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Guide to the Harry Leon Wilson Papers, ca. 1879-1939
BANC MSS 71/17 c  
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Collection Details
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  • Collection Summary
  • Information for Researchers
  • Scope and Content

  • Collection Summary

    Collection Title: Harry Leon Wilson Papers,
    Date (inclusive): [ca. 1879-1939]
    Collection Number: BANC MSS 71/17 c
    Creator: Wilson, Harry Leon, 1867-1939
    Extent: Number of containers: 14 boxes, and 1 oversize folder
    Repository: The Bancroft Library
    Berkeley, California 94720-6000
    Physical Location: For current information on the location of these materials, please consult the Library's online catalog.
    Abstract: Includes correspondence; materials re his work for Hubert Howe Bancroft; manuscripts of short stories, articles, novels and plays; notes; scenarios for some of his novels; clippings; photographs; papers relating to property in Mexico and to the settlement of his estate.

    Also included: correspondence and papers of his children, Leon and Charis, relating mainly to the settlement of their father's estate.
    Languages Represented: English

    Information for Researchers


    Collection is open for research.

    Publication Rights

    Copyright has not been assigned to The Bancroft Library. All requests for permission to publish or quote from manuscripts must be submitted in writing to the Head of Public Services. Permission for publication is given on behalf of The Bancroft Library as the owner of the physical items and is not intended to include or imply permission of the copyright holder, which must also be obtained by the reader.

    Preferred Citation

    [Identification of item], Harry Leon Wilson papers, BANC MSS 71/17 c, The Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley.

    Material Catalogued Separately

    • Photographs transferred to the Pictorial Collections of The Bancroft Library (Album classified as BANC PIC 1971.023--ALB; Stage settings and scenes for Harry Leon Wilson's Bohemian Grove play, entitled Life, classified as BANC PIC 1971.024.1-9--PIC)

    Scope and Content

    Born in Oregon, Illinois on May 1, 1867, Harry Leon Wilson, the famed American humorist and author, grew up in the small town where his father owned a newspaper, and at an early age learned to set type. He quit school when he was sixteen, having studied shorthand and acquired secretarial skills. In November 1884, Wilson served as stenographer first in the Omaha offices of the Union Pacific Railroad, and a year later in Denver. This position he left in December 1885 to become secretary to Edwin Fowler of the Bancroft History Company, working for over a year in Colorado, collecting reminiscences of pioneer settlers and drumming up subscriptions for the Bancroft histories.
    During this period, Wilson wrote "The Elusive Dollar Bill", a story based on his attempts to obtain a dollar bill for a silver piece in Denver, which was accepted in December 1886 by Puck, one of the foremost humor magazines in America.
    It was at this time, too, that Wilson first met a young girl named Wilbertine Nesselrode Teters whom he was to marry in 1899.
    Wilson, still in the employ of the Bancroft Company, arrived in California in the early summer of 1887 to work on The Builders of the Commonwealth in San Francisco and later in Los Angeles.
    By July of 1889, Wilson returned to Omaha, again as secretary to a Union Pacific Railroad official, Chief Engineer Virgil G. Brogue. In his spare time he wrote for Puck, assiduously studying the magazine's contents for style, especially the work of its prominent editor, Henry Cuyler Bunner, who, in 1892, offered him a position as assistant editor in New York. Wilson's duties consisted in selecting jokes and writing stories and editorials, under his own name as well as under pseudonyms or anonymously, until the death of Bunner, when he became the editor. Here he published his first collection of short stories, entitled Zigzag Tales in 1894.
    However, his longing to leave New York and move to the West, led him to write his first novel, The Spenders. The two thousand dollar advance on the book enabled him to quit his job, marry Rose O'Neill who had illustrated it, and move to her sprawling fifteen room house, Bonniebrook, in the Ozarks, where he wrote his next three books. He traveled, however, to Colorado and to Salt Lake City to research his Lions of the Lord (1903), described as the first legitimate use of the Mormon adventure in fiction. It was followed by his controversial novel The Seeker (1904), and a nostalgic humorous evocation of a little midwestern town, The Boss of Little Arcady (1905).
    Wilson first met Booth Tarkington in 1904. Both families sailed for Capri in September 1905, thus beginning the long association between the two writers. The draft of the first of many plays, The Man From Home, was completed in Paris in 1906. While in Europe, Wilson separated from Rose O'Neill, and published an unsuccessful novel, Ewing's Lady (1907).
    Upon Wilson's return to America, he settled in California in the Carmel area. Here he met Helen Cooke whom he married in 1912, and by whom he had two children, Harry Leon Jr., and Helen Charis. Here he remained, with the exception of a visit to the South Seas in 1923, and a few years spent in Portland, Oregon after his separation from Helen. These were productive years, with short stories and serials appearing in the Saturday Evening Post from 1912, and many novels, beginning with Bunker Bean in 1913, and Ruggles of Red Gap in 1915. An offshoot of the Ruggles book were the stories centered around Mrs. Lysander John Pettengill, some of which were assembled and published under the title of Ma Pettengill in 1919, and were to continue to appear in the Post throughout his lifetime.
    A stint in Hollywood provided the background for Merton of the Movies, which came out in 1922. While in Oregon, he wrote Lone Tree.
    Upon his return to Carmel in 1929, he led a more or less solitary life. An automobile accident in June 1932 in Monterey affected his eyesight and sometimes his memory, and his last years were plagued by ill health. He continued to write, however. His last work, When in the Course, was refused by the Post. He continued to rework it until his death, and it was published posthumously by his children. He died quietly in his sleep in Carmel, on June 29, 1939.
    His papers were a gift to the Library, August-December, 1970, from his children, Leon and Charis Wilson. The correspondence reflects his association with other authors, particularly Booth Tarkington. Also included in the collection are manuscripts and tear sheets of his articles and short stories; manuscripts of two of his novels, and of his plays; scenarios for dramatizations of some of his works; notes; clippings; some materials relating to his association with H. H. Bancroft; documents concerning the settlement of his estate; and photographs. There is also one box of papers of Leon and Charis Wilson, mainly relating to the settlement of their father's estate. Some printed items, including inscribed copies of The Boss of Little Arcady, Bunker Bean, Lone Tree and the Zigzag Tales, have been removed for separate cataloging. Many photographs have also been removed to the Portrait Collection.