The Bird Lady and Novelist: Gene Stratton-Porter

The nature lover was a traditionalist known for her fiction’s moral characters, yet kept to her own ways.
The Bird Lady and Novelist: Gene Stratton-Porter
"Forest of Fontainebleau," 1834, by Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot. Oil on canvas. National Gallery of Art, Washington. (Public Domain)
2/7/2024
Updated:
2/13/2024
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At the time of her death in 1924, Indiana’s Gene Stratton-Porter was one of America’s most popular novelists. Her publishers estimated she had more than 50 million readers in the United States and many more internationally. During the last 17 years of her life, her fiction and nonfiction books sold at a rate of 1,700 copies a day.

Stratton-Porter was a natural storyteller, a gift she inherited from her father who had “the ringing delivery of a born-again evangelist” and could tell tales that were part fact, part fiction. His colorful repertoire profoundly affected his youngest daughter.

Born and raised a northern Indiana farm girl, Stratton’s love of nature and the outdoors served as the backdrop of all her early 20th-century novels. She wrote about what she knew and created characters in her books who shared that love and respect for nature. Literary critics panned her novels as too virtuous and unrealistic, but she bristled at that criticism.

“A thing utterly baffling to me is why the life history of the sins and shortcomings of a man should constitute a book of realism, and the life history of a just and incorruptible man should constitute a book of idealism. Is not a moral man as real as an immoral one?” she wrote in a 1916 article for the Ladies Home Journal.

Twelve Makes a Dozen

A photograph of Gene Stratton titled "The Little Bird Woman" from her 1920 book "Homing With the Birds." Internet Archive. (Public Domain)
A photograph of Gene Stratton titled "The Little Bird Woman" from her 1920 book "Homing With the Birds." Internet Archive. (Public Domain)

Geneva Grace Stratton was quite the surprise to her 50 year-old father Mark and 47 year-old mother Mary. Born Aug. 17, 1863 and later nicknamed Gene, the youngest of the Strattons’ 12 children spent considerable time outdoors as a preschooler amusing herself roaming the farm while her parents and siblings were busy doing chores. As long as she appeared on time for family meals, she was permitted to explore her surroundings. That began her fascination with birds, flowers and plants.

One day, her father winged a chicken hawk and was preparing to club it with his rifle when Gene begged him to spare it. With her mother’s help in treating the bird’s injured wing, within a month the hawk was eating from Gene’s fingers and following her around like a puppy. Soon she had a personal zoo of birds she cared for and studied.

Gene’s passion for ornithology didn’t apply to schoolwork or making friends. With her parents aging and her mother seriously ill, the Strattons made the decision to leave the farm and move to town. Four months later, her mother died and 12 year-old Gene struggled even more adjusting to city life. It wasn’t until her sophomore year at Wabash High School, where she presented a book review at a school assembly, that she discovered her descriptive talent with words and characterization.

That brief episode lit the fuse on her imagination and storytelling abilities and was the beginning of her metamorphosis from country farm girl to literary talent.

From Farmer’s Daughter to Bird Woman

"Butterflies," 1878, by Winslow Homer. Oil on canvas. New Britain Museum of American Art, Connecticut. (Public Domain)
"Butterflies," 1878, by Winslow Homer. Oil on canvas. New Britain Museum of American Art, Connecticut. (Public Domain)

In 1886, Gene married Charles Porter, a successful businessman who owned three drugstores, among other interests, and later co-founded a bank in Geneva, Indiana. Gene kept her family surname and added her husband’s name once married. Porter’s different business interests required much of his attention and required him to travel often, leaving Gene with much time on her hands.

An ambitious woman, Stratton-Porter occupied herself for a time with music lessons, painting, and a course in fine needlework, but soon grew restless and passed her time exploring a 13,000-acre wetland area named Limberlost Swamp. She spent hours birdwatching, making sketches, and  photographing local wildlife.

Two illustrated plates from "What I Have Done With Birds," 1907, by Gene Stratton-Porter. Internet Archive. (Public Domain)
Two illustrated plates from "What I Have Done With Birds," 1907, by Gene Stratton-Porter. Internet Archive. (Public Domain)

The unusual sight of an unaccompanied, khaki-clad woman tromping across the countryside and taking pictures of birds created a buzz among locals, especially since Charles had built a beautiful two-story, 14-room cedar log home after oil was discovered on one of his properties.

“No normal woman would leave the comfort of such a fine home to drive a drafty buggy through swamp and field in all kinds of weather on such strange business,” Stratton-Porter biographer Judith Reick Long wrote in her 1990 book “Gene Stratton-Porter – Novelist and Naturalist.”

The locals were right when describing “The Bird Woman” as unusual, but what they didn’t know is like a mother bird building her nest, Stratton-Porter was gathering twigs of tales, leaves of literary imagination, and spider silk of storylines for several novels and illustrations for nonfiction nature books.

An illustrated plate of young Loggerhead Shrikes from "What I Have Done With Birds," 1907, by Gene Stratton- Porter. Internet Archive. (Public Domain)
An illustrated plate of young Loggerhead Shrikes from "What I Have Done With Birds," 1907, by Gene Stratton- Porter. Internet Archive. (Public Domain)
It was during this 18-year period from 1895 to 1913 that she began writing nature books with her own photo illustrations and novels. Nature books like “Birds of the Bible” and “Friends in Feathers” were her passion, but novels were her pathway to literary acclaim and financial independence. In a compromise with her primary publisher, Doubleday, Page & Company, her publisher agreed to publish her novels and nonfiction books on an alternate annual basis.

A Book Bonanza and Movie Success

Movie poster for the 1926 film "Laddie," based off the book written by Gene Stratton-Porter. Film Booking Offices of America. (Public Domain)
Movie poster for the 1926 film "Laddie," based off the book written by Gene Stratton-Porter. Film Booking Offices of America. (Public Domain)
Stratton-Porter published 26 books. Freckles (1904) and A Girl of the Limberlost (1909) are considered her most popular. Both books, which are still on shelves today, used the Limberlost Swamp as a backdrop to her storylines. Her novels have been translated into 20 languages and Braille.
Long notes in her Stratton-Porter biography that it was once believed that her subject was first published in 1900 with nature magazine articles, but it is now believed her first published work was a short book called “The Strike at Shane’s,” published in 1893. The book was part of a writing contest by Boston’s American Humane Education Society and contest rules required manuscripts to be submitted under a pseudonym.  Neither the publisher or Stratton-Porter ever revealed authorship of the work, but the book bears such similarities to the characterizations and storylines in her other books that it is widely recognized as hers.

Eight of Stratton-Porter’s books were made into films, and as with all things she undertook, the energetic and ambitious author applied her literary eagle eye to that new venture. Under her arrangement with filmmaker Thomas Ince, Gene oversaw filming and personally assisted directing. Three years later, in 1924, she incorporated a film production company of her own.

“As a motion picture producer I shall continue to present idealized pictures of life, pictures of men and women who inspire charity, honor, devotion to God and to family,” she wrote in a McCall’s magazine editorial.

The Unconventional Traditionalist

Gene Stratton-Porter, early 20th century. (<a href="https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:GSP_Portrait_01_-_Front_4X6.jpg" target="_blank" rel="nofollow noopener">Gspmemorial</a>/<a href="https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0/deed.en" target="_blank" rel="nofollow noopener">CC BY-SA 4.0 DEED</a>)
Gene Stratton-Porter, early 20th century. (Gspmemorial/CC BY-SA 4.0 DEED)

In many ways, the country girl who became a bestselling author and film producer was a walking contradiction. She preferred nature over people, but wrote bestselling books adored by millions.

She contracted with McCall’s magazine to write editorials championing housewives, but rebelled against that role for herself and worked tirelessly to be financially independent.

She and Charles Porter remained married until her death in 1924, but spent years living apart in Indiana after she built a two-story cedar log cabin in 1913 modeled after the one Charles had built for her in Geneva, Indiana. Gene claimed frequent interruptions to her work by visitors prompted her to flee to Rome City, 82 miles north of Geneva. Charles visited on weekends until Gene chose to move to California in 1919 as she began another chapter in her life.
Gene died on Dec. 6, 1924, following a traffic accident in Los Angeles. In 1999, two of her grandsons had her body and their mother Jeanette’s body moved to the grounds of the Gene Stratton-Porter Historic Site in Rome City, Indiana, a 128-acre tract of woods and gardens populated with 14,000 trees, shrubs and wildflowers Gene planted herself.
An illustrated plate "The Lady Bird" from "Moths of the Limberlost," 1912, by Gene Stratton-Porter. Internet Archive. (Public Domain)
An illustrated plate "The Lady Bird" from "Moths of the Limberlost," 1912, by Gene Stratton-Porter. Internet Archive. (Public Domain)
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Dean George is a freelance writer based in Indiana and he and his wife have two sons, three grandchildren, and one bodacious American Eskimo puppy. Dean's personal blog is DeanRiffs.com and he may be reached at [email protected]