Charles John Olson was born on December 27, 1910, in the central Massachusetts town of Worcester. His mother, Mary Hines, was of Irish immigrant stock; his father, also named Charles, was of Swedish origin. Olson’s giant proportions (fully grown, he was to stand six feet, nine inches) obviously came from his father’s side, the elder Olson having stood well over six feet tall himself, whereas the poet’s mother was barely above five feet tall. Olson’s father worked as a letter carrier, a career the poet was to take up at one point in his life. From 1915 until he left home, Olson spent part of each summer with his family in Gloucester, a small seaport of Massachusetts north of Boston; he would later live there and anchor his Maximus poems in this, to him, “root city.” In 1928, he entered Wesleyan University, being graduated in 1932 and receiving his M.A. there the following year; his thesis, “The Growth of Herman Melville, Prose Writer and Poetic Thinker,” led him to discover hitherto unknown portions of Melville’s library, and this, in turn, led to his paper “Lear and Moby-Dick,” written in the course of his doctoral studies at Harvard and published in Twice-a-Year in 1938. Between 1932 and 1939, Olson supported himself either by grants or by teaching: at Clark University from 1934 to 1936 and at Harvard from 1936 to 1939.
In 1939, awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship, Olson lived with his widowed mother in Gloucester, laying the groundwork for what was to become Call Me Ishmael. In 1940, he moved to New York City, working first as publicity director for the American Civil Liberties Union and then as chief of the Foreign Language Information Service of the Common Council for American Unity. During this period, Olson met and married Constance Wilcock. From 1942 to 1944, Olson served as associate chief of the Foreign Language Division of the Office of War Information, in Washington, D.C., and during Franklin D. Roosevelt’s campaign for a fourth term in 1944, he served on...
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