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.
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