Biography

Mary Maguire Colum

(1887-1957)

In November 1931, The English Journal named Mary Colum “the most brilliant of our women critics and one of the most scholarly and far-reaching critics in the [United States]” (Loveman 712). The author, Amy Loveman, contends that Colum would join Stuart Sherman, H.L. Mencken, and Lewis Mumford as one of the “best of our critics … were not her output so small.” By the time of her death in 1957, Colum had more than satisfied Loveman’s requirements. From the 1910s to the 1950s, Colum wrote over 160 articles that not only reviewed current publications but offered general commentary on life and literature. She published articles in well-circulated periodicals such as Scribner’s Magazine, New York Herald-Tribune, and Forum and Century, as well as a few articles in coterie magazines like The Dial and Poetry. She also published a critical inquiry into the foundations of modernist literature, From These Roots: The Ideas that Have Made Modern Literature (1937), and a semi-fictional autobiography, Life and the Dream (1947). Two years after The English Journal’s estimation of Colum, William Rose Benèt wrote in The Saturday Review of Literature, “Everyone of sapience knows that Mary M. Colum, Padraic Colum’s wife, is the best woman critic in America. There is no one in her class” (221).

Colum built her career and reputation in the United States after emigrating from Ireland in 1914 and getting her start at the short-lived Irish periodical The Irish Review (1911-1914). But even after emigrating, she spent extended periods of time in Ireland, England, and continental Europe; she, as one reviewer remarked, “never [forgot] that she [was] an Irish writer” (Maynard). As an Irish writer living and working in the United States, Colum incarnates a particular brand of modern transatlantic print culture.

Colum was well known in top literary circles in New York, New Canaan, the MacDowell Colony in Peterboro, New Hampshire, Dublin, London, and Paris, and she was close friends with W.B. Yeats, James Joyce, Elinor Wylie, Van Wyck Brooks, and Maxwell Perkins. Frequently cited as an authority on literature and criticism up until the early 1960s, Colum not only mixed with the important writers of her time but wrote extensively and intelligently about them. Colum covered a broad expanse of 20th-century literature in her reviews and criticism, writing essays on Yeats, Joyce, and Wylie as well as T.S. Eliot, D.H. Lawrence, Rebecca West, Ernest Hemingway, and Virginia Woolf. As her publications show, Colum understood, supported, and was closely connected to the various experiments being conducted in literature during the modern period. Her centrality to modernism’s culture of reviewing and literary criticism makes any serious survey of modern literature, criticism, and culture incomplete without her.

Colum published her autobiography, Life and the Dream, ten years before her death. The majority of the details, especially those describing Colum’s friends and acquaintances, are historically accurate; however, as Taura Napier and Patricia Rimo have pointed out, small portions of the work are fictional (see Napier’s “The Mosaic ‘I’” and Rimo’s “Mary Colum: Woman of Letters”). Colum stretches her creative faculties in the chapters describing her childhood and rewrites a short story that she had previously published in the brief chapter entitled “Bohemia in London.” Here, I offer a biography based in part on Napier’s and Rimo’s work and supplemented by Life and the Dream, Colum’s private letters and scrapbooks housed in Binghamton’s and Princeton’s special collections, and correspondence with Madeleine Humphreys, who is currently working on a biography of Colum. As I discuss the events in her life that caused Colum to become a respected member of modern intellectual circles, I demonstrate how her experiences and connections shaped her career and characterized her publications and literary insights.

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Mary Colum was born Mary Maguire in Collooney, Co. Sligo in June of 1886 or 1887. After the death of her mother and maternal grandmother, she was sent to the Convent of St. Louis in Monaghan at age thirteen. At eighteen, she left boarding school and entered the National University of Ireland in Dublin where she studied literature. During her time at the university, Colum became fascinated with the Irish Literary Revival. She relates in her autobiography,

We started a club called the Twilight Literary Society from Yeats’s Celtic Twilight, of which I was president; it was small, composed of about twelve literary enthusiasts, but small as our body was, it managed to cut some ice in the literary and artistic circles of our capital city … We were young and eager, and this was our way of having a grand time. We were not satisfied to go to one performance of each of the plays, but went to every performance until we almost knew the plays by heart. Our excitement after opening night was so great that we would stay awake most of the night discussing the play. New literature and new ideas are perhaps always for the young who accept them readily and enthusiastically. (LD 100-1)

 
The Twilight Society’s involvement in turn-of-the-century Dublin’s intellectual proceedings, however, was not limited to haunting the Abbey Theater. Colum recalls her cohort “being visible at every artistic and intellectual function—exhibitions of pictures, private views, meetings of the National Literary Society, the Antiquarian Society, the Theosophical Society over which A.E. used to preside, the Gaelic League, the Feis Ceoil (Musical Festival)” (LD 100). Since Ireland’s capital during this period denied its citizens prototypical modernist anonymity, Colum’s avid participation in Dublin’s literary and artistic circles put her in direct contact with major figures such as W.B. Yeats, James Joyce, A.E., J.M. Synge, and Lady Gregory. She immediately became an admirer, an associate and, in some cases, a close-friend of Dublin’s literati.

Not wanting to leave this exciting literary environment after she graduated, Colum took up teaching English to university students. Soon after, she was drafted to teach for Padraic Pearse at St. Enda’s sister school, St. Ita’s. While there, Colum helped found The Irish Review: “It was characteristic of the period that when the schools designed any outside activity it was likely to be either literary or dramatic. When a literary monthly, the Irish Review, was started, extemporaneously as most things at the time were, the editorial and advisory board was partly composed of members of Pearse’s teaching staff” (LD 157). As the only woman in the group, Colum found herself patronized by the other members who wanted to write the majority of the journal themselves.

Before The Irish Review, Colum had published some short stories in The English Review and The Nation (London); however, it was what Yeats perceived as her “critical prowess” that established the main role she was to play at the Irish monthly and in her subsequent career in the United States (Rimo 12; LD 158). She relates in her autobiography this first turn to criticism: “The Collected Works of John Synge had just been published in Dublin, and Houston, having heard of Yeats’s opinion of my supposed critical prowess, gave the books to me for an essay review” (LD 158). This piece established the role Colum was to play at the review. She quickly became what her husband would later term The Irish Review’s “critic-in-chief” (Padraic Colum, “Thomas MacDonagh,” 42).

Until receiving Yeats’s encouragement, Colum had seen herself as a developing fiction writer. Her Synge piece, which was published in the inaugural issue of The Irish Review and lauds Synge as “one of the number who represent Ireland in European literature … who fairly represents us as a nation at all,” represents an important turning point in Colum’s professional life (“John Synge” 40). It was her first published critical article and it confirmed Yeats’s estimation of her: “Yeats, speaking to me about things I had published in the Irish Review and elsewhere, advised me to become a critic, and though the advice made no particular appeal to me at the time, as I had sold some short stories in London and was bent on writing a novel, I always kept it in mind” (LD 371). This is not to say that Colum took readily to the idea of being a critic; she occasionally published short stories and frequently expressed regret at not becoming an artist in the traditional sense of the word throughout her life. Consequently, Colum took a cue from Oscar Wilde to argue that criticism is not “a stepchild and handmaiden of other arts” but rather a creative force in itself (FTR 2). Justifying her own artistic importance, Colum maintained throughout her career that criticism was not only the most difficult but also the most powerful form of creative work since it could potentially transform literature and life.

Mary married Padraic Colum in 1912. After honeymooning in Sussex, the Colums returned to Dublin to find tickets from Padriac’s aunt in Pittsburgh and an invitation for them to honeymoon in the United States. Having already taken their honeymoon as well as a house in Donnybrook, the Colums returned the tickets but were promptly told that they would receive another set after their lease was up. In 1914, the Colums decided to visit the United States after spending the summer months in a small cottage on Howth Hill and thereby avoiding the hot American summers. While at Howth, Padraic continued as a member of the Irish Volunteers while Mary volunteered at the office of the Irish Women’s Council (otherwise known as Cumann na mBan, an Irish Republican women’s paramilitary organization). On July 26, 1914, the Colums were peripherally involved in the Howth gunrunning as they made their final preparations to leave for the United States.

Colum was not without her own political sympathies; however, she repeatedly proclaimed in her criticism that literature was more important than politics. In this way, Colum upheld The Irish Review’s initial goal of creating a cultural identity for Ireland through the dissemination and critique of literature, art, and science. Although the review, like Colum herself, was partial to Irish nationalism, The Irish Review opened its first issue with the declaration that it wanted to place itself above the fray of political parties by presenting arguments from every side and help Ireland grow as a whole by developing a culture. This emphasis on building a culture through the presentation and critique of literature, art, and science was part of a larger cultural trend in Ireland following the great Parnell split (1890). However, Irish public discourse soon shifted back to politics as political tension grew and finally erupted in the Easter 1916 Rising, the Irish War of Independence (1919-1921), and the Irish Civil War (1922-1923). Avoiding this drastic shift by leaving when she did, Colum brought with her to the United States her turn-of-the-century Dublin belief in cultural freedom.

In August 1914, the Colums set off for what they supposed to be a brief vacation. But due to the encroaching world war as well as unrest in Ireland, they ultimately never made Ireland their home again. While in the United States, the Colums lived predominately in New York City; however, they traveled extensively, spending long periods of time in Paris, Nice, London, Hawaii, and New Canaan. They frequently summered at the MacDowell Colony in Peterboro, New Hampshire and at Louise Crane’s house in Woods Hole, Massachusetts. They also spent a couple winters at Miami University and went on various Midwest lecture tours (Rimo 19-20).

In 1915, Colum published her first American review, “Later Yeats,” in Harriet Monroe and Alice Corbin Henderson’s Poetry. Then, in the early 1920s, Colum made the acquaintance of the new literary editor of The Freeman, Van Wyck Brooks, for whom she wrote 14 reviews from 1921 to 1923. In 1925, the Colums met Maxwell Perkins in New Canaan, the then up-and-coming literary editor for Charles Scribner’s Sons, who solicited articles from Mary for Scribner’s Magazine in the hopes of changing the conservative magazine’s image and having it join the critical mainstream.

With her personal and professional friend Perkins, Colum discussed her plans to write a critical book. In 1929, Colum signed a contract with Scribner’s Sons for what was to become From These Roots: The Ideas That Have Made Modern Literature (Rimo 40-1). In 1930, Colum received a Guggenheim Fellowship that helped her to complete the necessary research for her critical monograph. Although originally contracted to appear in 1931 or 1932 at the latest, From These Roots was not published until 1937. Colum believed criticism to be the “most difficult of all forms of writing”; on top of this, the correspondence between Colum and Perkins housed in Princeton’s special collection documents several other obstacles hindering the work’s completion (Colum “Art of Precision”). Colum’s self-described sickly and nervous temperament brought on a series of health problems, which were exacerbated in 1937 when she was struck by a car. In addition, despite Perkins initially being excited about the project, going so far as to corner Colum in a taxi to get her to sign a contract with Scribner’s, Colum soon found his treatment of her impatient with regards to her critical work and inattentive and dismissive with regard to other projects. On his wife’s behalf, Padraic wrote to Perkins in 1931 about the editor’s patronizing attitude:

You wrote once that you had done more for her than for any other woman. But, dear Max, Mollie didn’t want to be taken as a woman—she can stand up with any man … The critical book demanded too much concentration and too difficult an organization to have been finished, in any case, much earlier than the end of this year. But she could do alongside it things of quite another kind that should be of interest to Scribner’s. This seems to me to be the normal way of getting things done and published, and of advantage to the writer and the publisher. But any approach on her part about any other writing were rather blankly received by you. Your attitude was rather a step-fatherly one—“Let her finish what she is doing before we bother about anything else she may be thinking of.” … Don’t imagine for a moment that Mollie is’nt [sic] a persistent worker; she is, and she could never write even the sort of paragraph she writes without hard and continuous work on it; the easy-seeming style she has is the product of very hard labor. (Padraic Colum, Letter to Perkins, 7 August 1931)

 
Although she faced sexism from multiple sources throughout her career, Colum seems to refuse in her personal letters and published work alike to acknowledge sexist treatment; it is only in her husband’s letter that this aspect of her personal and professional life is revealed as such. Coupled with her desire to be seen as an important writer and thinker was an attempt to place herself above sexism. By 1933, Perkins’s failure to take interest in Colum’s other projects, his tendency to talk too dismissively about her work in their shared social circles, and his repeated attempts to embroil her in petty social or domestic disputes led Colum to begin sending articles to other publishers.  Finally, John Hall Wheelock became Colum’s editor for Scribner’s Sons in December of 1933. From These Roots was finally published with Wheelock’s encouragement in the fall of 1937. The next year, Scribner’s Sons offered Colum a contract for another book and the Colums left for Europe on Mary’s second Guggenheim Fellowship.

No doubt adding to the delay of From These Roots, the 1930s were also Colum’s most prolific period for periodical publications. She published in an array of journals such as The Saturday Review of Literature, Scribner’s, The Nation, Yale Review, and New York Herald Tribune Books. In the summer of 1933, Henry Goddard Leach contacted Colum about producing a series of articles on contemporary literature. This offer became Colum’s longest running column, “Life and Literature,” for Forum and Century (1933-1940). Colum’s publications in Forum and Century gave her a regular platform and a steady and appreciative audience. They heightened her reputation while Colum continued to publish in various other journals.

Throughout her career, Colum’s articles combined the book review, the literary history, the editorial, and the essay. She discussed literature as well as sociocultural issues and politics. Highly suspicious of the institutionalization of literature, Colum pitched her articles towards an intelligent, non-academic audience. She never, in her opinion, underestimated the intelligence of her readers (LD 413). Colum wrote accessible yet sophisticated prose colored by a wicked wit, fearless tenacity, and seemingly limitless erudition. (For a lengthier discussion of Colum’s style, see Napier’s “Critic as Artist.”)

Also in the 1930s, the Colums would periodically spend several months in Paris where Mary did a large portion of her research for From These Roots. While there, the Colums spent the majority of their time with Padraic’s old Dublin friend, James Joyce, and his family. This association led both Colums to play integral roles in the composition of Finnegans Wake (then Work in Progress). In addition to helping transcribe Joyce’s new work and being one of its first readers, Mary became the confidant of Lucia Joyce as the latter’s mental health steadily deteriorated. Consequently, when Colum discusses Joyce in her autobiography and criticism, she presents an estimation of him that is based on an intimate understanding of his life and work.

In the 1940s, after Forum and Century had ceased publication, Colum published articles in the American Mercury and established a weekly page for poetry in the New York Times Book Review. She was also gave a variety of lectures, co-taught a modern literature course with her husband at Columbia University, and founded The Poetry Guild (an organization dedicated to the advancement of poetry whose members included W.H. Auden, Archibald MacLeish, and Allen Tate). Also during the 1940s, Colum’s professional relationship with Scribner’s Sons came to an end. In addition to her belief that From These Roots was poorly advertised, Colum discovered in December 1943 that the book had been allowed to fall out of print before it was contractually scheduled to do so. Colum, who at this time was using the book as a required text in her college course and advertising it in her lecture tour, felt this negligence to be a devastating blow to the Colums’ already tenuous financial situation. A flurry of letters between Colum, Wheelock, Perkins, and Charles Scribner ensued as Colum tried to discover why From These Roots had fallen out of publication and, later, fought to acquire the printing plates so another press could reprint it. Finally, Colum broke relations with Scribner’s Sons: Columbia University Press issued a second publication of From These Roots in 1944 and Doubleday took over the contract for her autobiography, which was published in 1947.

Colum’s publications became increasingly sparse in the 1950s as her arthritis and neuralgia grew more and more severe. She was working on Our Friend James Joyce with her husband when she died in 1957.


Works Cited

Benét, William Rose. “A Colum as Columnist.” The Saturday Review of Literature (28 October 1933): 221. Print.

Colum, Mary. “The Art of Precision.” N.d. TS. Padraic and Mary Colum Collection. Binghamton University, New York. Print.

—. From These Roots: The Ideas that Have Made Modern Literature. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1937. Print.

—. Life and the Dream. Garden City, NY: Doubleday and Company, 1947. Print.

Colum, Padraic. “Thomas MacDonagh and his Poetry.” Dublin Magazine 5.1 (1966): 39-45. Print.

—. Letter to Maxwell Perkins. 7 August 1931. Archives of Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1786-2003. Princeton University, New Jersey. Print.

Humphreys, Madeleine. “Background.” Message to the author. 12 November 2010. E-mail.

Loveman, Amy. “Where We Have Come.” The English Journal 20.9 (November 1931): 703-713. JSTOR. Web 29 February 2012.

Maynard, Theodore. “New Books: Life and the Dream.” N.d. TS. Padraic and Mary Colum Collection. Binghamton University, New York.

Napier, Taura. “Critic as Artist: Mary Colum and the Ideals of Literary Expression.” The Canadian Journal of Irish Studies 19.1 (1993): 54-66. JSTOR. Web. 27 January 2011.

—. “The Mosaic ‘I’: Mary Colum and Modern Irish Autobiography.” Irish University Review: A Journal of Irish Studies 28:1 (Spring-Summer 1998): 37-55. JSTOR. Web. 27 January 2011.

O’Brien, Maire Cruise. The Same Age as the State: History of Ireland & the Irish Diaspora. Madison: U of Wisconsin P, 2005. Print.

Rimo, Patricia Ann. “Mary Colum: Woman of Letters.” Diss. University of Delaware, 1982. Print.

—. “Mollie Colum and Her Circle.” Irish Literary Supplement 4.1 (Fall 1985): 26-7. Print.

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