This essay appears in the Fall 2013 issue of Modern Age. To subscribe now, go here.
The past fifteen years have witnessed a modest revival of interest in the work of poet, dramatist, and fiction writer Jay G. Sigmund, Iowa’s “forgotten regionalist.” Attention began with E. Bradford Burns’s splendid history published in 1996, Kinship with the Land: Regionalist Thought in Iowa, 1894–1942. The first phrase in the title came from a 1925 Sigmund poem, and the volume’s frontispiece featured Sigmund’s “Morning Mists on the Wapsipinicon,” among his most representative verses. Burns openly agreed with the 1930 judgment of John T. Frederick, editor of the Iowa City–based The Midland, that “if I were asked to mention a writer in whose work I find fully represented all that is racy and authentic in Iowa life, all that is specifically Iowan, I would think of Sigmund at once.”1
In 2008, Zachary Michael Jack published The Plowman Sings: The Essential Fiction, Poetry, and Drama of America’s Forgotten Regionalist Jay G. Sigmund. It features an able introductory essay and a solid selection from Sigmund’s writings. Jack concludes that his subject’s influence peaked in the decade after 1927, when Sigmund “lived at the heart of the Regionalist movement, mentored the next generation of Iowa writers [notably Paul Engle of the Iowa Writers Workshop fame] . . . and brought the literary attentions of the nation back to Iowa.”2 In 2011, Sigmund’s first collection of poems, Frescoes, also came back into print.3 Finally, Jay Sigmund stands within the rare circle of widely published American poets who were also successful businessmen; over the last hundred years, only Wallace Stevens and Dana Gioia would probably join him there.
All the same, Sigmund remains relatively unknown, particularly among scholars and readers of a traditionalist bent. This is unfortunate, for he represents an approach to poetry most compatible with American conservatism. Rejecting the bohemian airs common to most poets of his age, Sigmund lived a conventional life as faithful husband, devoted father, and community leader. Instead of nurturing some form of alienation, he embraced and celebrated the grand themes of American history and their more recent embodiments, such as the Boy Scouts. Forswearing the fashionable agnosticism of the early twentieth century, Sigmund wrote hundreds of poems exploring the Christian faith. And resisting the pull of cosmopolitanism, Sigmund stayed deeply loyal to his place.
* * *
Born December 11, 1885, Jay Sigmund spent his boyhood on a tenant farm near Waubeek, in East Central Iowa. “The soil of the farm was sandy and thin,” he reported, and almost all of his subsequent “farm” poetry and stories featured people struggling to eke out a living on this marginal Iowa land. The village of Waubeek drew its name from Longfellow’s poem The Song of Hiawatha; it was said to be an Indian word for limestone boulders. The Wapsipinicon River flowed by, featuring limestone bluffs and caves and capturing young Sigmund’s imagination. “There is no more beautiful country than the vicinity around Waubeek,” he maintained all his life. He attended a small country school, and developed an early affection for natural history.4
Given his son’s distaste for farming, the elder Sigmund considered the boy an idler; he clearly preferred fishing, hunting, and collecting Indian pottery, arrowheads, and legends. All his life, Jay Sigmund roamed the woods and fields near Waubeek. In 1895 the family left the farm, moving into the village. Partway through the tenth grade, Sigmund left school, ending his formal education.5
He moved to nearby Cedar Rapids and worked for three years at a wholesale grocery. Sigmund began to write at this time, sending “an occasional bit of reporting” to a Chicago theatrical magazine. In 1907 the gregarious young man joined the Cedar Rapids Life Insurance Company. He proved to be a natural salesman. Not only did he quickly rise into “The $100,000 Club” (today’s Million Dollar Roundtable), he also wrote a course for his company on how to sell life insurance. In 1924 he became vice president, board member, and agency manager for the company.6
While most literary figures in the 1920s strove to gain bohemian credentials, Jay Sigmund lived a very conventional, and full, bourgeois life. In 1910 he married Louise B. Hearns of Cedar Rapids; they would have a son and two daughters. Sigmund was also fully engaged as a civic leader. He served as president of the Cedar Rapids Art Association, a member of the Linn County Social Welfare Board, a member of the Cedar Rapids Public Library Board, and on the Play Selection Committee for the Community Players. 7
In addition, Sigmund developed in the 1920s an important friendship with Cedar Rapids artist Grant Wood, best known for the painting American Gothic. Zachary Michael Jack credits the insurance executive with encouraging Wood to abandon his early, imitative French impressionism in favor of the “beauties of Iowa.” When Grant Wood held his famous summer art colony at Stone City in 1931 and 1932, the artists in residence would put on a variety show Sunday afternoons to raise money to cover expenses. Jay Sigmund served as the master of ceremonies. In August 1933, Sigmund suffered a serious auto accident that left him with a crippled right hand. Wood immortalized the event in his painting Ridge Road Accident. In June 1935 Grant Wood and wife moved into “a little house in Waubeek,” and Sigmund anticipated seeing them “every day . . . through August.”8
* * *
While moving ahead in business and domestic life, Sigmund’s real passion became writing. In 1921 he submitted a poem, “Birds of Prey,” to Milwaukee’s American Poetry Magazine. “To my utter amazement,” he later wrote, “they accepted the poem and printed it”:
I became an incurable amateur versifier, and began to devote most of my spare time to the study of poetry and the writing of it. In fact, it became my hobby, supplanting golf, baseball, bridge, billiards and all the other things which the majority of men care for.9
Mixing business and hobby, Sigmund placed another poem—“Twilight Years”—in The Underwriters’ Review. Over the next few years he also placed poems in The Lyric (Norfolk, Va.), The Reviewer (Richmond, Va.), Sports Afield (Chicago), the Lyric West (Los Angeles), The Midland (Iowa City), The Overland (San Francisco), the Country Bard (Madison, N.J.), the Modern Review (Boston), The Pagan (New York), the Chicago News, and the Cincinnati Star-Times.
William Stanley Braithwaite, a prominent anthologist of magazine and newspaper poetry, urged Sigmund in 1922 to collect his poems into a volume. The result was Frescoes. The best of these were odes to birds. “To a Goldfinch” was representative:
Are you a tiny fragment
Of some yellow moon,
Carelessly tossed down to earth
With your cheery tune?
Many of the other selections, though, were imitative, overwritten, and in uninspired free verse. “The Athenian” deals with a Greek shoeshine boy. Referring to Socrates, Plato, and Diogenes, Sigmund asks: “Does the blood of these / Flow also in his veins?” In “Father of Waters,” the poet ponders the Mississippi River with a “quaking fright”: “. . . perhaps more as a child stands dumbly / At sight of his first Christmas-tree / Or a blaring circus parade.” Several poems deal with troubled women: “The Serpent,” about a “sexless spinster” given to gossip; and “The Drudge,” about an abused farm wife: “ugly, misshapen, shriveled, and faded / I struggle on.”10
And yet Sigmund was painfully aware of his lack of formal education and of training in writing. In the many talks he gave to students and civic groups, he commonly cast doubt on his status. “I’m not sure whether I deserve classification as a poet,” he told his audience at a business school in Mason City. “I’m not sure whether I’ve ever written a line of poetry.” While few specifics are known, he clearly read widely in contemporary poetry and fiction, striving to improve his craft. For example, he “followed closely . . . for years” the work of D. H. Lawrence and carefully studied T. S. Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral.11
During 1922 and 1923 he largely abandoned free verse, turning to conventional poetic forms of rhythm and rhyme. All the same, there remained a forced quality to his poetry. Sigmund was downcast when New Mexican poet Arthur Davison Ficke took him to task for some awkward rhymes; Sigmund asked whether he should stop writing. Ficke urged him to continue working, but clarified: “I only meant that it was important that you realize to what an extent you are, at present, the slave of your rhymes.” He suggested that Sigmund “always look ahead” and not decide on the first rhyme-word until he had at least some idea of what the second would be.12 Whether or not he found this advice useful, Sigmund’s versifying steadily improved over the balance of the 1920s.
Another reason for this improvement was his decision to focus completely on the Wapsipinicon Valley and environs. Sigmund, who apparently never traveled farther from Iowa than Chicago, simply brought his art home. As he explained, long before this became the mantra of “creative writing” teachers everywhere: “Poetry is not a thing of far places. You can see it, you can find it right at hand.” He held that “poetry exists in the daily living of a life” and that rhythm “is the great scheme of things present even in our pulse.” All locales could yield their “overtones if one is sensitive enough to register them.”13
Sigmund’s second collection of poems, Pinions, was a considerable improvement over his first.14 Its themes were fresh, its language original, its poetic forms more traditional. There were “bird poems” again, supplemented this time by a series of “Corn-Belt Village Portraits,” all written in Iowa dialect. Another favored subject was the changing of the seasons, such as “February”:
The dainty cedar waxwing
In her bonnet, nun-like . . .
plain . . .
Now yearns for cherry luncheons
And for balmy April’s rain!
Few bards have touched their lyres
For this month, but I shall sing—
Praising its weeping snow-men
For it paves the path to spring!15
Land O’Maize Folks, a third collection, appeared in 1924 and included twenty-five poems on “Mississippi River Village Folk.” Mostly light and humorous, “The Old Ferry-man Speaks” was typical:
There was Pat Bender’s wife
Run off with Abner Ross;
They got me out of bed
And I rowed them across.
Just four days after that
I brought her back to Pat!
Sigmund was also emerging as a master of capturing the moods of the Wapsipinicon landscape. This from “Marsh Road”:
Comes night . . . I’m grateful
for the firefly
and thin slice of moon! . . .
For dark brings witch talk,
from the pied frog
and chortling loon.
I urge my slow feet
toward that lamp-light
on yon hill’s crest.
Ghost shadows gambol
along the marsh road—
Jay Sigmund continued to display, as well, a deft touch in capturing the subtleties of human character. “A Maize Country’s Pioneer’s Interment” skillfully revealed the distinctive mind of the authentic farmer:
There in a vase close to his sunken
They have placed blossoms, bathed
with dew this morn—
Flowers to him were weeds—did
none bring corn—
One stalk of wheat—a wisp of
Or anything which pleased his living
In 1925 Sigmund published Drowsy Ones. The title came from an old school history: “And they called this land, ‘Iowa,’ which is the Indian name for ‘Drowsy Ones’ ”—this, a far superior translation compared to the banal “Beautiful Land” commonly used today. In “Visitor” he recorded the meeting of a farmer with an old friend who had moved to the city. Raising classic agrarian themes, the latter spoke:
For he had kept deep-rooted in the
While I had chosen market-
place and street;
I knew the city’s bricks would
bruise his feet
And send him soon to go his plod-
ding way. . . .
Then I who long had pitied peasant
And broken faith with field and
Felt dull and leaden-footed in
And strangely like a cart-beast with
As in the earlier volumes, Sigmund gave frequent attention to the place of women in his valley. Some of these poems were unconventional; this from “Cross-Roads Magdalene”:
So when they made the grocer’s son
That he had found her lovecraft
ripe and whole,
They hated him because he
dared to take
The fruit that each had yearned
for in his heart
The very thing they knew they
could not have:
Then they expressed concern
about her soul!
More common was verse that explored the burdens and fantasies of the farm wife. From “Prairie Wife’s Wage”:
The somber sleeper at her side—
A jungle king with burning eyes;
The houseplants on her windowsill
Are orchid blooms of giant size.
That cradle, rocking back and forth,
May seem to her as jade and gold:
The peas she hulled were deep sea pearls—
As many as her hand could hold.17
Around 1921 Jay Sigmund joined the English Club at Cornell College, in nearby Mt. Vernon. He regularly attended club meetings and dinners, read his verse, and encouraged student writers. The club’s journal, The Husk, featured Sigmund’s work in its March 1929 issue. “Craftswoman” returned to the peculiar but real satisfactions of farm wives:
I stepped upon a braided span
Her subtle finger-skill had made–
A prayer-rug for a kneeling man,
So delicate the weave and shade
“My wedding gown is there.” . . .
Beauty had brushed my soul that day,
Beauty the wild, elusive moth,
And the bent old-wife had shown the way
Beauty can be in attic cloth.
The powerful bond of soil fecundity to human fertility emerged in another poem written for the English Club, “Firstborn”:
Fecund the land; oats ready for
And in the house the midwife’s
Waiting to find the signs of life
Waiting to catch firstborn’s
Hoping his tired mate would cease her labors—
Soon give another life to fight the soil,
So the midwife’s tongue could tell the curious neighbors—
Life; life; birth; death; green sod; more lives; more toil.18
The emerging Iowa novelist Ruth Suckow was probably responsible, at least in part, for Jay Sigmund’s turn to writing short fiction. In a note to him dated September 4, 1923, she advised: “You have a deft touch with character, which makes me wonder if after all you wouldn’t prefer prose to verse.” His first published stories appeared within a year. Sigmund later explained that in his fiction, he tried to do
. . . this one thing: To take the commonplace materials that lie at hand here in Iowa and weave them into stories—not commercial stories, but stories that will depict the life of the people here at home as they go about their every-day rounds with something of accuracy and as honestly as I can.
While some of his poetry displayed romantic agrarian themes, almost all of Sigmund’s short fiction was gritty, hard. As Suckow had noted, Sigmund was skilled at creating characters. Even in stories no more than three or four pages in length, he conveyed images and descriptions so well that readers can feel they know each central character’s whole life story. As Burns relates, Sigmund’s prose was “spare, precise, [and] somber.” He continued: “A touch of irony, much folk wisdom, a healthy dose of wry humor, and a dash of pathos pervade the tightly woven, well-constructed stories.”19
Sigmund’s first prose collection appeared in 1927. Entitled Wapsipinicon Tales, the volume featured an introduction by Newbery Medal–winning author Charles Finger. Characteristic was the story “Blinkers,” a fascinating account of the illegal cockfighting circuit in rural Iowa, told by a one-eyed Civil War veteran. He describes a coming contest between the line-bred cocks from Ireland, “Whitehackles,” and the cross-bred cocks from the Orient, “Rattlesnakes.” On the appointed day, “even the sheriff and a district-court judge was there in the crowd. Of course in them days if an official had dared to interfere with a cock fight he’d never get elected again.” 20
A second collection, Merged Blood, appeared two years later. Among these stories was “Dubbing Season,” another recounting of fighting fowls. This time, a city matron from the Humane Society accidentally discovers hunter and trapper Alva Whitefield illegally cutting off the combs and lobes of a young gamecock. The sheriff arrives the next day, urging him to plead guilty and pay a fine. A lament over the passing of rural ways follows, one strangely relevant to our own heavily regulated world: “ ‘Pa said the time would come someday when they’d arrest a man for even keepin’ game chickens,’ muttered Alva to himself. ‘I didn’t believe it.’ ” Another solid tale, “Testimony,” focuses on an old German immigrant with a bad heart, Henry Fehrling. He turns for relief to a patent medicine and becomes obsessed by the wonderful printed testimonials of the “many who had been snatched from the very jaws of death by Dr. Johnson’s marvelous medicine.” He yearns to “knock at the door of this happy fraternity, for admission,” and laboriously writes his own testimonial, which he submits. Weeks later he is thrilled when a new advertisement reports, “Middle Western farmer is cured of heart trouble!” In the text which followed, “many of the words were not spelled as Henry had spelled them and it seemed to him a certain power had been instilled into his sentences as well as a fair-sized paragraph added.” Still, his joy is complete . . . until he collapses from heart failure.21
Jay Sigmund’s art reached a high point in 1930 with publication of The Ridge Road. It contained six stories appearing for the first time and fifteen poems. Several of each would win awards that year. The best story, in my view, is “Balm,” an uncharacteristically tender and sweet tale. It comes from the mouth of a twelve-year-old boy, recently orphaned, who has been taken in by a young, childless couple, Julius and Mag. Julius had been a “rough fellow” raised in the French Ridge Settlement, but “Ma said he changed when he got married.” After morning chores, the three set out for a picnic and an afternoon of fishing on the Wapsipinicon. The story recounts the banter of the day, as the couple draws the boy into their family circle. After catching a basket of fish, for example, Julius cleans and fries them in a skillet:
The fish beat any I’d ever had, and I told Julius so.
“I’m some cook, ain’t I Dick,” Julius said.
I told him I thought so.
“If Mag gets mad at us and leaves, we’ll get along all right, won’t we?”
I didn’t say anything, but Mag laughed and then we all laughed.
Later, after releasing several more hooked fish, Julius declares, “We’ll get them next summer, Dick.” And the boy thinks: “Somehow it made me feel good to hear Julius planning fun for him and me together next summer.”22
Among the poems, a long dark tale—“Three Women and a Man”—stands out. It tells of a bachelor farmer, successful but lonely, who finds a young woman in town to marry. He “felt a new pride in his oatfield hill” but was crushed when she died in childbirth. After several years of bitter widowhood he marries a recently widowed neighbor, who moves in with her nearly grown daughter, one who had “the cold face of a nun.” He soon senses that matters are awry, as the two “whispered when they heard him swing the gate” and exchanged looks that made him uneasy. He would retreat outside at night:
But when there came a short lull in
He heard vague whisperings within
Voices that scratched the silence like
Which gnaws the rafters in his
During spring planting, the farmer takes a chill and develops pneumonia. The women provide him indifferent care, and he dies, a victim of “whispered plans now all complete.”23
* * *
By this time, Sigmund had been “discovered.” Words of praise and encouragement came from Robinson Jeffers, Louis Mumford, humorist Opie Read, Carl Sandburg, and Count Olya Tolstoy.24
Anthologists of the “Year’s Best” poems and stories also included Sigmund’s work on their lists.25 The National Country Bard Association [!] voted his poem “Foresight” the “most country-bardy” in its autumn 1925 competition. Literary Digest chose two of Sigmund’s poems for inclusion in The Best Poems of 1926, published by Dodd, Mead, and Co.
And in 1931 Jay Sigmund won the prestigious Gypsy Poetry Prize for “Phantom Horses” (the judge was Irish poet George Russell, who wrote as “A. E.”). It began:
After the midnight hour has tolled,
The phantom horses tread the
After the last steel wheel has rolled,
There falls the hooves of saddled
A mottled mount has gone this way—
I heard the iron calks strike fire:
A reckless rider reined his bay
Down where the roadside trees
Galloping through the night’s black
After the ribboned trail is clear,
There must have been a headless
Rattling a silvered bridle near.26
Sigmund also won praise for his fiction. British anthologist Edward J. O’Brien became one of Jay Sigmund’s leading boosters.27 Indeed, O’Brien concluded (with perhaps a bit of overstatement):
Two generations ago Boston was the geographical center of American literary life, one generation ago New York could claim pride of place, and I trust that the idea will not seem too unfamiliar if I suggest that the geographical center today is Iowa City.28
During the early 1930s, Sigmund also began to write plays, mostly one-acts suitable for amateur companies. He sent one of these, The Ghoul, to Betty Smith for review. Trained at the Yale University School of Drama and with a number of successful Broadway productions already to her credit, Smith also ran a small business on the side, rewriting other people’s drafts for $10 a play.29 Her response to Sigmund’s submission was different, though. “The play is a natural comedy,” she wrote. “The plot is better than average, the situations are fine, the people are perfect and the dialogue excellent. . . . The main thing; the thing that cannot be taught, is there.” Instead of a “rewrite,” she proposed that they coauthor his plays, a fifty-fifty collaboration. Over the next twelve months, this partnership saw the Samuel French Company publish “The Tree of His Father,” “Folk Stuff,” and “Vine Leaves.” T. S. Denison and Company published “The Saints Together.”30
* * *
Beyond these signs of achievement and recognition—rare for a part-time “hobbyist” writer—Jay Sigmund’s work showed distinctive qualities that deserve attention. Among these was his pleasantly reactionary understanding of American history, a trait he shared with other regionalists.
As in Donald Davidson’s Tennessee, Sigmund portrays the whites who drove off the Indians and settled Iowa in glowing, positive ways. There are no cringing apologies here. Pinions included the poem “Corn Country Paean”:
Wide-eyed, the sullen-visaged Sac
Watched the robed priest and virile
sons of soil
On their chaste prairies—strong of
faith set foot—
To bless with crucifix and sweating
Even the shaggy buffalo seemed “to sense that their fast-thinning ranks / Must pass, to make room for the patient ox.” Summoning divine providence, Sigmund continued:
On marched the solemn pageant of
Each with its blessings from the lap
’Til now a people mighty in their
At last have risen from the virgin
On other occasions, Sigmund amplified the language of strength to describe the triumph of the white men over the red. Commemorating a country Iowa church, he wrote in “Jordan’s Grove”:
Here, where the eagle built her nest
The strong men slept by firelight
And weary women sunk to rest,
Glad of the silence of the night. . . .
Here, where the bison once fled by,
The strong men built a shrine to
And under God’s own curving sky
They knelt the humble field
Complementing the portrait of the white pioneers was an equally romantic portrait of Iowa’s noble savages, the Sac, Iowa, Fox, and Sioux tribes. This, too, was a theme common to regionalist writers of the early twentieth century. Sigmund thrilled in particular over the legend of the Wapsipinicon, which he told with his own spin. In his version, Wapsi was the daughter of the chief of the Foxes, who met Pinicon, son of the chief of the Iowas. Their love was bitterly opposed by their fathers, but they held frequent trysts at night along the beautiful river that divided the tribes’ hunting grounds. Wapsi’s father caught them one evening and forbade further meetings. The two formed a suicide pact, and they leapt from a limestone cliff to their death in the river below. In their memory, this body of water became the Wapsipinicon.32
Another, more historically grounded tale that fascinated Sigmund was that of Anamosa. This “Indian princess” came one night to the frontier Iowa town of Lexington and settled there. On her death the town took her name (notably, Grant Wood would be buried in Anamosa Cemetery). Of her, Sigmund wrote:
Oh, lithe White Fawn, the mystic
spell you gave
Has wakened men and cheered them
at their toil.
May giant white oaks bend above
With spreading tender ferns to shade
These views, brazenly politically incorrect in more recent times, also highlight Sigmund’s association with the Boy Scouts of America. The local council maintained Camp Waubeek only a few miles northwest of Sigmund’s beloved village. He spent considerable time at the camp each summer, teaching the Scouts about Indian lore and birds, and leading hikes in the river valley. Sigmund also wrote a number of poems for the camp, all of which sought to convey the romance of his river to the boys. These lines come from “Council Rock Song”:
Down near the caves where the red
(There are broken vessels to prove the
I saw the ghost of an Indian maid
But the river mists obscured her face.
I found this feather upon the bar
(This proves her lover was near that
I heard a paddle . . . I saw a star–
The mood was mine . . . the setting
right. . . .
There is the stream that holds it all—
Secrets of lovers and fighting ones;
Here are the Waubeeks, stark and
Guard this valley and dream, my
Sigmund composed a “poetic legendary drama,” The Wapsipinicon, which told the story of the doomed Indian lovers. Written entirely in verse, the play oozes with overwrought rhymes and sentimentality. Then again, it was not written for hardened New York critics, but for the Boy Scouts; annual productions had the action taking place on the banks of the Wapsipinicon opposite Camp Waubeek.34
This same writer, though, produced other poems and stories with a harsh naturalism that rivaled even figures such as Jack London. In its review of The Ridge Road, the British journal Poetry and the Play emphasized Sigmund’s “stark realism”: “to read Mr. Sigmund is to be introduced to the actualities of a hard and narrow life which is not without heroism.” Chicago literary critic Keith Preston argued that “Jay Sigmund does the kind of stuff that is hailed as genius in Scandinavian or Russian realists and ignored for the most part in our national writers.”35
Also in some tension with the ethos of Scouting was Jay Sigmund’s iconoclasm toward prevailing forms of American piety. As he wrote in “Tempted”:
My irreproachable family
(All of them deceased),
And my physician
(A most learned individual)
Together with my pastor
(A saintly scholar),
Have warned me often
Against most of the things
I have felt any real attraction.
Yet, when his physician dies at age 40 and his pastor is implicated in a “horrid scandal,” the poet resolves: “Today / I have a mind / To begin / To enjoy life.” In The Ridge Road, Sigmund lamented the failures of the young:
The grizzled ridge road men agree
The younger ones are soft these
They cannot hew a helve or yoke—
They even sin the softer ways.
With some frequency Sigmund condemned Iowa’s strict blue laws, which closed everything down on the Sabbath. Most notably his Land O’Maize Folks contained ten poems (under the label “Yesteryear Folk”) praising bartenders and lamenting Prohibition. This section opens with a quotation from Omar Khayyam: “I often wonder what the vintners buy, / One half so precious as the goods they sell.” Representative of Sigmund’s verse was “Bill M’ Kellum,” which tells of a fellow arriving at the bar on a cold March day, with only a dime in his pocket:
Bill must have had the gift
Of second sight;
He saw my need for grog—
“Well, Jack,” says he,
“It’s almost time for me to
Go off watch:
I wonder if you’ll
Take a shot on me!”
He poured us both a slug
Of Joel B.!
In a concluding poem, Sigmund admitted that saloons were not without fault, adding:
Yet, I won’t think of them
As dens of vice:
To me they always seemed
Like pilgrim’s shrines
Where kindred spirits
Met to swap advice. . . .
The great German-American journalist H. L. Mencken was particularly moved by these poems. “The tales of Gus and Bill positively reduced me to tears,” he wrote to Sigmund. “Ah, for the good old days! I knew every bartender in Baltimore.”36
Another discordant theme in Sigmund’s work was his economic and political populism, a strange trait for a man of business. As early as Pinions, Sigmund took clear shots at the industrialists and bankers:
Please pause a moment, Mr. Bagg
Say, what of all these children bend-
ing low o’er
Loom and wheel? . . .
And what of these hearth-stones long
And in “Whistles—Seven A.M.,” there are lines that could have been penned by the British Distributists Chesterton and Belloc:
It marks the beginning of King Time
Calling to serfdom a grotesque array
Of puppets . . . with harsh metal notes37
Borrowing, it seems probable, from William Jennings Bryan, Sigmund increasingly employed the images of gathering usurers and the “debtor’s cross.” In “Corn Country Magnificat,” a farmer looks to the probable fate of his new son:
At last the usurers will toss
Their dice and curse my son:
His loss will merely be their loss—
His cross is but a debtor’s cross.
Such imagery swelled into a powerful poem, “Christ of the Ridge Road,” where Sigmund retold the Passion story, with a bankrupt farmer as the Christ figure:
. . . Year after year of fruitless furrow
Has shackled him; a Pilate found his
And as the usurers demanded all
The Pilate saw the cattle in his stall
The debtors cross was ready. No
For him; the usurers who made the
Crowed like jackals: ‘We are in the
The drought and sandstorms aided in
Sigmund’s last verse collection, Heron at Sunset, focused on the plight of Iowa farmers then caught in the depths of the Great Depression. Themes included the new wave of foreclosures, the triumph of cruel economic forces over human dreams, and—again—“the timbers for a debtor’s cross.” In “New Master—Old Farm,” Sigmund explains:
The new master of these acres knows
That many owners have come on
And never whipped these knolls; and
so it goes—
Plow; plant; six feet of earth; a long-
In “Foreclosed,” Sigmund defined a grave as “a loam that has no mortgage”; as one critic correctly put it, such “vehemence” was “unbecoming a life insurance company’s vice president.” His strongest image and most forceful cadence came in “Asylum Dance,” a portrait of the madness that had claimed some of those who “once possessed a share / Of wide green pastures”:
The screechy fiddle calls the dancers
Joy is not only for the favored few Out in the bigger world; begin, begin
You dying puppets; this night is for
you. . . .38
An intriguing aspect of Jay Sigmund’s work was his deep fascination with Roman Catholicism, particularly the monastic orders. Here too, though, the specific focus of his attention was local.
Sigmund appears to have been born into fundamentalist, “Full Gospel” rural Protestantism. Certainly he knew the “revival” circuit well, describing such a meeting in his fictional Ontarns, where “all of the little river town’s saints and sinners were seen nightly, trooping down the one dark street to the town’s only church.” However, perhaps through marriage or—more probably—through a desire to “get ahead” in business and civic life, he joined the Episcopal Church in Cedar Rapids. The priest at Grace Episcopal, R. J. Campbell, became Sigmund’s informal editor on matters religious, which became after 1930 a fairly large task. Sigmund did write verse for Protestant outlets. Typical of these was “Christ in the Street.” It describes the crucified Christ returned to a modern city, where he is mocked and abused by the “world—men in the street”; it appeared in the Christian Century.39
Sigmund’s religious passions, though, turned toward the Church of Rome. This began with visits to the Trappist Abbey at New Melleray, on a beautiful hillside southwest of Dubuque, Iowa. Sigmund appears to have written his first poem on the abbey in the summer of 1930; they would quickly number in the hundreds. He also sent numerous gifts to the monks, including a costly bust of the Sacred Heart in 1934. Sigmund developed a similar relationship with the Dominican Sisters at Saint Clara Convent, just across the Mississippi, on a magnificent bluff near Sinsinawa, Wisconsin. He made several visits to the convent and gave talks on writing Christian poetry. Sigmund wrote more than a hundred sonnets about the Sinsinawa nuns, and he shared this verse with them on a regular basis. His verse also appeared in dozens of Catholic periodicals across the country.40
These “Catholic” poems are rich in spiritual insight. Some adapt Sigmund’s love of nature to religious ends, as in “Choir of the Pines—New Melleray Abbey”:
God tarries here and here He sings;
His notes are on the air:
Some great pines furnish Him the
For the harp He plays; oh,
These tall trees, marching there!. . . .
And when the abbey’s bell-note calls
The robed monks to their knees There strikes upon the shadowed
And echoes down the cloistered
These songs from choir-trees.
Sigmund wrote with reverence of the Blessed Virgin; this from a poem to be said before planting time:
Mother of God, we need hillside
May our beasts fatten here in the
Ready for April, after storms pass,
Give us rich harvests through
Sigmund wrote two dozen poems where a “World Man” tried to make sense of matters Catholic. Titles included “A World Man Meditates on a Rosary,” “A World Man Watches a Priest Celebrate Mass,” and “A World Man Meditates on a Statue of Joseph.” In one of these, the poet appears to claim his own mystical experience while sitting in a darkened church before the altar:
Doubter I was but who can make it
Before me stood The Table; seated
The Twelve at supper; I was very near
And I take oath that, radiant in His
The Master sat; you say it could not
Scoff if you must; I plainly saw; ’twas
A selection of his religious verse appeared in 1931, titled Altar Panels.42
This intense interest poses the question, Was Jay Sigmund about to convert to Roman Catholicism? The nuns with whom he corresponded certainly thought so. Sister Mary Edmund of the Saint Clara convent told him: “You are spiritually endowed. Let us hope that you will go forward in your search for Truth even as the Wise Men did.” After he sent a collection of his “Catholic” sonnets to the Carmelite Nuns in California, the astonished abbess wrote back: “It is surprising that one not of the Catholic Faith should have so deep an appreciation of things Catholic, especially of the mystical life. Surely you belong to the soul of the Church if you are not one with the body.”43
My own sense is that Jay Sigmund yearned to make the leap to Rome but was constrained by the conventions of his time. “Celebrity conversions” to the Catholic faith would not become a phenomenon until the 1940s. Sigmund had already made the great jump from fundamentalist Protestantism to Episcopalianism. His fascination with things Catholic might be tolerated by family, business associates, and friends as another eccentricity in an already somewhat odd man; however, a conversion to Rome in the 1930s could only startle, or shock. Still, perhaps he might have done so after retirement, had not a tragic accident cut his life short.
* * *
On October 19, 1937, Jay Sigmund went hunting alone near his cottage on the Wapsipinicon River. Hitting a rabbit, he followed the wounded animal up an incline; he slipped and his shotgun discharged, nearly tearing a leg away below the knee. After 30 minutes, his shouts attracted the attention of a nearby farmer. The latter summoned a physician and ambulance, but Sigmund “suffered greatly from shock and loss of blood.” The next morning, his leg was amputated, but he died an hour later. His funeral, held October 22 at Grace Episcopal Church, drew more than five hundred mourners; pallbearers included the young Iowa poet Paul Engle and Cedar Rapids “regionalist painter” Marvin Cone.44
Eerily, only eleven days before the accident, Sigmund had drafted a “Literary Will,” addressed to Paul Engle. “The sudden and unexpected death of two or three friends here of late has made me realize the uncertainty of life,” he wrote. He asked Engle to serve as his “literary executor” after his death, “to run over the things I’ve scribbled off since 1921 and see that any of them worth preserving (if such there be)” were looked after. In this document, Sigmund offered a remarkably candid and self-effacing assessment of his own work. “Possibly everything worthwhile to look over” would be found in his later works, Drowsy Ones, Wapsipinicon Tales, Merged Blood, The Ridge Road, The Least of These, and the two “Chapbooks” issued by the English Club at Cornell College: those that featured his more formal verse and focused strictly on the Wapsipinicon Valley.45
How should we more objectively regard the legacy of Jay Sigmund? Zachary Michael Jack emphasizes his role as a mentor to other Iowa regionalists, including poet Paul Engle. Regarding the latter, Jay Sigmund did “discover” him, so to speak, as a teenager in his Cedar Rapids neighborhood and introduced him to the craft of writing. As Engle’s academic career blossomed (his MA thesis won the Yale Series of Younger Poets Award in 1931—this was followed by a Rhodes scholarship at Oxford), Sigmund also became his financial adviser. Engle’s early collections of verse, especially Worn Earth and Corn, were solidly in the regionalist, agrarian spirit. On Sigmund’s death, Engle’s comments were generous and surely genuine:
I never knew a man who did more good things than Jay Sigmund. I have been helped by him more times than I can remember, and in every possible way. In everything I have written, and all I ever will write, his influence can be traced. He taught me to look at things with honest eyes.46
Other contemporaries ably gauged aspects of Sigmund’s work. Thomas Cravan, the noted critic who extolled regionalist artists such as Wood and Thomas Hart Benton, encouraged Sigmund in 1935 to write a novel: “Your knowledge of such people exceeds that of, say, Sherwood Anderson, and you have no Freudian theories to propound.” Book editor Rousseau Voorhies, an occasional dinner guest at the Sigmund cottage, remarked with insight: “I feel that you are doing with words what Grant Wood is doing with paint.”47 The most accurate appraisal, perhaps, came from a boyhood friend and subsequent newspaper editor, Perry Buxton: “[Jay Sigmund] would take the smoke of autumn fires or the flight of a hawk and interpret it for us.”48 This is the authentic task of any true poet, and—even if such interpretations might convey universal themes—they must always be rooted in the local; as proof, consider Homer’s Ithaca.
This is why I suspect that, in the long run, Jay Sigmund will be considered a more important writer than his mentee, Paul Engle. The latter’s literary résumé is surely much grander.49 Moreover, in most ways technical, Engle’s versifying usually did outshine Sigmund’s. Relative to prose, however, Sigmund’s sparse, bare, vital short stories are superior to Engle’s fictional efforts. More important, concerning the regionalist legacy, Jay Sigmund was faithful to his place, to the Wapsipinicon Valley in East-Central Iowa. Even when offered a lucrative business promotion in 1936, he turned it down, because it would mean leaving that valley and moving to Omaha. Paul Engle, by way of contrast, would chase other gods . . . national and international.50
Jay Sigmund, of course, never faced the temptations of post-1940 American globalism. I strongly suspect, though, that if he had, he would have remained content to write poems and stories about his own small place, even if his only audiences were the Scouts at Camp Waubeek and his neighbors and friends. All his “gods” remained local; his poetic task was to open the deeper meanings of everyday events for those among whom he lived. In these senses he was the better, and the true, Bard of the Wapsipinicon. ♦
Allan C. Carlson is president of the Howard Center for Family, Religion & Society, in Rockford, Illinois. This article is an abridged version of a chapter in his new book, The Natural Family Where It Belongs: New Agrarian Essays.
1 John T. Frederick, “The Younger School,” Palimpest 11 (February 1930): 80–81; quoted in E. Bradford Burns, Kinship with the Land: Regionalist Thought in Iowa, 1894–1942 (Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1996), 42.
2 Zachary Michael Jack, The Plowman Sings: The Essential Fiction, Poetry, and Drama of America’s Forgotten Regionalist Jay G. Sigmund (Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 2008), 14.
3 Jay G. Sigmund, Frescoes (Charleston, SC: Nabu Press, 2011).
4 “An Announcement of Distinction,” Cedar Rapids Republican (n.d. [1925?]), in Papers of Jay Sigmund (MsC 697), Special Collections Department, University of Iowa Libraries (hereafter Papers), box 1, “Newspaper Clippings.”
5 Comments of former neighbor John Wagnor, “Unveil Tablet Honoring Jay Sigmund,” newspaper article (no source or date), Papers, box 1, “Miscellaneous”; Jay Sigmund to Paul Engle, October 1, 1936, Papers, box 1, file 5; “An Announcement of Distinction,” Cedar Rapids Republican.
6 Ibid.; “Sigmund, Jay G.—Obituary,” Cedar Rapids Gazette, October 20, 1937 (typescript), in Papers, box 1, “Miscellaneous”; and Gaylord Davidson, “Dreamer and Poet Who Does Things in Life Insurance,” National Underwriter (August 1924), in Papers, box 4.
7 “Sigmund, Jay G.—Obituary,” Cedar Rapids Gazette, 5.
8 Zack, The Plowman Sings, 5–7; Ed Ferreter, Jay Sigmund’s Wapsipinicon Valley (Central City, IA: Pierce Publishing, 1987), 27; Jay Sigmund to Mrs. Wherry (Wallaces Farmer), July 10, 1935, in Papers, box 1, file 5.
9 “An Announcement of Distinction,” Cedar Rapids Republican.
10 Jay G. Sigmund, Frescoes (Boston: B. J. Brimmer, 1922), 33; Sigmund, Frescoes, 22–23, 36–38.
11 “Poetry Is for All of Us, Iowa Business-Man Holds,” Mason City Globe-Gazette (November 20, 1934); in Papers, box 1, “Newspaper Clippings”; Jay Sigmund to Paul Engle, October 1, 1934, in Papers, box 1, file 5; Jay Sigmund to Betty Smith, July 5, 1937, in Papers, box 1, file 7.
12 Arthur Davison Ficke to Jay Sigmund, February 13, 1937, in Papers, box 1, file 2.
13 “Poetry Is for All of Us,” Mason City Globe-Gazette.
14 The budding Iowa novelist Ruth Suckow noted this as well. In a letter to Sigmund, she wrote: “It seems to me that some of the poems, particularly those in regular verse form, are better than those in your first volume” (September 4, 1923, in Papers, box 4).
15 Jay G. Sigmund, Pinions (New York: James T. White, 1923), 76.
16 Jay G. Sigmund, Land O’Maize Folks (New York: James T. White, 1924), 22, 45, 51.
17 Jay G. Sigmund, Drowsy Ones (Cedar Rapids, IA: Prairie Publishing, 1925), 17–18, 43–45.
18 “A Group of Poems by Jay G. Sigmund,” The Husk 8 (March 1929): 2; Jay Sigmund, Burroak & Sumac, Cornell College Chapbook, Number One (Mt. Vernon, IA: English Club of Cornell College, n.d.), 23.
19 Ruth Suckow to Jay Sigmund, September 4, 1923, in Papers, box 4; “An Announcement of Distinction,” Cedar Rapids Republican; Burns, Kinship with the Land, 46.
20 Jay G. Sigmund, Wapsipinicon Tales (Cedar Rapids, IA: Prairie Publishing, 1927), 11.
21 Jay G. Sigmund, Merged Blood (Des Moines, IA: Maizeland Press, 1929), 73–79, 91–100.
22 Jay G. Sigmund, “Balm,” in The Ridge Road: Short Stories and Poems (Cedar Rapids, IA: Prairie Publishing, 1930), 36–44.
23 Jay G. Sigmund, “Three Women and a Man,” in The Ridge Road, 63–67.
24 California poet Robinson Jeffers, reading Drowsy Ones, replied: “You have fine powers of observation and imaginative sympathy, as well as a musical verse, and you see keenly and objectively” (Jeffers to Sigmund, June 22, 1926, in Papers, box 1, file 2). Louis Mumford published several of Sigmund’s poems in The Caravan and commented: “Your poetry gives one a rich and satisfactory sense of the mid-American earth, and I rejoice in it” (Louis Mumford to Jay Sigmund, December 1931, in Papers, box 1, file 2). “You have the touch, the color; you see character and present it without dawdling with wasteful words,” wrote humorist Opie Read, editor of the Arkansas Traveler (Opie Read to Jay Sigmund, June 19, 1927, in Papers, box 1, file 2). Sigmund met Carl Sandburg through Cornell College, where the latter regularly lectured. Sandburg commented that Wapsipinicon Tales “delivers the universal thru Iowa and you”; a later collection of stories had “the color of earth as it sifts through the small town” (notes, Carl Sandburg to Jay Sigmund [n.d.], in Papers, box 4 and box 1, file 6). And Count Ilya Tolstoy, son of the great Russian novelist, praised the complex truths found in Sigmund’s seemingly simple stories, adding: “Contrary to many American writers you are absolutely free from the ‘rubber stamp’ and I am happy to welcome in you The American Chekoff [sic] and Maupassant.”
25 For example, William Stanley Braithwaite’s Eleventh Annual Anthology of Magazine Verse declared three of the Iowan’s poems as “Distinctive,” including “To a Nesting Robin.” It began: “Through new-green elm leaves / Your jet bead eyes / Peer with their searching glances / To measure my size. “Three of Jay Sigmund’s Poems Among Best of Year, Literary Critic Says,” newspaper article (no source or date), in Papers, box 4.
26 Herbert Redeger to Jay Sigmund, November 16, 1925, in Papers, box 1, file 2; “Current Poetry,” Literary Digest (n.d. [1926?]), in Papers, box 4; Jay Sigmund, “Phantom Horses,” in Burroak & Sumac, 11; on the award, George Elliston (Cincinnati Times-Star) to Jay Sigmund (n.d. [1931?]), in Papers, box 1, file 3.
27 O’Brien’s list of “The Best Stories of 1930,” appearing in the Boston Transcript, featured six pieces by Sigmund (“Trot Lines,” “Broken Pump,” “Trade,” “Blasphemy,” “The Hills,” and “Lady Slippers”), and four by fellow Iowan Ruth Suckow. His The Best Short Stories of 1931, published by Dodd, Mead, carried three of Sigmund’s stories from The Ridge Road and a similar number by Suckow.
28 “O’Brien Sees Literary Center Shifted from Boston to Iowa,” newspaper article (no source or date), in Papers, box 1, “Newspaper Clippings.”
29 A decade later, Betty Smith would also write the bestselling, semiautobiographical A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.
30 Betty Smith to Jay Sigmund, September 22, 1936, in Papers, box 1, file 6; Sigmund’s three-act play Pitchfork Scepters, the story of a “half Philipino [sic] boy who becomes the Ridge Road Christ,” never found a publisher. Sigmund also submitted the draft of a novel to Betty Smith for review. Originally titled Purple Washboards, Smith suggested a different title: Niggerheads[!]. It was never published.
31 Jay Sigmund, “Corn Country Paean,” in Pinions, 22; Jay G. Sigmund, “Jordan’s Grove,” reprinted in Ferreter, Jay Sigmund’s Wapsipinicon Valley, 5–6.
32 See Robert L. Dorman, Revolt of the Provinces: The Regionalist Movement in America, 1920–1945 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1993), 60, 79–80; Ferreter, Jay Sigmund’s Wapsipinicon Valley, 2.
33 Jay G. Sigmund, “Anamosa,” reprinted in Ferreter, Jay Sigmund’s Wapsipinicon Valley, 30–31.
34 Jay G. Sigmund, “Council Rock Song,” reprinted in Ferreter, Jay Sigmund’s Wapsipinicon Valley, 15; Jay G. Sigmund, The Wapsipinicon: A Poetic Legendary Drama in One Act and Three Scenes, in Papers, box 2; “To Depict Legend of Wapsie at Camp,” newspaper article (no source or date), in Papers, box 5.
35 “Jay Sigmund’s Stories and Poems Are Praised by English Reviewer,” newspaper article (no source or date [1931?]), in Papers, box 1, “Newspaper Clippings”; in “Remarks by Clyde Tull” (typescript), dedication of the Jay Sigmund Park, Waubeek, Iowa, September 27, 1964, in Papers, box 1, “Miscellaneous.” Another critic who stressed Sigmund’s realism was Arthur Davison Ficke, who cited the “starkly stated horrors” found in many of Sigmund’s poems, yet concluded: “I do not see what it is possible for a poet to do nowadays except stick to a bitter honesty such as yours” (Ficke to Sigmund, June 10, 1937, in Papers, box 1, file 7). Poems of particular force included “Killers,” with vivid images of a slaughterhouse; “Loam-Wounded” and “Second Marriage” from The Ridge Road; and “County Home Farmer” from Sigmund’s last collection of verse, Heron at Sunset.
36 Jay G. Sigmund, “Tempted,” in Pinions, 35; “The Younger Ridge Road Men,” in The Ridge Road, 75; “Bill M’ Kellum,” in Land O’ Maize Folks, 69–70; “Retrospect,” in Land O’ Maize Folks, 87–88; H. L. Mencken to Jay Sigmund, August 20 (n.d. [1924–?]), in Papers, box 4.
37 Jay G. Sigmund, “Meditation” and “Whistles—Seven A.M.,” in Pinions, 73, 79.
38 Jay G. Sigmund, “Corn Country Magnificat” and “Christ of the Ridgeroad,” in Papers, box 2; “New Master—Old Farm,” in Heron at Sunset, 12; Roland A. White, “Book Review of Heron at Sunset,” Dubuque Leader (December 24, 1937), in Papers, box 1, “Newspaper Clippings”; Jay G. Sigmund, “Asylum Dance,” in Heron at Sunset, 18–19.
39 Jay G. Sigmund, “Pleased to Meet You,” in The Least of These, 47–53; “Christ in the Street,” in Papers, box 2.
40 Brother Bruno Ryan to Jay Sigmund, August 1, 1930, in Papers, box 1, file 1; Brother Vincent to Jay Sigmund, December 24, 1934, in Papers, box 1, file 5; Brother Bruno to Jay Sigmund, April 11, 1931, in Papers, box 1, file 1; Sister Mary Samuel to Jay Sigmund, July 28, 1933, in Papers, box 1, file 4.
41 Jay G. Sigmund, “Choir of the Pines—New Melleray Abbey,” in Papers, box 2; Jay G. Sigmund, “Chant for the Blessed Virgin to Be Said Before Planting Time,” in Papers, box 2.
42 Jay G. Sigmund, “A World Man Sees an Altar,” in Papers, box 2; Jay G. Sigmund, Altar Panels: Twenty Episodes in the Life of Christ (Milwaukee: Morehouse; London: A. R. Mowbray, 1931).
43 Sister Mary Edmund to Jay Sigmund, January 8, 1934, in Papers, box 1, file 5; Carmelite Nuns to Jay G. Sigmund, March 5, 1936, in Papers, box 1, file 6.
44 “Sigmund, Jay G.—Obituary,” Cedar Rapids Gazette, 1, 6.
45 “To Be Opened at My Death” (handwritten document), Jay Sigmund to Paul Engle, October 8, 1937, in Papers, box 1, file 7.
46 “ ‘He Taught Me to Look at Things with Honest Eyes,’ says Paul Engle in Writing Poem to Jay Sigmund,” Cedar Rapids Gazette, October 21,1937, in Papers, box 1, “Newspaper Clippings.”
47 Thomas Craven to Jay Sigmund, December 20, 1935, in Papers, box 1, file 5; Rousseau Voorhies to Jay Sigmund (n.d.), in Papers, box 1, file 1-B. Reviewer Roland White suggested, with some accuracy, I think, that relative to the global literary scene and over the expanse of a century, “Jay Sigmund was never a great writer.” And yet, “this not-quite Chekhov of the short story” displayed in both verse and prose such qualities as “genuine,” “simplicity,” “competent,” “authentic,” and “alive.” Moreover, as Sigmund grew in his understanding of the marginal farmer’s plight, he gave “larger place to the human and economic starkness exposed by changing times” (White, “Review of Heron at Sunset”).
48 “Unveil Tablet Honoring Jay Sigmund,” newspaper article (no source or date), in Papers, box 1, “Miscellaneous,” emphasis added.
49 Beyond his earlier achievements, Engle would publish another ten collections of verse, several novels and popular remembrances (e.g., the bestselling An Old-Fashioned Christmas), select and edit six volumes of The O’Henry Awards, win a Pulitzer Prize and an American Book Award, become poet laureate of Iowa, serve as director of the famed Iowa Writer’s Workshop from 1941 to 1965, and cofound the University of Iowa’s International Writing Program.
50 During the 1940s, his poetry became nationalistic (e.g., American Child: A Sonnet Sequence). During the 1960s, he swung fully to the international; indeed, by 1972 he would be cotranslator (with his future—and second—wife Hualing Nieh) of the Poems of Mao Tse-tung. During the balance of that decade, he translated poetry collections from Korea, Romania, Japan, Bulgaria, Yugoslavia, Russia, and elsewhere. “Iowa” was lost in this global muddle.