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Cover image for William Ellery Leonard.
Title:
William Ellery Leonard.
Author:
McDonald, Roxanne
Source:
Salem Press Biographical Encyclopedia, 2019. 1p.
Document Type:
Biography
Subject:
Leonard, William Ellery, 1876-1944
Abstract:
Poet. William Ellery Channing Leonard was born on January 25, 1876, in Plainfield, New Jersey, to newspaper editor (and later Unitarian pastor) William James and mother Martha Whitcomb Leonard. He would become, in his forties, acclaimed for his teaching, his scholarship, his translating abilities, and his writing—the latter of which took shape in his earliest years. At two years old, terrified by a passing locomotive, he experienced a mal-imprinting that would influence his writing later, when he would recall the ferocious beast that was coming to “eat [him] alive.” As biographer Meredith Yearsley notes, “the fright caused a paralytic phobia, which prevented him from going any distance from a safe center,” a phobia which would also impact his personal life in numerous terrible ways.
Full Text Word Count:
944
Accession Number:
88829361
Format:

William Ellery Leonard

88829361;;20190418;DataLoaderFramework.EpMarcCitation;5.8.0.0 William Ellery Leonard

Poet

Born: January 25, 1876 Birthplace: Plainfield, New Jersey Died: May 2, 1944 Place of death: Wisconsin

Biography

William Ellery Channing Leonard was born on January 25, 1876, in Plainfield, New Jersey, to newspaper editor (and later Unitarian pastor) William James and mother Martha Whitcomb Leonard. He would become, in his forties, acclaimed for his teaching, his scholarship, his translating abilities, and his writing—the latter of which took shape in his earliest years. At two years old, terrified by a passing locomotive, he experienced a mal-imprinting that would influence his writing later, when he would recall the ferocious beast that was coming to “eat [him] alive.” As biographer Meredith Yearsley notes, “the fright caused a paralytic phobia, which prevented him from going any distance from a safe center,” a phobia which would also impact his personal life in numerous terrible ways.

Adding to this trauma were an 1885 attack on Leonard by a crowd of schoolboys; having to relinquish a formal public school education in Plainfield when his father moved the family to Bolton, Massachusetts, to switch careers from editing to pasturing; studying at Boston University on a meager allowance (according to Yearsley, $156 a year); and even more misfortune throughout his sixty-eight years. However, the determined Leonard, intent on becoming a university professor, studied first on his own and then at college. He graduated from Boston University with a bachelor in arts in 1898, moving into teaching Latin at the university while he at the same time worked toward his master’s at Harvard. Earning his M.A. in 1899, the man whom friends such as admirer Ludwig Lewisohn would describe as a “young eagle with plumage ruffled by the storm,” studied further, as a traveling fellow from Boston University in Bonn and Göttingen, finally earning his Ph.D. from Columbia University in 1904.

With no academic offers, Leonard first began work as an editor at Lippincott’s Dictionary in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. When the company went under in 1906, Leonard finally found the opportunity he had worked toward—taking a post as instructor at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, where he became professor in 1926 and where he stayed until he retired. Also in 1926, Leonard published his first book of sonnets and poems. He was forty years old. At the same time he began publishing, he moved in with Charles Freeman’s family, having made friends in Germany with Freeman’s son-in-law years before. There in his new home he met and fell in love with Charlotte Freeman, whom he married on June 23, 1909.

True to his earlier history, his marriage suffered. Charlotte, a woman prone to “fits of melancholia” for which she had been institutionalized, committed suicide upon her father’s death in May of 1911. Even more profoundly impacting was the rumor mill, which held that Leonard had been the cause of her killing herself. Further, the remaining Freeman family ostracized and exiled Leonard. His friends refused to have anything to do with him. Leonard would later write of the slander and behavior of those he dubbed the “Madison Mob” as parallel to the vicious attacking of the boys in the schoolyard. This psychic onslaught revived in Leonard his distance phobia.

His parents came to Madison to live with him and support his recovery, which he made while engaging in the catharsis of playwriting. Leonard also completed a translation of a work he had begun for his wife, using this work as what he called a “distraction.” In addition, he crafted poems with such themes as the martyrdom of blacks, incorporating imagery that, according to Yearsley, speaks to the writer’s hatred for social injustice with its “horrific” depictions of gelding, torture, and burning of a black man. A year later, Leonard would write what would be hailed by Howard Mumford Jones as “the best poem that has ever come out of America.” Two Lives: A Poem, written in sonnet form, tells the story of his marriage and the misery it entailed. It was a great achievement for Leonard, though, one imagines, hardly a consolation.

The resilient author, scholar, and professor continued writing, and, too, tried again at marriage. On October 10, 1914, he wed eighteen-year-old Charlotte Charlton, a former student, with whom he settled in a cottage on Wisconsin’s Lake Wingra. There Leonard wrote more poetry, enjoyed a different life for a change. However, he unwittingly dismantled marriage number two with the recurrence of attacks of his distance phobia, in 1922, which forced him not only to give up his secluded lakefront home and return to the city but which ended his marriage to Charlotte—who left him in 1934. Since he was unable to go to friends, the friends would come to Leonard, comprising what Charlotte had called her husband’s “beat,” a too-small and suffocating circle of friends she could not take. In her wake, the undaunted Leonard married a third time, also to a former student, Grace Golden, whom he wed on June 29, 1935. He featured her in later poetry as the young girl in a romance with a man whose “time is running out.” By 1937, the couple agreed that the match they made was just “foolish.” Once more Leonard would be separated from a wife.

Once more he would marry, this last time to his second wife, who after their second wedding on April 23, 1940, would stay as a lifetime companion to the man known for his neuroticism but also to the man whom others considered a wonderful, “stimulating” teacher who made for his students “a birthplace of intellectual independence.” Leonard died on May 2, 1944.

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