Despite being one of the most prolific writers of his time, Joseph Holt Ingraham has almost been forgotten in ours. Born in Portland, Maine, on 26 January 1809, Ingraham spent most of his life moving from one state to another, but he considered Mississippi his home and died in Holly Springs in 1860. Ingraham published more than one hundred novels and another hundred contributions to magazines and journals.
In 1830 Ingraham traveled to Natchez and New Orleans and settled in Washington, Mississippi, as a faculty member at Jefferson College. His tenure there was probably the basis for the title Professor, which appears on many of his novels. In 1832 he married a native Mississippian, Mary Elizabeth Oldin Brookes, a planter’s daughter. In 1835 Ingraham published his first book, The Southwest, based on a series of letters that had been published by the Natchez Courier. The Southwest, a travel book, sought to booster the image of Ingraham’s adopted region.
In 1836 Ingraham’s first novel was published with great success. Lafitte: The Pirate of the Gulf was a melodramatic adventure novel. Contributing to the rise of Ingraham’s literary star was the dramatization of Lafitte, which played in both New York and Philadelphia.
Ingraham continued writing historical adventures, often set in the Old Southwest, and became the best-paid American novelist of the 1840s. Between 1842 and 1847 he published just over eighty novels, most of them moralistic tales of pirates or country life and all of them cheap, paperbound editions that could be quickly printed and distributed. Despite his success, Ingraham was constantly beset by money troubles, and his novels, though best sellers, were not as well received critically. Edgar Allen Poe, for example, wrote of Lafitte, “Upon the whole, we could wish that men possessing the weight and talents and character belonging to Professor Ingraham, would either think it necessary to bestow a somewhat greater degree of labor and attention upon the composition of their novels, or otherwise, would not think it necessary to compose them at all.”
In 1847 Ingraham began to look in a new direction. He enrolled as a theological student in Nashville, Tennessee, working toward his ordination as an Episcopal minister. Ingraham continued to write fiction, but his morality tales took on a very different nature. Instead of pirate adventure, Ingraham turned to biblical history. In 1855 he published his most famous novel, The Prince of the House of David, which follows the life of Adina, a Jewish girl living in the time of Christ. Although The Prince of the House of David constituted a marked departure from Ingraham’s early work (which now seemed to embarrass the new minister), it was his most popular book, selling more than four million copies by 1931.
As a minister, Ingraham moved between states and congregations, sometimes serving in Mississippi. In 1858 he returned to the state as a minister of Christ Church in Holly Springs. Over the next two years Ingraham published two more biblical novels and The Sunny South, a defense of the region and a direct response to Uncle Tom’s Cabin. On 9 December 1860, while in the vestibule of his church, Ingraham dropped a loaded pistol and was fatally wounded. He was survived by his wife and son, Col. Prentiss Ingraham, who reached even greater fame than his father as a dime novelist.
- Joseph Holt Ingraham Collection, Clifton Waller Barrett Library of American Literature, Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library, University of Virginia
- James B. Lloyd, ed., Lives of Mississippi Authors, 1817–1967 (1981)
- Edgar Allen Poe, Southern Literary Messenger (August 1836)