“How the devil do I know / if there are rocks in your field, / plow it and find out” begins James Hearst's most famous poem, called (pointedly) “Truth.”
James Hearst was born August 8, 1900 at Maplehurst Farm, four miles west of Cedar Falls, Iowa, the farm settled in 1859 by Jim's grandfather. Jim begins to write at age six or seven. He goes to a country school, District #7, called the Hearst School. He studies Latin in high school for three years.
Following his eighteenth birthday in August 1918, he enlists in the Army and enters Officer's Training School. However, World War I ends in November 1918, and Jim is discharged and returned to college, the Iowa State Teachers College in Cedar Falls, in January 1919.
He is a college baseball pitcher and even pitches some semi-pro ball. In May 1919, he is a pipe-smoking fraternity man, “light of foot and fancy free” as he later wrote, celebrating the end of classes at the Cedar River. Jim dives from the dock into the familiar stream, but the riverbed has shifted over the winter. What he thought was 10 feet was now 2 feet. “My head struck the bottom of the river like an explosion,” he wrote decades later in his autobiography, My Shadow Below Me. “I opened my eyes in the murky water and drifted with the current, unable to move. 'This is the last of me,' I said to myself.”
He has damaged his spinal chord—his life transformed in that moment. He spends two years in Sartori Hospital in Cedar Falls. There he begins to read incessantly: Flaubert, de Maupassant, Mérimée, and poets Baudelaire and Verlaine. At the end of his second year, his arms have recovered a good deal of strength and motion. He can hold a book, brush his teeth, comb his hair, and feed himself. With help he can stand and shuffle down to the nurses' room to eat lunch. Back home in 1921, he finds he can drive, first the car, and then the tractor.
At home, he starts a reading program and begins to write poems and stories on a typewriter.
“Voice,” his first published poem, appears in 1924 in Good Housekeeping magazine. He then sends his poems to John T. Frederick in Iowa City, editor of the journal Midland. Frederick takes four poems and asks for more. “No one has ever written about the farm in such an honest way,” Frederick wrote.
Hearst said that Carl Sandburg and, particularly, the Irish poet and playwright John Millington Synge influenced him most. “I wanted to write about the land and its people, about their experiences with love, death, birth, anguish, and joy,” Hearst explained. “I wanted to express the relationship of farmers to the seasons. I wanted to express the appetites of earth, the roll of furrows, the push upward of green stalks. I would do this in language of common usage.”
Robert Frost offers Hearst his publisher, but the Iowan refuses. His first collection, Country Men, appears in 1937 followed by twelve books of poems, a novel, short stories, essays, cantatas, and the autobiography. Hearst's poetry collections include The Sun at Noon (1942), Man and His Field (1951), Limited View (1962), A Single Focus (1967), Dry Leaves (1975), Shaken by Leaf-Fall (1976), Proved by Trial (1977), Landmark and Other Poems (1979), and Snake in the Strawberries (1979).
James Hearst was content as a writer and farmer. However, in 1942 William Reninger, the head of the Iowa State Teachers College English Department, walks out to Maplehurst Farm and asks Jim if he will teach ten students. That begins thirty-four year years of teaching—both literature and writing. In 1963, Hearst gives his first lecture for the Aspen School of Contemporary Art in Colorado, and for the next eight summers, he teaches an 8-week writing workshop there.
In 1945, Hearst's doctor urged him to use a wheelchair to protect his spine. He died July 27, 1983, with the result that those still alive who remember him, recall him mostly in that chair. However, Hearst today is undergoing an image correction. The audio recordings that survive reveal a vigorous voice: the man who wrote but also drove the tractor and plow.
Colleagues describe Hearst as charismatic. Throughout his life, people were drawn to Jim Hearst. Frederick and Iowa poet Paul Engle regularly visited Hearst in the Iowa City hospital in 1929 and 1930, where Hearst spent winters building his strength. An Iowa City doctor offered Jim a position as a laboratory assistant. Frederick asked Hearst to become his assistant editor at Midland and to live with him Chicago. Decades later, a Mayo Clinic doctor invited Hearst to live with him in Texas. Two remarkable women became his wives.
Hearst the vigorous, charismatic writer is beginning to come to the fore. The accident still colors his life and work, but we are seeing the work anew. As he wrote in 1942 in his poem “My Shadow Below Me,” the title poem of The Sun at Noon:
We will watch the trees grow up and the flower stiffen
and brightly dressed desires
fade like women we have missed
no, morning will not come again
but here at noon I stand above my shadow
and balance on time's edge--
where is Joshua among us?
My shadow is below me and I stand in the light.