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The Nebraska Federal Writers’ Project: Remembering Writers of the 1930s – Lowry C. Wimberly, Between Laughter and Ghosts

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Wimberly’s Influence

Wimberly recruited among his students and contributors to the Prairie Schooner for the Nebraska Federal Writers’ Project. Among the Schooner contributors who came to the Nebraska Federal Writers’ Project were Loren Eiseley, Weldon Kees, Fred Christensen, Kenetha Thomas, J.Harris Gable, Margaret Lund, Norris Getty and Carl Uhlarik. Wimberly’s influence meant that the Nebraska Project, without acquiring writers of already established reputation, as some state projects were able to do, could nonetheless assemble the talent to be among the most successful of all the state projects.

Umland’s memories of Wimberly in this period can help us understand how he built a literary community and influenced the Lincoln writers.

Prairie Schooner, Winter, 1936One source of Wimberly’s influence was the reputation he built as founding editor of the Prairie Schooner. By its second year of publication the magazine was rated among the top four in the United States for the quality of its fiction. Wimberly would shepherd the magazine through recurring financial crises and edit it for some thirty years (1927-1956). In Umland’s words, by the 1930s the Schooner “became Nebraska’s distinctive contribution to the culture of the nation during the same period that Thomas Hart Benton, John Steuart Curry and Grant Wood were attracting attention to the Midwest with their paintings.”

Wimberly recognized a promising writer when he saw one. He published one of Mari Sandoz’s short stories in the first issue. He published early work by Robert Lasch, a Lincolnite who later became a Pulitzer-prize winning editorial writer at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, by novelists Dorothy Thomas and LaSelle Gilman, and by poets Weldon Kees and Loren Eiseley. These were all Nebraska-bred writers. Having built the Schooner into a literary force, Wimberly attracted contributions from other regions. He helped introduce Jesse Stuart, Warren Beck, Eudora Welty and August Derleth to wider audiences. Wimberly put Nebraska on the literary sophisticate’s cultural map of the United States. “Nebraska? Oh, yes… that’s where L.C. Wimberly edits the Prairie Schooner!”

The critical and creative success of the Schooner grew directly from Wimberly’s insight, drive and scholarly depth. Umland, looking for the sources of Wimberly’s peculiar power, observed that Wimberly was fascinated with the subject of death: “…growing up in the small Nebraska towns in which his father preached the word of God, he had early learned to distinguish the Lorelei cry in the prairie winds.” A student of folklore as well as literature, he wrote his doctoral thesis on the lore of death and burial in English and Scottish ballads.

Wimberly came away from this research with a rich knowledge of early customs and beliefs about the soul, about the nature of the “Otherworld” and its denizens, and about “modes of enchantment and disenchantment.” Umland noticed that Wimberly found old beliefs–in the survival of the soul in the physical form of trees, birds, or animals, and in a world populated not just by humans but also by fairies, witches and ghosts–attractive. He believed that the best ballads were pagan at heart, and that when Christian thought intruded into them, it emasculated and destroyed them.

Umland attributed Wimberly’s fame as a teacher and his powerful personal influence on his students to “his deep probing in these matters.” Wimberly preserved a deep sympathy for stories and ideas that pre-dated the rationalized, disenchanted spirit of the modern world. When Umland described Wimberly as “deeply cynical” he intended not criticism, but recognition of the depth of Wimberly’s questioning of common and comforting modern beliefs.

Wimberly’s memorable “sardonic wit… set smouldering fires when it did not immediately ignite.” His students seldom forgot his probing questioning.

Umland’s friendship with Wimberly illustrates some of the sociability, ongoing conversation and shared interests that created a remarkable literary community in Lincoln. After he became acquainted with Wimberly, Umland would stop by Wimberly’s office or meet him at Weber’s buffet for conversation. After Prohibition ended in 1933, they met in Grasmicks’s, Benders, The Bull Head or other taverns. Their conversations ranged from the minute details of raising hogs to their readings of Mencken, Chaucer, Swift and Mark Twain. They discussed the work of other Lincoln writers, and debated their own perspectives on writers. Wimberly told Umland on one occasion that great writers possess a quality of loneliness, and that he could sometimes recognize talent in a short story or essay sent from far away by an unknown writer by this very quality. On another occasion he suggested–half seriously, half in self-deprecating humor–that immoderate laughter is a sign of a powerful imagination. Wimberly sometimes brought Schooner contributors or other local authors along, giving Umland the opportunity to meet and become acquainted with many other writers.

Wimberly’s Mistrust of Modernity

Photo: Lowry Wimberly in 1946

Lowry Wimberly in 1946

If Umland’s accounts of his friendship with Wimberly were much devoted to Wimberly’s sense of humor, those accounts also reveal Wimberly’s most acute concerns. Umland recounts the story of Dorothy Cook, a friend who took classes with Wimberly in the early 1930s. At the time Cook found Wimberly’s intense hostility toward science puzzling. “I found baffling his characterization of scientists and humanists as mortal enemies,” she recalled. But years later she found she had come to better understand the reasons for Wimberly’s dread and mistrust.

Wimberly’s mistrust, we remind ourselves, was a matter of the heart. It was the cultural critic’s fear that the scientific disenchantment of the world supports a culture of relentless utilitarianism which mocks and destroys old traditions and values that preserve much human wisdom. To lose those traditions is to lose the vision and artfulness necessary to construct human lives that are rich, well rooted and meaningful. Wimberly, Umland tells us, “pooh-poohed scientific terms, scientific language, and scientific laws…. Take away religion, folklore, the myths–take away philosophy, literature, music and you have nothing!”

Wimberly’s mistrust echoed that of the German sociologist Max Weber who foresaw in 1905 that rational disenchantment, economic compulsion, and shallow moralism would create a culture of vain self-congratulation. Weber summed this up in a famous phrase: “Specialists without spirit, sensualists without heart; this nullity imagines that it has obtained a level of civilization never before achieved.” Wimberly fought that nullity with all his cunning.

Wimberly’s hostility toward the sciences did not–or at least not in every respect–extend to anthropology, a science that, in pursuit of meaning in language and narrative, invented ideas essential in Wimberly’s own study of folklore. Wimberly struck up a close friendship with his sometime student and soon-to-be student editor of the Schooner, Loren Eiseley, a budding anthropologist and poet. In later years, Eiseley’s explorations of nature and human knowledge among the borderlands of scientific knowledge and human imagination would make him one of America’s most celebrated writers. Beginning in the late 1920s and continuing into the early 1940s the Schooner published many Eiseley poems.

In a letter to Umland, Eiseley recalled from his student years a stiff argument with Wimberly on the subject of evolution pursued throughout a long snowy drive back to Lincoln from a conference Wimberly and his student had attended in Ohio. Eiseley thought Wimberly retained certain prejudices from his father’s rectory and preceding generations of ministers and preachers. Nevertheless, in 1944 Wimberly accepted one of the first of Eiseley’s characteristic essays on human evolution for publication in Prairie Schooner. Eiseley expressed some surprise that Wimberly would accept such a thing, but Wimberly was, after all, not the kind of man who would let his own prejudices get in the way of publishing work whose quality he could readily perceive.

Umland observed a common thread in Wimberly’s and Eiseley’s concerns, “like Wimberly, Loren feared the dehumanized man looming in the future.” When, shortly after Wimberly’s death in 1959, he read the essays in Eiseley’s book The Firmament of Time, Umland observed that Eiseley opened up the same issues that Wimberly had struggled with: “How natural is our world? How natural is life? … How natural is ‘nature’?” Man’s technical powers could transform nature; instead of a reality transcending man, a source of renewal, a place of genuine exploration, it might one day become a mere human institution, dependent on human arrangements for its survival, shabbily treated and ill-conserved under the thrall of human hubris.

Wimberly’s Ghost:

Umland’s observation that it was Wimberly’s belief that “one had to cling to some of the old beliefs if one were to find meaning in life” had interesting echoes. Wimberly possessed a lifelong fascination for coincidences. “Ghosts and legends,” he told Umland, “were born of them.” Wimberly sometimes seemed to believe, or seemed to want to believe, “that the air was filled with the spirits of the dead.”

Wimberly’s first published story had been a ghost story. He liked to believe in ghosts, angels, devils, and elves. He was fascinated by the supernatural and Umland found him profoundly religious: “Belief in sin, heaven and hell, and salvation through Jesus Christ, had been strongly implanted in him in youth.” Umland noticed that the editor of the Schooner found it difficult to turn down stories and essays about the supernatural.

This was part of a broader stream of mysticism and interest in the occult among the Lincoln writers. As her biographer Helen Stauffer recounts, Mari Sandoz believed in the control of fate, of her “nemesis” as Sandoz put it. Sandoz sometimes read palms. Indeed, she read Umland’s palm, but neither Sandoz nor Umland took that very seriously. Yet Sandoz was, Stauffer notes, powerfully attracted to the northern Plains Indians understanding of man as part of nature, and fascinated by the story of the Sioux war chief Crazy Horse “because he was a mystic.” Wimberly encouraged Loren and Mabel Eiseley’s experiments with the Ouija Board, and for several years Mabel received “messages” from the deceased San Francisco poet George Sterling, in whom Loren had an interest. Wimberly, Eiseley, and Bill Gaffney visited some of the spiritualist churches that had appeared in Lincoln after the first World War, but found only charlatans and mumbo-jumbo.

The Lincoln writers’ interest in the supernatural world was always subdued and tempered with skepticism. This interest was, on the surface, typical of the bohemianism of the time (remember that Mari Sandoz described Wimberly’s Lincoln as bohemian). Madam Blavatsky’s vast influence on European writers of the preceding generation was well known. But although it was a typical literary enthusiasm, in Wimberly’s circle mysticism connected with a deep interest in understanding the human imagination and preserving forms of human wisdom that belonged to other cultures and other times. For Sandoz it was a door to sympathy and a sustained effort to preserve the dreams and tragedies of the northern Plains Indians. For Wimberly himself supernatural beliefs preserved the wisdom of ancient folklore. For Eiseley–always the most difficult to fathom–the attraction seemed a premonition of his view that science could never explain the mystery of the universe, but only uncover the vastness of that mystery.

Rudolph Umland's 1958 snapshot of May and Lowry Wimberly's house and car

Rudolph Umland’s 1958 snapshot of May and Lowry Wimberly’s house and car. Wimberly would die the next year.

Rudolph Umland wrote several essays about Wimberly in later years. “The Ghost of Lowry Wimberly,” published in the Prairie Schooner in 1967, recounts Wimberly’s death and testifies to Wimberly’s lasting influence on his students. Wimberly appeared to Umland in a dream about a cold, rainy Nebraska night in which the two wandered from a tavern in Blair, Nebraska to the Iowa hillside where Wimberly was buried. Wimberly died a slow death from Parkinson’s disease–and in Umland’s memoir, he seems to float from the world of the living. He never told his wife about his affliction, but she had always been jealous of the claims of the literary and academic worlds he had inhabited. As he stayed more and more at home, the two conspired to shut out reality. Though Lowry could no longer drive, the two imagined tours they might take, or sunk into “the shadow world of television.” One day May Wimberly described a drive through Lincoln the two had just taken so convincingly to Umland that as he left, he walked around the back of their house and kicked the tires of their old Ford, tires now sunken in the earth, to assure himself that the tale was a fantasy. The Wimberlys, Umland thought, “were already engaged in ghostly wanderings” before Death made his final appearance. Wimberly died in July of 1959, but he continued to look over the shoulders of his students for years after that.

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Exhibit Contents

Part I
Rudolph Umland
A Family of German Immigrants
A Nebraska Farm Boy
Broader Horizons
From Student to Hobo
Meeting Lowry Wimberly
Lowry C. Wimberly, Between Laughter and Ghosts
Part II
The Federal Writers’ Project
Nebraska Beginnings
Circumventing a Crisis
Writers at Work
Nebraska Lore
Weldon Kees and the Writers’ Project
Loren Eiseley and the Writers’ Project
Publications and Impact
Looking Back at the Federal Writers’ Project in Nebraska
Part III
Notes and Bibliography
Study Questions
Additional Content Information

A Web Exhibit from The Jane Pope Geske Heritage Room of Nebraska Authors at Lincoln City Libraries. This project was supported in part by the United States Institute of Museum and Library Services under the provisions of the Library Services and Technology Act, administered through the Nebraska Library Commission. Exhibit & Text by Stephen Cloyd. © Lincoln City Libraries, 2007

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