Dr. Patricia Oman is almost as excited about the discovery of Lansing author Belle Maniates as Marie Curie was about the discovery of radium.
Oman, who teaches English literature at Hastings College in Nebraska, said her discovery of Maniates began as one of those serendipitous moments. She happened to find a copy of Maniates’ 1917 novel, “Our Next-Door Neighbors,” in a used book store in Omaha.
“I had never heard of her, but I thought it would be a fun summer read,” Oman said. “It was delightful and hilarious.”
After the chance encounter, Oman researched the little known author, who lived from 1861 to 1931, to learn more about her.
“I could find very few details about her life. I found her gravestone (in Marshall, Michigan),” Oman said. “I dug deeper and found she wrote eight novels and hundreds of short stories. She was very prolific.”
Oman found that Maniates’ earliest work was published in newspapers, and little had been done to detail her body of work. Maniates wrote in a genre of young adult novels featuring youthful female protagonists. Others novels included “Penny of Top Hill Trail” and “David Dunne.”
“Since she wrote in the style of the popular perky orphan novels of the time, I assumed all sorts of things about her that weren’t true,” Oman said.
Oman said her most famous novel, 1915’s “Amarilly of Clothes-Line Alley,” which was made into a movie starring Mary Pickford, is “fluffy and pleasant, but there is also quite a bit of critique about the poor and their wealthy patrons.”
The Historical Society of Greater Lansing will host Oman at the Library of Michigan July 8 for a lecture on Maniates following a free showing of “Amarilly of Clothes-Line Alley.”
As Oman delved more into the writing of Maniates, she discovered that the author spent most of her adult life in Lansing and worked in the auditor general’s office, which at that time was located in the State Capitol. State records show she toiled for $0.40 an hour doing clerical work.
“She always lived within walking distance of the State Capitol in boarding houses, and she moved a lot,” Oman said.
Maniates never married, but Oman discovered that in 1906 she was engaged. Her fiancé traveled to Arizona in an unsuccessful attempt to alleviate breathing problems. When Maniates discovered he was desperately ill, she rushed out to Arizona on a train to marry him.
“She was not fast enough to get married; he died before Maniates arrived,” Oman said.
There is very little known about Maniates’ personal life in Lansing. Oman, who also is the director of the Hastings Press, is republishing her lost novels and hopes it will help others discover Maniates’ work and maybe lead to the discovery of more documents related to the author.
“As of yet, I have not discovered any personal correspondence to or from Maniates,” Oman said. “I would love to find any correspondence.”
Oman expects to find letters from Maniates or mentions of her in other letters, since she was well known at the time of her writing. Her novel “David Dunne” is about the Michigan political scene, detailing a fictional farmboy’s rise to governor of Michigan. A promotional piece by publisher Rand McNally called the book “a charming love story too, with genuine and exquisite pathos.” The book cost $0.75 at its original publication.
Through her research, Oman discovered that Maniates often misstated her age, often by as much as 10 years. She also found that Maniates was the daughter of a doctor in Marshall who had fled the aftermath of the Greek Revolution, which goes a long way in explaining why immigrants and poor orphans play a major role in her novels.
Oman also said she believes that writers like Maniates will continue to be discovered, thanks in part to the digitization of newspapers, where many of them began their careers. In her search for information on Maniates, Oman discovered that two copies of The Dreamer, an amateur newspaper that she and her sister published, which were held in a national archive.
“Amateur newspapers were the vogue in the late 19th century and were written by teenagers all over America,” Oman said.
Helping to drive the amateur newspapers was the release of toy printing presses. The newspapers, similar to today’s teen blogs, helped create an identity for adolescents.
Maniates’ earliest published story was “The Tattooed Theorem,” which appeared in the New Orleans Times-Democrat in 1902. She achieved some national fame in 1915 with the publication of “Amarilly of Clothes-Line Alley.”
Oman has an interesting take on why such an important author has been forgotten.
“In the early part of the century, the teens and ‘20s, the Midwest was a stand-in for the country as a whole,” she said. “The Midwest, by the end of the 20th century, became ‘fly-over country.’ Also, young adult novels with a female protagonist fell out of popularity.”
“Amarilly of Clothes-Line Alley” screening and Belle Maniates lecture 6:30 p.m. Thursday, July 8 FREE Library of Michigan 702 W. Kalamazoo St., Lansing (517) 282-0671, lansinghistory.org