Collecting Delaware Books
First published in 1992, this article has been updated. For an excellent biography of Biggs, including his literary heritage, see the book A Judge Uncommon, A Life of John Biggs, Jr. by Seymour I. Toll, Philadelphia 1993.
Delawareans produced an amazing amount of literature between 1920 and 1940. It seems as though everyone in the state must have been writing. Some of these authors were prominent in other fields some would be unknown if it were not for their books.
Among the prominent was John Biggs, Jr. of Wilmington, who had two novels published. Born in Wilmington October 6, 1895, he was the son of John Biggs, who served as state attorney general, and grandson of Benjamin Biggs, Delaware's governor from 1887 to 1891. He served as an enlisted man in the Army 1917-1918. Because of this war time service, he graduated in 1920 from Princeton University as a member of the class of 1918. He was a 1922 graduate of Harvard Law School. Biggs was in private law practice in Wilmington 1922-1937. Like his father, John Biggs, Jr. was Democratic state chairman. His work to carry Delaware for Franklin D. Roosevelt in the 1936 presidential election had much to do with his appointment to the U.S. Third Circuit Court of Appeals, where he became senior judge. He died in Wilmington April 15, 1979.
At Princeton, Biggs roomed for a year with F. Scott Fitzgerald. The two often put out the college literary magazine by themselves. They maintained contact over the years, despite diverging lifestyles.
In 1927, Fitzgerald needed a quiet place to dry out and write. Biggs convinced him to rent Ellerslie, a stately mansion on the Delaware River north of Wilmington. (The building no longer exists.) Fitzgerald stayed for two years, except for brief trips to France and Italy. It is said Biggs often got Fitzgerald out of jail after bouts of drinking and fighting in Wilmington.
Ellerslie became a literary mecca. Visitors included Bunny Wilson, Ring Lardner, John Marquand, Charlie MacArthur, Carl Van Vechten, Thornton Wilder, and the young actress Helen Hayes. Biggs and Christopher Ward, another Wilmington lawyer and writer, were also regulars.
Fitzgerald died in 1940. Biggs was one of thirty or so mourners at a cemetery near Baltimore. He was executor of the estate and guardian of Fitzgerald's daughter, Scottie, and negotiated a contract for the screen rights to The Great Gatsby for her.
Demigods, Biggs' first novel was published in 1926 by Charles Scribner's Sons. It is full of sweat, blood, violent weather, and sudden death. The story begins with the founding of a pioneer Dunkard community in 1869 and traces the rise and decline of its religious leader and blacksmith, Hosea Gault. At Hosea's death, the narrative continues with his son, John. John Gault is forced to flee the community. He makes his way to Philadelphia and then Wilmington. Arriving as an uneducated country man, he eventually comes to rule a Wilmington newspaper empire. At the end, beset by personal problems, he returns to religion and preaching. His death is so bizarre it jars in a novel already full of strange twists. Quoting the book:
"… a clipping from a newspaper was produced — 'At Buryhill, Cecil County, during a revival meeting last evening, three men, convinced by one of their number that they were Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, walked into a burning brick kiln. At a late hour last night they had not been heard from.' "
The first half of the book is set in a wilderness pioneer community. The first two pages include 12 place names, at least 10 of which are from New Hampshire. One can speculate that Biggs vacationed in this area and used it as a setting. The Dunkards, of course, are a real fundamentalist religious denomination, now divided by schisms.
In the second section of the book, one can speculate that John Gault was modelled after Wilmington newspaper publisher Francis Vincent, at least physically. Unlike the fictional Gault, Vincent was apparently a stable, benevolent person.
Seven Days Whipping, Biggs' most successful novel, was published in 1928 by Scribner's. He wrote it during a stay at the gardener's cottage of the Bringhurst estate (now Rockwood Museum). This is the same cottage where John Marquand and, later, Dudley Lunt completed several books. Biggs' novel is set in the isolated home of Judge Stawell Ball La Place above a bend of Red Clay Creek. References to local landmarks are quite specific. When distances are checked and circles drawn, however, the location is a deliberately impossible one.
The story is of primitive emotions. After effective character development and scene setting, it focuses on one stormy day and night during which La Place's wife gives birth at home. La Place also encounters a prowler in the yard and thinks he has killed him. The judge's social standing has a part in the final resolution. It is interesting that La Place's position in the community is similar to the one Biggs would achieve fifteen years after the book was written.
Biggs wrote two more novels that were never published, but the manuscripts are extant. The Seymour I. Toll book has details. He wrote numerous short stories. "His Corkran on the Clam Stretch" has been published in anthologies. He wrote two nonfiction books. Delaware Laws Affecting Business Corporations, 1935, was co-authored with Stewart Lynch. (This book is periodically re-issued for subsequent years by other authors. Usually, the authors are not named.) The Guilty Mind, 1955 Harcourt, Brace, & Co., New York, dealing with insanity in criminal cases, earned him an honorary membership in the American College of Psychiatrists.
Biggs' books are not rare or expensive, but you will have to do some searching.
To learn more about John Biggs, Jr. read Seymour Toll: A Judge Uncommon, a Life of John Biggs, Jr. There is also information in Lee Reese: The Horse on Rodney Square Andre Le Vot: F. Scott Fitzgerald, a Biography Arthur Mizener: The Far Side of Paradise, a Biography of F. Scott Fitzgerald and Reed: Delaware, a History of the First State, volume 3. Consult the index in each reference. — JPR