112th Annual Conference - Riverside Convention Center, California
Friday, October 31 - Sunday, November 2, 2014

This page is about the 2014 conference. For 2015 conference info, go to PAMLA 2015.

2714 Marsh Street is Everywhere: Demonic Spaces in Thomas McGrath’s Poetry

Andrew Lyndon Knighton, California State University, Los Angeles

This project challenges critical accounts of Thomas McGrath as chiefly a Midwestern regionalist poet, and argues that his work, informed by the intensity of his experiences in a 1950s Los Angeles he described as “demonic,” must be understood as reconfiguring boundaries between the local and global, and the personal and political.

Proposal: 

A striking feature of the already scant scholarly attention paid to the poet Thomas McGrath is the inability of critics to make sense of the decade of his life spent adrift in 1950s Los Angeles.  This neglect is remarkable in no small part because few poets are so closely wedded in the critical imagination to their signature spaces; McGrath, who is often quoted for his enigmatic assertion that “North Dakota is everywhere,” is invariably understood as a Midwestern regionalist and more specifically as a poet of the northern plains.  However, the California spaces he occupied for much of the 1950s are rarely accorded much significance in accounts of his work.  Most readers of McGrath regard that decade as a negative and even traumatic period – taking at face value the poet’s own description of these as years of “wandering in the wilderness,” and thereby locating them in an intangible zone beyond cartography – and imagining them as a mere detour postponing the biographically necessary return to his midwestern roots. 

I insist, however, that we understand McGrath’s Los Angeles years as more than a mere regressive detour on a teleological career itinerary.  In other words, however much Thomas McGrath hated Los Angeles (and he did, describing it in his masterpiece, Letter to an Imaginary Friend, as a “demonic” place that resisted “angelizing,” and as the land of “the dream-scalpers and the installment purchase blue-blood banks/Of the Never-Never Plan”), we must acknowledge the ways that L.A. space shaped both his radical political sensibility and his rigorous later style.  On the one hand, southern California provides the setting for his 1953 blacklisting and subsequent years of precarious employment, experiences out of which McGrath narrates the fate of the nonconformist in the modern American metropolis.  His major poem captures much of his regionally-specific bedevilment at the hands of the Hollywood entertainment industry, the local aerospace sector of the military-industrial complex, and a hostile reception in academia.  In some ways, this Los Angeles stands in for American modernity as a whole (perhaps it is actually Los Angeles that “is everywhere”).  And yet Letter to an Imaginary Friend begins with an acute rendering of space at its most local.  It commences at “2714 Marsh Street,” citing McGrath’s own home address in its first lines and complementing that by morbidly suggesting that from there “it is necessary to ship all bodies east.”  But it was there that McGrath also discovered an array of emergent resistances and collectivities, such as the intergenerational “irregulars” that made up the poetry community organized around his home. While some recent treatments of Los Angeles literary history have started to acknowledge the unusually diverse and collaborative ferment of this time (Estelle Gershgoren Novak’s 2013 Poets of the Non-Existent City: Los Angeles in the McCarthy Era being a notable example), this project is the first to focus in on McGrath’s particular treatment of local episodes of urban community, solidarity, and collaboration, establishing how he converted his Los Angeles demons into creative angels.