at Sylvan Lake. Charles Darwin Porter wrote that he had seen Gene at the lectures and had hoped to arrange an introduction, but Gene had left before he had the chance. In his early 30s, Charles was a successful pharmacist from Decatur, Indiana. Even though he included the names of several mutual acquaintances as character references, Gene was hesitant to respond, writing in reply: "If you noted me sufficiently to remember me this long, then I am sure that you saw also that I behaved in a quiet and ladylike manner. But can I keep it if I correspond with an entire stranger?" The awkwardly begun courtship flourished, however, and in 1886 Gene Stratton married and moved to Decatur. Initially, she went by the married name of Gene Porter, although in later life she preferred Stratton-Porter. Her only child, Jeanette Porter-Meehan , was born in 1888.

Charles Porter was not only a pharmacist but an entrepreneur, and within a few years of their marriage he had expanded his drug store holdings, purchased a hotel, and opened a bank. Gene felt frustrated, however, by the similarities to her adolescence: she lived in a prosperous house but had no money of her own. She also chafed at the society of Decatur. Stratton-Porter had little interest in joining local clubs and was regarded as peculiar by the other women. Finally, in 1890, she persuaded Charles to move the family to the smaller town of Geneva, where Charles was closer to his new business ventures and she was closer to the countryside she loved.

Her new home lay less than a mile from the famous Limberlost Swamp of Indiana, a pocket of damp wilderness teeming with wildlife. Suddenly Gene seemed to rediscover the energy and passions of her youth as she explored the unfamiliar environment. During the next few years, neighbors grew accustomed to the sight of her khaki-clad figure in their fields, and she acquired a reputation as the "Birdwoman." Friends and strangers alike appeared at her door with unusual or injured animals.

Stratton-Porter experienced an intellectual renaissance as well. She embarked on a serious effort to broaden her education and improve her writing. She read avidly and joined discussion clubs that forced her to write and present papers before groups. She even founded her own literary society dedicated to the study of American and English literature. In 1893, she was inspired by the modern architecture on exhibit at the Chicago World's Fair and undertook the design and construction of a 14-room "cabin" at the edge of the Limberlost Swamp.

In 1895, her husband and daughter gave Gene a camera which she promptly turned upon her beloved swamp. Successful nature photography required unique skills at the turn of the century. There were no telephoto lenses, thus the photographer had to accustom animals to the sight of humans and their bulky equipment. The flash of the powder that marked the photo frightened the subjects, making retakes impossible. Despite the difficulties, Stratton-Porter found that she was uniquely qualified to photograph animals. "My first feeling on going afield," she wrote in Homing with the Birds in 1919, "was one of amazement at what my early days among the birds had taught me. … I knew what location each bird would choose for her nest, how she would build it, brood and care for her young. … The birds had not changed in the slightest; nor had I." Stratton-Porter was pleased with her work. Most Americans could study birds only through prints of the paintings by James Audubon. Stratton-Porter felt that Audubon's paintings looked like the stuffed corpses that had served as his models, while her own photos revealed the sparkling personalities of her feathered subjects.

By 1900, Gene Stratton-Porter had begun to see herself not as a nature lover but as a working naturalist. Tracking wildlife, recording observations, and capturing images in photographs combined her artistic and scientific interests. In 1900, she published her first magazine article on the habits of birds, and she was soon a regular contributor to several outdoor life publications.

Charles encouraged her work. Initially, he was concerned by her forays into the swamp (which possessed both human and natural dangers), and he began to plan weekends in the Wabash River valley to offer Gene a safer environment for her expeditions. Later, Charles grew confident that Gene (armed with a revolver) could protect herself. He also ordered and mixed the chemicals Gene required for her photography and paid an assistant to help cart the 40 pounds of plates and equipment into the woods. At home, both Charles and Jeanette grew accustomed to moving cocoons off chairs and injured birds off the table before sitting down to dinner.

Despite Charles' support, Gene was reluctant to let her husband know she was experimenting with new writing styles. At some time during the 1890s, she had showed samples of her poetry to a harsh critic (probably her father) whose response had devastated her self-confidence. When Gene began to submit fiction to magazines after 1901, she rented her own postoffice box so that Charles would not find any rejection letters. She even hid her efforts to write her first novel from her husband until the final publishing stage, when she learned that married women could not sign legal documents without their husband's consent. Her fears of failure were unnecessary. The public loved her work, and Stratton-Porter quickly found wealth and respect as a writer. She published her first fiction story in 1901, her first novel in 1903, and her second novel in 1904.

Between 1900 and her death in 1924, Stratton-Porter published 12 novels, 8 nonfiction books, and nearly 300 magazine articles. As her output suggests, she wrote effortlessly. Stratton-Porter was never able to understand how others struggled with "writer's block" and constant revisions. From 1900 on, she kept to an orderly schedule: during the warm weather, she completed fieldwork in the mornings and recorded her observations in the afternoons; winters were spent in the production of books and articles.

Although Stratton-Porter was proud of her writing, she was also honest about its limitations. She never considered her fiction writing as "literature"; rather, she saw it as merely a different vehicle for spreading her creed of nature appreciation. Nor did Stratton-Porter class her writing with that of the scientific community. She ignored census figures and migration statistics and concentrated instead on describing the breeding habits and social behavior of animals. Although many professional naturalists scorned her work, Stratton-Porter earned the praise of America's most famous conservationist, President Theodore Roosevelt, for her success in encouraging greater appreciation for the outdoors among the general public.

Stratton-Porter's works were popular in part because her themes dovetailed well with the concerns of a newly industrialized society. Americans were obsessed with the recent closing of the frontier and tormented with nostalgia for their rural past. Stratton-Porter was also popular because her stories embodied the Horatio Alger theme dear to aspiring Americans. Her wholesome characters struggled to better their situations and triumphed in love, money, and profession. Her novels differed from the normal format, however, in featuring strong female leads. Stratton-Porter had a special interest in providing models of intelligent and capable women. She worried that the Victorian ideal of the sheltered, fragile female was producing women far inferior to the pioneer women of the past. In later years, Stratton-Porter was equally impatient with the "flapper" movement, which she felt converted women into yet another kind of decorative object. Stratton-Porter could never be called a feminist (she always maintained that a woman's greatest contribution lay in providing a safe and welcoming home for her family), but she did see herself as a defender of all those women who worked hard to maintain a home, but who received little respect in either the Victorian or the "flapper" age. In Stratton-Porter's view, women and men were equal partners in constructing a family, a home, and a society.

After 1910, Stratton-Porter began to consider moving from the Limberlost Cabin. The discovery of oil in the region (Charles Porter himself operated 65 wells) and the search for hardwood for the booming Chicago furniture industry had devastated the environment and destroyed the potential for fieldwork. In 1912, she and Charles decided to build a new home at their old retreat of Sylvan Lake. Once again, Stratton-Porter designed and supervised construction of the house, which contained 20 rooms, including a professional darkroom. Increasingly conscious of the destruction of the natural environment, she embarked upon the creation of an extensive botanical garden dedicated to the preservation of native trees, shrubs and flowers. Over the years, she and her assistants transplanted thousands of varieties of plants to the grounds of "Wildflower Woods."

In 1918, Stratton-Porter admitted herself to a health clinic for a rest cure, an uncharacteristic act which hinted at her discouraged state. Her home at Sylvan Lake had fallen victim to the same development that earlier destroyed the Limberlost. Canals drained the water level and new roads replaced animals with people. Stratton-Porter's fame had also attracted a swarm of curiosity seekers who constantly invaded her privacy. In addition, her daughter Jeanette and her grandchildren had begun to pay extended visits that revealed what Stratton-Porter had long feared; her son-in-law was a hopeless alcoholic.

The 1918 rest cure helped Stratton-Porter bear up to another year in Indiana, but she was no longer enamored of her home. In 1919, she visited siblings in California, and in 1920 she committed herself to moving to Los Angeles. Charles remained in Indiana where he was still active in business. Jeanette wrote that her parents remained friendly and affectionate but were content to limit themselves to summertime visits in Indiana and occasional visits by Charles to California.

Jeanette finally obtained a divorce and followed her mother to California where she witnessed the final chapter in Stratton-Porter's varied career. In Los Angeles, Gene Stratton-Porter discovered a society that valued art and literature and considered her talented rather than eccentric. Stratton-Porter was also intrigued by the new medium of film. In 1917, her novel Laddie had been filmed, but Stratton-Porter had been unhappy with the liberties the producer took with the story. In 1921, she began supervising the production of her films, which were scripted by her daughter. Three years later, she founded her own film company, which gave her complete artistic and financial control over production.

Stratton-Porter maintained her older interests as well. She designed and supervised the construction of two new residences, a summer home on Catalina Island and a year-round residence in Bel Air. Stratton-Porter rediscovered her youthful enthusiasm for verse and wrote Firebird and Euphorbia, long narrative poems. She also explored the California countryside and the plants and animals it contained.

In California, Stratton-Porter continued to write fiction, although she realized that American taste had changed and her novels were no longer bestsellers. The American public, disillusioned with World War I and caught up in the materialism of the 1920s, no longer responded to her innocent rural characters. Nevertheless, Stratton-Porter felt her perspective was needed. In 1922, the editor of McCall's magazine asked if she had a message for the women of America. "Not one," she responded, "but one hundred." Her editorials helped McCall's rise to become one of the most popular American magazines of the '20s, reaching an audience of one million readers. In her columns, she offered advice on everything from how to attract wild birds to the garden to how to keep a sanitary kitchen and raise strong children. One frequent subject was the need for decency standards in the motion-picture industry. She was disgusted by Holly-wood's tendency to add salacious material to every storyline, but she did not want to eliminate all adult content from films. She encouraged women to write to studios and demand that they separate adult and juvenile content so that families could take their children to the theaters.

In 1924, at age 61, Gene Stratton-Porter had recently completed a series of editorials for McCall's, two new novels, a narrative poem, and four films. Her husband Charles, who had his own apartment in the Bel Air house, had visited the previous winter, and her daughter Jeanette worked with her in the film industry. Her active life was ended abruptly, however, when her limousine was struck by a streetcar on December 6.

Stratton-Porter's influence on the American public could not be erased by her death. During her lifetime, her novels, films, and essays reached millions of Americans; for 17 years, her books sold at the rate of 1,700 copies a day. Her nature photographs are still praised for their artistry and their content, and her home, Limberlost Cabin, now a state historic site in Indiana, is dedicated to promoting conservation practices. Her greatest legacy, however, is evident in the grateful letters received by Stratton-Porter over the years from readers who learned to see the rich world surrounding them through her enthusiastic perspective.


Long, Judith Reick. Gene Stratton Porter: Novelist and Naturalist. Indianapolis, IN: Indiana Historical Society, 1990.

Porter-Meehan, Jeanette. The Lady of the Limberlost: The Life and Letters of Gene Stratton-Porter. NY: Doubleday, Doran, 1928.

Richards, Bertrand. Gene Stratton Porter. Boston, MA: Twayne, 1980.

suggested reading:

Morrow, Barbara. From Ben-Hur to Sister Carrie, Remembering the Lives of Lew Wallace, James Whitcomb Riley, Booth Tarkington, Gene Stratton-Porter and Theodore Dreiser. Indianapolis, IN: Guild Press of Indiana, 1995.

Plum, Sydney Landon. Coming Through the Swamp: The Nature Writings of Gene Stratton Porter. Salt Lake City, UT: University of Utah Press, 1996.

related media:

Reprints of Stratton Porter's writing, audio tapes and a video biography ("Gene Stratton-Porter, Voice of the Limberlost") are available from the Limberlost State Historic Site in Geneva, Indiana. The Indiana Historical Society also loans out visual material on Stratton-Porter for educational exhibits.

Janice Lee Jayes , historian, Washington, D.C.

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Stratton-Porter, Gene (1863–1924)

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