A blend of den mother, editor, drill sergeant and—to some—prison warden, Lowney Turner Handy co-founded and led an unusual colony for writers in the rural town of Marshall, Illinois. The Handy Writers' Colony and its quixotic leader provided a refuge for would-be writers throughout the 1950s. Lowney was both mistress and mentor to the colony's charter member, James Jones, whose breakout novel, From Here to Eternity, was a publishing sensation.Narrated by Nick Clooney and featuring the voice of Jane Alexander as Lowney Turner Handy, Inside the Handy Writers' Colony explores the turbulent fifteen years of this literary experiment. A portrait of colony life emerges in the film through flashback sequences and interviews with former colony students, scholars and literati. "A lot of kids at that time, young people in their twenties or thirties, liked the idea of being a writer; that was glamorous," says former colony student Edwin Daly, who published his first novel at the age of eighteen.
Lowney had many unorthodox ideas for teaching creative writing, but the "copying exercises" she required of all her students were especially controversial. Before they could begin their own writing, students devoted much of their time to copying texts by classic American writers such as Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner and F. Scott Fitzgerald. "You pay attention to everything with much more detail and you're using more senses," recalls Don Sackrider, the colony's second student, "you really have a chance to look at style and technique differently than you do when you're reading it."
Lowney also dictated every aspect of her students' lives while they were in residence at the colony, from the foods they ate and the books they read to when they could visit the brothels of nearby Terre Haute. "It was a pretty monastic life," says Norman Mailer and James Jones scholar Michael J. Lennon, "the big thing was to get you away from any bad influences so you could confront your own demons, your own stories inside yourself, and write about it."Lowney preferred to mentor neophytes. Under her dominion, Lowney's boys handed themselves over to her unorthodox teaching practices and were told never to question her methods. "She was tyrannical, but I admire her. I really do," says Norman Mailer, who visited the colony in 1953.
When From Here to Eternity was published in 1951, the book was a spectacular success and Lowney was hailed in the press as the mentor to Jones. Together, Lowney, her husband Harry and James Jones established the Handy Writers' Colony and began formally accepting burgeoning writers. James and Lowney's relationship came to a fiery end in 1957 when Lowney tried to stab James' new wife, but the Handy Writers' Colony continued until Lowney's death in 1964.
Despite her rages and fits, many friends, family and former students remained loyal to Lowney. Norman Mailer reflects, "I think she just saw a new literary phenomenon was coming out of the Midwest, she was going to lead it. It was going to be incredible, and it was going to improve American literature. She succeeded and failed like we all do." Inside the Handy Writers' Colony unravels the fascinating and complicated story of the colony, and provides an intimate look at the characters who lived it.