Who Was the Only Sitting President to Contribute to a Literary Journal?
Nick Ripatrazone on the Poetic Aspirations of American Presidents
In a diary entry from March 31, 1829, a few weeks after his presidential term ended, John Quincy Adams described how he mused “upon the construction of half a dozen elegiac stanzas” while riding his horse that afternoon. His ideas were not satisfactory, and Adams lamented: “It is with poetry as with chess and billiards: there is a certain degree of attainment which labor and practice will reach, and beyond which no vigils and no vows will go.”
Adams longed to be a great poet, but often doubted the worth of his verse. On the morning of March 20, 1827, he drafted a sonnet about thoughts of loyalty. He hoped that, inevitably, “when I come to be ashamed of the poetry, I may still adhere to the morality.” In 1839, he later wrote of his occasional verse: “I sicken at the sight of them.” His worries were prophetic. Critics were not kind to his own, posthumously published volumes of poetry.
Adams had regularly published in Port Folio, a Philadelphia-based journal of politics and literature, from 1801 to 1812. Like other contributors, his work was unsigned, but reveals a lifelong devotion to poetry. In fact, Adams’s stated goal was “to excite a taste for poetry.” He translated Juvenal for the magazine. He wrote critical essays, book reviews, and politically minded poems.
Adams is not the only president who wrote poetry. Abraham Lincoln’s poetry once appeared in an Illinois newspaper. Jimmy Carter’s collection of poetry, Always a Reckoning, was published in 1995. Some poems originally appeared in literary magazines in the early 1990s, including New England Review, North Dakota Quarterly, and the New Orleans Review. Barack Obama’s poems appeared in his undergraduate literary magazine, Feast, and were good enough to later receive praise from Harold Bloom.
None of these presidents published poetry—or prose for that matter—in literary magazines while in office. In April 1864, the North American Review published a brief letter from then President Lincoln; he took issue with a writer’s analysis of his political theories in a recent issue. Yet Lincoln’s letter was written to the editors of the magazine, not ostensibly drafted for publication. There is only one president-elect who published in a literary magazine: John F. Kennedy.
Four Quarters was published by Philadelphia’s La Salle College, founded by the Christian Brothers. The literary magazine debuted in 1951, and included several brothers on the masthead. The quarterly publication affirmed it was “aimed at focusing the practice and appreciation of writing in the Catholic tradition.” Four Quarters regularly published poetry by priests, brothers, and nuns.“When power leads man towards arrogance, poetry reminds him of his limitations.”
The June 1955 issue included a symposium titled “Does American Catholic Education Produce Its Share of Leaders in the Literary Field?” The symposium operated from the position that there was a “dearth of top-rank Catholic literary leaders from Catholic colleges and universities.” The magazine then solicited reactions for future issues from “authors, teachers, and literary critics in response to a pointed question: why don’t “Catholic colleges and universities in the United States produce an adequate supply of Catholic writers?”
Respondents included the poet Allen Tate, a Catholic convert, who took a pessimistic yet realistic view. Other than James Joyce and Marcel Proust, he claimed, the “great discoveries of modern literature” have “been made by non-Catholics.” The Catholic intellectual, he lamented, “is oppressed by a consciousness of belonging to a minority.” The playwright Arthur Miller prefaced his comments with a confession: “I have never stepped inside a Catholic college.” Writing, he explained, “is a heartbreakingly difficult thing to do well principally because the truth is so difficult to know, even under the best circumstances.” He imagined that if such writing “is in part hedged about with fears and warnings against transgression of dogma, it obviously makes writing even more difficult.”
The final word went to Sister Mary Madeleva Wolff, a poet and president of Saint Mary’s College in Notre Dame, Indiana. Wolff asserted the “paucity of creative writers in our Catholic colleges is only a fraction of the general impoverishment in creative writing from which we are suffering everywhere.” Writers need time, and the right conditions, to create both of which, she thought, were in short supply.
“A thunderstorm can addle a whole nest of eggs under a setting hen and kill the embryonic chicks,” she noted. “Can you think what the tumultuous situations of our past quarter of a century have effected in the possible creative thought of possible writers?” What was needed, Sister Madeleva argued, was “patient, tireless hard work, careful, thoughtful reading selected with fastidious care, an intolerance of mediocrity in one’s self are all parts of the process.” She concluded: “There are no easy ways.”
In 1960, five years after their previous symposium, Four Quarters again invited Wolff to contribute her thoughts to a debate on the teaching of creative writing. Organized by Brother Felician Patrick, FSC, participants seemed by turns skeptical of—and exhausted by—the question. “I have just about written myself out on this subject, and I am afraid I can only repeat myself,” wrote John Ciardi. Flannery O’Connor was direct: “Unfortunately, there is a kind of writing that can be taught; it is the kind you then have to teach people not to read.”
Katherine Anne Porter echoed that sentiment: “I have been visitor or lecturer or writer-in-residence for twenty-six years… I have visited some 180-odd universities and colleges in that time, and I think some of our current fiction proves my argument too dismally. No amount of education, instruction, example can lift an inferior mind above its own level. But exposure to higher education has made some of them pretty cocky.” “If I seem a little moody,” she ended, “please be sure it is not just mood.”
John F. Kennedy’s contribution was more optimistic. He had just been elected president on November 8, and apologized for the brevity of his narrative. Yet, he was clear: “I see the matter of creative writing as extending far distances from the campus and the workshop.”“If art is to nourish the roots of our culture, society must set the artist free to follow his vision wherever it takes him.”
“We need a creative America today,” Kennedy argued. Creativity means new ideas and leadership; otherwise, a people can only be enslaved: “They have no vision, no imagination to beckon them, no direction in which to move—save where the pressures of the moment may push them.”
The ultimate goal of a creative writing program, as well as other visionary fields, was to synthesize “craftsmanship and creativeness.”—an interesting marriage of a utilitarian and idealistic literary vision. He worried that “craftsmanship alone” was not enough for great art. Kennedy thought the “highest sense” of such programs was “not alone the creation of fiction or nonfiction of purely original source.” Rather, he thought these programs were charged with “the further putting forth of new ideas.”
A few weeks before his assassination, Kennedy spoke in memory of Robert Frost—although he used the occasion to articulate a broader vision of poetry. “When power leads man towards arrogance, poetry reminds him of his limitations,” Kennedy said. “When power narrows the areas of man’s concern, poetry reminds him of the richness and diversity of his existence. When power corrupts, poetry cleanses, for art establishes the basic human truths which must serve as the touchstones of our judgment.”
Kennedy called for the independence of artists: “If art is to nourish the roots of our culture, society must set the artist free to follow his vision wherever it takes him,” for “in a democratic society the highest duty of the writer, the composer, the artist, is to remain true to himself and to let the chips fall where they may.”
Kennedy’s rousing speech ends with an anaphoric refrain of his hopes: “I look forward to an America which will reward achievement in the arts as we reward achievement in business or statecraft. I look forward to an America which will steadily raise the standards of artistic accomplishment and which will steadily enlarge cultural opportunities for all our citizens.”
The rhythm and language of that speech had been forged in his earlier contribution to Four Quarters. At the start of his presidency—and in the final weeks of his life—Kennedy saw the artist, the creator, as essential to society.
Adapted from The Habit of Poetry: The Literary Lives of Nuns in Mid-Century America, by Nick Ripatrazone, courtesy Fortress Press. Copyright Nick Ripatrazone, 2023.