"By the gracious conditions of this fellowship, the first of its kind in America, it was decided that I should simply continue my own work as a poet and dramatist, informally in touch with the life of the university, where a studio has been built for me in a quiet grove of the campus." --Percy MacKayeOne of the newest fashions in American colleges is to have a working artist on location. Poets, novelists, painters, sculptors, composers--they are a new kind of academic man. The colleagues of chemists, anthropologists, historians and teachers of freshman English, they have no textbook and no classroom. Yet they belong to the academic program, not the sideshows, of the campus. If it is worthwhile for a university to study artistic work it must also be worthwhile to support the artists who create it. There are now scores of artists-in-residence in American universities. The idea began in Oxford almost fifty years ago.
In November 1920, at the annual meeting of the National Association of State Universities in Washington, President R. M. Hughes of Miami University was assigned an indefinite topic: "The Most Important University Problem." Always a brief man, he spoke for four minutes on a problem which had plagued none of his presidential colleagues. "It may not be the most urgent problem from the university standpoint," he granted, "but tremendously urgent from the point of view of the country." He proposed that the universities become the patron of creative artists.
The reasons were ready: At the close of World War I the United States had entered an age of prosperity and power; now, if ever, should come a golden age of art. Writers, painters, composers were not wanting, but patronage was. "There is no one that is in the main more poorly paid than the creative artist." In the past the great artists have been under the patronage of the nobility, or of the rich, or occasionally of the state. In America there is no institution so fitted to be the patron of art as the colleges and universities. And--the gift is to the giver--"nothing would do more to leaven the increasing materialism of the American university than to have a great creative artist working on the campus."
A definite man--he had originally been a chemist--President Hughes then listed some artists who would grace any college in the land. Among the poets: Witter Bynner, Bliss Carman, Robert Frost, Vachel Lindsay, Edwin Arlington Robinson, Percy MacKaye, Sara Teasdale. Among the painters: Frank Benson, Cecelia Beaux, Paul Daughtery, Robert Henri, Joseph Pennell, Abbot Thayer. Among the musicians: Arthur Farwell, Ruben Goldmark, Edgar Stillman-Kelley, Charles Martin Loeffler. Among the sculptors: George Grey Bernard, Frederic MacMonnies, Paul Manship, Lorado Taft. Two of these artists, he said--Edgar Stillman-Kelley and Percy MacKaye--already held fellowships at the Western College and Miami University respectively. He might have added that the two fellows were neighbors in the village of Oxford, Ohio.
There was a final word, in those four minutes, about the duties attaching to the fellowship. It was not a professorship; it involved no academic assignment. The artist's sole obligation was to work in his own way in his chosen field. President Hughes thought there were between fifty and a hundred colleges in America that could support a working artist.
The first response was in the press--not only in educational journals but in mass magazines and daily newspapers. "A most enlightened business," Walter Lippman called it. Collier's editorialized "A New Hope for Artists." Said the New York Globe: "Our material wealth and material aims have brought us to a climax of indecision and moral futility. It would be no more than fair if we should endow a few chairs of creative writing with a little of the wealth which burdens us, in the hope of finding leaders to deliver us from the sunbaked wilderness of pure commercialism." And the Christian Science Monitor: "For a bold step forward of the progressive ideal . . . keep an eye on the little town of Oxford, Ohio."
In that little town, across a meadow from each other, lived the first two artists-in-residence. They were close friends in Oxford, and before. In fact young Stillman-Kelley's first New York commission, in 1887, had come from Steele MacKaye, Percy's father--the composing of an overture and interludes for Paul Kauvar, MacKaye's drama of the French Revolution which contained pointed parallels with the recent Haymarket riots in Chicago. The Percy MacKayes and the Stillman-Kelleys met later in London, at the first European performance of MacKaye's Jeanne D'Arc, and still later in Berlin where Stillman-Kelley was composing and teaching.
In 1910 President Guy Potter Benton, in Berlin on sabbatical leave from Miami University, became acquainted with the Stillman-Kelleys. After eight years abroad Edgar Stillman-Kelley had thought of returning to America; Berlin was too gay and too expensive for a composer with his big work yet to do. President Benton wanted to invite him to Miami where he could work in quiet and security, but before his arrangements were made a cable came to Jessie Stillman-Kelley saying that Western College, in the same Ohio villages, needed a piano teacher. Six months later she was teaching at Western College, and in an empty farmhouse on the edge of Oxford her husband was beginning work on his New England Symphony. She soon won him an artist's fellowship, and President Boyd of Western College built them a cottage in the wooded campus. There in his roomy studio Edgar Stillman-Kelley composed his pre-eminent work, the musical miracle play Pilgrim's Progress.
In 1919 in the intermission of a New York performance of Pilgrim's Progress, Percy MacKaye appeared at the Stillman-Kelley's box. "This is a stupendous work," said MacKaye, "Where did you find time and quiet to think it all out?" When Stillman-Kelley explained his connections with Western College, MacKaye asked , "Would there be a place for me?"
Among visitors to the Stillman-Kelley studio in Oxford was Guy Potter Benton's successor, and it was natural that President Hughes should think of establishing an artist's fellowship at Miami. When he asked where he might find the right artist, the Stillman-Kelleys had the answer. Soon Percy MacKaye and his family arrived in Oxford.
A house was ready for them, on the site of present Hamilton Hall, but MacKaye looked doubtfully at an airless work room on the balcony of the Library, with a row of windows just under the high ceiling. What he wanted was a low roof and a fireplace. Three months later he moved into a studio cabin--the students called it "the poet's shack"--in the deep woods of the lower campus. That winter at a plank table beside the broad fireplace he began writing a long narrative poem.
Inland among the lonely cedar dellsWhen Dogtown Common was finished in March 1921, MacKaye read it to a group in the Stillman-Kelley studio. He had a cold that evening. Coming in out of the raw night he looked both drawn and swollen. When he took off his coat there was a hot water bottle, slung around his neck. But in the swing of his reading--
Of old Cape Ann, near Gloucester by the sea,
Still live the dead in homes that used to be.
There lie the lonely commons of the dead--he forgot his distress. Warmed by his own voice he threw off the hot water bottle and gave himself to the spectral tale of witchcraft in colonial New England. A few nights later he read the poem to an audience of students and faculty in Benton Hall. He was a slender, intense and lonely figure on the wide platform, a hand darting up to push back his loose shock of hair, his voice rising and falling like the sea-surge of Cape Ann.
The houseless homes of Dogtown. Still their souls
Tenant the black doorsteps and the cellar holes. . . .
That spring MacKaye wrote an article on "University Fellowships in Creative Art," published in The Forum. "Secluded in the quiet of a great grove, my studio . . . has already afforded opportunity for a kind of uninterrupted thought and creative experiment. . . . And it has also provided occasion for a kind of informal interchange of ideas and friendship with both faculty and students."
Here Percy MacKaye gave himself the benefit of the doubt. A producing poet he was--three books during his three years at Miami--but he was not a magnet to whom students and faculty were drawn. A shy and aloof man, not easily approachable, he kept his colleagues at a distance. His first studio open house brought on a headache, his wife pressing cold cloths to his brow while the student sat stiff and still in the firelight. Once a week an English class came through the woods, guided by the yellow lamplight in his window. They found the poet distantly friendly, with a basket of red apples on the table. While they munched apples and watched the fire, he read some stanzas from "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner." Some nights his daughter Arvia helped to bridge the gap, passing hot roasted chestnuts between the students' halting questions on contemporary poetry.
MacKaye sighed when the weekly visit ended. He poked up the fire,
laid out his books and papers, and happily lost himself in This Fine
Pretty World, a folk play of the mountain people in the remote
hollows of Kentucky. Long after midnight his lantern groped out of
the forest path, his shadow scissoring across
the college yard. Beyond the fields he saw a light burning in
If not a lively exchange with the community, there was the example of a man at work in his own way, in the urgency of his imagination. For the academy the artist has a touch of mystery and power. Crossing the quiet campus, passing to the library or the faculty club, he is not bounded there. He belongs also to the arena--the symphony halls, the galleries, the literary supplements. He knows a world beyond the ivy walls.
Occasionally MacKaye left the campus for a lecture trip or a visit to his publishers. During this first Ohio winter he met Robert Frost in New York. Frost: "Percy, where are you living now?" MacKaye: "I'm at a college. In Ohio." Frost: "What are you doing there?" MacKaye: "Just living, writing. Robert, you ought to get a college to support you." Frost: "How can I get one?" MacKaye: "I'll talk to President Hughes. He'll have an idea." A few months later Robert Frost became poet-in-residence at the University of Michigan.
Meanwhile Frost had written to MacKaye in Oxford: "The arts seem to have to depend on favor more or less. In the old days it was the favor of kings and courts. In our day far better your solution, that it should be colleges, if the colleges could be brought to see their responsibility in the matter. We are sure to be great in the world for power and wealth. . . . But someone who has time will have to take thought that we shall be remembered five thousand years from now for more than success in war and trade. Someone will have to feel that it would be the ultimate shame if we were to pass like Carthage (great in war and trade) and leave no trace of spirit."
In Oxford Percy MacKaye found one friend from past years in New York. Ridggely Torrence had been persuaded to leave the staff of Cosmopolitan magazine for a stint of teaching at Miami; in New York he had lived in William Vaughan Moody's apartment, near Washington Square, which had once, also, been the home of the MacKayes. Now in the Torrences' second-floor rooms on Campus Avenue the two families met again. One winter afternoon Torrence read the poem he had written years earlier for wide-eyed Arvia MacKaye, now a Miami student.
Arvia, east of the morning,In his classroom up the creaking third-floor stairs in the old main building Ridgely Torrence was miles away from his students. But they remembered something grave and ardent in his presence, and the long hair lightly trained across his fine bald brow.
Before the daylight grayed,
I heard a night-song's warning:
"This bubble-world shall fade.". . .
Torrence went back to New York, becoming poetry editor of the
New Republic. Two years later the MacKayes returned to New
Hampshire, and the abandoned "poet's shack" in Miami woods was
claimed by squirrels and field mice. It was pulled down before 1941
when Ridgely Torrence came again to Miami, as a fellow in
creative literature. In the University guest house, next door to his
old friend President Upham--alphabetical seating had placed them
together in the college chapel forty-five years
before--Torrence worked on his biography of the Negro educator
John Hope and occasionally met groups of students. He had
previously, in 1938, been poet-in-residence at Antioch
College. It was a familiar appointment then.
Now the artist-in-residence has a definite place in American colleges, a place so definite that a faculty may seem incomplete without him. He contributes something precious to the college, as President Hughes saw fifty years ago, and in turn the college sustains him. It gives him a measure of security; it also gives him a community to belong to. Too many claims may be bondage for an artist, but a few claims are vital. Robert Frost has made one poet say to another:
Don't join too many gangs. Join few if any,
Join the United States and join the family--
But not much in between unless a college.