In fact, Birmingham’s best-known poet led a highly contradictory life: a child of privilege, an academic, naval officer, and high-level government administrator, Beecher nonetheless was a laborer in the city’s steel mills and a constant agitator—in both his writing and his public life—for social justice during the turbulent American eras of the Great Depression, the New Deal, World War II, McCarthyism, and civil rights.
After his death in 1980, Beecher’s history-rich body of work gradually went out of print. Nowadays, that lack has been corrected by the book “One More River to Cross: The Selected Poetry of John Beecher,” from New South Books of Montgomery. The publication appears to be leading a literary revival of the man who has been dubbed by The Minneapolis Tribune as “the most authentic social poet in American history.”
In the long confrontational poem “Here I Stand,” for instance, Beecher chides what he sees as an insulated American leadership for its lack of resolve in making everyday life better for its citizens:
“...strength is a matter of the made-up mind
the knowing what is to be done
clenched with the will to do it
and the way then comes of itself
obstacles explode into rubble
enemies fall back.”
Beecher was born into a well-to-do New York family, and grew up around great literature. His mother, Isabel, was an oratory professor and a popular dramatic reader on the Lyceum and Chautauqua circuits. But that was before Leonard, his father, moved the family to Birmingham in 1907 after his employer, U.S. Steel, acquired Tennessee Coal, Iron and Railroad. His mother saw the exile as the end of her dream of becoming a stage actress. John was three years old.
As a teenager, Beecher attended military academies each summer, and graduated from high school at 14. He originally envisioned a military career, but when the influenza epidemic of 1918 closed down classes, he came home and took a job as an apprentice chemist in TCI’s Ensley Steel Works. He was fascinated by the lives of the open-hearth furnace workers, and eventually took a job alongside them working 13-hour shifts.
Then came a summer term at the Bread Loaf School in Vermont, where he was influenced by Robert Frost and Carl Sandburg. Soon after, he was severely injured while working a construction job at the Fairfield Sheet Mill, and while he recuperated he finally gave in to his parents’ wishes that he study literature at Harvard so that he could teach English and support himself as a poet.
For the next three decades, he alternated between teaching and a series of administrative and journalism jobs, including the Birmingham Age-Herald and News, The New York Post, and New Republic. During World War II, he became a naval officer aboard the first integrated troop ship, the S.S. Booker T. Washington, in the North Atlantic and Mediterranean—an experience he chronicled in the 1945 book “All Brave Sailors.”
Throughout, he continued to write his poetry, but the political topics and in-your-face style made it a hard sell for commercial publishers. Much of his best work was published by himself and his wife Barbara, with hand-set type on an old-fashioned letterpress they operated in their home.
She had met John in the summer of 1955 in Oakland, California, when he moved into an apartment next to hers. They were married a month later, despite the 21-year age difference.
“We just clicked,” she remembers. “I’ve always had the feeling that, if it hadn’t been for John, I would not have been released to...well, to understand the world. He was just so brilliant. We had a wonderful life. I don’t regret any of it.”
Not surprisingly, the fiery Beecher didn’t fare well in the political climate of the 1950s. During what should have been the prime of his career, he was fired from his teaching position at San Francisco State College for refusing to sign the state’s new loyalty oath.
That outsider status only increased the resolve of his poetry writing and social protests. “He had a wonderful sense of humor, but he was very severe when he stood for something he believed in,” Barbara says. “He didn’t mellow or soften with age. He was intense, right to the end.”
“I wish he were here now,” Mrs. Beecher says, “because he’d be speaking out about things going on now that are simply outrageous. The war in Iraq he would definitely have been against, and he knew what war was. He would be furious that manufacturers have taken all these jobs out of the country.
“He’d be thrilled that people today are paying attention to his work. He was put down so much, over the years. Because he just said the truth. And nobody likes the truth.”
Dale Short is a native of Walker County. His columns, photos, and radio features are available on his website, carrolldaleshort.com. His weekly radio program "Music from Home" airs each Sunday at 6 pm on Oldies 101.5 FM, streams live online at www.oldies1015fm.com, and is archived afterward on his website.