As we enter a new era of civic discourse—one governed by 140-character-limits, “air quotes,” and alt facts—and as we encounter an administration intent on destroying the National Endowment for the Humanities and the National Endowment for the Arts, it is helpful to reflect on a time that faced similar social and economical struggles (accompanied by rapid technological advances) and met them with a combination of artistic, scientific, and imaginative might.
On October 18, 1950, Socialist troubadour, Abraham Lincoln biographer, and Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Carl Sandburg read at Harvard University under the auspices of the Morris Gray Reading series. He was likely invited by Department of English faculty member Archibald MacLeish. Long-time friends Sandburg and MacLeish shared in being “critical of writers who [had] remained detached from the national emergency of World War Two.” True to his convictions, Sandburg states (in his opening remarks) that “a writer’s silence on living issues can in itself constitute a propaganda of conduct leading toward the deterioration or death of freedom” and—in a palpable hit at Harvard—he urged the students to remember that “men of ideas vanish first, when freedom vanishes….”
The primary questions I asked her related to the mid-century history of the Poetry Room and its then curator John Lincoln Sweeney. The stories that emerged included a much wider sphere of intersecting lives and poetries than I had heretofore imagined, among them: Adrienne Rich, Marianne Moore, Edith Sitwell, Fanny and Susan Howe, Edwin Honig, Robert Lowell, Dudley Fitts, Robert Fitzgerald, Sylvia Plath, and many more.