Edgar A. Guest

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Edgar A. Guest’s prose works resulted largely from his readers’ demands for information about his personal life. Thus, what he did produce in that genre tended to be heavily autobiographical and included such titles as Making a House a Home (1922), My Job as a Father (1923), and What My Religion Means to Me (1925). His autobiography, Between You and Me, appeared in 1938.

Achievements

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Although Princeton University undergraduates once voted Edgar A. Guest the world’s worst poet, and the “serious” writers and readers of American poetry disdained to pay even the slightest attention to his work or even to utter his name—“I’d rather flunk my Wasserman test/ Than read a poem by Edgar A. Guest,” complained a couplet supposedly contrived by Dorothy Parker—the transplanted poet-journalist from Birmingham, England, laughed at his critics all the way to the bank. With the Detroit Free Press as his launching pad, he saw, at the height of his popularity, his poems syndicated in approximately three hundred newspapers, his bound volumes of verse bought by almost three million people, and his personal income estimated at between $128,000 and $135,000 a year. His 1916 volume, A Heap o’ Livin’, alone went through thirty-five printings and sold more than one million copies—fifty thousand of those in the first year. Henry Ford and William Lyons Phelps were among his close friends and admirers; he owned a large, colonnaded winter home in Detroit (complete with electronic gadgets, such as a garage-door opener, that did not become fashionable until some fifteen years after his death) and maintained a summer residence in Pointe aux Barques. With all his personal, professional, and financial success, Guest never once claimed the title of poet. “I am a newspaper man who writes verse,” he maintained; and the almost fifteen thousand separate pieces of carefully proportioned verse spanning a period of more than forty-three years amply bear him out.

Guest founded and established his own back-country island on the editorial pages of America’s urban newspapers. He firmly declared a commonwealth for “jes’ plain folkes”: housekeepers, farmers, doctors, factory workers, and youngsters. He gave to that island-state a constitution based upon friends and friendships; God, faith, and public worship; and even his own immediate family—a wife and children representative of middle America. The verse that appeared in newspapers throughout the country extolled the virtues of sitting on the back or front porch, bearing and rearing children, washing tablecloths, owning wood-burning stoves and wooden tubs, making sausages, and eating lemon and (especially) raisin pies. Rarely did Guest pay any attention to the negative aspects of daily existence—not that he thought crime or evil to be mere figments of the imagination; he simply refused to acknowledge their presence or their attempts to defeat the American way of life. Thus, death, for him, became “God’s great slumber grove” or a “golden afterwhile.” Guest saw no future for people to sit idly by, “in a dreary state,” “growlin’ that your luck is bad,/ An’ that your life is extry sad. . . .”

More clearly than any of his critics, Guest knew his own limitations; he knew what he wanted to accomplish as a journalist and a writer of verse. Indeed, he once summarized that purpose with a typical example of “Eddie” Guest oversimplification: “I do the same kind of jingles as James Whitcomb Riley used to write. All he tried to be was sincere.” No one could have doubted Guest’s sincerity as he read his own verse on the radio and television, weeping with the sentiments that his lines actually aroused in him. Guest achieved popularity (as well as financial success) because...

(This entire section contains 575 words.)

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millions of Americans recognized his sincerity and shared his emotions. A newspaperman who wrote verse, Guest became an American phenomenon—a writer who truly represented every person about and for whom he wrote.

Bibliography

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“Heap o’ Rhymin.’” Time 57 (March 19, 1951): 85-86. This is a portrait penned by an anonymous Time staff writer describing the poet and summarizing his career on the occasion of his seventieth birthday.

Howes, Royce. Edgar A. Guest: A Biography. Chicago: Reilly & Lee, 1953. A biography of the popular poet by his friend and editor at the Detroit Free Press.

“Into God’s Slumber Grove.” Time 74 (August 17, 1959): 72-73. This obituary efficiently summarizes Guest’s life and career. Though reviled by academics and fellow poets, Guest was incredibly popular in his lifetime. Time recalls how Guest’s homespun poetry cheered American troops in both World War I and World War II.

McEvoy, J. P. “Sunny Boy.” The Saturday Evening Post 210 (April 30, 1938): 8-9. This is an old source, but a valuable one, as it provides a view of Guest earlier in his career. He considered himself a newspaper reporter, and McEvoy describes how his column in the Detroit Free Press in 1904 titled “Chaff” evolved into his widely syndicated “Edgar A. Guest’s Breakfast Table Chat” column. McEvoy points out that Guest’s A Heap o’ Livin’ sold more than one million copies when it came out in 1916.

Pinsky, Robert. “Poet’s Choice.” The Washington Post, June 11, 2006, p. T12. Poet Pinsky, in his column, examines Guest’s “Home” and contrasts it with Marianne Moore’s “Silence.” He likens Guest’s popular verse to the lyrics of twenty-first century popular songs.

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