Kill Your Heroes: Examining Marianne Moore’s Fraught Racial, Misogynistic, and Capitalist Politics

Gwendolyn Brooks had already become the first African American woman to win a Pulitzer Prize in Poetry when fellow poet Marianne Moore sent this letter to the Arts Club in Chicago about a reading she was giving there in 1953:

A typed letter on letterhead, written and signed by Marianne Moore. The document reads: 260 Cumberland Street, Brooklyn 5, New York. October 15, 1953. Dear Mrs. Shaw, Your altering the time of my program without protest, I feel more than I can say; careless as I was. I had no reason for specifying three o'clock! As for guests, Nicholas Joost Editor of POETRY, 1020 Lake Shore Drive, Chicago Illinois, has proffered me very handsome combined hospitality. Miss Marion Strobel, he says, suggested my staying at her home. He mentions Gwendolyn Brooks, Henry Rago, and Elder Olson and Reuel Denney, and Isabella Gardner. Could you send Mr. Joost a combined invitation to my Arts Club program? to include the above named. --omitting Gwendolyn Brooks, alas, if the Club is not in the habit of welcoming Negros. The following sentence is handwritten: I am very (underlined) pro-Negro but don't wish to take you by surprise. The rest is typewritten again. Mr. Zabel, 1100 Pratt Boulevard, -- I should like to have invited but I must write to him; may I not tell him that you invite him if he can take time to come to the Arts Club? saving you the writing of a letter. I shall do this. I feel that an invitation is a menace; one hesitates sometimes to refuse lest one seem discourteous. If you can suggest that the above writers are welcome but not expected if too busy to come, I should feel more considerate than to seem to expect them. Sincerely yours, (hand signed) Marianne Moore.

The handwriting may be hard to parse, but after Moore types that the Arts Club may omit Brooks from attending the reading if the club is “not in the habit of welcoming Negroes,” Moore adds in, “I am very pro-Negro but don’t wish to take you by surprise.”

This letter was par for the course in her career of problematic politics. During the 20th century push for women’s rights, Moore’s writing led to her being touted as a feminist leader. T.S. Eliot said of Moore’s poetry at the time, “One never forgets that it is written by a woman; but with both one never thinks of this particularity as anything but a positive virtue.” Despite Eliot’s internal and external misogyny (In The Letters of T.S. Eliot, he writes that women’s literary pursuits at the time were dilettante and could only repeat what they had heard about literature from critical sources, instead of expressing their own original opinions about the art they like), he championed Moore as a poet of feminist esteem, and endeavored to amplify her voice as a trailblazer of the time. And he was not alone. Moore worked in a library for a brief period to sustain her writing. However, she also received financial and material gifts from wealthy white literary figures, such as Scofield Thayer, James Sibley Watson, and Bryher (Annie Winifred Ellerman). Meanwhile, even on the day Brooks won the Pultizer, she had no electricity in her home. She could not afford to pay the bill, and was not aided, as Moore was, by the literati. Moore was afforded the advantage to focus solely on her compositions thanks to these “generous” gifts or rather, profits of whiteness. Chauvinistically, she was chosen by the literary elite as the token female poet of that contemporary period and when reading her work, it is easy to see why. Cynthia Hogue writes that Moore’s poetry has been described as a “radical or social conservatism” where the “writing practice is informed by an earlier feminism’s ethos of service.” Moore wrote in syllabics and often rhymes, a tradition that engages with and has always pleased the patriarchal canon. In an introduction to Moore’s Selected Poems, Eliot wrote in the introduction of Moore,

My conviction, for what it is worth, has remained unchanged for the last fourteen years: that Miss Moore’s poems form part of the small body of durable poetry written in our time; of that small body of writings, among what passes for poetry, in which an original sensibility and alert intelligence and deep feeling have been engaged in maintaining the life of the English language.

The femininity in her writing performed a masculine principle that was not too radical, nor too conservative for the posturing of the predominantly male poetry community at that time. Let’s take a look at Moore’s poem The Hero.” She writes,

like Pilgrim having to go slow
to find his roll; tired but hopeful—
hope not being hope
until all ground for hope has
vanished; and lenient, looking
upon a fellow creature’s error with the
feelings of a mother—a
woman or a cat. The decorous frock-coated Negro
by the grotto

answers the fearless sightseeing hobo
who asks the man she’s with, what’s this,
what’s that, where’s Martha
buried, “Gen-ral Washinton
there; his lady, here”; speaking
as if in a play— not seeing her; with a
sense of human dignity
and reverence for mystery, standing like the shadow
of the willow.

It is easy to see from these lines the conservative feminist and racial politics Moore employs in her writing. Within a few lines, she moves from using the gendered metaphor of the highly emotional “feelings” of women, and then furthering it by coupling women with the often used cat-lady stereotype. She then undercuts her use racist use of “Negro” and previous misogynist lines by having the female “Negro” ask questions of Martha Washington and then having the speaker question the tour guides dignity in seeing both the “Negro” woman and women’s dignity. A radical conservatism in just 18 lines that has jarred and tricked the most ‘liberal’ of readers.  

Moore’s politics were not only racially obtuse, but they were also filled with internalized misogyny with regard to female sexuality, motherhood, and poverty. These beliefs came to a head, especially in Moore’s interactions with other female poets of her time. In 1961, Sylvia Plath wrote to Moore asking her for a letter of recommendation for the Guggenheim Award. Plath, pregnant with her second child, reasonably needed the money so she could work on her next book while maintaining her responsibilities as a wife, mother, and scholar. Unbeknownst to Plath, Moore sent this letter to the Guggenheim Committee:

A copy of a typed letter by Marianne Moore. It is difficult to read, and there are many typos. It reads: Sylvia Plath Hughes won a Glasscock Award at My. HOlyoak when I was a judge work was attractive as well as talented U I thought and think her very gifted but feel cold toward this "project." And way of presenting it. You are not subsidized for having a baby especially in view of a world population explosion. You should look before you leap and examine your world-potentialities of responsibility contributing -- as a contributory parent. Sylvia Plath has been specializing lately in gruesome detail, worms and germs and spiritual flatness. Her husband Ted Hughes has moral force and twice the talent she has, won the (unclear) verse-book contest with WH Auden, Stephen Spender, and me, as judges and I'd rather give the money to him to continue his work on than give it to Sylvia.

Perhaps the most glaring part of this letter, is when Moore suggests Plath should not be subsidized for having a baby and the money should be given to Ted Hughes, Plath’s husband who had already received a Guggenheim Award in the year prior. Moore’s conservative ideologies towards women cannot even parse that Hughes is also the father of those children and giving him the money would just as well subsidize him for having a baby. Keep in mind, Moore at this time was receiving financial support for her writing from the white literary elite, proving that Moore only understood subsidy for writing as a patriarchal gain from a patriarchal institution. Moore resented Plath for interlacing motherhood, femininity, and writing. Intellectualism and sexuality had to be separate for her. This demonstrates how Moore’s understanding of writing is inherently masculine, believing the true spirit of composing a poem, comes from a body of male performance. Along with this, in 1962, Moore was asked by Plath’s editors at Knopf for an approbation of Plath’s book The Colossus, a collection that contained poems explicitly about sexuality, gender, and, more specifically, gender in consideration of the male body. Moore refused, saying “I do not like the book, especially anything by Sylvia Plath,” writing that the poems were “bitter, frost-bitten, burnt out, averse.”  

Fast forward to present-day, where Moore’s precarious racial, feminist, and capitalist politics are almost completely eradicated from the conversation. As a writer and literary student, throughout my high school and undergraduate studies, Moore was taught in almost every poetry or advanced literature class I took (sometimes as the only woman) and hailed by educators as a feminist emblem whose work was formally experimental and radically eclectic. It wasn’t until last year, in a graduate course, that our professor provided us with these supplemental documents that go along with Moore’s poetry career. Upon further research, I found out these documents are not easily acccesible. The Moore-Plath clash can be found through some rigorous digging on the internet but the Moore-Brooks documentation is largely hidden in archives at The Newberry Library in Chicago that very few people have access to. So, the question I have asked myself, and of the readers of Moore’s work, is how do we grapple with all of this information, especially in our current political climate? I am not suggesting that Moore should never be read or taught again, but I am suggesting that it is of utmost importance to indeed, grapple. Why and what is the cost of reading Moore without the knowledge of her wealthy, white feminism?

Engaging with Moore, Brooks, and Plath, I think of something actress Viola Davis said recently at a Women in the World event in Los Angeles: “I have a career that’s probably comparable to Meryl Streep, Julianne Moore, Sigourney Weaver. They all came out of Yale, they came out of Juilliard, they came out of NYU. They had the same path as me, and yet I am nowhere near them, not as far as money, not as far as job opportunities, nowhere close to it.” Viola Davis names Meryl Streep for us, presenting with us the perfect parallel for Moore. Writer Amy Zimmerman says rightly of Streep that she is “the perfect storm of racial ignorance and intersectional apathy,” a phrase that I would also attribute to Moore. Because of Moore and Streep’s whiteness and just the right amount of ‘radical’ views, they become the acceptable model for what a moderate society deems as “feminist.” If we look back at Moore’s letter to the Arts Club where she says, “I am very pro-Negro but don’t wish to take you by surprise” we can see this racial ignorance and intersectional ennui at play.

In 2015, for Time Magazine, Streep was photographed smiling and wearing a shirt that said, “I’d rather be a rebel than a slave.” Both Moore and Streep’s ‘statements’ are racially insensitive while erasing the real racism of the women’s movement and thus increasing the license of being a white woman with the privilege to write that letter or wear that shirt. This becomes dangerous when we consider language, power, and access. Moore’s Collected Poems have been issued in different formats five times since 1951, with the most recent collection being released last year in 2017. On the other hand, the majority of Gwendolyn Brooks’ work is out of print, including her Pulitzer winning book Annie Allen (unless of course you have an extra $300 to drop on one of the fifteen copies on Amazon). In Childish Gambino’s song Hold Me Down, he raps “I won’t stop until they say James Franco is the white Donald Glover.” Viola Davis says “People say, you’re a Black Meryl Streep. You are. And we love you. We love you.” In our current political situation, society is still positioning African American artists as the reproductions of established white models, not considering the history and harm of naming utmost value to someone with confounded racial politics and access to larger audiences provided by their whiteness. I think also of Tarana Burke, an African American civil rights activist who started the “Me Too” phrase in order to raise awareness of the pervasiveness of sexual abuse and assault in society back in 2006. But in 2017, actress Alyssa Milano co-opted the phrase, urging her followers to use it as a hashtag. It took millions of tweets and posts before Alyssa Milano acknowledged publicly that the phrase was actually started by Burke. As we can see from the 60 years in between Moore and our white feminist icons now, the fiscal propriety and celebrity surrounding white female “icons” in concordance with race, class, and gender remains largely unchanged from our history. This is precisely why Moore’s racist and classist politics are left out of her narrative, because Moore’s brand of feminism still dominates the conversation. Like Hollywood and most contemporary institutions, the literary community falsely points to female writers of color and women of lower class in our current political climate as leaders, when in fact, they are merely gestures to the community, and our progress fails to account for any of our history. For example, in 2016 the first-ever literary publishing industry-wide Diversity-Baseline Survey was conducted and released. The numbers came back overall 79% white.

The literary community is complicit in revisionist history by teaching and reading Moore without understanding who she was outside of her poetry. Moore’s famous long poem “MARRIAGE” which is traditionally read as an overt feminist text, becomes a different poem when considering her interactions with Plath. Upon first look at the poem, one might think Moore is making cynical, witty commentary on the state of the institution. In the poem she writes, “some have merely rights while some have obligations.” Moore is engaging with her own politics of married heterosexual relationships in these lines. Knowing what we know from the supplemental documents, these lines stand to justify Moore in her views of female sexuality. The relationship is unequal and interdependent and removes the possibility of simultaneous freedom and union between a man and woman. Instead of reading this as a commentary on the troubled power dynamics of marriage in 1923 when the poem was written, I argue we must read it with our knowledge of Moore. If we place Plath’s marriage to Hughes in the poem, Plath has obligations to fulfill her duties as wife and mother, but not the rights Hughes has, to wander, write, and according to Moore, be rewarded financially and artistically for his position in the marriage. If we engage with the poem on a strictly textual level, it’s like praising Streep for her role in the film Suffragette, where she plays the role of a Suffragette leader in hiding, suffering from the consequences of her radical feminism, but not recognizing the political implications of her playing that role. In addition, we can look at Moore’s poem “The Jeroba” She writes,

Africanus meant
the conqueror sent
from Rome. It should mean the
untouched: the sand-brown jumping-rat—free-born; and
the blacks, that choice race with an elegance
ignored by one’s ignorance.

In these lines, we can explicitly see Moore’s weakness in thinking about race outside of her whiteness. As with her letter about Brooks, Moore sees “black” as “other” and Cristianne Miller writes that Moore is “idealizing the otherness by marking it as admirable…” This fits exactly with Moore’s view of Brooks and her poetry. Moore claims to be pro-Black if it is to her benefit but if not, she can also be anti-Black. Just as Moore sees the Black body as a good use of metaphor for seeming appraisal undercut by innate colonial racism. I use these two examples because it is important to understand that Moore’s poetry lives off the page, just as lived experience lives in the textuality of her poetry. What happens when her chiefly white readership encounters these lines without the incremental insight of Moore’s worldview? They live as a metaphor of perpetuation and accordance from someone being taught as liberal and radical for her time, when we know this is not the case.   

The impetuousness of Moore’s politics is not particularly unique to the literary community. Consider the lack of engagement in classrooms with T.S. Eliot’s anti-Semitism or Ezra Pound and Walt Whitman’s racism. The difference between Moore and these male figures, is the pedestal on which white women are too easily placed, for demonstrating even a shred of humanity. It is a different kind of engagement to leave out Eliot’s anti-Semitism than it is to present Moore or Streep as having utmost radical tendencies. This leads readers or viewers to look towards these figures in times of crisis. What becomes of interpretation if the reading is boiled down to an assessment that is perpetuated by people who are not engaging with the histories of these figures?

Like our contemporary state of the union, the poetry community needs a newly engaged poetry that does not turn away from our historical influences and leaders of the craft. Poets of color are expected by the literary community to write or engage with politically conditioned work. In essence, they are expected to do the work for us. It is white readers, scholars, educators who must contest with and teach someone like Moore’s indifference and erasure of the racial and feminine.

So long as figures like Moore are allowed to overshadow the writers they actively sought to suppress, such as Gwendolyn Brooks, readers will never truly be able to engage with the history of feminism and women’s writing. Editors, publishers, and educators must demand a wider dissemination of the works of marginalized writers, and tell the truth about our white feminist icons, as we move to hold men of letters accountable, as well.


A photograph of writer Julianne Neely taken with blue and pink gels. The right half of her face is cast in blue. She has short dark hair tucked behind her ears, and is wearing a sleeveless denim vest. A tattoo is visible on her left arm. She's gazing to the left, to something or someone unknown to the viewer.JULIANNE NEELY is an MFA candidate at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, where she received the Truman Capote Fellowship and was awarded the 2017 John Logan Poetry Prize. Her writing has been published in Enclave, The Rumpus, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, Hobart, LEVELER, Pacifica Literary Review, New Orleans Review, and is forthcoming from the Bennington Review. Her chapbook The Body Beside Herself is forthcoming from Slope Editions in April 2018.