Fern Gravel: A Hoax and a Confession

by JAMES NORMAN HALL

1

SHE is not a figure of the first importance in American literature, and my interest in her is rather a shamefaced, apologetic one because of what it led me into. I know the place but not the date of her birth, but this is certain: she began to be born on a midsummer day when I myself was a child of five or six years. I was watching a group of older children gathered on a smooth sunny lawn. What the occasion was I don’t remember, but they were playing one of the games common to the children of those far-off days. They held hands, moving in a circle while they sang the following song:

“Green gravel, green gravel,
The grass is so green!
The fairest young lady
That ever was seen . . .”

That experience remained high-lighted amongst the memories of my childhood. Perhaps it was the strange lilting air, or the words to which it was sung, or both together. I didn’t know then any more than I do now what “green gravel” was, or is, but the words seem to have had the effect, of enchantment upon my just awakening imagination. The children singing them on the shadow-dappled lawn, in the golden light of afternoon, did not belong to the world of reality; or, better perhaps, they did, in the eyes of childhood, partaking of the real-ideal existence identical during the few brief years of that magical time.

At long intervals during the years that followed, and for no explainable reason, that scene would rise into focus again, and by means of it I could enjoy the very fragrance and savor of childhood. I wondered about the song, where it came from, and why I had no recollection of ever having heard it again; and I remembered no more than the fragment here given.

I will now pass over some decades and some five thousand miles of space and come to the island of Tahiti and the year 1938. A friend had given me a book to read which he had highly recommended: Precious Bane by an Englishwoman, Mary Webb. I first glanced into it here and there to taste its quality as one often does with books, to begin with. While thus engaged my eye fell upon the following passage : —

It seemed to me as if the singing came from a great way off, under the water. And when Jancis sat by the window, with the light falling on her pale gold hair and pale face through the greenish bottle-glass, it made her look as if the water flowed over her.

“Green gravel, green gravel, the grass is so green!
The fairest young lady that ever was seen.
I’ll wash you in milk, and clothe you in silk,
And write down your name with a gold pen and ink.”

Ah! I can hear Jancis singing that song now, with her sweet shrilly voice, a great way off, ah, me! a great way off.

There was the old song, the fragment completed, and I was surprised and pleased to find it again after so many years. But I heard it, not in the voice of Jancis, but as it was sung by the children in the Iowa town of my childhood and boyhood. Shropshire is the scene of Precious Bane, and “Green Gravel” must have had its origin there. It may have been brought to Iowa by Shropshire folk whose children sang it on the one memorable occasion. I could understand now the reason for its fugitive existence there. Folk songs can live in their native soil alone, and are soon lost when transplanted.

I then began at the beginning of Precious Bane, which so deeply engaged my interest that I read it through, at one sitting.

Several nights later I had a dream as real as any waking experience. I was again in the little Iowa town of my birth, but as a man, not a child. Nevertheless, it was on the same afternoon so well remembered : golden sunlight, the smooth lawn, and the children were singing “Green Gravel.” But there was one change in the wording; instead of “green” it was “fern”: —

“Fern Gravel, Fern Gravel, the grass is so green!
The fairest young lady that ever was seen . . .”

Among the singers was a little girl I remembered whose name was Fern, and she kept glancing over her shoulder at me in an appealing manner every time she went round the circle. Her face was plain and slightly freckled, and her hair was braided in two tight pigtails. She was a solemn little thing, with large dark eyes, and she had a decisive way of stepping, as though she knew at all times exactly where she was going and why, even in a singing game when she wasn’t going anywhere. Then, in the inconsequential manner of dreams, Iowa vanished and all the singers except Fern. I was sitting on the beach at my place in Arné, Tahiti, and she was standing before me.

I said: “Fern, the song is ‘Green Gravel.’”

“No it isn’t; it’s ‘Fern Gravel,’” she insisted. “That’s my name and the song is about me.”

“Do you think you’re the fairest young lady that ever was seen?” I then asked.

She shook her head, mournfully. “ But the song is about me and I want you to write down my name with a gold pen and ink. My home is in Omillersville.”

“You mean Millersville,” I said, but again she shook her head. “It’s Omillersville.”

I ought, to explain that “O” in the Tahitian dialect of the Maori speech means “ It is.” In the early days of exploration in the Pacific, Captains Wallis and Cook both believed that the name of Tahiti was “Otaheite,” as it was then written, because the natives, when asked the name of the island, had said, “O Tahiti [It is Tahiti.]” Fern had no business being on Tahiti making this same mistake about Millersville, Iowa, but in dreams such things don’t matter and one accepts them without question.

Not long after this I was thinking of the dream; of its odd mixture of fact and fiction and of experience so widely separated in time and place. In appearance the little girl was the Fern I remembered, and I had not the least suspicion that she was about to enter my life to make a fraud of me in my sedate middle age. I fell to musing on boyhood days and on people, places, and events connected with them. Fern must have meant Mitchellville, Iowa, not Millersville. There was, and still is, a Mitchellville a few miles west of the town we lived in, but Millersville had seemed all right, in the dream. I had not objected to that, but only to her calling it Omillersville.

2

WHAT happened next was not my fault; at least, not wholly so. Dream children belong in dreams and should remain in that world of phantoms and shadows; but Fern now stepped into my half-waking reverie and I heard her say: “Then call it ‘Oh Millersville!' if you want to. That’s what I meant, anyway—‘Oh Millersville!’ with an exclamation point. And now if you’re ready I’ll begin reciting my poems to you. You can be my secretary and write them down. They’re nearly all about Millersville.” Then, scarcely giving me time to take up my pen, she proceeded: —

“Millersville, oh, Millersville!
That is my home and I love it, but still
I wish that once in a while I could go
To cities like Omaha and St. Joe.
You get tired of living in such a small town
With so few streets for walking around.
I would like to visit some larger places
And see many thousands of different faces
Of people I do not know at all
That you cannot see in a town so small . . .”

The quiet, confident little voice flowed relentlessly on, and I wrote, on and on. The moment one poem was finished she started another. She skipped with ease from subject to subject: “The Drunkard,” “Soap,” “William Jennings Bryan,” “The Fire at the Gilbeys’,” “Arithmetic,” “Piano Lessons,” “The Medicine. Show,” “The Holy Land,” “The Hard Coal Stove,” “The Revival Meeting,” “Gertrude Sullenberger.” She was never at a loss for inspiration and dictated so fast that I got writer’s cramp trying to keep up with her. She told me things about people in our home town that I had completely forgotten, or thought I had. Her longest poem was called “A Residence Street.” She began at one end of it and went, house by house, toward the other, commenting upon the people who lived in each; but tiring of this she broke off abruptly and dictated a poem about the G.A.R.

She could be autobiographical, too, quite frankly so: —

“I almost never look at myself
Except when I am brushing my hair.
I know of course that I am not pretty
But I do not really care.
I am not going to get married;
I expect to travel.
And people will come to hear the lectures
Of the famous Fern Gravel.
That is how I will make my living;
I will not have any special home.
I will live in hotels in the different cities
Where only my intimate friends can come.
And I will be the authoress
Of many many books.
If I am famous for my lectures and poetry
It won’t matter so much about my looks.”

This was poem number 58, and when she had finished dictating it I said, “Fern, let’s call it a day. I’m tired.”

“No,” she said, “you must keep right on. I’ve got another one, about how I hate school: —

“If only I was seventeen years old
Instead of eleven!
To be through grammar school and high school,
That would be heaven!”

But I was able to persuade her that fifty-eight poems were enough for one book. She wanted to make it an even hundred and deferred with reluctance to my judgment. Then she said: “As this book is mostly about Iowa people I want it to be printed in Iowa. Do you know any publishers there?”

I said that I had a friend, Carroll Coleman, owner of the Prairie Press, at Muscatine, Iowa. This started her going again: —

“One of the places that I have not seen
Is the beautiful city of Muscatine;
But some day I ara going to go,
And also to Kansas City and St. Joe,
Missouri, and Omaha, Nebraska.
But the longest journey I expect to make
Will be to Alaska.”

She wanted to include this poem too, but I held firm for the fifty-eight.

Oh, Millersville! was the title she chose for this first volume of the many to come, and she insisted that I write an Introduction to it. I reluctantly consented and that was my undoing. It is that unsigned, not wholly truthful Introduction that has given me such sharp twinges of conscience during the past five years. Had that been omitted I would never have made this confession. The long and short of it was that the manuscript was sent to the Prairie Press, and Fern was as pleased as a phantom child could be when we received word from Mr. Coleman that he would publish it. He himself would design the book, he wrote, and set it up by hand. It was launched early in the winter of 1940-1941.

A period of silence followed. Fern was impatient, and to fill up the time during the interval of waiting, she dictated enough additional poems to have filled Volume II of the Collected Works to come; Then came a letter from Mr. Coleman in a fat envelope filled with clippings. Oh, Millersville! had been well received. The critics were invariably indulgent and friendly; the following were the comments Fern liked best:—

Oh, Millersville! is a collection of juvenilia that no American will want to see pass away. Fern Gravel was the pen name of a sub-teen authoress whose soul simultaneously exfoliated in and was gripped by her Iowa home town, early in the 1900’s. Her verses are as good examples of dead pan lyricism as have ever been printed.— Time

We have found the lost Sappho of Iowa! — New York Times

By the time you have chuckled or roared for a dozen pages or so, you will begin to see something else here . . . an odd, serious, lovable little girl naïvely holding up a mirror to Nature in a way that would have horrified Millersvillians if they had but known it — “a chiel amang ‘em, takin’ notes.” You’ll know yesterday’s Middle West as you never knew it before. — JOSEPH HENRY JACKSON in the San Francisco Chronicle

It’s rather early to be saying a book will be one of the most unusual and charming of the year, but here we are, out on a limb and unafraid. Long after 1941, we think, you’ll remember this book with a good warm feeling and a smile. — Philadelphia Inquirer

So good that it hurts! . . . Fern Gravel never dreamed that she was writing social history. — Washington Post

There should be unholy joy among connoisseurs of bad verse over the début of Fern Gravel who set down the dear little banalities of childhood with an innocence and seriousness that mark her work for immortality. - JAMES GRAY in the St. Paul Dispatch

The book is amazing, amusing, full of the human scene, and not to be missed, because there can’t be another like it in the world. - JOHN HOLMES in the Boston Transcript

There is so warm a feeling of validity about these verses, and so accurate a sense of individual character that their impact is far stronger than a simple amusement at childish SIMPLICITY. -PAUL ENGLE in the Des Moines Register

As important in its way as in a far different way was Spoon River Anthology. . . . The book is full of charming humor. It is also excellent history, and not a bad source book for child psychologists. — GERALD SANDERS in the Detroit Free Press

There were a good many more, all commendatory, and when I had finished reading them Fern said: “ Why are you looking so glum? Aren’t you glad they like my book?”

“Of course,” I replied, “but I was thinking of what the reviewer said in the St. Paul Dispatch.”

“About my poetry being bad? That must have been a misprint; he must have meant ‘sad,’ and some of it is sad, about the Suicide, and the Drunkard, and that awful Emmet Eccles, and my not passing in school because of arithmetic. Anyway, he said my poetry is immortal and that’s all I expected it to be.”

Now, even as I make this confession the phantom child rises before me, just as she was — yes, and is, for I still believe in her. She fixes me with a sad, appealing, reproachful look, and I hear her say: “Mr. Hall, I am no more a phantom than you are!”

Maybe she is right. Perhaps, some day, as she predicted in one of her poems,

. . people will travel
To see the home of the poetess, Fern Gravel.

If that should come to pass, it will be well, I think, for the secretary to be somewhere else. He might, meet some of those reviewers visiting the shrine, and how could he ever explain, and convince them, at the same time, that the shrine is real?