Born 23 December 1860, Chicago, Illinois; died 26 September 1936, Arequipa, Peru
Daughter of Henry S. and Martha Mitchell Monroe
Poet, editor, and journalist, Harriet Monroe was an influential force in the publication of modern poetry in the U.S. and an important figure in the Chicago Renaissance. Both her parents had moved to the growing city shortly before their marriage in 1855: her father, who became a prominent lawyer, from western New York and her mother from Ohio. Decidedly more erudite and socially ambitious than his beautiful but uneducated wife, Henry Monroe inspired in his daughter a keen interest in literature, painting, music, and the theater; and much of her early education was acquired from reading in his substantial library.
The tensions in her parents' marriage, which increased after 1871 because of her father's business reverses, contributed along with frail health to Monroe's reserved, nervous character as a girl. At the Georgetown Visitation Convent in Washington, D.C. (1877-79), she outgrew her former reticence, forming lifelong friendships with several affluent classmates and discovering the satisfactions of an independent, critical mind. She also blossomed into an aspiring poet.
During the 1880s, involvement in the Fortnightly, a literary women's club, and publication of occasional art and drama reviews provided Monroe entrée into the world of Chicago's writers and journalists, among them Margaret Sullivan and Eugene Field, who became her friends and sponsors. While she had several opportunities to marry, she chose not to. Monroe spent the winter of 1888-89 with her sister, Lucy, in New York as an art, drama, and music correspondent for the Chicago Tribune. At E. C. Stedman's Sunday evenings, she tasted the culture of the New York art and literary scene, meeting such luminaries as W. D. Howells and Joseph Pulitzer. Yet despite her growing knowledge of contemporary art and theater, she considered journalism always second to her poetry and worked during her free time that winter on the verse play Valeria.
On her return to Chicago, she was commissioned by a group of businessmen to write a cantata for the dedication ceremony of Louis Sullivan's new Auditorium in 1889. After a visit to London and northern France in 1890, she established herself as a freelance art and music reviewer and, from 1909 to 1914, worked as art critic for the Tribune. Her most public success as a poet came in 1892: the performance of her "Columbian Ode," a long poem composed (with music for lyric passages by G. W. Chadwick) for the World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago. Valeria, and Other Poems appeared in a private edition in 1891 and a memoir of her brother-in-law, the Chicago architect John Wellborn Root, in 1896.
Monroe traveled extensively in the U.S., Europe, and Asia. On her return from a PEN congress in Buenos Aires in 1936, she traveled to Peru intending to view the Inca ruins at Machu Picchu. During a stop at Arequipa, however, she died and was buried in the Andean village.
Although Monroe's poetry never gained the wide audience and critical notice she hoped for, she continued throughout her life to write occasional verse, competent but largely conventional in sentiment and language. Among her more interesting poems are short lyrics about the deserts and mountains of the American Southwest; longer descriptions of foreign locations she visited—among them Constantinople, Peking, the Parthenon; and a few ironic observations of modern society like "The Hotel."
Monroe's most distinguished and lasting achievement was the founding of Poetry: A Magazine of Verse in October 1912 and editing the monthly for 24 years. In June 1911, at the suggestion of her friend H. C. Chatfield-Taylor, Monroe, then fifty-one, began the arduous task of soliciting subscriptions of $50 a year for five years from 100 Chicago business leaders and professionals to establish a magazine "which shall give the poets a chance to be heard." To develop a public "interested in poetry as art" became her persistent aim.
The circular and personal letter she sent to many poets, established and unknown, discovered through ardent research—and through Elkin Mathews' fortuitous presentation to her in London in 1910 of two of Ezra Pound's early books—drew favorable response to her ambitious venture. It also stimulated a flow of letters from Pound, who became the magazine's unpaid foreign correspondent with the second issue. Along with Alice Corbin Henderson, her associate editor, Pound influenced Monroe to include in Poetry 's early years the writing of Yeats, Lawrence, Frost, William Carlos Williams, his own work, and in 1915, Eliot's "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock."
Ellen Williams locates the great years of Poetry in 1914 and 1915, when Monroe opened the publication to controversy over Imagism, experimental verse, and the poet's relation to his audience. In general, Monroe's preference for democratic and more accessible American poetry led her to espouse Lindsay, Masters, and many lesser poets. But the contribution she made, despite criticism and financial difficulties, in gaining recognition for poets in the U.S., in articulating modern standards in opposition to those of the powerful established outlets, and in calling attention to new writing and ideas in editorials and reviews was invaluable.
The Columbian Ode (1893). John Wellborn Root: A Study of His Life and Work (1896). The Dance of the Seasons (1911). You and I (1914). The Difference, and Other Poems (1924). Poets and Their Art (1926). Chosen Poems: A Selection from My Books of Verse (1935). A Poet's Life: Seventy Years in a Changing World (1938).
Manuscripts, diaries, letters, and personal papers of Harriet Monroe are housed in the Harriet Monroe Collection at the University of Chicago Library.
Cahill, D. J., Harriet Monroe (1973). Duffey, B., The Chicago Renaissance in American Letters (1956). Hoffman, F. J., et al., The Little Magazine (1947). Redle, K. G., Amy Lowell and Harriet Monroe: Their Correspondence (dissertation, 1968). Williams, E., Harriet Monroe and the Poetry Renaissance: The First Ten Years of Poetry, 1912-22 (1977).
DAB. NAW (1971). Oxford Companion to Women's Writing in the United States (1995). TCA.
Illinois Quarterly (1975). Journal of American Studies (April 1986). JML (1976). Poetry (Jan. 1961).
—THEODORA R. GRAHAM