Friday, February 27, 2004
Tomorrow marks the anniversary of the death of playwright Maxwell Anderson, who died in 1959. He was one of the most important American playwrights of the 20th century.
Born in 1888, Anderson spent his first three years on a farm near Atlantic, Pennsylvania. His father worked as a railroad fireman while studying at night to become a Baptist minister. The family moved to Jamestown in 1907, where Anderson graduated from high school. Going on to UND, Anderson joined nearly every club related to writing and drama. For money, he waited tables and worked at the night copy desk of the Grand Forks Herald.
After getting his B.A. in English Literature, Anderson moved to Minnewaukan, where he was the high school principal and English teacher. He was an avowed pacifist, and two years later he was fired for protesting World War I in front of his students. So he moved to Palo Alto, California, to get his Masters from Stanford. He became chair of the English Department at Whittier College near Los Angeles, but was fired again the following year for making public statements on behalf of a student seeking conscientious objector status.
Anderson decided it was time to get into a different business – newspaper reporting. He worked for several different papers in San Francisco and New York, and then began following a different calling – he penned his first play, White Dessert. It enjoyed only twelve performances, but it won the attention of Laurence Stallings, a reviewer for the New York World, and the two collaborated on a war comedy, What Price Glory? It was a giant hit and had a run of more than 430 performances. Anderson quit the newspaper business and went into writing plays full time.
In the next few years Anderson wrote, among many others, Elizabeth the Queen, Mary of Scotland, Key Largo and Anne of a Thousand Days. In 1933, his play, Both Your Houses, won the Pulitzer Prize. He also won the First Annual New York Critics Circle Award for Winterset in 1935 and again for High Tor in 1936. He also wrote radio shows and collaborated on screenplays for movies like All Quiet on the Western Front and Death Takes a Holiday.
1958 marked the 75th anniversary of the founding of UND, and Anderson was conferred a Doctor of Humanities degree during the festivities. He was too ill to attend, but he wrote a letter saying the university had been there for him when he needed it very badly and thanked them for providing – in his words – a retreat for those more interested in the creation of beauty or the discovery of truth than in making a profit. He wrote, “If I hadn’t gone to the university, I might have been an unhappy and mediocre banker, farmer, or store-keeper. I’d have gone no farther.”
Maxwell Anderson died the following year after having a stroke. To honor the spirit of a man and his deeply held principles, we offer one of his most famous quotes:
“When a government takes over a people’s economic life it becomes absolute, and when it has become absolute, it destroys the arts, the minds, the liberties and the meaning of the people it governs.”
Maxwell Anderson may have lost jobs because of his words; but his words also made him a resounding success. He is a great North Dakota treasure.
Dakota Datebook written by Merry Helm