Missouri and Ozarks History

Information and comments about historical people and events of the Ozarks region and surrounding area.

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I'm a freelance writer specializing in the history of the Ozarks and surrounding region. I've written fifteen nonfiction books, two historical novels, and numerous articles. My latest books are Bushwhacker Belles, Wicked Women of Missouri, and Yanked Into Eternity: Lynchings and Hangings in Missouri.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Thomas Hart Benton

The third annual Thomas Hart Benton festival, sponsored by the Newton County Tourism Commission, is coming up in late November. I've never been a connoisseur of Benton's art or of art in general for that matter, but, because of the local angle, I have written a couple of brief articles about his life, including one in the November 2008 issue of Show-Me the Ozarks Magazine, a publication for which I write almost every month. Benton was born in rural Neosho, but the part of his autobiography, An Artist in America, that especially interested me when I read it a number of years ago was his account of the summer he spent in nearby Joplin in 1906 at the age of seventeen. At the time, Joplin was a booming, anything-goes mining town, and Benton thoroughly enjoyed his first summer of freedom. He started out working as a surveyor for a mining company but got hired midway through the summer as a cartoonist for a fledgling newspaper, the Joplin American, in the 400 block of Main Street. At night, particularly on weekends, Benton drank beer in Joplin saloons, including the infamous House of Lords, and no one questioned the seventeen-year-old boy's adult standing. At some point during the summer, young Benton made the acquaintance of a man who frequented the bawdy houses of the wide-open town, where "insinuatingly decorated girls" plied their trade. On his first few visits to one of the houses, according to Benton, he merely waited in an outside room drinking beer while his friend went inside, but the lad eventually surrendered his innocence to a sporting girl in "a flaming red kimono." The romantic Benton found the experience unpleasant and "looked no further into the mysteries of sex."
Thomas Hart Benton, of course, went on to become a famous artist, noted especially for his murals depicting everyday American life. During the early 1970s, he returned to Joplin to paint a mural for the city hall called "Joplin at the Turn of the Century," based partly on his recollections from the summer he had spent in the town over sixty years earlier.

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