William Vaughn Moody Critical Essays


(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

William Vaughn Moody 1869-1910

(Full name William Vaughn Stoy Moody) American poet and dramatist.

Moody was a well-known American poet and dramatist at the beginning of the twentieth century whose reputation declined considerably as literary innovators turned away from the traditional forms in which he wrote. In his poetry Moody relied on such nineteenth-century conventions as strict metrics, classical symbolism, and inflated diction. Though derivative as a poet, Moody is seen as a transitional figure in American drama. In particular, his successful prose drama A Sabine Woman (1906; revised as The Great Divide, 1909) with its contemporary setting and colloquial speech, is seen to advance realistic drama in the United States and to point the way to such figures as Eugene O'Neill in the succeeding decades.

Biographical Information

Moody was born in Spencer, Indiana, and grew up in New Albany, across the Ohio River from Louisville, Kentucky. His father, a native New Yorker, had been a steamboat captain and entrepreneur before taking a position in an iron works owned by his wife's family. In the mid-1880s Moody suffered the deaths of both his parents and an older sister; in the midst of these losses he graduated first in his high school class and began teaching school in rural Indiana to save money to attend college in the East. In 1897 he moved to Poughkeepsie, New York, where he served as a tutor to a wealthy family and attended a preparatory academy. He entered Harvard College in 1889. At Harvard, Moody associated with a group of writers that included Robert Morss Lovett, Hugh McCullough, and Philip Henry Savage, and came under the influence of prevailing intellects among the faculty including George Santayana and William James. He contributed poems to the Harvard Advocate and served on the editorial board of the Harvard Monthly. After completing his degree requirements in 1892, Moody spent a year abroad as a tutor. He was awarded a bachelor's degree in 1893 and completed a master's degree in 1894. After teaching at Harvard for a year, Moody became an English instructor at the University of Chicago in 1895. However, Moody did not find teaching an altogether congenial occupation and preferred to spend time on such pursuits as writing and editing. During the late 1890s he submitted poetry to periodicals including Scribner's and Atlantic Monthly and edited works by John Bunyan, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Sir Walter Scott, John Milton, and Alexander Pope. His first book, the verse drama The Masque of Judgment, was published in 1900 with Poems following in 1901. The success of his A History of English Literature (1902), cowritten with Morss Lovett, allowed Moody a measure of financial security. After 1903 he stopped teaching but remained associated with the University of Chicago until 1908. In 1909 he married Harriet Brainard, whom he had met in 1901. Shortly after his marriage, Moody began to lose his sight and learned that he had a brain tumor. He died in Colorado Springs, Colorado, in October 1910.

Major Works

Moody's career may be divided into two distinct phases, with the early part of his career devoted to poetry and the second part devoted to drama. Published in Poems and reissued as Gloucester Moors, and Other Poems (1909), Moody's verse is written largely in traditional European forms and employs mythical symbolism. Among the best known of his short works are “The Daguerreotype,” an elegy inspired by a portrait of his mother at age 17 in which Moody contrasts her youthful expectations of life with the reality of her adulthood and death. “On a Soldier Dying in the Philippines” comprises a criticism of U.S. foreign policy as does “An Ode in Time of Hesitation,” inspired by the monument on Boston Common to Colonel Robert Gould Shaw, the leader of the first African American regiment to fight in the American Civil War.

Moody was the author of five plays: a poetic trilogy that includes The Fire-Bringer (1904), The Masque of Judgment, and the unfinished Death of Eve, and the prose plays The Great Divide and The Faith Healer (1909). The earliest of his published dramas, The Masque of Judgment, depicts humanity in conflict with God and ends with the human spirit prevailing in the destruction of heaven. The second of Moody's verse dramas, The Fire-Bringer, presents a verse interpretation of the legend of Prometheus and advocates the necessity of human conflict with God. In the planned conclusion of the trilogy, The Death of Eve, the reconciliation of God and man would be achieved through Eve. While none of Moody's verse dramas has been produced on stage, the final two installments in particular retain critical interest and give evidence of Moody's aspirations for reviving the verse drama in contemporary theater.

In April 1906 Moody's prose drama A Sabine Woman premiered in Chicago; after the play was revised and retitled, it debuted to great success on Broadway as The Great Divide six months later. The “divide” of the play's title refers to the cultural dichotomy in America between the Puritanical, subdued, cultured East and the carefree, democratic, unsophisticated West. The plot centers on an eastern woman who on a trip West is saved from sexual assault by a miner who pays off her attackers with a string of gold nuggets. Attracted to her benefactor, she agrees to marry him, but their union is clouded by the knowledge that she was purchased with gold. She earns the money to buy back the string of gold, gives it to her husband, and returns East. The final act of the play takes place in the East where the couple is reunited, and the wife voices her rejection of eastern society in favor of the West. Viewed as a departure from typical melodramas of the era, The Great Divide is valued for its realism, its simple prose, and its modern American setting.

Moody's final work, The Faith Healer (1909), treats the conflict between human physical and spiritual needs. Closed within a week of its New York debut in 1910, The Faith Healer features a miracle-working protagonist who faces opposition from both organized religion and scientific medicine.

Critical Reception

During his lifetime Moody was hailed as a poet and playwright of high literary ideals and achievement. Reviewing Moody's debut works in 1901, Dial commentator William Morton Payne noted that “no other new poet of the past score of years, either in America or in England, has displayed a finer promise upon the occasion of his first appearance, or has been deserving of more respectful consideration.” During the first decade of the twentieth century, Moody gained prominence and influence with his series of poetic and prose dramas. According to a 1906 review of The Great Divide by critic John Corbin: “To say that it is the best product of the American drama thus far would doubtless be extravagant; yet the fact remains that it is inspired by precisely that fulness and wholesomeness of feeling, and is accomplished with precisely that technical firmness, the lack of which has thus far proved the cardinal defects of our most vivacious and amusing playwrights.” However, with such advancements as the realistic dramas of Eugene O'Neill and the rise of experimentalism associated with the Modernist movement, Moody's reputation declined after the mid-1920s. In an overview of Moody's work published in 1931, F. O. Matthiessen defined Moody's lack of appeal to the younger generation of American writers: “No one could have been more earnest in his desire to be a poet …. But he never found quite an authentic voice of his own. He was so striving in his effort to create that it left a pale cast of heavy deliberateness over nearly all of his lines, so self-conscious in his determination to be a poet that it almost incapacitated him for writing poetry. In fact, his kind of eclectic reliance upon the past and absorption in its ways of expression became finally so oppressive that it was the very thing which caused the violent break of our contemporary poetry away from nineteenth-century literary tradition.” Moody's reputation was never revived. To later observers he seemed the culminating figure of a formal tradition in poetry that proved insufficient to treat the emerging themes in twentieth-century literature, including the brutality of modern warfare and the alienation of the individual in modern society.