Ohioana Quarterly ** Summer/Fall 2012
James Ball Naylor was a minor poet. And a minor novelist. And a minor political figure. And a minor entertainer. And… And this is precisely what makes him such an intriguing subject, one quite well-served by Theresa Flaherty’s new biography. Naylor, it seems, was a man of numerous talents who played several prominent parts in the Ohio scene between the 1890s and the 1930’s, each part worth considering.
Naylor, born midway between Malta and Stockport in 1860, spent virtually his entire life in the same general area. He trained as a doctor, and practiced for for decades, but his heart was soon won by literature, and he devoted years to writing poetry and novels, winning a fair degree of recognition. He also took part in politics, running unsuccessfully for several offices (and writing amusing poems about the experience afterwards) and befriending, among others, Warren G. Harding. In mid-life he served as Morgan County District Health Commissioner, earning unjust opprobrium for his efforts to maintain public health. His later years saw a diminution of reputation and a decline in energy, especially after the deaths of two grandsons in a fl ash fl ood in California. Despite his quondam fame Naylor felt a certain bitterness, “realizing that fame and recognition were empty without a purpose in life and someone with whom to share it.” He died in 1945.
Yet Naylor had enjoyed both purpose and public acclaim, especially in the decade or so prior to the First World War. His books of poems never sold well, but they received good reviews and were accepted as worthy companions to those of his better known friend James Whitcomb Riley. His eight novels enjoyed more success, with at least one of them, Ralph Marlow, becoming a genuine best-seller (though Flaherty seems uncertain just how much Naylor’s novels earned; at one point she asserts that Ralph Marlowe “must have brought [Naylor] a considerable amount of money,” only to point out, a few pages later, that “Earnings from the book and those that followed were less than spectacular.”).
Flaherty’s account of Naylor’s writings is sympathetic without being sycophantic. Substantial excerpts from both poetry and fiction allow us to savor Naylor’s style (straightforward, with a tendency toward the vernacular), and she makes a good case for reviving Naylor’s better works as more than simply period curiosities. She suggests a plausible line of influence from Naylor to Ohio writer Zane Grey, yet also acknowledges what contributed to Grey’s far greater renown: “Naylor was as competent as Grey in creating characterizations and constructing plots, but what differentiates the two men is that Naylor chose to remain in his beloved Muskingum Valley, pursuing his own wide range of interests rather than focusing on what would most interest the public.” Throughout the book Flaherty shows her respect for, and enjoyment of, Naylor’s work, yet she never inflates his claims as an author.
Writing persists; stage performances are soon forgotten. Much of Naylor’s contemporary fame, like that of many authors of the period, derived from readings which verged on vaudeville turns. Flaherty describes Naylor’s facial contortions during such presentations. She quotes his words, and descriptions from life, to create a stage personality otherwise long lost.
This is not a flawless book. There are some passages of clunky or repetitive exposition. A few errors creep in, such as the claim that “Theodore Roosevelt chose not to run for reelection after his first full term in office ended in 1912,” which is immediately contradicted by the accurate statement that he did in fact run that year (after having sat through William Howard Taft’s single term). Some of the material should have been fleshed out more fully (the influences Naylor himself acknowledged as an author, for example). Although possibly this information simply no longer exists, thoughtful speculation would not have been amiss.
The weakest part of the book has to do with Naylor’s politics, as these are often described without any exploration of the reasoning behind them. He was a Theodore Roosevelt Republican, at least for a time, but exactly why, or how his views evolved after the Great War is unclear (he considered Warren Harding a “great president,” though on what grounds is not explained). He disliked Herbert Hoover, so surely somewhere he must also have expressed opinions regarding Calvin Coolidge or Franklin Roosevelt, for example.
But these are hardly major problems. This is an enjoyable look at a minor but hardly negligible figure, enlivened with apposite anecdotes and quotations and well buttressed with detailed research. Readers who enjoy exploring the by-ways of history will learn much here, and may even be motivated to dip into some of Naylor’s own work.
Theresa Marie Flaherty refers to herself as an accidental biographer. She started researching Naylor to find out how he became a best-selling author and “why he faded into the shadows of obscurity,” which eventually became The Final Test. Flaherty and her husband Gerry have been full-time RVers for eleven years and travel the U.S. and Canada extensively.
Review by Justin E.A. Busch
As descendants of James Ball Naylor, my siblings and I were lucky, for we were able to see many of the photos in this book when we were growing up. My Grandma, Jean Naylor Finley, would occasionally pull out photo albums and scrapbooks. Grandma, as well as my mom and a favorite aunt, would show us the pictures, read us poems, and tell us little stories. As I read The Final Test, I realized that I was rediscovering the little stories and discovering many new ones, and that they were now glued together with fascinating details I had never heard before.
This book exists today thanks to the perseverance of Terry Flaherty. She has managed to capture the essence of James Ball Naylor, the spirit of his family, and to bring honor to the people of Morgan County that he loved so much.
Doug Weisman, Great grandson of James Ball Naylor
A James Ball Naylor scholar has recently published two excellent books concerning a Morgan County doctor, prolific author, and talented poet. The Final Test – A Biography of James Ball Naylor, is a scholarly biography of Naylor’s life. Theresa Marie Flaherty conducted some of her research at the Kate Love Simpson Morgan County Library, examining and organizing our extensive Naylor collection. Vintage Verse, the other book, is a one-of-a-kind collection of verse put together by Naylor’s daughter Lucile from old family scrapbooks of poems not included in any of his other published volumes. It is the first in a Tribute Series to Naylor. She has contributed a copy of both books to our library. I am sure that many other Ohio libraries will be interested in purchasing copies of her books about this important early twentieth century Ohio author. Dr. Naylor’s autobiographical novel, Ralph Marlowe, was a 1901 best-seller. Some of his other novels include The Kentuckian, In the Days of St. Clair, Sign of the Prophet, as well as numerous volumes of collected verse, such as Golden Rod and Thistle Down, Songs From the Heart of Things, and A Book of Buckeye Verse.
Blyth Schubert, McConnelsville, Ohio, Former Director of the Kate Love Simpson Morgan County Library
Through prose and poetry, James Ball Naylor impacted society with his vivid renditions of rural America. The Final Test: A Biography of James Ball Naylor is a biography written by Theresa Marie Flaherty who covers the man’s life and where his inspirations that ring true even today come from. An excellent study in turn of the century literature, The Final Test is a fine entry into literary studies and biography collections, highly recommended.