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A Poem and the Times: Teaching “Justice Denied in Massachusetts” in Context

In modern poetry courses and American literature surveys, I’ve often used Edna St. Vincent Millay’s “Justice Denied in Massachusetts” (1927) to begin a unit on protest poetry focused mostly on the 1930s.[1] Among my central goals in such courses are to explore the richly varied forms of social engagement found in modern American verse, and to establish that every poem has some degree of sociopolitical resonance. Thus I try to avoid segregating protest poems as if they belonged to a different species by seeding some—particularly antiwar verse from the 1900s and 1910s—in earlier parts of the syllabus. But students do benefit from encountering multiple texts about the same historical event (as opposed to the “if it’s Tuesday, this must be Saccoandvanzetti” approach). So when there has been time enough I've offered a group of Sacco/Vanzetti poems, including Malcolm Cowley’s “For St. Bartholomew’s Day,” William Carlos Williams’ “Impromptu: The Suckers,” David Wolff’s “August 22, 1927,” and Lola Ridge’s “Two in the Death House,” along with documents about the case and its implications.[2]

Millay’s poem is the linchpin of this unit, and indeed a key text for my American literature courses, because it both potently foregrounds the social functions of modern American poetry, and also reveals how literary texts respond to and take shape from the forms of material and print culture that surround them. I offer the notion of two “Justice Denieds”: the one that has come down to us in collections and anthologies, and the one its first readers encountered on page two of the New York Times on August 22, 1927. To maximize the impact of seeing a poem in such an unfamiliar context, I don't give students the newspaper page ahead of time (although one certainly could do so, and ask them to come to class armed with something from the surrounding stories that links to the imagery of the poem). I begin the class by reminding them of our previous look at Millay as the poet of “Recuerdo” and “First Fig”: the epitome of the “liberated” New Woman of the 1910s.[3] Then we review the outlines of the Sacco-Vanzetti case, including the resistance to what was seen worldwide as an egregious miscarriage of justice. On August 22, the day before the scheduled executions, Millay was arrested for picketing the State House in Boston along with Dorothy Parker, John Dos Passos, Katherine Anne Porter, Lola Ridge, Michael Gold, and many other writers and intellectuals. But Millay’s extraordinary prominence among American writers of that moment opened doors closed to most—namely, an hour-long interview on the afternoon before the executions with Alvan T. Fuller, the governor of Massachusetts, whom she tried to persuade toward clemency or least a stay of execution.[4] This degree of access to power is impressive to students (and to me—it’s hard to picture Rick Perry meeting a Poet Laureate to discuss a death row case).

Next I point out that while someone encountering the poem without this background might be puzzled about what the injustice in Massachusetts was, none of its first readers could have had any doubts because they saw it surrounded by news reports of massive protests, arrests, and threats of violence. Unveiling and handing out the newspaper page, I ask the students to consider the extent to which we have two poems in front of us: one ensconced in a classroom syllabus with the cachet (or the deadening hand?) of professorial approval; the other a piece of urgent news that was experienced alongside stories of the world events on a momentous day in 1927. We then talk about how the material formats of poems shape our encounters with them, and this leads toward the crucial historicist proposition that literary meaning—and by implication, value—are not fixed or inherent but contingent upon multiple social factors. I have found that the newspaper does this job much better than, say, a little magazine such as Poetry (although I do still hand an issue around at some point during the semester) because to typical undergrads the little magazine format can seem no less rarefied than an anthology or course textbook. But they all have a strong sense of the conventional cultural distance between poem and newspaper.

In a graduate class, I might tackle directly the claim made by New Critics and high modernists that the extreme topicality of a poem such as “Justice Denied” inevitably compromises its aesthetic value. Indeed, the poem came to function for Allen Tate (an early admirer of the poet before she began writing protest verse) as an object lesson in the modern poem’s inability to maintain artistic integrity while commenting on sociopolitical events.[5] But most of today’s undergraduates (if not always their professors) are far enough removed from the New Critical world-view that they can experience “Justice Denied” straightforwardly as a poem fully and deeply integrated with world events.

Because I want students to leave with a strong sense that “poetry of protest” is just as much poetry as any other sort—that all poems have an aesthetics as well as a politics—I eventually steer discussion toward the poem's allegorical mode of construction and its conscious dialogue with literary predecessors. One way to make this point is to locate it within an American tradition of allegorical social critique that includes John Greenleaf Whittier's abolitionist work, William Vaughn Moody's “Ode on a Soldier Returning from the Philippines,” and Carl Sandburg's powerful antiwar verses of the 1910s such as "Grass,” “Buttons,” and “Long Guns”—some of which we have already encountered, depending on the particular course. The newspaper page comes in handy here as well, foregrounding the arresting incongruity between the title “Justice Denied in Massachusetts,” clearly modeled on a screaming headline, and the poem’s contents, which make no direct reference to topical events, but translate them into imagery of an edenic landscape choked by forces of fear and greed, which are represented by invasive and harmful plants (“quack and weed”). The title is necessary, I suggest, not only in asserting the poem’s urgent dialogue with the news stories that surround it, but also in preventing later readers, once it has been removed from this initial context, from abstracting away its political force, as a more “literary” alternative title such as “The Sitting Room” might invite.

Next I ask students about the shifting connotations of the simple phrase that weaves through the poem as an unofficial refrain: “Let us . . .” and “Let us go.”  These words may initially seem to express resolution to go out and do something, but increasingly they begin sounding like pleas for release from the burdens of social responsibility. Students realize that, given her own actions, Millay can't really be advocating that everyone just go on home and “sit in their sitting-rooms,” traditional haven of the quietist bourgeoisie. With a bit of nudging they see that the phrase generates ironic distance from the speaker, and that the poet is speaking with bitterness and even despair to middle-class liberals, well meaning but irresolute, who want to give up now that things have gotten tough. Here again the Times version of “Justice Denied” speaks loudly through its reports of those like Millay who have refused to hide in their sitting rooms, instead expending time and risking arrest or injury to speak out. And the one lighter element on this intensely serious page, a small advertisement for $50 suits by “John David” in the bottom right corner, makes an effective foil. The ad advises its readers that dress for “life's finer moments” after sundown need never be stiff and stodgy, evoking a frivolous Gatsbyesque lifestyle that was the Twenties urbanite version of escaping to the comfy sitting room.

I close the class by asking whether Millay’s poem may be looking critically at a strain of modern poetry that expresses alienation toward the venality and incorrigibility of the social world. I offer a speculative but intriguing intertextual connection: Do you (I ask) hear any echoes of a famous poem we recently examined in such Millay lines as “Let us abandon our gardens and go home/ And sit in the sitting-room”; “Let us sit here, sit still,/ Here in the sitting-room until we die”; “We shall not feel it again./ We shall die in darkness, and be buried in the rain”?  If all goes well, they readily come up with “Prufrock,” but if not, intoning in a sepulchral voice its opening line, “Let us go then, you and I,” provides them with the connection.  Why, I ask finally, do you think Millay might be evoking Eliot’s famous modern(ist) anti-hero Prufrock in her protest poem? Could she be mocking the futility of the “apolitical” alienation affected by Eliot’s style of modernism, or even suggesting that his comfortable pessimism might have contributed to the climate that makes possible such denials of justice as the Sacco-Vanzetti verdict?

Notes

  1. ^ Edna St. Vincent Millay, “Justice Denied in Massachusetts.” The New Anthology of American Poetry: Modernisms, 1900-1950, eds. Steven Gould Axelrod, Camille Roman, and Thomas J. Travisano (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2005), 472-473.
  2. ^ The volume The Legacy of Sacco & Vanzetti, ed. Louis Joughin and Edmund M. Morgan (1948, reprint, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1978), contains an extensive bibliography of verse about the case—though it lacks William Carlos Williams’ well-known poem (577–580).  The largest concentrations of Sacco-Vanzetti verse in single volumes are found in The Sacco-Vanzetti Anthology, ed. Henry Harrison (New York: Harrison, 1927) and America Arraigned!, eds. Lucia Trent and Ralph Cheyney (New York: Dean, 1928)—both of which are available from antiquarian sources but are quite expensive and deserve reprinting by some enterprising firm.            This cluster approach to protest verse has also worked well for me with the Scottsboro Boys case, using Countee Cullen’s “Scottsboro, Too, Is Worth Its Song,” Muriel Rukeyser’s “The Trial,” the blues song “Scottsboro,” and (in courses not exclusively devoted to poetry), Edmund Wilson’s journalistic account “The Railroad-Car Case” and John Dos Passos’s “Scottsboro’s Testimony.”
  3. ^ At one time I likened Millay to Madonna (Ciccone) as icons of powerfully sexualized feminism, but the comparison no longer seems to resonate as strongly now that Madonna is older than most undergraduates’ mothers. 
  4. ^ Accounts of this episode can be found in Nancy Milford, Savage Beauty (New York: Random House, 2001), 298–299, and Jean Gould, American Women Poets (New York: Dodd, Mead, 1980), 243–244.
  5. ^ Tate’s 1938 essay “Tension in Poetry,” which became an important theoretical statement of the coalescing New Criticism, uses “Justice Denied” to exemplify a meretricious “poetry of the mass language,” which in the critic’s view has deformed “much of the political poetry of our time” (Essays of Four Decades [Chicago: Swallow Press, 1968], 57).

Comments

That turn at the end to Eliot is a great way to bring focus to two central modernist texts. I'm going to steal that.