Jessica Nelson North:
Recalling The Reaches Of Silence And Sound
By LaMoine MacLaughlin
If anyone asks, tell him that the wind mislaid me
In a high, forgetful place.
(from “Travail,” in Dinner Party, 1942)
Among children’s literature, everyone considers Sterling North’s Rascal a classic. He also wrote other books which have delighted readers everywhere—and justly so. His hometown of Edgerton, Wisconsin annually celebrates the Sterling North Book Fair and Film Festival, gathering authors and fans from far and wide in his honor. His family home in Edgerton (the setting of Rascal), now open as a museum, has been restored to its 1917 setting. One of the major characters in Rascal is Sterling’s older sister Jessica, portrayed when she was twenty-five years old. A couple of years ago I asked one of the Edgerton promoters of the Sterling North celebration about Jessica Nelson North, and the person did not know that Sterling even had a sister. Sterling’s daughter Arielle, also an author, has remembered Jessica as “…my favorite aunt, enthusiastic and very bright. I can remember her reciting (by heart) reams and reams of poetry, old and new, even into her nineties. She wrote fine poetry herself, for a broad audience from small children to thoughtful adults. She was like a second mother to my dad, Sterling North, …and he adored her. As adults, they had lively discussions about the literary world, agreeing or disagreeing about various authors and literary styles. Both were so knowledgeable and quick witted, it was fun listening to them.” While Sterling North’s work completely justifies his popularity, it has completely and unjustly eclipsed the achievement of his sister, Jessica Nelson North.
Jessica Nelson North, born in Madison, Wisconsin in 1891, grew up on the shore of picturesque Lake Koshkonong. Her father, David Willard North, farmed with his wife, Sarah Elizabeth (Nelson) North, near Edgerton. Sarah died while Sterling was very young, and he survived polio in his teens under the care of his sister Jessica. Lucy M. Freibert, a Women’s Studies pioneer at the University of Louisville, has described Jessica Nelson North as “a precocious child (who) memorized and recited poetry from the time she could speak. By the age of five, she read the newspaper and composed rhymes…(and) in her youth…competed successfully with other young poets, including Edna St. Vincent Millay, in the contests conducted by Mary Mapes Dodge, editor of St. Nicholas Magazine.” Jessica received a bachelor's degree from Lawrence College in Appleton, Wisconsin and went on to graduate school at the University of Chicago, where she presided over the University of Chicago Poetry Club and edited the Adelphean and the History of Alpha Delta Pi. In 1912 she published a little children’s poem entitled “Three Guests” in St. Nicholas: An Illustrated Magazine for Young Folks. The poem has been widely distributed, often with no attribution.
I had a little tea party
This afternoon at three.
‘Twas very small—
Three guests in all—
Just I, myself and me.
Myself ate all the sandwiches,
While I drank up the tea;
‘Twas also I who ate the pie
And passed the cake to me.
She married Reed Inness MacDonald in 1921 and in time, had two children.
For many years, North worked on the staff of Chicago’s Poetry: A Magazine of Verse. She was regularly published there during the twenties, thirties, and forties. The magazine’s history lists North from 1928 as an assistant to editor Harriet Monroe, working alongside writers such as Lew Sarett, Eunice Tietjens, Thornton Wilder (also from Wisconsin), Edith Wyatt (another Wisconsin poet) and others. At one point, Harriet Monroe wrote of her, “Jessica Nelson North…needs no introduction to the readers of Poetry, as she has been on the staff of the magazine for seven or eight years, sometimes taking the place of an absent editor.” In 1936 North succeeded Monroe as editor, and from 1937 to 1942 she jointly edited the magazine with Peter De Vries. From 1942 to 1949 she collaborated as part of a group editorship along with Peter De Vries, George Dillon, John Frederick Nims, Margedant Peters, and Marion Strobel. Finally, from 1949 to 1969, North continued her involvement with Poetry in an advisory capacity. During her writing career, in Poetry alone, she published more than one hundred fifty poems and articles. Jessica Nelson North died in 1988.
North’s major works include A Prayer Rug (1923), The Long Leash (1928), Arden Acres (1935—which won the Friends of American Writers first novel award), Morning in the Land (1941, her second novel), and Dinner Party (1942). Her three major collections clearly show her development and growth as a poet. In her review of A Prayer Rug, Eunice Tietjens wrote, “Once in a while a book comes from the press which, instead of being a promise, is a fulfillment. This is such a book. There are not a half dozen women in America who could have written its equivalent…. A Prayer Rug, fine as it is, will hardly establish Miss North in her rightful niche. Yet I expect to see her as one of the leading poets of the next generation” (Poetry, August, 1923). This first collection already reflects a thoughtful and careful artistic apprenticeship, a skilled and refined talent, and a clear understanding of the poetic craft exemplified in the following poem.
A Frosty Night
Breath of the dying vines,
That whistles and is still . . .
The brazen moonbeams clang like coins
On our window-sill.
The earth with grief is big,
Frost has stripped her of green.
The harsh peak of a barren twig
Tickles our screen.
We should be up and forth,
The air is white with death.
A hand is stretched out of the north
Stopping our breath.
In 1927 she received the John Reed Memorial Prize “…not only for her group of five poems, Impersonal, in our December number, but for her earlier entries, and for the general quality of her recent work, as evidenced by notable contributions to The Forge, the London Mercury, and other magazines” (Poetry, November, 1927). Her second book of poetry, The Long Leash (1928), was selected by the
Poetry Club as one of the best volumes of the year. In his review of the book, Horace Gregory said, “Her poetry is largely a technique of restraint…. Jessica North’s promise lies in her ability to hunt down an emotion, size it up and then hand it an exact definition. So far this is her real contribution to contemporary poetry” (Poetry, March, 1929). Consider the concrete imagery and understatement she employs in the following selection.
Now is the season of frost, lovely and cruel,
Taking the world in strong transparent hands,
When country children gather boughs for fuel
Along the bottom lands.
What do you know of frost, you who only
See it out of a warm, well-lighted pane
Under the roof where pigeons in the sun
Chuckle and strut and coo?
Once I knew
That to be cold was to be never lonely,
That to be cold was to feel iron enter
Into your heart out of the iron ground
To hear the core of fire at the earth’s center
Endlessly turning round,
To give one’s body over without sound
Into the arms of winter.
In 1942, Dinner Party evidences the work of someone who remained true to her concept of form, reflecting an ease in composition and a polished grace. John Frederick Nims, while reviewing the book in Poetry (June, 1943), said, “It would be an unfortunate thing for modern poetry if the quiet excellence of Dinner Party…did not gain the attention it deserves….” He goes on to describe her technique as “…the art which conceals art, so rare in a show-off generation…. Almost every poem reveals strength and sensitivity in the conception, control and grace in the expression. Everything is deft, firm, and musical….” We can hear a wonderfully mature music flowing through all of her poems.
Once on a summer beach her moment caught her,
Child of the lake, recumbent and adoring,
As if the shore had snatched her from the water,
Liquid she lay—miraculous outpouring,
Her loins more undulant than waves, her hands
More languid than the sands.
She heard above her countless human voices,
Their strident syllables beginning, ending,
She thought the stony earth was making noises,
While she, like water, lay uncomprehending.
Only the ripples could she understand,
Insistent on the sand.
And in this final collection she could be as playful as she had been in 1912.
Advice To A Girl Child
Daughter, observe the mating dove
And be not eager after love,
But preen your breast
And wheel and rest,
And let the springtime do its best.
Daughter, observe the anchored flower
That sure and steadfast waits its hour.
The world’s a-hum,
Sit sweet and dumb,
And take whatever bee may come.
For nearly fifty years, from the 1920s through the 1960s, Jessica Nelson North published her own work, and exercised editorial leadership in publishing many of the major poets of the twentieth century. We would do well to rediscover and applaud the beauty her poetry. Her voice still sings to us today with a timeless elegance and loveliness. On our shelves, next to her brother’s children’s books, Jessica Nelson North deserves her own special place. Among Wisconsin writers, her poems deserve a very special ranking in our literary esteem.
Here I lie like a storm-buffeted sparrow
Tossed out of the reaches of silence and sound….
(from “Travail,” in Dinner Party, 1942)