Until recently Rachel Peden, who was born in 1901 and died in 1975, was in danger of being lost to the literary sands of time—little-known even to those who took an interest in Midwestern literature and memoirs of agrarian life. Now that’s no longer the case, thanks to the efforts of a few devoted advocates and the Indiana University Press.
Peden grew up in a small community north of Muncie, no stranger to rural culture, but like her siblings, intellectually driven. Bloomington scholar and preservationist Nancy Hiller, who wrote the foreword for the new IU Press edition of Peden’s book, The Land, the People, says Peden was a journalist and career woman who did not initially embrace a new way of life when she and her husband Dick bought a farm on Monroe County’s Maple Grove Road in 1941. “Over the next several years and ensuing decade, she developed a really deep appreciation of the life of a farm wife,” Hiller says.
Becoming a Published Writer
Peden wrote letters describing her life on the farm to her sister Nina, whose husband was Eugene Pulliam, the publisher of the Indianapolis Star. Pulliam liked Peden’s writing and saw a chance to emphasize Indiana farm life on the editorial pages of his paper, resulting in a regular column for Peden for many years.
Another chance connection through a Muncie reader led to Peden’s eventually publishing three books with the prestigious Knopf imprint. Through it all Peden had to structure her writing around her daily farm-life routines. Hiller says those routines gave birth to the perceptions and observations that make Peden’s writing so extraordinary. She notes an amusing side to Peden’s books as well.
“She had a very dry sense of humor and a very potent, trenchant way of looking critically at things,” Hiller says. “Once you become really familiar with her and know a little more about her background as a career woman and a very disciplined person, you start to see that she was hilariously funny.”
According to Hiller, some of the credit for the recent Peden revival goes to singer-songwriter Tim Grimm. Several years ago John Gallmann, the president of Sycamore Land Trust and former director of the IU Press, saw a Tim Grimm performance that included songs based around Peden’s writings.
Reminded of the Monroe County writer’s work, Gallmann got in touch with IU Press editor Linda Oblack and suggested looking into republishing Peden’s books. Oblack enthusiastically put the project into motion, and Peden’s first two books, Rural Free and The Land, the People have now been reprinted, with plans to republish Peden’s final book, Speak to the Earth, in 2011.
Nancy Hiller says that cultural trends and concerns with topics such as food and sustainable living have made the time ripe for a Peden revival. And she thinks there’s ultimately a kind of down-to-earth transcendence in Peden’s writing that’s at the heart of her appeal.
“She has just a profound appreciation for so many of the minutia that we take for granted, of the sheer miracle that is life,” Hiller says. “And her writing expresses that appreciation beautifully.”