Cherie’s Supper club Speech – Tuesday, Sept. 17th, 2013
I am going to speak about my Crush on author, artist and literary critic Ferner Nuhn & how I finally got his Wikipedia article done. I will share some of the things I’ve learned about his life and work—and marriage to noted author Ruth Suckow—all thanks to Dorothy Grant, local historian and the first female member of Supper Club.
Ruth & Ferner – around the time of their wedding
Ferner’s portrait of Ruth, with one of their white cats
Ferner & Ruth at home in Cedar Falls
Ferner Nuhn: Ruth, Literature, Art, Cats, and Public Discourse. Reflections on a life well lived.
For those of us who come together to eat a great meal and listen to a speaker, Supper Club has become a part of our lives. Some of us are fairly recent members and there are those who are well established, with 20 or even 30 years of membership. However, as older members leave us, it is important to look back to our origins and remember those who came before us. The Cedar Falls Supper Club has a long, rich history dating back to 1940. (However, there is some controversy over when the first meeting took place – 1940 or 1941).
So who is Ferner Nuhn? He is one of the original 12 members and founders of Supper Club. He was also the handsome, younger husband of Ruth Suckow, noted Iowa author. After her death in 1960, he founded the Ruth Suckow Memorial Association to preserve her literature.
The list of items in the title (Ruth, Literature, Art, Cats and Public Discourse) refer to some of the things Ferner loved. However, I confess that I had never heard of Ruth Suckow or Ferner Nuhn, or Supper Club, or the RSMA until after I began dating Mike and he brought me to Supper Club on Guest Night—and took me to my first Annual Meeting of the Suckow Society. I was very impressed: here were groups of people who read serious books and literature and had in-depth conversations and gave speeches on topics of significance. Along the way, I met Dorothy Grant who seemed to be the liveliest elderly woman I had ever met. We went to one of her birthday parties shortly after getting married—she was in her late 90s then.
After we married, Dorothy would call us up and if I answered, say, “Is it all right with you if Mike picks me up for Supper Club?” And I would say, “Sure, Dorothy, as long as you two don’t hit the bars afterwards.” If only I had known then what I know now—that she and her husband, Martin, had been very dear friends of Ruth and Ferner Nuhn. Oh the stories she could have told me!
However, she left us a gift – her 1993 History of the Supper Club, self-published. So I am going to use that as one of my sources for tonight.
Dorothy Grant writes, “Not very long after Bill Reninger’s arrival in Cedar Falls, he and Jim Hearst, Paul Diamond, and Ferner Nuhn talked about organizing a discussion-type club. By the fall of 1940, basic plans had been put together. There would be twelve members, half Town, half Gown, with a wide range of interests. Meetings would be once a month in a place where a meal would be served in a private room. There would be a minimum of business, with no officers except a Secretary who notified the members of the coming meeting, requested, and made reservations for the dinner.” So who were those founders?
- Bill Reninger – Head of the Department of English, ISTC
- Iver Christoffersen – lawyer
- Martin Grant – Professor of Biology, Iowa State Teachers College
- Jim Hearst— He was the author of ten volumes of poetry, as well as a farmer.
- James (Bun) Newman – lawyer
- Edward Kurtz – Head, Dept. of Music
- Samuel Larson – Registrar, ISTC
- J. B. Paul – Head, Bureau of Research, ISTC
- Leland Sage – Professor of History, ISTC
- Charles Hearst -- Farmer
- Paul Diamond -- Merchant
- Ferner Nuhn—Author, husband of Ruth Suckow
(Note: Iowa State Teachers College (ISTC) became the University of Northern Iowa in 1968).
The Group was sometimes called the No Name Club, Supper Club, or Town and Gown. Martin called it the Discussion Club and Katherine Hearst (Jim and Chuck’s mother) called it the Deep Thought Club. By 1950, Supper Club seemed to become the official title.
Jim Hearst writes, “We were interested in controversy, in the opposition of faiths, beliefs, and however misguided in our way of thinking, in a man’s reasons for being.
We wanted to growl at each other a little…..some of the early meetings were curiously exciting. There was shouting and table thumping and prickly moments when the questions were too barbed and too many voices answered at once. We are more polite now. For protection we agreed that anything said at a meeting would not go beyond the walls of the room. We wanted each member to feel free to speak his mind, confident that his words would not be repeated outside. We wanted it to be a meeting of men—chauvinists that we are-so that our discussions would not be limited to the polite answer. We wanted the arguments to be spoken in candor, forthrightly, even brutally with no holds barred. We did not permit mayhem, visible wounds or mutilations, weapons were checked at the door. We were hungry for serious inquiries of what life was like for the other fellow and to hear his view of it.”
Dorothy later writes that Ferner spoke about conscientious objectors in 1941 or 1942 and it was a very moving, controversial speech. Looking at the context of the times, with World War 2 raging in Europe, his perspective would have been
Of course, the club was all male for many years. However, many of the wives got together for their own meal on those Tuesday evenings. Dorothy writes that they often went to someone’s home for an evening of sewing and chatting. In August of 1946, six women (including Ruth Suckow, Dorothy, and four other wives) decided to have a meal in the same place where the men were meeting—the Black Hawk Hotel, where the men met in the Banquet room once known as the Dutch room, while the women ate in the Café. The women walked into the men’s meeting when they thought they would be done with their meal and the men were rather taken aback. This was sacred territory! Jim Hearst was reading some of his poetry that night. None of the men said anything at the time, but most told the wives later that they should not do that again! Four years later, Ladies Night or Spouse Night, was introduced in 1950.
In 1986, after being an all-male club for 46 years, a vote was taken (not the first by any means) to allow women into the club. The Ayes won by one vote. Dorothy Grant was the first woman admitted in November 1986. A year and a half later, Judy Harrington joined her. A third woman joined not long after that. However, there still aren’t any many women as we would like to have….so that is something to work on!
I got a little obsessed with Ferner as I began learning more about him—I found his book and very “dreamy” photo, read a play written about his relationship with Ruth, and started to find tidbits of information, including things he had written, online. I decided that I should write a Wikipedia entry: Mike had done one for Ruth and I thought Ferner deserved one too.
Every May, Mike, Barb and I would visit the grave of Ruth Suckow in Greenwood Cemetery and talk about the upcoming annual meeting. I wondered where Ferner was buried and Mike did some research and found his obituary out in California—imagine, to our surprise, to discover that Ferner had been there for 20 years without a headstone. This past summer I realized that Dorothy Grant had known that—had pointed it out in an article she wrote in 1998. We contacted Ferner’s niece and offered to help raise money—we were going to hit up Supper Club, by the way—but her family took care of it. I will always feel very blessed to have been part of that, and it gave all of us a lot of satisfaction to go see the new headstone that matched Ruth’s so nicely.
So I began work on the Wikipedia article a couple of summers ago, but got bogged down. Last summer I was so close—I got it written and posted, but the reviewer was fussing about all of the sources, since most were before the age of the hyperlink. But I was happy—I found a great essay by Ferner that I planned to use in my Literature class, which now included creative nonfiction.
Barb, Mike and I went down to Iowa City to visit the Special Collections last summer and I found the wonderful set of paintings Ferner had done—the Figures of the 1930s. I also found more information that helped me better understand Ferner—and Georgia, his second wife. I think they genuinely loved each other and it makes me happy that they were able to share their passion for preserving Ruth’s stories and also enjoy a life together. I also discovered a copy of the play by Rebecca Christian done back in the early 1990s: she didn’t even have a copy anymore. So I sent her a copy and flagged it for the Special Collections people. It had been buried inside another big folder of materials.
This summer I finished tweaking the Wikipedia article. It passed inspection! I did a trio of power point presentations for a website called SlideShare, in an effort to share what I had learned….who knows? Maybe there will be a literature teacher, or a history teacher, who gets a little obsessed with this literary power couple after viewing the presentations.
Note: Ferner wrote an essay about the teaching of American literature at the college level, commenting that most colleges were not offering many courses in American literature and that there was still a tendency to favor British literature over American. This 3 ½ page essay is cited by dozens of articles up through the 1970s on Google Scholar. Ferner was a great writer who knew how to articulate his ideas and connect with people’s emotions and intellect.
I’m going to briefly highlight a few things about Ferner’s life but you can google Ferner and SlideShare and see the whole show for yourself!
Ferner Nuhn (July 25, 1903-April 15, 1989)
Overview of Ferner’s life
Ferner Nuhn was born and educated in Cedar Falls Iowa
He went to North Central College in Naperville, Illinois, graduating with a B. A. in 1924
He was interested in writing, literature, and art
He worked as a teacher and wrote about the teaching of literature in American schools
He was a literary critic, and met his future wife after reading and reviewing her work.
He married Iowa writer Ruth Suckow in 1929
They enjoyed their life together, doing extensive traveling for the first few years, going to various Writers’ Retreats, and going to Washington, D. C. for two years, when Ferner was hired by the Department of Agriculture.
Eventually they returned to Cedar Falls, Ferner’s hometown, to help his ailing father run his business.
While there, they became part of the community and helped to establish several important organizations. Later, they retired to California, where Ruth died.
Ferner’s early career
Ferner enrolled in Graduate School at Columbia; however, he dropped out when H. L. Mencken accepted one of his stories for the American Mercury.
Historian Dorothy Grant says that Ferner said, “I decided I already knew too much,” and stopped taking classes to have more time to write.
This led to the publication of a number of stories, reviews, and articles in The New Yorker, The Nation, The New Republic, The American Mercury, The Christian Century, and other magazines, especially Quaker publications. 
Ferner’s wife, Ruth Suckow
Ruth Suckow published a dozen books and wrote numerous articles, reviews and short stories.
Ferner read her work and wanted to meet her.
They met in Earlville
Ruth kept bees in Earlville for 6 years or more, spending her winters in New York City, writing. She had learned the apiary business from a woman in Denver, while attending college.
Ferner wrote to her and asked if he could drive to Earlville and meet her. So he got in his Model T and drove there in 1926.
Ferner and Ruth married in San Diego, California on March 11, 1929. Ruth wrote to her aunt, “We start out with several things in our disfavor, but a very great deal of love in our favor.”
An observer said, “Ferner found an artist who could translate the Midwest, and in Ferner, Ruth found a critic who could understand the translation.”
Their life together
They traveled extensively for the first seven years of their marriage, going from one Writers’ workshop to another.
Ferner wrote a number of essays, reviews, and articles. He is the author of one book, The Wind Blew from the East, which was originally planned as a two book project.
“The Ice Wagon”
He wrote this booklet for the Cedar Falls Historical Society: it is a collection of essays that recalls his childhood.
“The Farmer Learns Direct Action”
Ferner wrote an article for The Nation in 1933 that is available online. It describes witnessing a forced farm sale in Iowa and described this practice in the March 1933 issue.
The article begins with the comment that “Some may think of farmers as conservative, but that view ignores a long tradition of rural radicalism in the United States. In the early years of the Great Depression, that radicalism found powerful expression in the subverting of farm foreclosures and tax sales.
Nation magazine reporter Ferner Nuhn witnessed such an auction sale in Iowa and described this practice in March 1933. These efforts saved the livelihood of many South Dakota and Iowa farmers who were devastated by the depression, but they were not enough. Between 1930 and 1935, about 750,000 farms were lost through foreclosure and bankruptcy sales. The technique was simple—when a farm was foreclosed for overdue taxes or failure to meet mortgage payments, neighbors would show up at the auction and intimidate any potential buyers. Then the farm and equipment would be purchased at a token price and returned to the original owner.”
His descriptive opening
A raw, chilly day. The yard of the farm, churned black in a previous thaw, is frozen now in ruts and notes. Where the boots of the farmers press, a little slime of water exudes, black and shiny. Through a fence the weather-bleached stalls of corn, combed and broken by the busking stand ghostly in the pale air.
The farm buildings machine-shed, chicken-houses, pig-houses, corncribs—sprawl and gather again in the big, hip-roofed red barn, and strike a final accent in the thrust of the tiled silo. The farm is kempt and has a going air; there is nothing run down about it. The fields spread away, picking up other farm dusters sections off—remote, separate, dim under the big gray sky. One feels the courage of the isolated units, each swinging its big segment of earth. Perhaps they call for too much; perhaps the independence is doomed; but something of worth will be gone if it goes.
Setting the scene
There are 300 farmers here. It is a Quaker community, long established, conservative. The farmers are mostly middle-aged, very workaday in overalls, sagging sweaters, mud-stained boots. They talk quietly in their slow, concrete manner, move about little.
They are neighbors of a farmer who can no longer pay interest on a $2,000 mortgage. These farmers have known him for years; they know he would pay if he could. They know the debt and the interest are three times as hard to pay off now as when the mortgage was given. Some of them know that soon their own property may be endangered by defaults. They know that this particular mortgage was given on stock, and that the farmer has offered the stock in settlement. And they know that the mortgagee refused the offer, demanded a sale instead—a sale of personal property, as provided by law.
The auction begins
…. The auctioneer goes through his regular cry. The mare is sixteen years old, sound except for a wire cut and a blue eye. What is he offered, what is he offered, does he hear a bid? He tries to make it sound like an ordinary sale. But the crowd stands silent, grim. At last someone speaks out. Two dollars. Two dollars! Unheard of, unbelievable, why she’s worth twenty times that!
The silence of the farmers is like a thick wall. The rigmarole of the auctioneer beats against it, and falls back in his face. The farmer holding the mare stands with his head hanging. At last, without raising his eyes, he says, “Fifteen dollars.” This is a new and distressing business to him, and he is ashamed to make a bid of less than that. . . .
The crowd refuses to bid against the farmer
“Do I hear a twenty, a twenty, a twenty? Why, she’s worth twice that much.” The auctioneer is still going through the make-believe. He keeps it up for five more minutes. A pause, and a voice speaks out. “Sell her.” It is not loud, but there is insistence in it, like the slice of a plow, with the tractor-pull of the crowd reinforcing it. The auctioneer hesitates, gives in. The silent, waiting crowd is too much. “Sold.”
After that there is less make-believe. Three more horses are offered. They are knocked down to the farmer, with no other bids, for ten dollars, eight dollars, a dollar and a half. The farmer is learning. The machinery comes next. A hay rack, a wagon, two plows, a binder, rake, mower, disc-harrow, cultivator, pulverizer. A dollar, fifty cents, fifty cents, a quarter, a half a dollar. Sold to the farmer. His means of livelihood are saved to him.
The farmers gather
…. That night there is a meeting in the country chapel. It is a strange affair; nothing like this has happened in this community before. …. Ten-cent corn to pay seventy-five-cent debts; a quarter, perhaps almost a third, of all Iowa farms lost to their original owners in the last seven years for inability to meet obligations.
But a dream does not die easily. Heat generates from it even in this conservative audience. Old phrases are spoken, spoken with a new meaning. “Justice above the law.” "The Boston Tea Party.“ "The right to save our homes.” Someone describes the affair of the afternoon. The farmers cannot help being pleased at its success. It is a taste of direct action. They organize to use it more effectively.
At any rate, the farmer is not taking the threat of loss of ownership of his land lying down. He has tasted direct action. He may use it more drastically.
Source: Ferner Nuhn, “The Farmer Learns Direct Action,” Nation 136 (March 8, 1933): 254–256.
http://historymatters.gmu.edu/d/5060/ History matters website.
You can read the entire article at the Nation website. History Matters website
Figures of the 30s
At the MacDowell Colony, in Peterborough, New Hampshire, Ferner began a series of oil character sketches he later called “Figures of the Thirties.”
Dorothy Grant notes that the collection provides valuable insights into the political scene as well as the Arts during the 1930s. He made copies of the sketches, wrote up a booklet with comments, and then made copies of the booklet for the people he had sketched. Later, copies were given to the Hearst Center for the Arts, while the original is in the Special Collections Department at the University of Iowa library in Iowa City.
People included in the sketches. Others on the list of people he sketched include:
William Rose Benet--poet and playwright, Charles Wakefield Cadman--composer
Carl Carmer--novelist, editor, and conservationist, Leo Fisher—sculptor, Felix Fox--composer
Frances Frost--poet, fiction writer, Robert Frost—poet, Horace Gregory--poet, critic, and editor
Albert Halper—novelist, Roy Harris—composer, Charles Hearst—Iowa farmer, Jeffrey Levy—painter
John Cowper Powys—novelist, poet, essayist, Evelyn Scott—poet, novelist, Ruth Suckow—novelist
John Brooks Wheelwright—poet, critic, Henry A. Wallace—agriculturist, author, statesman 
Ferner's picture of Ruth--This is one of my favorite portraits done by Ferner--it shows Ruth holding a cat
Poet Robert Frost and his wife
Charles Hearst -- Charles was a farmer in Cedar Falls, Iowa and a longtime friend of Ferner and Ruth.
His brother James was a poet.
Ferner’s other paintings -- Two other paintings remain of Ferner’s, now housed at the Ruth Suckow Library in Earlville. One is of Ruth’s cottage, while the other one shows one of their cats (always white). Ferner also designed a bookplate for Ruth, including a cat. Ferner’s paintings—now at the birthplace
Life in Cedar Falls
Ferner and Ruth were both active in the community and enjoyed being part of the literary and social life of Cedar Falls. Dorothy and Martin Grant became acquainted with Ruth and Ferner at this time. The two couples were part of a circle of friends who enjoyed many dinners and “fun and game” evenings.
Founding the Cedar Falls Art League
He founded the Cedar Falls Art League in the early 1940s and his mother, Anna, let him have a large upstairs room over the Miller Shoe store at 319 1/2 Main Street for the exhibits.
This was an active organization, offering art classes for children and adults, displaying artwork in exhibits, and sponsoring receptions. The Hearst Center for the Arts grew out of that earlier organization.
Founding the Cedar Falls Supper Club
A group of men--Bill Reninger, Jim Hearst, Paul Diamond, Martin Grant, and Ferner Nuhn talked about organizing a discussion type club. By the fall of 1940, basic plans had been put together.
There would be twelve members, half town, half Gown, with a wide range of interests. Meetings would be once a month in a place where a meal would be served in a private room.
There would be a minimum of business, with no officers except a Secretary who notified the members of the coming meeting, requested, and made reservations for the dinner. Each member would be assigned a certain month to give his paper and be responsible to inform the Secretary of the title.
The group met for the first time in 1941
Local historian Dorothy Grant wrote a self-published booklet on the history of the supper club.
She describes Ferner’s first talk, by recounting an interview done with Iver Christofferson, then 94. He remembered Ferner’s talk as one of the most controversial Iver experienced in his years in Supper Club. Ferner talked about Conscientious Objectors.
Ferner’s skills with Carpentry
Dorothy Grant also notes that Ferner enjoyed carpentry work and built a solid walnut desk for Ruth while they lived in Cedar Falls; she used the desk until they moved to Arizona.
Later, the Grants purchased the desk in 1949 and donated it to the Ruth Suckow Memorial Library in Earlville in 1991.
Ruth developed arthritis and Ferner had allergies, so in the late 1940s they moved west, hoping a milder climate would help both of them. They first settled in Arizona and later moved to California.
Ferner and Ruth in the later years--Retirement to California
They ended up in Claremont, California. Ruth continued to write. Ferner taught at the local college.
They both became active in the Friends (Quakers) and Ferner began writing pamphlets for the national organization
Her later writing
She published her memoir & a collection of short stories in 1952, Some Others and Myself.
In 1959 Viking Press brought out The John Wood Case, her last novel, which concerned an embezzlement case in a church. She died in 1960 at her home in Claremont.
Ruth died in 1960. She was at work on a new novel at the point of her death. She is buried in Greenwood Cemetery in Cedar Falls, Iowa. Ruth is buried next to her father, William Suckow.
After Ruth's death in 1960, Ferner remarried a wonderful woman named Georgeanna, (or Georgia) who was also Ruth's cousin. Her husband had died a few years earlier.
They worked together to preserve Ruth's legacy, collecting and organizing her papers for the Special Collections at the University of Iowa library.
Georgia’s display for the library in Earlville
Georgia created an exhibit for the Suckow Library in Earlville, donated a bookcase from Ruth's Father, and helped gather mementos to display in a glass case.
Other Memorials to Ruth Suckow
Ferner and Georgia worked with the Ruth Suckow Memorial Association to establish several memorials to Ruth:
- The Park in Earlville, Iowa (on the grounds where Ruth’s cottage & apiary once stood)
- The Library in Earlville, Iowa
- The birthplace in Hawarden, Iowa
The Ruth Suckow Memorial Association
Ferner and Georgia met with a group of people in Earlville in the 1960s: they discussed Suckow’s characters and stories and formed the Ruth Suckow Memorial Association (RSMA).
The RSMA still gathers each June: members come from all over the Midwest.
Dedicating the Ruth Suckow Park
Ferner and Georgeanna were there for the dedication of the Suckow Park in Earlville in 1982.
Georgeanna (Georgia) Dafoe Nuhn, a founding member of the RSMA, died on May 28, 1984 in Claremont, California. She was 79 years old.
She is buried in Tecumseh Cemetery, Tecumseh, Johnson County, Nebraska.
Ferner wrote a moving tribute to her life and work in the Fall 1984 issue of the Ruth Suckow newsletter. He remembered her role in the efforts to establish the park: "The event was a fitting climax to Georgia's long labor of love in memory of Ruth Suckow.”
Ferner moved into a retirement home in Claremont. He died at age 85 in 1989. After a funeral in California, his body was returned to Iowa where he was buried beside his beloved Ruth in Greenwood cemetery in Cedar Falls. However, it wasn’t until 2009 that a headstone matching Ruth’s was put in place. Finally, Ruth laid between the two men who had influenced her life so much: her father and her husband.
Ferner’s Literary Legacy
While Ferner was not the prolific writer that Ruth was, he was a critic, scholar and accomplished writer. He captured the plight of the Midwestern farmers during the Great Depression in his essay for the Nation about farm sales.
In addition, he is credited with writing about the Society of Friends (Quakers). Furthermore, without his efforts to establish the Ruth Suckow Memorial Association and related activities to reprint some of her books, it is not certain that the current generation of readers would be able to read some of Ruth Suckow’s books.
Two of Suckow's earlier books were reprinted, largely due to his advocacy and the establishment of the Ruth Suckow Memorial Association. The University of Iowa Press, in Iowa City, Iowa released The Folks (1992) and New Hope (1998).
In addition, A Ruth Suckow Omnibus came out in 1988; this contained eleven of her short stories. It also included an introductory essay by Suckow Scholar Clarence A. Andrews, a longtime member of the RSMA. Without Ferner Nuhn's persistence, these books would not have been published.
In the meantime, some of his work can still be enjoyed online: a collection of his short stories, book reviews, and articles can be viewed at Unz.org. In addition, he wrote several booklets published by Historical Societies and the Quakers.
Sources on Ruth and Ferner
“Ferner Nuhn,” Wikipedia entry. Cherie Dargan, editor.
Christian, Rebecca. Just suppose, the story of Iowa novelist Ruth Suckow : a one-woman show in two acts. 1992
Grant, Dorothy. Self-published booklet, "History of The Cedar Falls Supper Club." (June 1993)
Grant, Dorothy. Ferner Nuhn: His Art and Writings. The Ruth Suckow Newsletters, Summer 1998. Martin Mohr, editor. Published at Luther College, September 1998. Decorah, Iowa.
Grant, Dorothy. Ruth and Ferner: Their Years Together in Cedar Falls. The Ruth Suckow Newsletters, Summer 1998. Martin Mohr, editor. Published at Luther College, September 1998. Decorah, Iowa.
Nuhn, Ferner. “The Farmer Learns Direct Action,” Nation 136 (March 8, 1933): 254–256. History Matters. “Like a Thick Wall”: Blocking Farm Auctions in Iowa http://historymatters.gmu.edu/d/5060/
Nuhn, Ferner. Biographical note on the book jacket of The Wind Blew From the East. Harper & Brothers, 1940. New York & London.
Nuhn, Ferner. Biographical notes at the conclusion of a brochure written by Ferner, The Ice Wagon and Other Vanished Wonders, a booklet written for the Cedar Falls Historical Society, May 8, 1981. (Cedar Falls, Iowa)
"Ruth Suckow." Wikipedia entry. Michael Dargan, editor. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ruth_Suckow
The Ruth Suckow Memorial Association Website. Cherie Dargan, Webmaster. http://www.ruthsuckow.org/
You can view the power point with a number of images here.
http://www.unz.org/Pub/AmMercury-1928mar-00328?View=PDFPages -- his 1928 essay on teaching American Literature at college
google scholar search – Ferner’s essay on teaching literature is cited