Biography of a forgotten poet who used his name and influence to speak up for those on the margins of society.
Few surnames resonate in American history more than Beecher. The family’s abolitionist ministers, educators, and writers are central figures in the historical narrative of the United States. The Beechers’ influence was greatest in the nineteenth century, but the family story continued—albeit with less public attention—with a descendant who grew up in Birmingham, Alabama, during the early twentieth century. John Beecher (1904–1980) never had the public prominence of his famous ancestors, but as a poet, professor, sociologist, New Deal administrator, journalist, and civil rights activist, he spent his life fighting for the voiceless and oppressed with a distinct moral sensibility that reflected his self-identification as the twentieth-century torchbearer for his famous family. While John Beecher had many vocations in his lifetime, he always considered himself a poet and a teacher. Some critics have compared the populist elements of Beecher’s poetry to the work of Walt Whitman and Carl Sandburg, but his writing never gained a broad audience or critical acclaim during his lifetime. In Here I Stand: The Life and Legacy of John Beecher, Angela J. Smith examines Beecher’s writing and activism and places them in the broader context of American culture at pivotal points in the twentieth century. Employing his extensive letters, articles, unpublished poetry and prose, and audio interviews in addition to his numerous published books, Smith uncovers a record of public concerns in American history ranging from the plight of workers in 1920s steel mills to sharecroppers’ struggles during the Depression to the civil rights movement of the 1960s.