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Monroe, Harriet
by Solomon, Susan

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Harriet Monroe (1860-1936)

Monroe was the founder and first editor of Poetry magazine from 1912 until her sudden death in 1936. With the exception of her schooling at Georgetown Visitation Convent in Washington D.C. and her travels abroad, Harriet Monroe spent her life in the city of her birth, Chicago. Her father, Henry S. Monroe, was a prominent lawyer; Harriet asked his friends (after his death) to sign the list of Poetry’s guarantors, thereby supplying the money necessary to get the magazine off the ground.

Monroe began writing poetry as a student in D.C., but only had her first poem published, in Century magazine, in 1888. A few years later she attracted attention as a poet when she was commissioned to write a 2,000-word ode for the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. The idea of an official piece of verse commemorating the event was her own idea, which she proposed to the committee. She insisted that the poet was as much of a community figure as the sculptor, musical composer, or architect (whose works were sure to be commissioned for the event). Monroe continued to defend the rights of the poet when the New York World reprinted her ode without her permission. She and her father brought the paper to court on copyright infringement charges, won, and used the money to travel around the world. In addition to writing verse, Monroe worked as a lecturer, teacher, and freelance journalist. She contributed to the Chicago Tribune, Chicago Times Herald, New York Sun, Leslie’s Weekly, Atlantic, Chicago America, and Chicago Evening Post before turning full-time to editing Poetry.

The founding of Poetry was Monroe's response to the general unwillingness of literary and popular magazine editors to print poetry, along with her disappointment at finding few outlets and meager compensation for her own poetry. In the April 1912 publicity circular for the magazine, she wrote, “as a modest attempt to change conditions absolutely destructive to the most necessary and universal of the arts, it is proposed to publish a small monthly magazine of verse, which shall give the poets a chance to be heard, as our exhibitions give artists a chance to be seen” (qtd. in Williams 15).

Monroe's influence on the poetry published in the magazine was considerable, despite her “Open Door” policy. Correspondences reveal that she held little back in her commentary and often required changes before publication. Ellen Williams shows how Monroe’s editorial suggestions were incorporated into the revisions of William Carlos Williams’ poems “Immortal” and “Peace on Earth,” for example. At the same time, her inclusive editorial policy reveals the diversity of poetic movements and poets during that period―“cowboy poets,” “child poets,” translations of poetry from Europe, China, and India, Ezra Pound, T. S. Eliot, Edna Saint Vincent Millay, John Reed, Robert Frost, and W. B. Yeats were all published by the magazine. Situated in the heart of the country, Poetry under Harriet Monroe printed, side by side, verse from high modernism and low, verse from around the world, verse from unknowns and from poets still celebrated today.

As evidenced everywhere in the pages of Poetry, Monroe was also a poet and prolific critic. She published nine volumes of verse, plays, criticism, biography, and autobiography.

—Susan Solomon

Works Cited and Sources for Further Reading

  • Kramer, Dale. Chicago Renaissance: The Literary Life in the Midwest, 1900-1930. New York: Appleton-Century, 1966.
  • Marek, Jane E. Women Editing Modernism: “Little” Magazines and Literary History. Lexington: UP of Kentucky, 1995.
  • Williams, Ellen. Harriet Monroe and the Poetry Renaissance: The First Ten Years of Poetry , 1912-22. Chicago: U of Illinois P, 1976.
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