The troubled life of John Gould Fletcher

It’s a safe bet that few of the people who enter the John Gould Fletcher Library at 823 N. Buchanan St. in Little Rock know anything about the man for whom the facility is named.

Fletcher was the first Arkansan to be awarded a Pulitzer Prize. He received the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1939 when the poor Southern state was still struggling to escape the Great Depression.

When those of us at the Arkansas Humanities Council (on which I’ve served for the past five years) were developing a lecture series to mark the 100th year of the Pulitzer Prizes being awarded, it seemed natural to make the first talk in the series about Fletcher.

So it was that the eminent Arkansas historian Ben Johnson of Southern Arkansas University took the stage at the Ron Robinson Theater in downtown Little Rock last Thursday night to talk about Fletcher’s life. Johnson is the author of a biography of Fletcher — “Fierce Solitude: A Life of John Gould Fletcher” — which was released in 1994 by the University of Arkansas Press.

Johnson’s talk was interesting, but it was not necessarily uplifting. Fletcher fought depression for much of his life. He committed suicide in May 1950 when he drowned himself in a shallow pond near his Little Rock home.

Here’s how the Poetry Foundation describes this native Arkansan: “John Gould Fletcher is considered by many literary scholars to be among the most innovative 20th century poets. He is closely associated with poet Amy Lowell and the Imagist movement she championed. In addition to being an adherent of Imagism, which was dedicated to replacing traditional poetics with a more concise use of language, new rhythms and a concrete rather than discursive or symbolic treatment of subject, Fletcher also wrote poetry that drew from such varied sources as French Symbolism, Oriental art and philosophy, and music.

“Later in his career, Fletcher concentrated less on technical innovation and began to develop themes he had previously only touched upon in his work, including humanity’s relation to nature and the individual’s search for God and salvation. During this period, he also became associated with the Fugitives, a group of American poets dedicated to reviving an agrarian way of life and traditional Southern values.”

Fletcher was born in Little Rock on Jan. 3, 1886. His father was a Confederate veteran (also named John Gould Fletcher) who made a fortune after the Civil War as a cotton broker and then purchased much of what’s now downtown Little Rock.

His mother was named Adolphine Krause Fletcher.

Johnson writes in a biographical sketch of Fletcher for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture: “Fletcher’s mother had abandoned the prospect of a musical career to tend to her ailing mother and likely centered her artistic ambitions on her only son. Fletcher was reared and educated by tutors in the company of his two sisters, Adolphine and Mary. As a child, he was rarely permitted to leave the grounds of the antebellum mansion — built by Albert Pike and purchased by the Fletchers in 1889 — that was his home. Fletcher developed a dense imaginative life, nurtured by his reading of Poe, Coleridge and Goethe.”

Pike, who built the massive home that’s now owned by the Arkansas Arts Center, is one of the most fascinating figures in Arkansas history. He was born in Boston in December 1809, began to write poetry as a young man and wound up in Arkansas teaching school in the Fort Smith area in the early 1830s. He often would write letters to the editor of newspapers signed Casca after one of the Roman politicians who had assassinated Julius Caesar.

Charles Bertrain, who owned a Whig Party newspaper known as the Arkansas Advocate, was impressed by Pike’s writing ability and hired him as the newspaper’s editor. Pike moved to Little Rock to edit the newspaper and also began working for the Arkansas Legislature as a clerk. Pike married a wealthy Little Rock resident, Mary Ann Hamilton, and the money she brought to the marriage allowed Pike to buy the newspaper in 1835. He later became a lawyer.

Historian Carl Moneyhon of the University of Arkansas at Little Rock summed up Pike this way for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas: “He was a lawyer who played a major role in the development of the early courts of Arkansas and played an active role in the state’s politics prior to the Civil War. He also was a central figure in the development of Masonry in the state and later became a national leader of that organization. During the Civil War, he commanded the Confederacy’s Indian Territory, raising troops there and exercising field command in one battle. He also was a talented poet and writer.”

Like the man who built what’s now known as the Pike-Fletcher-Terry Mansion, young John Gould Fletcher was attracted to poetry. Fletcher’s father was 55 at the time of his birth and a remote figure. Fletcher’s mother was 24 years younger than her husband. Her interests were music, literature and the arts.

The Poetry Foundation says of John Gould Fletcher’s early years: “Fletcher often spoke of the gloom and desolation of (the large house built by Pike). Even at an early age, his life was characterized by a solitude from which he would never completely emerge. Having little social life, Fletcher became a voracious reader. His preferences ran toward the decadent and pessimistic, especially as he grew older. The writings of Edgar Allan Poe were his constant companions in adolescence, and while attending Harvard he developed a lifelong love of French literature, devouring the works of Theophile Gautier and Charles Baudelaire, as well as Dante Rossetti, William Morris, Walter Pater and Oscar Wilde. It was at this time that Fletcher began writing poetry of his own, though he seldom showed it to anyone, being an entirely private person.

“Fletcher did not prosper at Harvard. His did not fit into Massachusetts society well, neglected the syllabi to pursue his own reading and skipped classes regularly so as to have more time for the University Library, the Boston Museum of Fine Arts and the symphony. Determined to pursue a literary career, his lack of application in his studies was the cause of considerable friction between Fletcher and his father, who wanted him to become a banker or lawyer.

“When his father died in 1906, Fletcher inherited the family fortune and a sizable annuity. Apparently unable to see the point of further education, and against the wishes of his mother, who like his father felt he should leave literature on the side and take on a profession, Fletcher dropped out of Harvard just before the final exams in 1907. The following year he departed the country for Italy. When his mother died in 1910, he did not return home.”

Fletcher had spent a year at Phillips Andover Academy in Andover, Mass., before enrolling at Harvard. A 1905 train journey to the American West helped inspire his poetry. Johnson notes that “the regular checks from a trust fund did not relieve his anxieties about his livelihood. His anxieties and sudden rages grew from his bipolar disorder, an illness marked by cyclical episodes that first erupted during his college years.”

Fletcher spent time in Venice and Rome after heading to Europe. The Poetry Foundation says he “soaked up the atmosphere, flirted with the idea of converting to Roman Catholicism, wrote more poetry and read voraciously. In 1909, he relocated to London, where he began to meet other poets and artists. His interest in painting was especially strong, and he never missed an important exhibition. This abiding fascination with both the arts and music would deeply influence his later poetry, although at the time his work was fairly conventional. He doggedly assailed publishers with his poems, but to no success. Finally, he approached four different publishers and arranged to finance five volumes of his poetry himself. All five appeared in May 1913.

“Critical reception to Fletcher’s work was lukewarm.  … Fletcher himself was the severest critic of these books — within roughly one year of their publication, he had the unsold copies pulped and referred to them as mere juvenilia for the rest of his life.”

Fletcher later met poet Ezra Pound, who convinced Fletcher to help underwrite the magazine the Egoist. Pound, in turn, introduced Fletcher to Amy Lowell.

“Pound promoted Fletcher’s free-verse experiments to Harriet Monroe, founder of Poetry magazine, and invited Fletcher to join a group of poets that Pound had dubbed Des Imagistes,” Johnson writes. “However, Fletcher resisted Pound’s attempts to revise his poems. Only when Amy Lowell, who was less dogmatic on poetic principles, supplanted Pound as the leader of the group did Fletcher agree to include his work in Imagist anthologies. In 1914, Fletcher sailed to America. He wrote incessantly during his tour.”

Fletcher later returned to England and married Florence Emily “Daisy” Arbuthnot, who recently had been divorced, in July 1916. Fletcher had become involved with the older (and still married) Arbuthnot when he was 27. They began living together in 1914. A visit to Little Rock during the winter of 1914-15 was, according to the Poetry Foundation, “the occasion for rueful and gloomy reminiscences about his childhood.”

The Poetry Foundation says that starting in 1916, Fletcher’s life “ran aground. His new marriage with Arbuthnot was rapidly showing itself to be a mistake, his poems were no longer being accepted, his literary contacts were drying up. He had moved to Sydenham in England to be with his wife, and for several years he more or less languished there. During this time, the exuberance of his early poetry dimmed, and his work become more stolid, majestic and plain — and his initial prolixity dwindled, until he was producing almost nothing new. His work in the early 1920s is characterized by a concern with the history and future of America, which he felt was headed to its own destruction in a nihilistic industrial downward spiral.”

During a tour of the American South in 1927, Fletcher fell in with the Fugitives, the group of poets at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn., that included John Crowe Ransom, Donald Davidson, Allen Tate and Robert Penn Warren.

Johnson writes that these young Southerners had become “increasingly unhappy with the direction of the industrial society. They organized the Agrarian movement to uphold the traditional hierarchy of the Old South as a better model for the good society. Fletcher eagerly enlisted in their causes, but his overwrought, anti-democratic essay on education in the Agrarian symposium ‘I’ll Take My Stand’ in 1930 signaled the onset of a depressive crisis.”

Fletcher attempted suicide in late 1932 and spent several months at the Royal Bethlehem Hospital in London, commonly known as Bedlam.

His divorce from Arbuthnot wasn’t finalized until 1936, but he had moved back to Arkansas in 1933.

“His marriage was clearly at an end, and he had no further desire to live in Europe,” the Poetry Society notes in its biographical sketch. “In 1933, he moved back to Little Rock, where he was received as the poet laureate and premier intellectual in the state. He received an honorary doctorate from the University of Arkansas, founded the Arkansas Folk Lore Society in 1935 and produced ‘The Story of Arkansas’ for the state’s centennial in 1936.”

John Netherland Heiskell, the famous publisher of the Arkansas Gazette, had commissioned Fletcher to write the eic poem “The Story of Arkansas.”

Johnson writes: “A revised version of ‘The Story of Arkansas’ later appeared in his collection ‘South Star.’ Although the Arkansas poem suggested his recent allegiance to his native region, the publication of his memoir, ‘Life is My Song,’ the following year concentrated on his early Imagist career.”

In the next blog post, we’ll focus on the final 14 years of his life.

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