John Beecher, 1973

John Beecher is best known—when he is known at all—for his poetry. His legacy, however, is much wider, and includes the poetry and nonfiction he wrote over five decades, the sociological research and observation he undertook for New Deal agencies, and the teaching that he cut short when he stood his ground against the Red Scare. He never had a consequential public audience in the span of his life, 1904 to 1980, but his work documents key episodes in the history of 20th-century America. Though a man of the 20th century, Beecher’s roots stretch into the 19th as well. As a descendant of the Beecher family of abolitionists from New England, he identified with and was inspired by the 19th-century Victorian social moralism of his ancestors. Regardless of his environment, whether he was in the Jim Crow South or among the New York intelligentsia, he followed his own moral compass derived from this sensibility. Many times those decisions led him down paths that made life difficult for his family, but that did not stop him. Time after time, Beecher surveyed and documented the plight of people that he believed were marginalized by economic and racial injustice, by unfair labor practices, and by biased political scrutiny. While some critics have favorably compared elements of Beecher’s poetry about working class men to that of Walt Whitman and Carl Sandburg, he never gained their level of critical acclaim or public exposure. Despite the absence of a broad audience, he continued to write. His extensive letters, articles, unpublished manuscripts, and a dozen published books contain a record of public concerns in American history from the plight of workers in the steel mills in the 1920s, to the struggles of sharecroppers in the Great Depression, to the battle for racial equality in the 1960s. In every one of those periods, Beecher was in a position to document the key people, places and events in the social and cultural stories that shaped much of the century. He failed to gain 2

notice in the government, press, or academy, even though he worked in and contributed to every one of those areas through most of his life. This study of his life and work does not attempt to elevate his stature as a writer nor does it suggest that he was a man whose biography must fill a void in the historical record. Instead, this study explores Beecher’s life and work as they document historical events in the 20th century and seeks to expand our understanding of those events. Beecher moved easily—and often—throughout the country. His ancestral home was in New England, he was born in New York City, and he grew up in Birmingham as it evolved into a key city in the New South. “My father was chief financial officer for U.S. Steel in the South for more than a generation. The things he told me! And what I could see for myself,” Beecher wrote.1 During the years of that generation, Beecher had a front-row seat to the economic and social struggles as industry overtook agriculture, unions challenged the status quo of cheap labor, and blacks chafed under the injustice of the Jim Crow laws. He used his personal vantage point, as well as his ancestral legacy, to bear witness to the rapidly changing world as he pursued his various roles as student, teacher, and writer. There are many examples of Beecher’s connection to the times in which he lived and the significance his written records bring to history. He administered New Deal programs in the South and conducted fieldwork in sociology to document needs and outcomes. He represented Roosevelt’s Fair Employment Practice Committee to investigate racial, religious, and economic discrimination in workplaces in the South and Southwest and wrote extensively about those challenges. When he took a stand against a mandatory and far-reaching loyalty oath as a condition of employment in the McCarthy era, he was fired from his teaching job at San Francisco State College; he fought for reinstatement until just days before he died thirty years later. Finally, he worked as a freelance journalist in Alabama and Mississippi to report on the violence toward blacks in the wake of the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. John Beecher’s life intersected these points in history and he wrote about them in detail. This legacy is rich and deserves to be examined by historians. Historians have produced countless volumes that examine the literary renaissance of the 1920s; the New Deal and its myriad political, social, and economic ramifications; the anti-communist fear that swept the country after World War II and in the McCarthy era; and the long march toward racial equality in the 1950s and 1960s. That historiography grows as primary and secondary sources are discovered and earlier interpretations are revisited. It is evident after spending time studying John Beecher’s papers that this material adds to the record of those four periods and others with which his life intersected. The volume and variety of material he wrote make it difficult to situate Beecher within a single historiographical context. Thus, I have anchored each period of his life into the appropriate historiography. Beecher’s records are housed in the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas where they remain uncatalogued after almost thirty years. There are 125 boxes in this collection with letters, unpublished writing, and oral recollections. Their content reveals Beecher’s interactions with central figures in every era—Robert Frost, Harriet Monroe, John Farrar, and Countee Cullen in the literary renaissance of the 1920s; Howard Odum, Eleanor Roosevelt, Alfred Stieglitz, and Dorothy Norman in the New Deal era; Henry Wallace, William Carlos Williams, and Alexander Meiklejohn during the McCarthy period; and John Howard Griffin, Walker Percy, Thomas Merton, and Virginia Durr during the civil rights movement. This collection is a treasure chest of information for a 20th-


century historian. A common notion among historians is that the biography of an individual life, which in its simplest form is delineated by birth and death, is inferior to works in other historical genres. Many even argue biography is not history at all. Historians have recently begun to discuss issues related to biography as history. To introduce essays that made up a roundtable on “Historians and Biography” in the American Historical Review, David Nasaw quickly got to the sticking point: “Biography remains the profession’s unloved stepchild, occasionally but grudgingly let in the door, more often shut outside with the riffraff.”2 It is true that biographies often focus on individual causation as opposed to events and patterns that historians can interpret more broadly. In some cases, biographies may be long on oversimplified conclusions and short on historical context. To examine the life of an individual also takes the historian into the realm of psychology, which is highly problematic for the historian without the training necessary to understand the interior life of their subject. However, there have been successful biographies written by historians. In their essays, the roundtable writers agreed that successful historical biographies explore ideas and historical context beyond a simple chronology of a particular individual’s life. Writing style was another issue discussed in the roundtable articles. Lois Banner observed that writing biography calls on the historian to write accessible prose. “Biography challenges the historian to produce lucid writing—not always the standard among academic scholars.”3 This goal coincides with public history’s focus on audience and meeting the needs of various publics. With these issues in mind, I followed a particular path in research and writing about John Beecher. In my research, I looked for places in the historical record where his life and writing brought new information or insight. In those sections, I examine the historiography and explain Beecher’s contribution. I also aimed to bring a narrative writing style into the dissertation. My goal has not been to write a cradle-to-grave biography, but to bring Beecher’s life and work into the view of contemporary historians. I also wanted to show that that his life choices portray a man who is connected to his famous ancestors through his social consciousness—ancestors whose lives have been examined with great frequency over well over a century, but whose living legacy ended with John Beecher. This study of John Beecher demonstrates that his life offers insights into pivotal points in 20th-century America. The work that he produced has a place in the fields of history, literature, and sociology. In his poetry and non-fiction he saw social issues clearly defined through a black-and-white lens; he always acknowledged, however, that the reality of addressing them was never quite so clear. Throughout his life, he identified most as a Beecher and was proud of what that represented. As the 20th century moved forward and the cultural memory of his ancestors faded, his rigid moral compass created a stark contrast. By the 1960s, he provided a strong voice from a distant past to resonate within a new generation of those fighting for social equality. Through John Beecher, we see that some patterns in American families and, thus, American history, do cycle around again.


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