Paul Iselin Wellman, newspaperman, writer of popular history, novelist and screenwriter, is best known for his books set in the Great Plains and Kansas. His two best-selling novels, The Walls of Jericho (1947) and The Chain (1949), both Literary Guild selections, are set in Kansas towns which closely resemble Dodge City and Wichita, respectively. Both novels received mixed reviews from the critics. But on one thing, all who wrote about Wellman’s books agreed: the Kansas setting is a totally authentic ingredient.
Paul Wellman came to Kansas via Oklahoma and Africa. He was born in Enid on October 15, 1895, the son of Frederick Creighton Wellman and Lydia Jeanette Isely. At six months, his parents went to Angola to become medical missionaries. There, Paul mastered the language of the Bantu of the Umbundu tribe, helping his father translate songs and sermons.
In 1903, Paul and his brother Frederick were sent to live with their maternal grandparents in Brown County, Kansas. Six years later, his parents returned to the United States and were divorced. Lydia Wellman took the children and went to Cimarron, where she worked for her brother, C.C. Isely, who owned a chain of lumber yards. Of this time his brother Frederick remembers: “Soon he began talking with Old Timers around Cimarron and Dodge City…and then is when he really started his interest in writing and story telling.”
A young boy raised in Africa might be able to see closely into and appreciate what must have been for him a whole new culture, one that included cowboys and Indians, sodbusters and ranchers, one as romantic as the African culture he knew. He met the people of western Kansas on their own ground. Feeling responsibility as the eldest son in a fatherless household, he landed a job as a ranch hand at the early age of 14, and worked summers thereafter to help support his family. To both his brothers, Frederick and Manley, and his sister Alice, he was the best big brother possible. All three write of him with the greatest respect and admiration.
At 16, in 1911, Wellman went to Wichita to live with his grandparents and finish high school. In 1913 he attended Fairmount College (now Wichita State University), then quit for a year of work as a ranch hand. He finished his degree in 1918. While at Fairmount, he edited the college newspaper and yearbook and acted in plays. Upon graduation, he married Florence Tobias. He served in World War I for one year, 1918-1919.
After the war, Wellman returned to Wichita and took a job as a reporter for the Beacon. His wife died around 1921, and, according to his brother, Paul went through a very difficult time: "At night, he and I would put on the gloves and box. He was a good boxer and a lethal puncher. He was the only one who every knocked me down in a boxing match, and he did not hesitate to do it. Afterwards, we might walk for miles in the dark, speaking hardly a word. Back home, worn out, he could sleep. He was fortunate in his second marriage, to Laura Bruner."
By the 1920s, Wellman was a tall, dark-haired, burly man whose permanent features included a ubiquitous pipe, a fondness for poker, story-telling and whiskey, and a good sense of humor. He moved over to the Wichita Eagle and began writing accounts of the Great Plains Indian wars. He published these in the Town Crier, the Sunday supplement to the paper. Later, he collected, expanded and edited these stories and finally had them accepted by Macmillan in book form. Death of the Prairie was published in 1934; a sequel, Death in the Desert, in 1935.
On the strength of these books, Wellman was hired by the Kansas City Star, where he worked on the telegraph desk and wrote editorials and headlines. In the meantime, he kept at his writing with a passion that never left him, and which resulted in an output of 31 books in the period 1934-1966—almost one published book per year. After the publication of his first novel, he wrote:
To write a book you must practically drop all interests in life outside your job…You begrudge every minute of your so-called leisure which is devoted to anything else. At home you write with a sort of furious intentness. Between whiles you become discourteous to your friends, cross with your family, a Scrooge in your home, and you live the life of an anchorite.
In the end the book is published. As for your family—they breathe a sigh of relief. They have been Ishmaelites, outcasts from the world, monastic dwellers. They have been patient long-sufferers under the irritability of mental creative work. They have fended for you, excused for you, babied you, and in every way possible made things easy for you. And they are darned glad its over.
But they regard you with some apprehension in their eyes. It’s like the drink habit, this writing, and they have the well-founded fear that before long you’ll be doing it again.
Paul Wellman did do it again, and again, working late into the night after putting in his eight-hour day at the Star. By the time of his sixth book, The Bowl of Brass (his first Kansas novel), the pace had gotten to be too much. His stomach ulcers were increasingly a health problem and his doctor forced him to decide between journalism and book writing. He chose the latter, and in 1944 he went to Hollywood to become a screen writer. After two and a half years, he quit, saying that, “Writing for Hollywood consists of trying to figure out some lunatic’s idea and then putting it into words for him.”
On his own, Wellman was a hard and successful taskmaster. His next two books, The Walls of Jericho and The Chain, both Kansas-based, became best sellers. The Walls of Jericho sold over 700,000 copies in two years, and the movie rights to it sold for $100,000.
Paul Wellman became successful and wealthy. Over the next 17 years, he wrote 23 books. In total his books sold 5,500,000 copies in his lifetime and grossed over $20 million, of which about $2 million was profit for the author.
In 1966, Wellman underwent surgery to his stomach, and a suspected malignancy there was confirmed. A few months later he was awarded an honorary doctorate from the University of California at Los Angeles, where he was a big booster of the athletic program and where he knew the chancellor, also formerly of Kansas, Franklin D. Murphy.
Paul Wellman died of stomach cancer within three weeks after that ceremony, on September 17, 1966. His papers are on deposit at the U.C.L.A. library.
Two threads run as constants through Wellman’s life and work. First, he was a plainsman. He lived on the Great Plains for 27 years and studied it all his life. In a Topeka Daily Capital article of March 4, 1949, Wellman is quoted as saying:
Someone once said that the Eastern part of Kansas is an extension of Missouri, the southern part an extension of Oklahoma, and the western part an extension of hell.
It was this hell, this country that made people larger than life, this land of cowboys, Indians, cattle, what and oil, that caught Wellman’s literary imagination.
Second, Wellman was tempered by his life in Kansas, which is something he examined in his four Kansas novels, The Bowl of Brass, The Walls of Jericho, The Chain, and Jericho’s Daughters. He made a sincere attempt to delve into the meaning of Kansas and its people. From the Daily Capital article:
The people of Kansas themselves are no more homogeneous than the terrain in which they live. The variegated habit of mind of Kansans on any subject whatsoever is a matter of amazement and sometimes amusement to others. Yet the appearance of divergency is more apparent than real. In the essentials which really count, Kansas is a highly competent unit. Perhaps the underlying reason for this is best expressed in the state motto: ‘Ad astra per aspera.’ Freely translated, that could be rendered: ‘To the stars the hard way.’
In each of his Kansas novels, Wellman is concerned with how people with ideals and dreams can reach for the stars and transcend the difficulties in their lives. Those difficulties include a harsh land with temperamental weather and a culture which stresses material over spiritual success because physical survival is so hard won. The ideals are love, justice (especially for the poor—including the farmers of Western Kansas) and religious faith.
This concern with Kansas land, politics, religion, with all of its Kansas culture, makes Wellman of interest to Kansans curious about their heritage. Some examples:
An explanation of Kansas liquor laws—
No Kansan likes to do anything easy. He raises his crops hard. He takes his religion hard. To be able to get licker easy would jest be contrary to nature for him. So he makes laws to keep him from getting’ it…which makes it harder, which gives mo’ of a point to drinkin’ it, an’ behold, yo’ Kansan thereby derives greater satisfaction of soul out’n it (page 29, The Bowl of Brass).
On the Western Kansas landscape—
The high plains at first gave him an overpowering impression of emptiness. Never before had he beheld such a sky—the cosmic vault of blue appeared to occupy a good three fourths of the world, making small and unimportant the scattered farmhouses with their meager clumps of ragged trees and inevitable windmills.
But though the vastness at first oppressed him, eventually it distilled in him a sensation of fetterless freedom which he grew to love almost jubilantly (page 20, The Walls of Jericho).
The townsite as a reflection of the people—
A town of false fronts. All the little, squalid, one-story building have false fronts to make them look like two-story structures; and the people have assumed false fronts, too. Never in my life have I encountered so many fourflushers (page 26, The Walls of Jericho).
…an ugly, dirty little story, of the kind that is always running through every rural community which is starved for something to vary the dull round of its existence (page 171, The Bowl of Brass).
The Kansas Seven were: dancing, cards, the theater, non-attendance at church, tobacco, drinking, and profanity. To the peculiar mental bent, the chief zest of which is the regulation of the lives of others, not even theft, murder, or adultery seemed somehow so important as these seven sins (page 68, The Walls of Jericho).
On how a politician can win the Kansas heart—
Kansas loved a man without blame and without blemish, of pure and spotless character—true. But—here came Aleria’s flash of genius—Kansas loved one thing even more; a sinner who has been saved, a brand from the burning (page 138, The Walls of Jericho).
On the differences between Eastern and Western Kansas—
Undulating river. Oak clad hills. Fat cattle in lush meadows. Stone farmhouses. Corn already tall. This was rich Kansas. The beautiful Kansas. The smug Kansas…
In this part of Kansas there was little in common with the hungry, strenuous, lean West (from The Chain).
Paul Wellman was not, of course, without his flaws as a writer. His characters are not psychologically deep; his dialogue seems somewhat stilted; his plots sometimes take unaccountable and awkward turns. He had great trouble portraying women, revealing himself as what one colleague on the [Star] called an “anti-feminist.” His overstated generalizations often get in his way, as in this passage about a woman lawyer pleading a case:
The appeal was intimately concerned with herself—but it was not for herself. It was for another she pleaded. The drama of sacrifice which is woman.
It was the notions counter at which Belle stood. Needles and pins, and spools of thread, and elastic, and shoelaces, and buttons, and hat pins, and emery cushions, and sewing baskets. The infinite minutiae of which woman’s lives are comprised.
Such passages appear page after page. Wellman admitted that he had difficulty with his women characters. He included them, even featured them, in many of his books, saying that no novel could be great without them.
Wellman’s books, with both their flaws and their strengths, are valuable in understanding the state of Kansas. Paul Wellman took the state as a subject for serious, thoughtful fiction. He was trying to make a true literature out of the West and out of Kansas. He made a literature, a large body of it. It is not great literature, but as a reflection of Kansas culture and history, as social documents, these books endure.
*Biography written by Thomas Fox Averill
Return to Top of Page