John Beecher Biography
A biographical essay provided by the Manuscript Department of the William R. Perkins Library, Duke Unviersity, the home of the major repository of Beecher's papers.
John Henry Newman Beecher, son of Leonard Thurlow and Isabel Garghill Beecher, was born in New York City on January 22, 1904. His father at that time was financial vice-president of the Tennessee Coal, Iron and Railroad Company (TCI). When the United States Steel Corporation acquired the TCI, during the Panic of 1907, the company's headquarters were transferred from New York to the base of operations in Birmingham, Alabama. Leonard T. Beecher was retained in the capacity of secretary-treasurer but was forced to move to Birmingham, much against his will and that of his wife, whose career on the public platform suffered by removal from the nation's cultural capital to a town on the South's new industrial frontier. Mrs. Beecher, a graduate and one-time faculty member of the Northwestern University School of Oratory, was for many years a celebrated dramatic reader on the Lyceum and Chautauqua circuits. Many critics saw in her the talents of a great actress and she had been on the point of going on the stage when the move to Birmingham occurred.
John Beecher attended the Birmingham public schools, graduating from high school at fourteen. Every summer, from his eleventh through his fifteenth year, he attended military camps, four of them at Culver Military Academy, and one at the Junior Plattsburgh Training Camp which was operated by the United States Department of War. From this conditioning and his exposure to World War I, he foresaw for himself a martial career. Senator Oscar W. Underwood of Alabama had promised Leonard Beecher that John would receive an appointment to West Point when he reached the then legal minimum age of seventeen. While they awaited the appointment, his mother entered him at the University of Notre Dame in the fall of 1918. Despite his military training, he was barred from the Students' Army Training Corps at Notre Dame because of his youth, and when the influenza epidemic closed classes he was withdrawn from the university.
Returning to his home in Birmingham, he got a job as an apprentice chemist in the Ensley Steel Works of TCI. The following September he entered the Virginia Military Institute as its youngest cadet. His intention was to stay two years at VMI before accepting the promised appointment to West Point. However, his experiences at VMI disillusioned him for life with the military profession. In 1920, at the beginning of his second year, he was called as a witness against his roommates in a hazing case being tried by an "Honor Court", all of whose members had savagely hazed him the previous year. He refused to testify and was given two hours notice to leave. Although he was reinstated a few weeks later, he refused to return. He returned to Birmingham and the open hearth furnaces in the Ensley Steel Works of TCI, working weeks of six eleven-hour days and alternating with seven thirteen-hour nights. This experience provided much material for his later writing.
During the summer of 1921, Beecher traveled in Europe. On his return he entered Cornell University, his father's school, as an engineering student. He joined a fraternity to which both his father and grandfather had belonged. It was highly social in character, and for the first time in his academic career, Beecher's grades plummeted as he sampled new joys. A comic novel, "Big Bender," written several years later, depicts his uproarious life at Cornell. After a tempestuous love affair which ended disastrously, he left Cornell in the fall of 1923 and returned to the open hearth furnaces in Birmingham.
This period was critical in Beecher's development as a poet. As much as he was fascinated by the life in the steel mills, he could not see himself as a "driver of men" as he felt he would become in a management position such as his father occupied. At this point, his mother's influence became decisive. She encouraged him to study liberal arts, particularly creative writing, and while working on the open hearth, he took a number of correspondence courses in literature and history from the University of Chicago. In the summer of 1924, he attended the Cornell University summer school. Among his courses was one in advanced composition with Professor William Strunk, Jr., who gave him great encouragement. That fall he entered the University of Alabama at Tuscaloosa where he continued his study of writing with Professor Hudson Strode. While at Tuscaloosa he became engaged to Virginia St. Clair Donovan of Birmingham, a very beautiful girl who was the university's female paragon. During the summer of 1925, Beecher attended the Bread Loaf School of English at Middlebury College in Vermont. Here he came under the influence of Robert Frost, Carl Sandburg, Thomas Boyd, Louis Untermeyer and other writers. His first poetry was accepted for publication by John Farrar, who at twenty-two was the editor-in-chief of the Bookman. Another student at Bread Loaf that summer was B. F. Skinner.
Despite pressure to enroll at Harvard from his mother and friends at Harvard who felt that he should prepare himself to teach English as a means of supporting himself as a poet, he chose instead to return to the steel mills as the best of all possible training grounds for a writer. He was severely injured in December, 1925, working on the construction of the Fairfield Sheet Mill of TCI. While he was recuperating in the hospital, his mother finally persuaded him to enter the Harvard Graduate School. Armed at last with a B.A., he enrolled there in January, 1926, as a graduate student of language and literature. Just prior to his returning to Harvard the following fall, he and Virginia St. Clair Donovan were married. That same fall he wrote his novel of undergraduate life at Cornell, "Big Bender." In January, 1927, he received a temporary one-semester appointment as instructor in English at Dartmouth College. At the end of the term he and his wife sailed for Europe where they studied and traveled for six months. He returned to study intensively and write at his old home in Birmingham. Again in the summer of 1928, Beecher and his wife went to Europe, when they both studied at the Sorbonne in Paris. They returned to Birmingham in December. For the next nine months Beecher worked as a statistician and an open hearth metallurgist for TCI. This was his last association with the Birmingham steel mills.
In September, 1929, Beecher became an instructor in English and adviser in Dr. Alexander Meiklejohn's Experimental College at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. He received his M.A. degree in 1930, and remained at Madison until 1933 when he resigned to enter the graduate school of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill with a view to studying sociology. A close friendship with Dr. Meiklejohn and his other colleagues in the Experimental College at Wisconsin had developed his social interests enormously; also, the deepening Depression made the conventional study of literature seem more and more escapist to him. In fact, he had already "played hookey" during the summer of 1932, returning to Birmingham to serve as a volunteer relief worker among the unemployed steel workers and coal miners and finding this experience far more productive of poetry than previous years spent in libraries.
After a year working with Howard W. Odum, Rupert B. Vance, and Guy B. Johnson at Chapel Hill, during which he produced the definitive study of the Sharecroppers' Union of Alabama, a popular movement which had been wiped out with great bloodshed in 1932, Beecher undertook active administrative work with the New Deal. From June, 1934, to June, 1935, he was district administrator of the North Carolina Emergency Relief Administration in Wilmington.. This was followed by a three-month field study of cotton tenancy as state supervisor of rural research for the Mississippi Emergency Relief Administration. In August, 1935, he was appointed regional labor relations adviser and, subsequently, also regional supervisor of family selection for the U. S. Resettlement Administration headed by Rexford G. Tugwell. His region included the southeastern states with headquarters in Montgomery, Alabama. January, 1936, found him as community manager of the Birmingham Suburban Homesteads, Resettlement Administration, later changed to Farm Security Administration, U. S. Department of Agriculture. He served as the organizer and manager of five new experimental communities in the Birmingham industrial area until October, 1938.
The next several months Beecher spent writing a novel, "By Bread Alone," based on his experiences as a relief administrator in North Carolina. He had just finished the first draft when he was called back into service by the Farm Security Administration as regional research supervisor. With three teams of enumerators, he carried out the first study ever made of migrant farm labor in Florida. In June, 1939, when the study was finished, Beecher was appointed state supervisor of the Florida Migratory Labor Program of the Farm Security Administration. In this capacity, he located and managed the first government camps for migrant workers in Florida. He also planned and opened clinics, community centers, and a hospital for migrant workers in the Everglades. In the fall of 1939, he spent several months surveying the government programs dealing with migrant workers in Texas, Arizona, and California. In 1940, he testified on migrant conditions before the U. S. Senate Committee on Civil Liberties and the U. S. House of Representatives Committee on Interstate Migration. His testimony was extensively quoted in the press and in the reports of these committees.
This was the first time that the plight of the Florida migrant workers had received national attention.
In July and August of 1940, Beecher took a leave of absence from his government position in Florida to conduct the English course at the Hudson Shore Labor School, formerly Bryn Mawr School for Workers in Industry, an enterprise to prepare working girls for union leadership, which was sponsored by Mrs. Eleanor Roosevelt. Meanwhile, he had written his first long poem, And I Will Be Heard, which was published that same year by Twice A Year Press, which operated out of Alfred Stieglitz's famous gallery, An American Place, in New York City. The poet, William Carlos Williams, said of Beecher, "This is a man who speaks for the conscience of the people." Time magazine, in reviewing the volume, said, "Beecher is a product, and a proponent of the great, unfinished American Revolution." A second volume of Beecher's poetry followed from Twice A Year Press in 1941. This was a long narrative poem entitled Here I Stand.
Beecher's first professional writing job came in October, 1940, when he became an associate editor and editorial writer for the Birmingham Age-Herald and News. In December, 1941, he returned to government services as senior field representative for the President's Committee on Fair Employment Practice (FEPC) which had just been set up pursuant to an executive order prohibiting discrimination in defense industries. (See Fair Employment Practice Committee Papers issued by the Microfilming Corporation of America in which many of Beecher's reports and records are included.) At the outset, Beecher had responsibility for all the southern states, and was the principal organizer of the FEPC's Birmingham public bearings in June, 1942. In July, he was named regional examiner in charge of the FEPC's New York Office. Gradually convinced that the agency was mere window dressing designed to placate minorities and lacking any real integrity of purpose, Beecher resigned in March, 1943, and wrote a series in the New York Post exposing the inadequacies of the FEPC. He continued as a staff writer for that newspaper in New York and Washington, producing a number of articles on the waste of manpower in the war. He also wrote for the New Republic and other magazines.
In May, 1943, Beecher was given the opportunity of living his convictions and joined the Liberty Ship S.S. Booker T. Washington as an officer. This was the first racially integrated ship to take part in the American war effort. For the next two years he sailed aboard this ship in the North Atlantic and Mediterranean war zones. All Brave Sailors, a book about his experiences, was published in 1945.
In May, 1945, Beecher left his ship for a position with the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA). He served as director of some thirty displaced persons camps around Stuttgart, Germany. He left this position in September. In December of the same year he became chief of the editorial section of the National Institute of Social Relations in Washington. In this capacity he produced discussion guides on current social questions for the institute's adult education program, as well as the League of Woman Voters and the United States Army.
He resigned from his position at the institute in January, 1947, when former Minnesota Governor Elmer Benson asked him to write a popular history of the Farm Labor Movement in that state. He spent almost two years in Minnesota and at the Library of Congress in the preparation of this book, "Tomorrow Is A Day", which remains unpublished.
Beecher was appointed an assistant professor of sociology at San Francisco State College in September, 1948.
In October, 1950, he refused to sign the state loyalty oath required by the just-passed Levering Act on the ground that the oath was unconstitutional. Seventeen years later, the California Supreme Court invalidated the oath on constitutional grounds. In the meantime, Beecher had paid a heavy price for his refusal to conform. For refusing to sign, he was discharged from San Francisco State for "gross unprofessional conduct." It was nine years before he got back into the teaching profession.
In 1951 and 1952 he received a fellowship from the Ford Foundation's Fund for the Advancement of Education to make a study of small farmers in California. Deciding to become a small farmer himself, he purchased the Morning Star Ranch in Sonoma County, north of San Francisco in 1952. Here he raised poultry, sheep, and fruit, and while ranching, continued to write. To provide an outlet for his poetry and that
of other socially-oriented poets, he and his present wife, Barbara, founded the Morning Star Press in 1956. Over the years, their press work received many awards. In 1957, they leased out the Morning Star Ranch and moved their press first to San Francisco and then to Berkeley. They moved once more in 1958 to Jerome, Arizona, renaming their press the Rampart Press. Beecher continued to write and publish his own work, also issuing Morning Star, A Quarto of Poetry. In September, 1959, the Beechers moved the press Scottsdale, where he had received a teaching appointment in the English Department at nearby Arizona State University. In January, 1961, he resigned this position so that he and his wife could take part in the San Francisco/Moscow Walk for Peace being conducted by the Committee for Non-Violent Action. The following year marked Beecher's first major breakthrough as a poet with the publication of his Report to the Stockholders & Other Poems, 1932-1962. First published by the Rampart Press and printed by his wife and himself, the book was immediately reprinted in a large facsimile trade edition by Monthly Review Press of New York City.
In June, 1963, Beecher was selected to be poet in residence at the University of Santa Clara in California. He also served as a principal of the Santa Clara University Writers' Institute during the summers of 1963 and 1964. From July, 1964, until January, 1965, Beecher went on leave from the university to cover the southern civil rights movement as a correspondent for the San Francisco Chronicle and Ramparts magazine. Beecher returned to Santa Clara but his liberal views and highly critical articles were increasingly resented by the university's administration. He resigned in June, and he and his wife moved to New Orleans where he continued to write.
During the academic year, 1966-1967, Beecher once more returned to Birmingham as visiting professor of creative writing at Miles College. While he was at Miles his most popular book of poems, To Live and Die in Dixie, was published, leading to many requests that he give public readings of his poems in all parts of the country. In August, 1967, he and his wife purchased an old house in Newburyport, Massachusetts, which became his headquarters for poetry reading tours.
From September, 1969, to January, 1971, Beecher served as professor of English and poet in residence at North Shore Community College in nearby Beverly, Massachusetts. Also in September, Beecher joined the Arts Program of the Association of American Colleges in New York City as a "campus visitor." Under this program, which was supported by the Danforth Foundations he gave readings of his poetry at colleges and universities all over the country. He also served as poet in residence at St. John's University in Collegeville, Minnesota, during the winter term of 1970.
In February, 1971, Beecher sold his home in Newburyport, and moved to Florida for his health. He continued to give poetry readings on a wide scale. In the fall of 1971, he once more served as a poet in residence at Assumption College in Worcester, Massachusetts. In 1973 he and his wife moved to Durham, North Carolina. As a visiting scholar at Duke University, Beecher is currently working on his autobiography to be published by the Macmillan Co., which will also publish his Collected Poems: 1924-1973 in the spring of 1974.
N.B. Beecher died in 1980.
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