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Beleaguered Poets and Leftist Critics

Stevens, Cummings, Frost, and Williams in the 1930s

Written by Milton A. Cohen

Publication Year: 2010

Different as they were as poets, Wallace Stevens, E. E. Cummings, Robert Frost, and Williams Carlos Williams grappled with the highly charged literary politics of the 1930s in comparable ways. As other writers moved sharply to the Left, and as leftist critics promulgated a proletarian aesthetics, these modernist poets keenly felt the pressure of the times and politicized literary scene. All four poets saw their reputations critically challenged in these years and felt compelled to respond to the new politics, literary and national, in distinct ways, ranging from rejection to involvement. 

Beleaguered Poets and Leftist Critics closely examines the dynamics of these responses: what these four poets wrote—in letters, essays, lectures, fiction (for Williams), and most importantly, in their poems; what they believed politically and aesthetically; how critics, particularly leftist critics, reviewed their work; how these poets reacted to that criticism and to the broader milieu of leftism. Each poet’s response and its subsequent impact on his poetic output is a unique case study of the conflicting demands of art and politics in a time of great social change. 

Published by: The University of Alabama Press


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p. ix

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pp. 1-8

Imagine you are a modernist poet, and it is 1931. In the 1920s you were a critical success: you enjoyed the approbation of your peers, a small circle of poets and critics—the cognoscenti. Now, almost overnight, everything has changed. ...

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1. “Leftward Ho!”: Migrations of Writers, Critics, and Magazines in the 1930s

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pp. 9-47

By all accounts, the 1930s were tumultuous years for writers—angry, hopeful, confused, hard-up, disillusioning years—but most of all social: writers formed groups, signed petitions, attended meetings, made speeches, marched in rallies, started little magazines, responded to surveys and symposia in literary magazines, criticized other writers’ responses. And the direction of this socializing—so different from the sense of isolation typically imputed to the 1920s1—was political: ...

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2. Wallace Stevens: No More Arpeggios

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pp. 48-81

Nineteen twenty-three was a banner year for modernist American poetry. In addition to William Carlos Williams’s pathbreaking Spring and All, the year witnessed the first books of poems by E. E. Cummings (Tulips and Chimneys) and Wallace Stevens (Harmonium). For Cummings it was a major breakthrough, for, outside of The Dial and a few issues of Broom, ...

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3. E. E. Cummings: Prolonged Adolescent or Premature Curmudgeon?

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pp. 82-113

Of the four poets under consideration, E. E. Cummings would seem the least complex in his explicit and complete rejection of leftist criticism, politics, and aesthetics. But how he arrived at this position is less obvious and requires some review. In the late 1910s and through much of the 1920s, he had been the quintessential bad boy of poetry, the nose-thumbing, gleeful ...

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4. Robert Frost: A Lone Striker

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pp. 114-147

In the late 1920s, Robert Frost’s poetic status—like his poetry itself— differed significantly from that of the other three poets considered in this book. Where Stevens and Cummings were admired by a small circle of avant-garde critics, and Williams could scarcely even boast that recognition, Frost had achieved widespread popular and critical acclaim begin-...

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5. William Carlos Williams: Proletarian versus Marxist

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pp. 148-192

Of the four poets considered in this book, William Carlos Williams presents the most paradoxical case in his relations with the Left. Throughout the 1930s he asserted repeatedly his disagreements with the communists and argued that they were thoroughly out of touch with the bedrock American temper. That did not stop him, however, from coediting left-wing ...

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pp. 193-218

The preceding chapters document how four poets individually struggled with leftist pressures in the 1930s. But what do their stories tell us collectively about the vicissitudes of the modernist poet in the 1930s? The introduction asserts that, despite the obvious individuality of these four, what they experienced in the 1930s and how they responded to the political ...


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pp. 219-254


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pp. 255-265

E-ISBN-13: 9780817384456
Print-ISBN-13: 9780817317133

Page Count: 265
Publication Year: 2010

OCLC Number: 772459649
MUSE Marc Record: Download for Beleaguered Poets and Leftist Critics

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Subject Headings

  • Poets, American -- 20th century -- Political and social views.
  • American poetry -- 20th century -- History and criticism.
  • Politics and literature -- United States -- History -- 20th century.
  • Stevens, Wallace, 1879-1955 -- Political and social views.
  • Cummings, E. E. (Edward Estlin), 1894-1962 -- Political and social views.
  • Frost, Robert, 1874-1963 -- Political and social views.
  • Williams, William Carlos, 1883-1963 -- Political and social views.
  • Right and left (Political science) in literature.
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