Thomas McGrath was born and reared on a farm near Sheldon, North Dakota, southwest of Fargo. His parents were second-generation Irish homesteaders, and the land they farmed was remote, desolate, and climatically extreme. When roads were impassable and the family’s radios inoperable, Tom’s father recited poems, sang, and told stories to the family. From an early age, McGrath assisted the seasonal crews on their steam threshers and witnessed the lingering Wobbly agitation of that period. In 1939, he graduated from the University of North Dakota with a Rhodes Scholarship. His financial lot throughout undergraduate school, however, had been poor, reducing him at times to life on the streets. (According to one story, he even stole potatoes one night from the garden of a university president.) Such hardships no doubt played their roles in his lifelong commitment to socialist reform and revolution. In 1940, he attended graduate school in English at Louisiana State University, where he studied with Cleanth Brooks and worked with Alan Swallow in the founding of Swallow Press. Throughout graduate school, his interest in the plight of the working class flourished, and upon graduation with his M.A. and after teaching briefly at a college in Maine, he worked as a labor organizer on the New York waterfront in 1942. He served in the U.S. Army during World War II and then finally took advantage of his Rhodes Scholarship by attending the University of Oxford.
Back in the United States, McGrath taught at Los Angeles State College from 1951 to 1953. During this time, he was called before the House of Representatives Committee on Un-American Activities. His subsequent blacklisting resulted in employment problems for many years, and he was forced to take a variety of temporary odd jobs, including work in a wooden-toy factory. He spent time in Greece, Portugal, Great Britain, and South America, and for ten years, he taught at state universities in North Dakota and Minnesota. In 1983, he retired to Minneapolis, Minnesota, where he died in September, 1990.
Thomas McGrath reached the pinnacle of his career only a few years before he died, after having been chosen to give the keynote address in 1987 at the Associated Writing Programs Convention in Chicago. Such honors were unknown to McGrath until late in his life, in spite of his having written poetry since the 1930’s. McGrath never really received the accolades that were due him on the basis of the extended poem Letter to an Imaginary Friend, an influential multivolume work. It was a young editor at Chicago’s Swallow Press named Michael Anania who insisted that the press issue the beginning of McGrath’s epic.
McGrath lived through the Depression and worked for the Works Progress Administration (WPA), a New Deal agency. At one point he was able to work as an essayist, journalist, and screenwriter. Then the communist witch-hunt era of the 1950’s hit, and McGrath was called to speak before the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC). He refused to speak and was censured by the HUAC. He was then blacklisted by the film industry and ultimately by all publishers. The suspicion that he was a communist was leaked out of Washington, effectively ending his career as a writer for decades. Twenty years of his writing life was in effect excised, and McGrath went on to hold a number of jobs, none with any meaning for him. Though McGrath shows strong socialist leanings in his writing, it is doubtful that he was ever a communist.
McGrath started work on Letter to an Imaginary Friend a number of years after the HUAC incident. Not only could he find no publisher for it, but also he could not find magazine editors willing to publish it in sections. The censorship was complete until Swallow Press, realizing that the mood in the country had changed, decided to take a chance on the first part of his book. Meanwhile, at the very end of the 1960’s, the restrictions that had followed McGrath most of his adult life began to lift. Poetry magazine awarded him its Amy Lowell Traveling Fellowship; McGrath also received a Guggenheim Fellowship at this time. George Hitchcock’s small magazine Kayak began to publish large chunks of Letter to an Imaginary Friend irregularly, and McGrath published several small books abroad, all of which almost immediately went out of print.
Letter to an Imaginary Friend is an ambitious work. It contains parts of American history from the colonial period as well as more contemporary views of the West. Written in a largely colloquial style that is reminiscent of William Carlos Williams’s Paterson (1963), the poem has several narrative threads that continue throughout. The HUAC hearings and their aftermath are examined, and McGrath includes a lyrical winter scene that might be compared to his life after HUAC. Included are views of myth and the creation of new myth.
McGrath also experimented with different forms, as in his Letters to Tomasito, his son. The poems in Letters to Tomasito are spare and lyrical, not narrative at all. Many of the poems in Death Song (McGrath knew he was seriously ill at least three years before he died) resemble the poems to his son. McGrath knew he was writing his last work, and many of the poems consist of single quatrains. These poems are lyrical, but they also take on a narrative push, as if McGrath had some final things he needed to say to those he knew.