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MacDonald, Jessica N.

MacDONALD, Jessica N.

Born 7 September 1891, Madison, Wisconsin; died 3 June 1988

Wrote under: Jessica Nelson North

Daughter of David Willard and Elizabeth Nelson North; married R. I. MacDonald, 1921

Early in life, Jessica N. MacDonald showed signs of the literary potential that would bring her recognition as poet, novelist, critic, and editor. A precocious child, she memorized and recited poetry from the time she could speak. By the age of five, she read the newspaper and composed rhymes. In her youth MacDonald competed successfully with other young poets, including Edna St. Vincent Millay, in the contests conducted by Mary Mapes Dodge, editor of St. Nicholas Magazine.

MacDonald discovered Poetry Magazine while a student at Lawrence College, from which she was graduated in 1917. When MacDonald moved to Chicago in 1920, she began to contribute poems to Poetry; through the next few decades, she placed poems in such magazines as the Dial, the Forge, Atlantic Monthly, the London Mercury, Double-Dealer, Nation, New Yorker, Voices, Lyric, and the Saturday Evening Post. In 1927 she was awarded the Reed Poetry prize.

MacDonald's best poetry is finely crafted, and even the weakest shows inventiveness. Her first volume, A Prayer Rug (1923), while evincing control of traditional techniques and forms, reveals modernist influences. As Elizabeth Tietjens pointed out, MacDonald creates images with the best of her peers, but knows that "a single image is not enough to make a poem." MacDonald treats a wide range of everyday topics, and a number of the poems shed light on the complexity of woman's role in society. Her calm ironic voice registers clearly in such poems as "Hunger Inn," "The Marionette," and "The Sleeper."

The poems in The Long Leash (1928) demonstrate MacDonald's growth as a poet. The volume exhibits what Horace Gregory calls her "technique of restraint." The selections focus on the power of the creative woman to capture and examine intensely dramatic male-female relationships. The title poem, considered one of her best, treats the confidence with which reciprocated love enables the creative woman to face life's realities and fulfill her artistic potential. "A Sumerian Cycle" and "Hibernalia" illustrate the breathless emotion MacDonald is capable of producing through understatement. MacDonald succeeds best in the longer poems, where she develops and multiplies dramatic scenes.

MacDonald's artistic control and keen sensibility appear again in Dinner Party (1942), although this volume seems to lack the modernity of her other poetry of that period.

Although MacDonald is primarily a poet, she has also produced two successful novels: Arden Acres (1935) and Morning in the Land (1941). Arden Acres draws upon her observations of life in a suburban area outside Chicago during the Depression years. The narrator depicts the lives of the Chapin family, plagued by poverty and shocked by the father's murder. Although the emotional impact of the novel is effective, its real strength lies in the characterization of women from three generations—Gram, Loretta, and Joan—each of whom demonstrates unusual resilience and aptitude for survival.

Morning in the Land, based on the recollections of MacDonald's father, is a fictional account of an English immigrant family in Wisconsin between 1840 and 1861, when the son is about to leave for service in the Civil War. The novel centers on the frontier achievements of the protagonist, Dick Wentworth, but it also calls attention to the difficulties both Native American and white women endured within the male-oriented social structure.

Throughout the period in which her prose and poetry were being published, MacDonald also gained a reputation as editor and critic. She began by editing the Chicago Art Institute Bulletin under the direction of Robert Harshe. Learning on the job, MacDonald prepared catalogues for exhibits and published many articles describing various holdings of the institute. In 1927, she moved to Poetry, where over the next twenty years, under the leadership of Harriet Monroe, she helped make Poetry the showcase for the best young American and British authors. MacDonald filled various editorial posts and, in later years, served as a member of the advisory committee. During this period she wrote 21 articles and fifty book reviews. Her contributions ranged from caustically critical pieces such as "The Wrong-Headed Poets," "The Hungry Generations," and "Quality in Madness," to the gently appreciative tribute commemorating the death of Harriet Monroe. In her criticism, as in her poetry, MacDonald displays a sharp eye for honesty of emotion and perfection of form.


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