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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 de-
cades, 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 His extensive letters, articles, unpublished manu-
scripts, 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 share-
croppers 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

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 chal-
lenged 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 Ala-
bama 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 mate-
rial 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 appropri-
ate 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 pe-
riod; 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 round-
table 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 pat-
terns 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 problem-
atic 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 schol-
ars.”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 historiogra-
phy 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 de-
fined 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 con-
trast. 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.