Biography

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Although Frederic Ogden Nash was probably the most popular, best-selling writer of verse in the twentieth century United States, he received little serious critical attention because he limited himself to light, particularly comic, verse. In the course of four decades, Nash wrote thirty volumes of verse, not counting his poetry for children, and several volumes were published after his death. He began writing poetry for The New Yorker magazine when, under editor Harold Ross, it was establishing its reputation for urbane, sophisticated literary wit—a reputation Nash helped to create.

Though born in Rye, New York, in 1902, Nash’s family moved back and forth between Rye and Savannah, Georgia, the sites of the two offices of his father’s naval stores business. Nash attended various schools and was for a while educated at home by his mother because of a deterioration in his eyesight. At age fifteen he was sent to St. George’s boarding school in Newport, Rhode Island, and matriculated to Harvard University in 1920, though he left after his freshman year.

Family connections secured for Nash entry-level jobs on Wall Street, which he hated. The only writing job he could find was producing advertising copy for streetcar signs. When he and his friend published a children’s book in 1925, the publisher, Doubleday, asked him to work in their advertising department. While at Doubleday, Nash began selling poems to Harold Ross at The New Yorker, who lured him away from Doubleday to be managing editor of the magazine—a job that lasted only three months.

Though the Great Depression caused by the stock market crash of 1929 eroded Nash’s salary, he was more fortunate than most Americans in continuing to work in his chosen field. His magazine verses were so popular that in 1931 Simon and Schuster, a major New York publisher, asked him to collect them into a book. The result, Hard Lines, sold forty thousand copies the first year, which, for a book of verse, is best-seller status. Confident in this success, Nash married Frances Rider Leonard on June 6, 1931.

In 1933 a rival weekly magazine, The Saturday Evening Post, offered Nash a contract for twenty-six poems a year, which gave him enough stability to quit his publishing jobs and write verse full time. Nash was incredibly prolific, penning and selling 157 poems in 1935 alone. That year he took his family to Hollywood, where he was contracted to write for films, an experience he detested.

In 1942, with the United States entering World War II, Nash found it harder to write light verse. Just then German composer Kurt Weill, who had come to the United States to escape the Nazis, asked Nash to collaborate with him on a Broadway musical, One Touch of Venus. The musical, with Nash’s lyrics, was a big success, and opened many doors for him.

After the war Nash became popular on the lecture circuit, reading his poems and doing a running monologue on popular topics of the day. This non-literary persona as a wit appealed to the new medium of television, and between 1953 and 1957 Nash was a regular panelist on the game show Masquerade Party. During the same period Nash discovered that the stories in verse with which he entertained his two daughters had commercial appeal, and he began a second career as a children’s author. His eldest daughter, Linnell, illustrated many of these children’s books, launching her own career as an author and illustrator.

If Nash was twentieth century America’s master of light verse, Edward Lear held that distinction for nineteenth century England. In 1968...

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Nash encountered Lear’s unfinished children’s poem,The Scroobius Pip, and finished it by writing only a little more than two lines. Still publishing new poetry at the same pace with which he began, Nash died of heart failure following a stomach operation on May 19, 1971. On August 19, 2002, Nash’s one-hundredth birthday, the U.S. Postal Service issued a commemorative stamp with the poet’s portrait on it.

Nash’s style, both in his children’s books and his poetry for adults, begins with a delight in language. His techniques draw attention to the rhyme but in ways that subvert conventions rather than cater to them. Most light verse in English takes advantage of “feminine” or multisyllable rhyme, and Nash’s is no exception. He often achieves such rhymes by deliberately misspelling or mispronouncing another word, such as spelling and pronouncing “diapers” as “diopes” to rhyme with “calliopes.” A second technique of Nash’s works against the tendency of light verse to seek a short line (usually tetrameter) so as to draw attention to the rhyme. He plants the rhyming word in a very short line, then draws the next one on to absurd lengths before dropping its rhyming fellow. As Nash’s more astute critics have often observed, his cleverness with rhyme expresses an equivalent intelligence of observation, making him one of the most insightful commentators on twentieth century American life.

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