MacLeish in the 30’s

It cannot be purely accidental that the celebration of the common man became a focus of the arts during The Great Depression. American artists, perhaps in an attempt to discover what had gone worng, began to look back to discover what had made America great. Or, perhaps in their own poverty they began to identify with those that had come here with nothing and had made America great.

Painters like Thomas Hart Benton celebrated the common man, and particularly laborers, in his paintings. Carl Sandburg, long known for his Whitmanesque celebration of the common man, continued his celebration of the common man with The People, Yes. Poem “Number 99”, which begins “The man in the street is fed/ with lies in peace, gas in war,/and he may live now/just around the corner from you/ trying to sell/the only thing he has to sell,/the power of his hand and brain/ to labor for wages, for pay,/ for cash of the realm/ And there are no takers, he can’t connect,” reminds me alot of many of the poems Archibald MacLeish was writing during the 30’s.

“Nat Bacon’s Bones” is a near-revolutionary poem that celebrates the rebellion of the downtrodden in America:

Nat Bacon’s Bones

Nat Bacon’s Bones
They never found,
Nat Bacon’s grave
Is wilderground:
Nat Bacon’s tongue
Doth sound! Doth sound!

The rich and proud
Deny his name,
The rich and proud
Defile his fame:
The proud and free
Cry shame! Cry shame!

The planter’s wife
She boasts so grand
Sir William’s blood
Makes white her hand:
Nat Bacon’s blood
Makes sweet this land.

For those of you who, like myself, have forgotten, or never been taught who Nat Bacon was, in “1676 a group of free blacks, slaves, indentured servants and poor white farmers, led by Nat Bacon, rebelled and burned down the property of the wealthiest white farmers.” MacLeish’s celebration of this act in many ways seems reminiscent of John Steinbeck’s implied warning to society conveyed by The Grapes of Wrath. In a world where the rich get richer and the poor get poorer, such revolution seems inevitable. In America we like to feel that “democracy,” because it gives everyone an “equal opportunity,” is immune to such revolutions, but I suspect that a closer reading of the history or the 20’s and 30’s would suggest otherwise and that our entry into World War II was fortuitous in more ways than one for those who owned American industry.

I’m particularly fond of the last stanza as it reminds me of the current fad among many to trace their heritage back to “God knows where,” almost inevitably ending with the person discovering they’re related to “Good King Wenceslas,” in turn, allowing them to take great pride in their noble heritage. Like MacLeish, though, I think it’s our attempts, failed or not, to bring freedom and equality to the land that are important, not suspect connections to a failed nobility.

“Burying Ground By The Ties” is not exactly a revolutionary poem, but it does pay tribute to those looked down upon and taken advantage of who constructed the railroad that has since served as the spine of the national economy. In particular, he pays homage to those who died and were buried beside the track, the track itself serving as their memorial:

Burying Ground By The Ties

Ayee! Ai! This is heavy earth on our shoulders:
There were none of us born to be buried in this earth:
Niggers we were, Portuguese, Magyars, Polacks:

We were born to another look of the sky certainly.
Now we lie here in the river pastures:
We lie in the mowings under the thick turf:

We hear the earth and the all-day rasp of the grasshoppers.
It was we laid the steel to this land from ocean to ocean:
It was we (if you know) put the U. P. through the passes

Bringing her down into Laramie full load,
Eighteen mile on the granite anticlinal,
Forty-three foot to the mile and the grade holding:

It was we did it: hunkies of our kind.
It was we dug the caved-in holes for the cold water:
It was we built the gully spurs and the freight sidings:

Who would do it but we and the Irishmen bossing us?
It was all foreign-born men there were in this country:
It was Scotsmen, Englishmen, Chinese, Squareheads, Austrians

Ayee! but there’s weight to the earth under it.
Not for this did we come out – to be lying here
Nameless under the ties in the clay cuts:

There’s nothing good in the world but the rich will buy it:
Everything sticks to the grease of a gold note-
Even a continent – even a new sky!

Do not pity us much for the strange grass over us:
We laid the steel to the stone stock of these mountains:
The place of our graves is marked by the telegraph poles!

It was not to lie in the bottoms we came out
And the trains going over us here in the dry hollows .

Although the use of racially-charged names like “niggers” and “Polacks” seems shocking at first, by beginning here MacLeish provides a startling contrast between the way this workers were regarded and treated and the service they rendered our nation. Of course, it’s only when we realize most of these people were born in another land that we can truly understand how they were both taken advantage of and what sacrifices they made in an attempt to find a new life in this “land of opportunity.”

They were so “disposable” to those in charge that they were buried in nameless graves beside, or even under, the track. Ironically, they are the “good” in the line, “There’s nothing good in the world but the rich will buy it,” bought and paid for in miserly wages often sent back to the old country to support a family or saved in an attempt to bring them here. The wheels of progress are “greased” by the gold notes of the rich.

Those who really conquered the West, the immigrants who built the railroad, are often forgotten while Stanford became famous and lives on in history as the founder of a wonderous institution. In some ways the poem, particularly since it appears right after “Conquistador,” suggests some strong parallels to the nameless Spanish Conquistadors who died to make Cortés famous. Ironically, perhaps, the nameless graves of the many workers who died conquerng the continent are marked by the tallest crosses of all, the telephone poles that follow the railroad right away.

One thought on “MacLeish in the 30’s”

  1. Hi! My name is Viridiana Rizo I am a student from Ananly High school and i have an asingment to look for a surten poem and i saw the ones that are obove and i liked them olot i also like how you wrorks on the page it was really good. thanks for taking your time

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