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McGinley, Phyllis (1905–1978)

McGinley, Phyllis (1905–1978)

Pulitzer Prize-winning poet, author of children's books, and essayist . Born Phyllis McGinley on March 21, 1905, in Ontario, Oregon; died of a stroke on February 22, 1978, in New York City; daughter of Daniel McGinley (a land speculator) and Julia Kiesel McGinley; graduated from the University of Utah, 1927; married Charles L. Hayden, in 1937; children: Julia Elizabeth Hayden (b. 1939); Phyllis Louise "Patsy" Hayden (b. 1941).

Before marriage taught school and worked in publishing; published first book of poetry, On the Contrary (1934); published first children's book, The Horse Who Lived Upstairs (1944); won Pulitzer Prize for Times Three: Selected Verse from Three Decades(1961); published essays, The Province of the Heart (1959) and Sixpence in Her Shoe (1964). Honorary degrees from institutions including Dartmouth College (1961), Boston College (1962), Smith College (1964), St. John's University (1964).

Phyllis McGinley was most recognized for her light verse describing suburban life in America from the 1930s to the 1960s. Her writing career, however, covered more than middle-class life in the New York suburbs, as McGinley was an observer of humanity whose interests included everything from the qualities of sainthood to myths and social criticism.

McGinley called herself "a pure third-generation immigrant." Her heritage was a mixture of Irish on her father's side and German on her mother's. She was born in 1905 in Ontario, Oregon, but her earliest memories were of the ranch in eastern Colorado where her family moved when she was three years old and remained until she was twelve. Her father's land investments were not successful and the family lived some miles from the nearest town, which McGinley remembered as resembling a scene from a television western, characterized by muddy streets, hitching posts, and bronco busting as a favorite pastime. The weather was harsh, with blizzards in winter and muddy roads in spring, and coyotes and antelope roamed the plains. She and her brother rode ponies to a one-room schoolhouse which was so isolated that sometimes they were the only pupils and other times they had no teacher. There was no public library within a reasonable distance, but McGinley, an eager reader, devoured the heavy history and law books in her father's collection. At the age of six, she composed her first poem; she would later date her determination to become a poet from that point.

When she was 12, her father died. With her mother and brother, Phyllis moved to Ogden, Utah, where her mother's family had settled when they immigrated from Germany, and where her mother had a sister, also widowed. The McGinleys moved in with their relatives in what Phyllis described as a sort of "communal home." This arrangement was apparently not to the young girl's liking, as she later contended that she did not have a "real" home until after she married. She attended Ogden High School and later the Sacred Heart Academy which she called a "decorous boarding school." McGinley did not find either high school intellectually stimulating.

Nor was college at the University of Utah, which had few entrance requirements, a challenge for her. McGinley remembered her fellow students as more interested in football games and dances than in education. If female students seemed too bright, they would become social outcasts. Thus, McGinley maintained, she managed to graduate as an English major without any familiarity with the great works of literature, discovering most of the important writers on her own after college.

Ironically, after her graduation in 1927, McGinley taught school for one year in Ogden, Utah. She then moved to New Rochelle, New York, where she would work as a high-school teacher until 1934. In 1928, she wrote a children's operetta, The Toy Shop. Meanwhile, she had begun writing both prose and poetry and submitting her work to magazines, teaching all day and writing into the night. Her early poetry was somber, but McGinley developed a lighter touch after being told by Kate White (Katharine S. White ), an editor at The New Yorker, that all contemporary female poets "sang the same sad song." This less serious verse was, apparently, what publishers wanted. In 1934, McGinley resigned her teaching position, moved from the suburbs into Manhattan, and took a variety of jobs in publishing, as poetry editor of Town and Country and as a copywriter at an advertising agency. Her first book of poems, On the Contrary, was published that same year. One More Manhattan followed three years later, while A Pocketful of Wry was published in 1940.

Her first two collections of verse were written while the United States suffered through the Great Depression. Some of the poems refer to the effects of the economic disaster, and others address issues of social inequality. McGinley also developed the theme that too many people were preoccupied with foolishness and triviality—the doings of celebrities or some ephemeral fashion—while others starved or lived in the shadow of fascism. In her later collection, Times Three, she referred to the 1930s as "The Threadbare Years," an apparent pun on both the financial and spiritual poverty of the period. Irony was McGinley's weapon of choice to criticize hypocrisy.

Other poems written during the 1930s relate to her personal preferences: winter, hot baths, and an orderly universe. In many of these works, she seems to be speaking for normality, conventional man-woman relationships, and a comfortable world. Some of the later poems, no doubt, reflect changes in McGinley's personal life. In 1937, she married Charles L. Hayden, an executive with the Bell Telephone Company and an amateur jazz musician, and gave up her paid employment to focus on homemaking and her writing. A series of poems entitled Husbands Are Difficult appeared in 1940. Shortly after her marriage, McGinley and her husband moved from Manhattan to a large, old house in Larchmont, New York. Much of the poetry and essays written during the rest of her life would concentrate on the suburban milieu, and she has been described as "an Erma Bombeck who rhymed."

McGinley's first child Julie was born in 1939, her second daughter Patsy in 1941. Her first children's book, The Horse Who Lived Upstairs, appeared three years later. An artist friend had brought over some drawings of horses, suggesting that McGinley might create a poem or story around them. She discovered a stable in Greenwich Village where horses lived on the second floor and wrote a story about a horse that lived in an apartment building and had a job pulling a vegetable wagon. Here, as in other later children's books, McGinley was determined to challenge her young audience with some unfamiliar words. She believed that children needed new ideas, new words, and new situations to help them grow both morally and intellectually.

Her next children's book, The Plain Princess (1945), was a fairy tale in which a "plain" princess who is vain and selfish learns the value of work and responsibility, and incidentally wins the love of the handsome prince. Again McGinley used a demanding vocabulary along with a moral lesson and a happy ending. All Around the Town, an alphabetical tour of New York City, was published in 1948, as was A Name for Kitty, a book for toddlers. McGinley continued to write for children throughout her career, believing that young readers and listeners needed well written and interesting stories that provided a positive and cheerful moral message.

During the 1940s, a decade dominated by World War II, McGinley also wrote poems about the war. Stones from a Glass House (1946) includes poetry that depicts the horrors of war, the fear, and the loneliness. She also wrote socially critical verse, as well as poems that conveyed her joy and contentment with suburban life. The latter type of verse resonated well in the postwar years, as Americans began to move past the conflict into the "baby boom" era, characterized by an idealization of home and family life.

Many of McGinley's poems of the 1950s echo those themes. As her daughters grew up, she wrote more of childhood and adolescence, themes she believed most poets did not address. In 1954, she published The Love Letters of Phyllis McGinley, which focused on the joys of suburban living and was one of her most popular collections of verse. Because several readers wrote to the author asking her assistance in finding a home in the suburbs, a realtor is alleged to have hung her picture in his office—a tacit testimony to her approval of his listings. She also included a poem, "The Old Feminist," which assails the proponent of women's equality who "takes no pleasure in her Rights/ Who so enjoyed her Wrongs."

Through her work, McGinley wanted to narrow the distance between light and serious verse, using the light-verse form to deal with more somber subjects. For example, in "Ballade of Lost Objects," she juxtaposes misplacing small objects with the passage of time and the loss of her maturing daughters.

In 1954, McGinley was designated Columbia University's Phi Beta Kappa poet. For the occasion, she wrote "In Praise of Diversity," one of her best-known works. Though it does not refer specifically to politics, the poem, written against the anti-Communist hysteria of the McCarthy era, is clearly meant as a statement in favor of tolerating differences.

In addition to reading at Columbia, McGinley received a number of significant awards during the 1950s. The Love Letters of Phyllis McGinley was granted both the Edna St. Vincent Millay Memorial Award and the Christopher Book Award. In 1955, she was elected to the National Institute of Arts and Letters. She also received recognition from several Catholic organizations, including the Catholic Writers Guild Award in 1955, and the St. Catherine of Siena Medal in 1956. As well, Wheaton College and St. Mary's College at Notre Dame presented her with honorary degrees. McGinley's work clearly struck a responsive chord in the 1950s, as she achieved unusual popular acclaim for a poet.

Her children's books were also well received. All Around the Town (1949) and The Most Wonderful Doll in the World (1950), which describes a little girl who has difficulty telling her dreams from reality, were chosen as Caldecott Honor Books. Imagination is the theme in The Make Believe Twins (1953), about real twins who like to pretend to be other things. A number of characters from her earlier works reappeared in new juvenile works. Joey, the hero of The Horse Who Lived Upstairs, returned in The Horse Who Had His Picture in the Paper (1951), and the bus from All Around the Town was featured in Blunderbus (1951), in which the vehicle demonstrates a code of morality that includes kindness and consideration for others.

One of her most popular books, The Year Without a Santa Claus (1957), is written as poetry and tells of the year in which Santa decided to take a vacation on Christmas. The work would later be adapted as a stage musical. Lucy McLockett (1959) alternates poetry and prose, telling the story of a little girl who seemed to lose everything but recovers miraculously when her new tooth grows in. McGinley also wrote the lyrics for a musical review, Small Wonder (1948), and the narration for a 1951 film, The Emperor's Nightingale.

McGinley's audience expanded further in 1959 when she published a book of essays, The Province of the Heart. Her prose frequently developed themes expressed in her poetry, and this volume includes an expansive defense of the right of women to flourish and take pleasure in the role of homemaker. She staunchly supports the notion of a woman's place in the home, and argues that keeping house is a serious and important career, that children need full-time mothers, and that fathers should be heads of families. Although McGinley frequently cites her own experience as evidence for her conventional views, she does not come to terms with the contradiction implicit therein—that she herself was, throughout her life, a woman with a career outside the home.

In style, McGinley's essays are anecdotal, while her language resembles that of her poetry. In the later years of her career, she turned increasingly to prose, apparently because she could express her message in more detail and depth without the constraints imposed by poetic forms. She could also reach a wide audience through her articles in magazines such as Saturday Review, Ladies' Home Journal, and Good Housekeeping.

Ironically, when McGinley had virtually stopped writing new poetry she received the Pulitzer Prize in 1961 for Times Three: Selected Verse from Three Decades (1960). W.H. Auden wrote the introduction to the volume, in which he praised McGinley as the most feminine of women writers. The book included some 300 poems, many previously published in the 1930s and 1940s, as well as approximately 70 unpublished poems from the 1950s. Her receipt of the award marked the first time the Pulitzer Prize had ever been given to a writer of light verse. McGinley described her own accomplishment as "poetry of wit" and asserted that her only claim to genius was her painstaking approach, her determination to make her writing clear and accessible to "common people."

McGinley's last real book of poetry, A Wreath of Christmas Legends, appeared in 1967. It includes 15 poems, each based on a traditional Christmas fable. Her purpose in the collection was to present human reactions to a supernatural event, the birth of Christ, and to focus on the value of love.

Although she contended that middle age may have caused "the lyric impulse to fade," McGinley continued to write children's books and essays during the 1960s. Self-help books for young women, Sugar and Spice: The ABC of Being a Girl (1960) and A Girl and Her Room (1963), offered traditional advice. She also wrote a 1961 poem Aren't Boys Awful which was published as a companion piece to Ogden Nash's Girls Are Silly. Mince Pie and Mistletoe (1961), a collection of ethnic Christmas traditions, and How Mrs. Santa Claus Saved Christmas (1963) were seasonal works. Her final compilation of original children's poems, Wonderful Time (1966), centered on the theme of time. In 1968, McGinley edited an anthology of poems for young people called Wonders and Surprises: A Collection of Poems, including classic works by Shakespeare, Emily Dickinson , Robert Frost, and others.

Sixpence in Her Shoe (1964) reiterates many of the themes discussed in The Province of the Heart. McGinley offers the collection of essays as a reward to housewives, just as an old English legend promised that the good housewife might be rewarded by finding a sixpence in her shoe. The essays are written in a chatty, first-person style, and although McGinley calls them autobiographical, they might better be described as memoirs. Again, McGinley describes her profession as housewife and argues that homemaking is women's natural and noblest calling. In one essay, "The Moonlight Adventure," which argues against work outside the home, McGinley maintains that although women have had the vote for many years, they "have made no impression at all on the nation or on the universe." They have accomplished no reforms, alleviated no problems, they have failed to abolish war or poverty. She wants such failures "hammered into feminist skulls," so women can be left alone to continue their one true career. Whereas McGinley's poetry and essays during the 1950s seemed to be in harmony with the conventional prevailing views of women, not long after A Six-pence in Her Shoe was published, a new generation of women found her views out of step.

McGinley issued her last book, Saint Watching: A Personal View of Several Saints, in 1971. She had earlier written poems which humorously described the eccentricities of some Christian saints. Saint Watching tells the life stories of several saints, focusing on their human qualities, such as wit, friendship, love of animals, and compassion. McGinley considers the cultural variables that may influence the definition of holiness. Saint Watching seems to be another of her efforts to emphasize models of goodness in her writings, as against an environment she perceived as too preoccupied with violence and evil.

After receiving the Pulitzer Prize in 1961, McGinley continued to be honored by many groups for her work. The Catholic Poetry Society of America gave her the Spirit Gold Medal in 1962, and the University of Notre Dame awarded her its Laetare Medal in 1964. That year, McGinley was also invited to read at the White House Arts Festival, where she read, with minor adaptations and updates, "In Praise of Diversity." Her children's collections were also recognized; The New York Times chose Wonderful Time as one of the Best Illustrated Books of the Year in 1966, and Wonders and Surprises became one of the Child Study Association's Children's Books of the Year in 1968.

In 1972, McGinley's husband Charles Hayden died. At her daughters' urging, McGinley sold her beloved house in Larchmont and moved into an apartment in New York City. She died of a stroke in Manhattan in 1978.

sources:

Auden, W.H. "Foreword" to Times Three: Selected Verse from Three Decades. NY: Viking, 1960.

McGinley, Phyllis. The Province of the Heart. NY: Viking, 1959.

——. Sixpence in Her Shoe. NY: Macmillan, 1964.

"Moment with Phyllis McGinley," in Newsweek. September 26, 1960, p. 120.

"Phyllis McGinley," in Contemporary Literary Criticism. Vol. 14. Detroit, MI: Gale Research, 1980, pp. 364–369.

Wagner, Linda Welshimer. Phyllis McGinley. NY: Twayne, 1971.

Mary Welek Atwell , Associate Professor of Criminal Justice, Radford University, Radford, Virginia

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