Encyclopedia of the Great Plains

David J. Wishart, Editor

MCGRATH, TOM (1916-1990)

Perhaps America's most talented political poet, Thomas Matthew McGrath was a man dedicated to protest. Born (on November 20, 1916) and raised on a farm near the tiny Plains town of Sheldon, North Dakota, he returned there through his poetry to relate the simple struggles of his boyhood in the 1920s. The family farm fell into the hands of bankers in the Great Depression. It is such hardships, as well as joys, that he captures in his poems, especially his best and longest, the semi-autobiographical Letter to an Imaginary Friend (published in four parts from 1962 to 1985 and as a combined definitive edition in 1997).

McGrath's father was influenced by the Wobblies and was a storyteller who read poems and sang to his son on the farm. Tom grew up respecting the workingman, and the rhythms and images of the threshing machine influenced his poetry. As a young adult he rode the rails, and in the early 1940s he worked as a welder and union organizer in the New York shipyards. He still found time to earn his bachelor of arts degree from the University of North Dakota in 1939 and his master of arts from Louisiana State University a year later. He received a Rhodes scholarship to study at Oxford, but delayed it until after World War II, during which he served reluctantly in the Aleutian Islands. In 1954 McGrath was ousted from a teaching job at Los Angeles State College of Applied Arts and Sciences for his radical views and his refusal to testify before the House Committee on Un-American Activities.

Following a year in New York, where he wrote what he called "junk fiction," McGrath returned to teach writing at North Dakota State University in Fargo in 1962, and after that, at Moorhead State University in Moorhead, Minnesota, from 1968 to 1982. However, he often took leaves to travel in Europe and Mexico, and he published prolifically. His poetry has been described as a Whitmanesque song about America, though unlike Whitman, he candidly attacks the country's racism, classism, and sectionalism. McGrath was a Marxist, but his communism functioned as a vehicle for his art, a framework within which he could build and render his vision of life. Like Crazy Horse, whom he championed, he was an outsider, rooted in the Plains and a defender of the people.

McGrath received many honors for his poetry, including an American Book Award for Echoes inside the Labyrinth in 1983, but his frank, outspoken political views probably prevented him from receiving the recognition he deserved as a great American poet. Tom McGrath died in Minneapolis on September 19, 1990.

Tom Matchie North Dakota State University

McGrath, Tom. Letter to an Imaginary Friend. Port Townsend WA: Copper Canyon Press, 1997.

Stern, Frederick C. The Revolutionary Poet in the United States: The Poetry of Thomas McGrath. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1988.

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