Maurice Thompson was an American writer whose poetry often featured elements from the natural world that he had a keen interest in, such as botany and ornithology. He was also a novelist, essayist, engineer and lawyer who was elected a member of the Indiana State Legislature in 1879.
He was born James Maurice Thompson on the 9th September 1844 in Fairfield, Indiana, the son of a Baptist minister. The family moved to a plantation in Georgia when he was still a young boy and he had the benefit of private tuition covering subjects such as literature, modern and classical languages and mathematics. However, any career ambitions were put on hold when Civil War broke out in 1861 and he served alongside his brother Will in the Confederate Army.
Afterwards his knowledge of maths enabled him to study civil engineering having gone to live in Calhoun, Georgia. He remained there for two years and had a number of articles published at this time, the Atlantic Monthly magazine being one of his outlets. He also found time to study the law. His activities as a naturalist began in 1867 with a comprehensive study of the bird and plant life around Lake Okeechobee in Florida. Having completed this he, accompanied by his brother, moved on once more. This time they found themselves in Crawfordsville, Indiana with Maurice finding work as an engineer on a newly constructed railroad.
The two brothers remained close, both marrying sisters and then going into the law business together. Maurice was never committed to that activity though, preferring instead to be a writer. His work covered a number of subjects, one series of articles concerning the sport of archery. A number of publications took his work, including Harper’s Monthly and the New York Tribune. In 1875 he collected his short stories together and published them in book form under the title Hoosier Mosaics. These were his personal accounts of the people and their customs living in small Indiana towns. Another book followed, a witty and knowledgeable collection of previously released archery stories, this one called The Witchery of Archery.
Thompson was also writing poetry on a naturalist theme but, at first, these were not as well received as his previous efforts. One of his best known pieces was a slightly controversial poem called To the South which was about the granting of freedom to southern slaves. His view was that this action did not cause as much anger as some, especially in the north, might have imagined. This might be deduced from the last four lines of the extract reproduced below which are the final two verses of the poem:
In his later years Thompson concentrated on novels such as a semi-autobiographical account of his early years in Indiana, the title being A Banker of Bankersville. He also wrote one about life in the state during the late 18th century at the time of the Revolutionary War. This book, Alice of Old Vincennes, was published shortly before the author’s death.
Maurice Thompson contracted pneumonia in the first weeks of 1901 and died on the 15th February. He was 56 years old.