I want to focus attention upon critical slighting of an American epic force in the poetry of Thomas McGrath, a self-styled political revolutionary born in rural North Dakota (b. 1916, d. 1990). McGrath’s 400-page long poem, Letter to an Imaginary Friend, takes us to America’s Midwestern frontier and beyond. The poem was begun in 1957 and published piecemeal until completion thirty years later. Thanks to painstaking editing by Sam Hamill and Dale Jacobson, all four parts of McGrath’s long poem were posthumously brought together as one volume in 1997; the design of the 8 by 8½-inch paperback edition assures visual access to the flow of the poet’s long lines and rhythmic spacing. A journey of quest, Letter portrays what McGrath characterized as “pseudo-autobiography”: although based upon details of his life, the poem reverses the confessional stance: its narrative subject is the world encountered and operative through the quester’s individual self.
In midlife, during the McCarthy era, McGrath suffered personal inquisitorial persecution. Summoned before the infamous House Un-American Activities Committee in 1953, he read an unusual statement which included “esthetic ground” as one of his reasons for refusing to cooperate: “I believe that one of the things required of us is to try to give life an esthetic ground, to give it some of the pattern and beauty of art….not subject to chance and accident of our real world.” Consequently blacklisted and fired from his teaching position at Los Angeles State University, he was forced to seek his livelihood at various kinds of jobs for several years. Bitterness at the academy’s support of the “witch hunt” was catalytic; shortly after his expulsion from Los Angeles State, McGrath embarked upon Letter to an Imaginary Friend.