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Monroe, Harriet (1860–1936)

Monroe, Harriet (1860–1936)

American poet and essayist who revived enthusiasm for verse through the pages of Poetry, the magazine she founded in 1912 and edited until her death in 1936. Born Harriet Monroe on December 23, 1860, in Chicago, Illinois; died on September 26, 1936, in Arequipa, Peru; graduated high school from the Visitation Convent of Georgetown in Washington, D.C., 1879; daughter of Henry S. Monroe (a lawyer) and Martha Mitchell Monroe; sister ofLucy Monroe Calhoun andDora Monroe Root ; never married; no children.

Art critic and travel writer for the Chicago Tribune and other papers, commissioned to write the official poem (the "Columbian Ode") for the dedication of Chicago's World Columbian Exposition (1892); founded Poetry: A Magazine of Verse (1912); served as chief editor of Poetry (1912–36).

Selected works:

Valeria and Other Poems (1891); "Columbian Ode" (1893); (biography) John Wellborn Root (1896); The Passing Show (1903); You and I (1914); (co-edited with Alice Corbin Henderson) The New Poetry: An Anthology (1917, expanded editions reissued 1923, 1932, and 1945); The Difference and Other Poems (1924); Chosen Poems (1935); (autobiography) A Poet's Life: Seventy Years in a Changing World (published posthumously, 1938). Neither her freelance work nor her editorial columns for Poetry have been republished.

Harriet Monroe belonged to that dynamic generation of forward-thinking women who transformed Victorian America in the 1880s and 1890s, yet she made her greatest contribution to American cultural life among the modernists of the following century. Her divided existence handicaps those who try to evaluate her legacy. From the perspective of the 19th-century society which shaped her, she appears almost precocious. Monroe was career-minded, entrepreneurial, and cosmopolitan in her reading and travel. From the perspective of her 20th-century colleagues, however, Monroe seemed both provincial and prudish. Ironically, it was her Victorian formation which gave her the faith in human progress and the reverence for art needed to found and edit Poetry: A Magazine of Verse, and through Poetry, to rekindle American enthusiasm for verse.

Monroe's history is inseparable from that of her beloved native city, Chicago. Her father, Henry Stanton Monroe, migrated from upstate New York to Chicago in the 1850s in search of an "energetic growing town" in which to practice law. The family of Monroe's mother, Martha Mitchell , had also moved recently from Ohio to Chicago in pursuit of greater social and economic opportunities. During the 1850s and 1860s, Chicago fulfilled every expectation of the young couple: the city hummed with exciting politics, interesting legal cases, musical and theatrical arts, and a booming economy. Henry and Martha lost three infant sons, but three daughters and one son survived.

Harriet Monroe, the second daughter, born in 1860, had fond memories of her early childhood. Together with her sisters and brother, she explored the lakeside marshes and woods outside the home and their father's library within it. Maids, gardeners, and coachmen bustled about at the fringes of family life and provided reassuring proof of the household's prosperous situation.

Everything changed in 1871 when the great Chicago fire devastated the central city and destroyed both her father's law office and the illusion of a charmed life. Monroe always revered her father as a gifted lawyer and loving companion to his children, but he was not a dependable provider. Within a few years, the family left the handsome home of Harriet's childhood and embarked upon an erratic series of residential moves that mirrored their declining economic position. In her autobiography, Monroe noted only that Henry Monroe "made unfortunate connections" in later years and suffered from "unsystematic" accounting methods.

She was less generous toward her mother, whom she blamed for the tension in her parents' marriage. Martha Mitchell had had no opportunities for formal education and was happy to devote her attention to the home, while Henry Monroe adored books, society, and politics. Harriet concluded that her mother made a poor companion to her father. Monroe's fierce loyalty to her father may have blinded her to her mother's strengths, however, for while Henry Monroe encouraged Harriet's early interest in books, it was her mother who supervised the children's early education and exposed them to the theater and to music.

Growing awareness of her parents' marital and financial problems weighed heavily on 16-year-old Harriet. In 1876, the Monroe family traveled to Philadelphia to see the Centennial Exposition, the first of the great "World's Fairs" to be held in America. Monroe was fascinated with the art galleries and the machinery exhibits, but on the return trip she was overcome with "lassitude." "Nervous prostration" was not uncommon among women of Harriet's class in Victorian America, and for many, including Harriet, it seemed to provide an acceptable excuse for retreating from social and family obligations. That fall and winter, Monroe withdrew from school and kept to her bed until "all my youthful troubles seemed to straighten out."

When Harriet recovered, she and her father traveled to the Visitation Convent of Georgetown in Washington where she completed high school in 1879. It took time for Harriet, who was neither Catholic nor religious, to appreciate the nuns' educational style. She had read widely among the books in her father's collection but within the convent she read more critically. The nuns were strict, Monroe recalled, but encouraged "a certain questing freedom of mind and spirit." Although Harriet never practiced any religion, convent life gave her an appreciation for the "charm, majesty and power of the religious instinct." Perhaps most important, as both educators and spiritual counselors, the nuns encouraged her to take herself seriously and regard her own life in terms of a vocation. Monroe emerged from Visitation Convent intent on winning fame as a poet or playwright.

It was one of the most impressive aspects of her intelligence that she, who was born and conditioned to so different an age of poetry, could have re-created herself and become one of the most enthusiastic sponsors of a new era in the art.

—Morton Dauwen Zabel

After graduation, she returned to live with her family in Chicago. The city had not only recovered from the fire of 1871, but it had been reborn as a dynamic center of social innovation. Progressive reformers like Jane Addams in social work, Florence Kelley in labor, and Alice Hamilton in industrial medicine challenged traditional political and social practices, while revolutionary architects like Louis Sullivan rebuilt the Chicago skyline with the skyscraper. The expanding industries of meatpacking and railroads lured millions of immigrants from Europe and financed the construction of new mansions along the lakeshore. The excitement culminated in 1893 when Chicago hosted the World Columbian Exposition (the world's fair commemorating Columbus' voyage), and paraded a reborn Chicago before America.

During the 1880s, Monroe took full advantage of the city's attractions. She joined her siblings and friends at theaters, art galleries, and musical performances as well as at national political conventions held in town. She joined a female literary club, the Fortnightly, which gave her practice in composing essays and speaking before an audience. Margaret Sullivan , an editorial writer for the Chicago Tribune, encouraged Monroe's creative work but also urged her to write freelance articles on the local art scene. Sullivan also helped Monroe and her younger sister Lucy spend the winter of 1888–89 in New York City where Harriet reviewed New York music, art, and architecture for the Tribune. The job provided the two sisters with entry into the exciting literary circles of New York, especially that of E.C. Steadman, the editor of Century Magazine.

The trip to New York also gave Monroe a chance to meet the Scottish writer Robert Louis Stevenson as he traveled through the city. Monroe had written Stevenson in 1885 to praise his novel The New Arabian Nights, and during the next four years they exchanged occasional letters. At the meeting, she was surprised to find that Stevenson was just as unattractively ill as he had always claimed. In later years, she recounted the disenchanting encounter as an example of her over-romantic imagination, but it makes a better illustration of her early ability to reach out to authors through letters. Throughout her life, Monroe would remain a prolific and compassionate correspondent, sending forth comments, criticism and encouragement to writers at all stages of their careers.

In 1889, Monroe published her first poem, "With a Copy of Shelley," in Century Magazine, completed her first play, Valeriana, and was selected to write the words to the Cantata celebrating the inauguration of the new Louis Sullivan-designed Chicago Auditorium. She celebrated her successes, age 29, with a six-week visit to London and Paris.

Monroe did not have the same sense of progress in her personal life. As a young woman, she had assumed that love and marriage would inevitably accompany literary fame, but she found no one to share her dream of a "mutual grand passion" and by the 1890s she was ready to "retire from the great game" of courtship. In her memoirs, Monroe insisted that she was "content with the spinster's narrow lot," but several of her poems and essays suggest that she regretted never having had a child of her own. As she entered her 30s, she adjusted to a new role, however, and became an attentive aunt to her nieces and nephews.

Monroe's intense affection for her sister Dora's husband, John Wellborn Root, contrasted with her cool appraisal of other men during her 20s. Root's tragic death from pneumonia in 1891 caused Monroe to re-lapse into the "lassitude" she had experienced as a girl. It also drove her to take on a project in architectural theory as she drafted John Wellborn Root: His Life and Work. Root had been one of the original consulting architects of the 1893 Columbian Fair and had hoped to use the fair to celebrate modern architecture and the new profession of city planning. Although Root's proposals were not adopted by fair organizers, Monroe's work preserved Root's vision and provided an important reference tool for later architects and historians.

Root's death also motivated Monroe to seek out the organizers of the Columbian Fair and demand that poetry be incorporated into the opening events. Monroe not only secured a promise that poetry would be honored alongside the other arts, she won a paid commission to write the "Commemoration Ode," a poem she saw partly as a tribute to Root. In 1892, she sat with the other artists honored at the dedication ceremony and listened to 5,000 voices sing her verses celebrating the "splendors and triumphs of modern civilization."

Monroe had secured the rights to market her commemoration poem, and although she sold very few of the pamphlets she had printed up for the fair (she used them to light the fire in her home the rest of the winter), she did successfully sue a major newspaper, the New York World, for having printed the poem without her permission. The suit, which dragged on until 1897, helped other writers protect their creative work. It also provided a much-needed financial windfall for Monroe who used the money to join her sisters living in Europe in 1898.

Throughout her middle years, Harriet Monroe earned her living by reviewing the arts for Chicago newspapers and national magazines and by teaching at local high schools. Her work did not bring her the "literary fame" she once coveted, but it did keep her in touch with aesthetic trends and with the powerful patrons of the Chicago art scene. In 1898, she joined the "Little Room," an art circle which welcomed creative women from any field to weekly discussions and occasional performances. The artists, sculptors, playwrights, and journalists of the Little Room encouraged Monroe to continue writing poems and plays, and in 1903 she published The Passing Show, a collection of five short plays written in blank verse.

The years 1905 to 1910 were filled with difficult transitions. Monroe had continued to share a home with her father (her mother died in 1892), her widowed sister Dora Root and the Root children, her younger sister and fellow art critic Lucy, and her brother William, but between 1903 and 1910 the family was scattered by deaths and marriages. Monroe lost another circle of support when the Little Room was gradually overtaken by male writers who renamed the group the Cliff Dwellers. Ironically, the Cliff Dwellers, who sought to raise the profile of the professional writer in Chicago, reflected the growth of public interest in literature that Monroe had long awaited. However, the Cliff Dwellers had little interest in linking themselves with women writers (whom they did not consider professionals) or poets.

In 1910, 50-year-old Monroe traveled across Europe and Russia to visit her sister Lucy in Peking, where Lucy's husband, John Calhoun, directed the U.S. Mission to China. The exciting trip provoked some serious reflection. The literary climate of Chicago was definitely quickening (in later years, the era would be known as the Chicago Renaissance), but poetry was sadly neglected. Monroe felt discouraged by her own "snail-paced" literary advance. She felt that she had matured as a poet since "Columbian Ode," yet she had found few opportunities to publish her poems. She realized that her situation was not unusual; every poet she knew complained that magazine editors regarded poetry not as art but as "filler material" for blank spaces.

Monroe became more dismayed when she contrasted the degraded place of poetry with the enthusiasm for the visual arts sweeping the city's elite. Not only were individuals amassing private collections, but donations poured into the Chicago Arts Institute which used the money to purchase European masterworks and fund scholarships and prizes for the city's young artists. There were obvious differences, Monroe reflected sadly, a poem could not be owned or conspicuously flaunted like a painting or sculpture, nor did the public think of poetry as evidence of high culture. Thus, while the Arts Institute committed millions to establish a "world class" art collection, poetry, "the oldest and most noble art," was left to fend for itself.

By the time Monroe returned from China to Chicago in 1911, she had begun to think of herself as more than a poet; she thought of herself as a defender of poetry. Friends encouraged her to found her own magazine and one Little Room colleague, Hobart Chatfield-Taylor, suggested that Monroe finance the magazine by persuading 100 prominent Chicago men and women to pledge $50 a year for five years. She canvassed the business district for months to raise the money. When not calling on Chicago's wealthiest, she spent her time at the library paging through back issues of magazines in a search for intriguing poets. Finally, when the money seemed assured, Monroe wrote 50 poets and invited them to submit their work to the proposed journal, Poetry: A Magazine of Verse.

In her initial invitation, Monroe extended three promises which would guide Poetry during its 24 years under her direction. First, she offered poets "a chance to be heard in their own place" before an audience prepared to regard poetry as art, not filler. Second, Monroe initiated her famous "open door policy" by promising to publish the best poetry regardless of style or source. Throughout her years as editor, she refused to be bound to any interpretive or regional school. Finally, she promised to regard poets as professionals and pay authors for their work. Monroe recruited another Little Room friend, Alice Corbin Henderson , to serve as assistant editor, and the first issue of Poetry was released in October 1912.

Poetry was spectacularly successful. American readers, who opened the first issue expecting to read pleasant couplets on flowers or romance, were angered to find themselves described as a "mass of dolts" in Ezra Pound's poem, "To Whistler-American." During subsequent issues, the magazine stunned the American audience with the work of Hamlin Garland, Conrad Aiken, Rupert Brooke, Marianne Moore , Robert Frost, Amy Lowell , and Vachel Lindsay. As early as 1913, critics began to acknowledge a "renaissance" of public interest in poetry. Monroe adopted Walt Whitman's maxim "to have great poets there must be great audiences, too" as the motto for Poetry and dedicated herself to educating the American public. She introduced Americans to new artistic movements such as Imagism, with its startling use of free verse formats and "unpoetic" language, and to the poetic traditions of China, Japan, and India. During its first five years, Poetry proved to be the critical outlet for the poetry revolution in America. In 1917, Monroe and Henderson co-edited The New Poetry: An Anthology and traced the contours of the literary transformation they had provoked.

From 1912 to 1917, Poetry benefited from the astute contributions of Ezra Pound. Pound was a young and virtually unknown American poet living in England when Monroe's invitation to submit poetry to the new magazine reached him, and he responded enthusiastically to her plan: "there is not another magazine in America which is not an insult to the serious artist and to the dignity of his art." Pound not only offered his poems, however, he offered his assistance in keeping Poetry in touch with literary trends in Britain and France. Monroe asked Pound to serve as foreign correspondent for the magazine, and from 1912 to 1917 he forwarded his own poems and essays as well as the work of Hilda Doolittle (H.D.), T.S. Eliot, William Butler Yeats, and others.

Monroe recognized Pound's genius but the two did not always agree. Her "open door policy" rankled Pound, who championed the Imagist poets, and her frequent selection of Midwestern poets and topics led him to accuse her of bias. The two also disagreed on the merits of individual poems. Monroe's initial reluctance to publish all of T.S. Eliot's "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock," was much publicized by Pound. Her discomfort with Eliot's work appears prudish now, but at the time she was the only American editor willing even to consider the poem.

In later years, Pound propagated the idea that he had singlehandedly dictated Poetry's successful choices and that the magazine had collapsed into irrelevance when he resigned in 1917. Pound's role in Poetry had certainly been substantial, but Monroe was never a mere tool for his genius. Their frequent fights proved that each approached the editorial responsibilities seriously. It is true, however, that Poetry was not at the forefront of the poetic revolution after 1922. In part, Monroe's success had inspired the establishment of other little magazines, especially Margaret Carolyn Anderson 's Little Review (1914–29) which competed with Poetry. In addition, Monroe's personal preference for majestic, lyrical poetry was out of keeping with the disillusioned temper of the 1920s. Despite her lack of sympathy for some of the material, Monroe continued to show an uncanny knack for spotting and encouraging early talent. Poetry regularly introduced riveting new voices, like those of William Carlos Williams, Hart Crane, Edna St. Vincent Millay , Wallace Stevens, and e.e. cummings. In the end, Monroe's greatest talent as editor proved to be her ability to remain detached from any single artistic current, and thus expose her readers to the greatest variety of poetry.

Henderson, Alice Corbin (1881–1949)

American poet and editor. Name variations: Alice Corbin. Born Alice Corbin in St. Louis, Missouri, in 1881; died in 1949; daughter of Fillmore Mallory Corbin and Lula Hebe (Carradine) Corbin; married William Penhallow Henderson (an artist), in 1905; children: one daughterAlice Henderson Evans.

Alice Corbin Henderson, associate editor of Poetry from 1912 to 1916, also wrote Adam's Dream and Two Others Miracle Plays for Children (1907), The Spinning Woman of the Sky (verse, 1912), Red Earth (verse, 1920), The Sun Turns West (verse, 1933), and Brothers of Light, the Penitentes of the Southwest (prose, 1937). She co-edited, with Harriet Monroe , The New Poetry: An Anthology (1917), with expanded editions reissued 1923, 1932, and 1945. Henderson, who lived in Santa Fe, also compiled The Turquoise Trail, an anthology of New Mexico poetry, in 1928.

As editor of Poetry, Monroe had finally found the perfect match for her talents. As a poet and an art critic, she understood both the process and context of poetry. She also had the powerful connections, the gritty persistence, and the faith in the medium necessary to create the platform that poets desperately needed in 1912. She took her job as editor seriously; she complained that reviewing manuscripts was like "handling naked souls." Monroe was not merely an editor, however, she was a teacher of and an advocate for poetry. Both those who received her encouraging and attentive correspondence, and those who visited her tiny office were impressed with her energy and kindness. "I had never been the actual mistress of any home which had sheltered me," she wrote, "but this little kingdom was mine, and I rather enjoyed dispensing its fleeting hospitalities." Of course, it was not merely kindness, but gritty determination which enabled Monroe to keep Poetry going through the literary infighting of the 1920s and the depression of the 1930s.

In the early 1930s, Monroe began to think of retiring. She encouraged her assistants to take over more of the magazine's management while she worked on her autobiography, A Poet's Life. In 1936, she carried drafts of the final chapters with her on a journey to the international PEN Conference in Buenos Aires. Once in South America, 75-year-old Monroe could not resist joining other writers on a journey to visit the Incan ruins of Machu Picchu. In Chicago, her colleagues had barely finished reading an excited letter from Monroe describing the proposed trip across the Andes when they received the news of her unexpected stroke and sudden death. Monroe was buried in Arequipa, Peru. The Harriet Monroe Modern Poetry Library at the University of Chicago, the Harriet Monroe Poetry Prize, and Poetry magazine, which celebrated its 75th anniversary in 1997, commemorate her achievement.


Bremer, Sidney H. "Willa Cather 's Lost Chicago Sisters," in Squier, Susan Merrill, ed. Women Writers and the City: Essays in Feminist Literary Criticism. Knoxville, TN: University of Tennessee Press, 1984, pp. 210–229.

Cahill, Daniel J. Harriet Monroe. Twayne's United States Authors Series No. 222. NY: Twayne, 1973.

Massa, Ann. "Form Follows Function: The Construction of Harriet Monroe and Poetry, A Magazine of Verse," in Susan Albertine, ed., A Living of Words: American Women in Print Culture. Knoxville, TN: University of Tennessee Press, 1995, pp. 115–131.

Williams, Ellen. Harriet Monroe and the Poetry Renaissance: The First Ten Years of Poetry, 1912–22. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1977.

Zabel, Morton Dauwen. "H.M.: In Memory, 1860–1936," in Poetry. Vol. 47. January 1961, pp. 241–254.

suggested reading:

Massa, Anna. "The 'Columbian Ode' and Poetry, A Magazine of Verse: Harriet Monroe's Entrepreneurial Triumphs," in Journal of American Studies. Vol. 20. April 1986, pp. 51–69.


Correspondence, unpublished work and Poetry archives located in the Personal Papers of Harriet Monroe, in the Harriet Monroe Modern Poetry Library of the Joseph Regenstein Library, University of Chicago.

Janice Lee Jayes , historian, Washington, D.C.

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