H. H. Lewis

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Harold Harwell Lewis (January 13, 1901- January 24, 1985), or H.H. Lewis as he become known, was an American poet and communist during the 1930s through the 1970s. He was one of four children born to Thomas and Catherine Tisdale Lewis near Cape Girardeau, Missouri.[1]

He received his secondary education at the Southeast Missouri State Normal School Training School, which is now named Southeast Missouri State University. During the Great Depression, Lewis traveled as a common laborer in the Southwest. Away from his parents for the first time, Lewis was incredibly poor and many of his encounters and experiences traveling would fuel his future career.

That "stove-devil," heat-blanched and heat-crazed, gaunt and flagrantly dirty, up against it for twelve hours daily, received $60 per month. The waiters got $1.25 per day. The restaurant belonged to a chain of such for dime-gripping bums and low-paid working-stiffs. Came gringos and greasers for coffee and stew, hash, beans—a large bowl of brown beans for a dime. Came Negroes, humblest of all. Came "mouthmen" and "wolves," proletarian beasts of the ghastliest ilk. From the poverty of America, in this bottomless hell, came these contorted and condemned souls.

H.H. Lewis on his slide into poverty. Found in the Anvil, 1933[2]

He eventually returned to the family farm to pursue a career of freelance writing, including publishing his own magazine, The Outlander.[1] For a brief period in the 1930s Lewis enjoyed a small measure of acclaim and was described as "the red-starred laureate, the Joe Hill of the Communist Movement" by Malcolm Cowley in The New Republic. An editor of Partisan Review, in a testy exchange with Lewis, called him "a necrophilic son of a cretin". Heralded as a rising star of proletarian literature by V. F. Calverton and editors of the Soviet publication, International Literature, Lewis seemed destined to stir up controversy.[2]

H.H. Lewis had a close friendship with famous writer William Carlos Williams, to whom Lewis represented a fresh and vigorous voice in the search for the "low-down Americano," or common man. With such support, magazines began to publish Lewis's prose and poetry, including Mencken's The American Mercury, Conroy's The Anvil, The New Republic, and numerous others. In 1937, Lewis's poetry won the prestigious Harriet Monroe Literary Prize.[1] His poem, "Farmhands' Refrain," first published in Poetry, was anthologized in the 1952 edition of Oscar Williams's A Little Treasury of Modern Poetry but dropped from subsequent editions.[2]

Git plumb outta breath,
Git strangled to death
On de T-bones in de sky?

H.H. Lewis lines from "Tractors Eat Kerosene"[2]

Lewis tried to embrace the voice of the people, writing in the vernacular as well as writing in a style commonly referred to as Grammar B. He wrote both poetry and prose on the conditions of Native Americans, African-Americans, and sharecroppers that were unique at the time. His writings were translated into Japanese, French, German, and Russian and he was widely praised and popular in the Soviet Union for his proletarian and revolutionary sympathies.

After several unsuccessful attempts to secure a Guggenheim Fellowship to support research on sharecroppers, Lewis devoted the rest of his life to exposing subversive threats to his country at home and abroad.[1] His poetry and essays often focus on the plight of the sharecropper or on various conspiracy theories he harbored. He was interested particularly in conspiracies relating to the attack on Pearl Harbor and the roles played by the Communist Party and the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

He recorded the story of his life in an autobiographical story “Down the Skidway"[1] and, in 1981, Lewis was the subject of the film “The Farmhand Poet”. He died in Chaffee, Missouri and is buried in Cape Girardeau.[3]

References

  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 1.4 H. H. Lewis Collection, Special Collections and Archives, Southeast Missouri State University. Descriptive Overview.
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 Wixson, Douglas C. (2006) [http://muse.jhu.edu/demo/william_carlos_williams_review/v026/26.1wixson.html In Search of the Low-Down Americano: H. H. Lewis, William Carlos Williams, and the Politics of Literary Reception, 1930–1950], William Carlos Williams Review 26.1 75-100 (page 79)
  3. H. H. Lewis Collection, Special Collections and Archives, Southeast Missouri State University. Container List, Series IV