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MLQ: Modern Language Quarterly 63.3 (2002) 315-342

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Republicanism and Leisure in Marianne Moore's Depression

Luke Carson

While most writers and intellectuals in the early years of the Depression felt, as Kenneth Burke put it in 1935, "that our traditional ways were headed for a tremendous change, maybe even a permanent collapse," there is little to suggest that Marianne Moore considered the Depression to have posed any fundamental challenge to the task of poetry. 1 Responding in that year to Ezra Pound's recommendation that she reflect more on economics, Moore replied: "I give strict attention to anything that is said about the economic foundation on which or in spite of which we live, but in art some things which seem inevitable ought to be concealed, like the working of gastric juice." 2 Nonetheless, however much she kept such questions out of poetry, she did not neglect what she understood to be her duties as a citizen. Having supported suffragism, Moore valued the franchise granted her in 1920: she exercised her right to vote when called on to do so and disapproved of self-appointed critics of American politics such as Pound who did not vote (Letters, 282). Outside of her poems, she was vocal about her political views, and her friends and colleagues knew that her commitment to Herbert Hoover and the Republican Party in the 1928 and 1932 elections was unwavering. Afraid of having offended her, Morton Zabel, associate editor of Harriet Monroe's [End Page 315] Poetry, wrote to Moore in February 1933, a few months after Franklin Delano Roosevelt's victory over Hoover in the 1932 election, to apologize for his critical comments about Hoover in the February issue. Moore replied: "Mr. Hoover is one of our great men, I feel. Whether his political economy is the best, I am not wise enough to say. He has worked for the good of the country, to the point of martyrdom" (299).

Though unsympathetic to the Left, Moore was fully aware of the demands placed on writers by their radical colleagues during the Depression and clearly felt called on to assure Pound that she took economics and politics seriously, even if she left both out of her poetry. However, Moore was disingenuous when, in her reply to a similar challenge from Burke, she both apologized for and defended "writing a poem on a persimmon. . . instead of joining with our capitalist friends in handing out the local dole" (Letters, 343). Her poetry in the thirties did not shun political questions; in fact, "Moore's civic concerns begin to be evident" in her three-part poem "Part of a Novel, Part of a Poem, Part of a Play," which appeared in June 1932 and was the first poem Moore had published since 1925. 3 In "The Steeple-Jack," which is one of the three parts, Hoover is likely to be included among

[the] presidents who have repaid

senators by not thinking about them,

and the senators are probably Democrats. 4 A similar theme is apparent in "The Jerboa," the next poem Moore published, which takes its place [End Page 316] in a tradition of civic republicanism by focusing on the corruption of the Roman Republic by wealth, luxury, and vice.

Moore's civic-mindedness is most evident, however, in a poem about Hoover that she tried unsuccessfully in August 1932 to have published in the New York Herald Tribune and in a Republican paper in the Midwest. 5 Comparing Hoover to Christ, this (still unpublished) poem anticipates the later poems, such as "In Distrust of Merits," whose many weaknesses continue to cause her critics such grief (Molesworth, 259). Judging from the Hoover poem, one could argue that the early Depression years marked the point at which Moore's poems began to assert the stable moral values that shaped the poetry she would write after the thirties. 6 Moore's response to the Depression was to retreat to her family's deeply rooted Calvinist and civic republican values, which she never abandoned. Moore's mother, Mary Warner...