August William Derleth Papers, 1858, 1907-1978

Biography/History

August W. Derleth was born to William Julius and Rose Louise (Volk) Derleth in Sauk City, Wisconsin, on February 24, 1909. Educated in local parochial and public schools, Derleth attended the University of Wisconsin and received a B.A. in English in 1930. Soon after graduating, he began work as an associate editor for Fawcett Publications in Minneapolis, Minnesota, but after six months returned to Sauk City to pursue a career as a free-lance writer. In 1943 he became engaged to Marcia Lee Masters, the daughter of author Edgar Lee Masters, but eventually broke off the engagement and ten years later married Sandra Winters. The couple had two children: April Rose, born in 1954, and Walden William, born in 1956. The Derleths were divorced in 1959, but both children continued to live with their father. Thereafter Derleth's household consisted of himself, his daughter and son, and his parents.

Derleth began to write at age thirteen, later recalling that “I was convinced even at that age that I could write tripe as good as that I had been reading.” When he was fifteen Derleth sold his first piece of work, a fantasy story entitled “Bat's Belfry,” and saw its publication in the May 1926 issue of Weird Tales magazine. By the mid 1930s he was able to support himself comfortably by selling what he called his “tripe,” primarily detective and supernatural stories. Later he sold book reviews and other short pieces as well. At the same time he began to write works which he intended to be more serious, notably his Sac Prairie Saga and his “Cthulhu Mythos” fantasy works. Derleth's lifetime literary output was by any standards enormous: he wrote over one hundred and fifty books and several thousand stories and articles which appeared in more than five hundred different magazines and newspapers. But Derleth was not a hack nor a formula writer, for his style was as varied as his output prodigious. He authored novels, novellas, short stories, juvenile books, pastiches, poems, journals, articles, histories, and biographies, and he wrote in every genre from fantasy and science fiction to nature poetry, historical fiction, and biography. Besides being a writer, Derleth was also an editor, anthologist, and publisher.

Derleth's most significant contribution to American literature was his Sac Prairie Saga. In this sequence of nearly fifty volumes, which combined historical and contemporary novels, novellas, short stories, journal extracts, lyric poetry, and miscellaneous prose, Derleth told the story of a century of life, nature, and change in a fictionalized portrayal of his home town. In 1938 Derleth was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship to support his work. The Sac Prairie Saga, together with the Wisconsin Saga, a series of historical novels set in other parts of the state, is considered among the major works of American regional literature.

Derleth was equally well known for his writings in the supernatural, fantastic, and macabre. From the beginning of his writing career Derleth was a devotee of Howard Phillips Lovecraft (1890-1937), the master of twentieth-century American weird fantasy. At an early age Derleth became one of a number of Lovecraft protégés who, as contributors or would be contributors to Weird Tales, carried on extensive correspondence with Lovecraft and each other about their work. Lovecraft was their mentor. He devoted much time and effort to encouraging his youthful correspondents and helping them to succeed as writers of fantasy. Many did, not the least of whom was Derleth, and Lovecraft's imprint is clearly noticeable in most of their subsequent writings. Beginning with Lovecraft, the members of this circle developed a body of fiction known collectively as the “Cthulhu Mythos,” a group of stories that had as a common background a complex mixture of science fiction and supernatural elements. Derleth contributed more to the Cthulhu material than anyone except Lovecraft himself, and in the period following Lovecraft's death, by encouraging other writers to develop it further, he was primarily responsible both for its continued growth and for the widespread acceptance and fame that Lovecraft posthumously achieved.

When Lovecraft died in 1937, Derleth and fellow author Donald Wandrei decided that Lovecraft's stories should be saved from the ephemeral world of magazine literature. Obtaining the rights to a number of Lovecraft's stories, Derleth and Wandrei compiled an anthology of previously published Lovecraft works, titling it The Outsider and the Other. But when no publisher would risk printing the lengthy manuscript, Derleth and Wandrei scraped money together, formed their own publishing company, Arkham House, and in 1939 published the volume on their own. Arkham House was originally intended only as an outlet for Lovecraft works, but Derleth and Wandrei quickly recognized the need for a quality fantasy publisher; they therefore decided to publish as much of the outstanding literature in the field as they could. In addition to several more Lovecraft anthologies and five volumes of Lovecraft letters, Arkham House eventually published fantasy and science fiction works by Derleth, Wandrei, Robert Bloch, Robert E. Howard, Fritz Leiber, Clark Ashton Smith, A.E. Van Vogt, and others.

In the early 1940s Derleth assumed sole proprietorship of Arkham House, and from then on he ran operations almost singlehandedly. He devoted his time to the company, subsidized its operations with approximately $50,000 of his own money, and made his home the business's office and warehouse. But even more importantly, after Lovecraft's death Derleth became the new center of correspondence and acknowledged master within an ever growing circle of fantasy writers and aficionados, all of whom came to rely on Derleth for advice and sound editorial judgment much as Derleth and others had relied on Lovecraft earlier. Derleth's acquaintance with many young writers and his ability to recognize and cultivate talent meant that Arkham House was the first to publish many authors who later became well known. Although Arkham House was never a profitable concern, Derleth's devotion, efforts, talents, and financial support ensured that the business would not follow into insolvency and bankruptcy the other small fantasy publishing houses set up in the 1940s. In 1945 Derleth began publishing additional works under two new imprints: Mycroft and Moran, which specialized in detective fiction; and Stanton and Lee, which published poetry and Derleth's works for juveniles. Three years after Derleth's death Arkham House was finally incorporated and it continues today to be prominent among the publishers of fantasy and the macabre.

Derleth was never one to follow a single interest to the exclusion of all others, nor did the solitary nature of a writer's life lead him to become a closeted or solitary individual; instead, Derleth's life was one constant hum of activity. Besides his extensive writing and publishing activities, Derleth carried on a voluminous daily correspondence and devoted significant amounts of his time to the appreciation and observation of nature. He took daily walks through the countryside and noted all he saw, expanding on his observations, as well as on his other daily activities, in his “Sac Prairie Journal” and often finding in his notes inspiration for poems and stories. Derleth took a sort of vacation every May to spend his days gathering morel mushrooms and communing with nature during the season of new birth. Description of nature was one of the hallmarks of Derleth's serious writings. In addition, for nine years Derleth was a contributing editor to Outdoors Magazine, and between 1960 and 1963 he edited and published his own magazine of nature poetry, Hawk and Whippoorwill. In 1948 and 1949 he published The Arkham Sampler, a quarterly magazine of fantasy stories, and from 1941 until the mid-1960s he was literary editor for the Madison (Wisconsin) Capital Times. Derleth lectured at the University of Wisconsin-Madison from 1939 to 1943 and from 1958 to 1971, and he occasionally gave special lectures elsewhere. He was the director of the Sauk City Board of Education for six years and was always active and popular among local youth. In addition to his professional and civic activities, Derleth found time to collect comics -- he claimed to have the world's largest selective collection --and to read, swim, and play chess. Extraordinarily energetic, unusually versatile, the possessor of an ever fertile imagination, Derleth never became bored or distracted with his writer's life and to his last days he never slackened his pace or lost his inspiration. He died of a heart attack in his Sauk City home on July 4, 1971.

For additional biographical information about Derleth, see Subject Files - Biographies (Box 106) and his autobiographical sketch (Box 66) in the Original Collection.