- Harriet Monroe's Pioneer Modernism:Nature, National Identity, and Poetry, A Magazine of Verse
Many scholars of modernist verse consider Harriet Monroe—the founder and first editor of Poetry, A Magazine of Verse—a curious anomaly. She was dedicated to extending the parameters of American poetry, but in literary history she has been known as the editor who held up publication of T. S. Eliot's "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock," excerpted and rearranged Wallace Stevens's elegiac masterpiece "Sunday Morning," rebuffed Marianne Moore and William Carlos Williams with her criticisms, and drove her "foreign correspondent" Ezra Pound to distraction and his work into the pages of Margaret Anderson's Little Review.1 She frankly preferred Vachel Lindsay's verse to W. B. Yeats's (Williams 77-78), and she deemed Lew Sarett's poem "The Box of God" superior in every way to The Waste Land (Monroe, "A Contrast" 325-30). A generation older than most of the poets she published in her landmark periodical, Monroe struck many of her charges as prudish, provincial, and backward—a strangely unmodern champion of the modernist verse she worked so hard to bring to the unsuspecting American public.
Rather than reproach Monroe for the limitations of her ideas of good verse, I think it more fruitful to approach her through the cultural roots of what she saw as her modern artistic mission. In my reading of the early modernist period, Monroe stands as a central figure rather than an anomaly because her sense of American art so clearly expressed a cultural dilemma common to her time. The American writers who began their careers amid the turmoil of the Progressive Era brought with them an American literary and cultural tradition based on widespread mythologies, born in the early nineteenth century, of an American selfhood rooted in American nature (Miller 197-207; Nash 67-83; Marx 3-11). What America lacked in history, rituals, art, and monuments, it made up for in the peerless beauty of its scenery; this would serve as the basis for a unique cultural identity. However, as scientific management, efficiency, scientific accuracy, expertise, precisionism, and professionalism became the watchwords of American scientific progressivism, the notion that nature functioned as a touchstone of human sympathy and feeling—a resonant space that triggered the recognition of "perfect correspondence" (to use Thoreau's term) between spirit and matter—came to seem hopelessly naïve. The drive in early twentieth-century culture to transform nature into a subject pertinent to a scientific age left the emerging American poets of the Progressive [End Page 50] Era in a difficult position. On the one hand, these American writers sensed that, if their art was to be taken seriously as a twentieth-century cultural product, it must somehow participate in the scientific habits of mind that defined the times. On the other hand, many of these same writers felt uneasy about abandoning the orphic, mystical attachment to nature that had first made American literature unique. How was it possible to write American poetry in a scientific age? How might the poet keep faith with American nature and its promise of cultural identity without seeming silly or unscholarly? How might the American poet retain a defining relationship with American nature while reimagining nature as a viable subject of modernity?
For Monroe, such questions proved vital to her conception of American art. A woman on the cusp between two centuries (Monroe was born in 1860 and started Poetry in 1912), she was well positioned to witness the turn toward scientific management that defined her times. Monroe grew up in late-nineteenth-century Chicago, an urban environment that highlighted the social stresses wrought by massive immigration, rapid industrialization, corporatization, and corruption; many white middle-class Americans feared these forces would destroy American Democracy. The problems that Chicago faced, however, also made it a hotbed of reform activity. A hub for the country's identity crisis, Chicago became a living laboratory for experiments in the Progressive scientific control of American society.2
While some Progressive Chicagonians lobbied for civic improvements, others, sensing the cultural void that eventually drove Gertrude Stein and Pound to Europe, began to...