Who was John Gould Fletcher, and what did he contribute to American literature?

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Karyth Cara eNotes educator| Certified Educator

John Gould Fletcher (1886–1950) was an American writer who notably spent much of his life in England and whose papers, contributed to the University of Arkansas, contain revealing manuscript drafts and prodigious correspondence from 1889 to 1950. John Gould Fletcher, therefore is one author about whom the world knows a great deal. 

Born into a wealthy Southern family and growing up in the mansion of Confederate officer and writer, Albert Pike, Fletcher lived in picturesque luxury, studied at Harvard, then traveled in Europe to experience European culture first-hand. He lived in Europe, mostly London, for more than twenty years and was acquainted with such notables of his age as T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound, with whom he shared an interest in Symbolism. In America, to which he made occasional visits, he associated with Amy Lowell and Conrad Aiken. Principally a poet, his collected works include essays and short stories to complement the poems and letters. Fletcher associated himself strongly with the Imagist movement in poetry along with Lowell, who originated the school. Imagism carried the "ordinary language" championed by Wordsworth during the earlier Romantic period further by advocating concise language with minimal words, concrete rather than symbolic treatment of the subject, avoidance of traditional poetic language altogether, visual emphasis to content, visions of stark reality, and non-traditional rhyme schemes.

did not favor a maximum of visual content but felt that poetic style should be an attempt to develop the musical quality of literature ... while the early imagists focused on concrete objects and small pieces of reality, Fletcher tried to bring out the underlying essence of the scene .... (Edmund de Chasca, John Gould Fletcher and Imagism qtd on Poetry Foundation)

Fletcher allied himself with the "Fugitive" movement with which Amy Lowell was also associated. Fugitives were poets with Southern sentiments who were dedicated to reviving the South's agrarian (agricultural) lifestyle and the Old South's code of values. During this time, Fletcher put aside striving for technical innovation in his poetry and focused on themes, poetizing themes he had never touched on before. During Fletcher's European and London years, he had been mesmerized by Stravinsky's Rite of Spring, performed in Paris in 1913. Inspired then to take a new approach to poetry, he worked to catch in poetic words the ecstasies produced by Stravinsky's music. After leaving London to return to Arkansas in 1933 after a disastrous marriage,

After leaving London to return to Arkansas in 1933 after a disastrous marriage, Fletcher was lauded as a poet laureate and granted an honorary doctorate from the University of Arkansas. His second marriage to children's books writer Charlie May Hogue Simon was a lifelong success. Fletcher's writing thus took several turns during his colorful career having traversed such changes as symbolic expression, emotional expression, to American historical themes, minimal expression in concise Imagist fashion, and thematic expression. During his Arkansas phase, Fletcher turned to regionalism, writing poetry with the flavor of his home in the South. After the appearance in 1937 of his autobiography, Life Is My Song, he was awarded the 1938 Pulitzer Prize for his collection Selected Poems. A continued antipathy toward the industrialized, mechanized world that was continuing to absorb the agrarian life he loved grew stronger during his latter years and eventually came to consume him.

His contribution to American literature is generally recognized as an awakening to poetic innovation that evidenced idiosyncratic aesthetics while evidencing a simultaneous connectedness to prevalent literary trends, a contribution attested to by his various phases. He is also noted with bringing a European cosmopolitan sensibility to regional poetry of the South. Perhaps his most popular contribution is the musicality and symphonic largess that he sought to infuse his poems with, an idiosyncrasy of aesthetic that added beauty to an age during which musical beauty of expression was not an integral component of prevalent poetry trends.