Born in 1916 in North Dakota, poet and novelist Thomas McGrath is probably best known for his work long poem Letters to an Imaginary Friend as well as a host of novels and children’s books that set him apart as one of the most prolific writers of the 20th century. His parents were originally from Ireland but were drawn to the prospect of a better life, settling on a homestead in Dakota so that McGrath was largely brought up within a close knit farming community.
Like many families at the time, the reality was somewhat different, and the McGraths had to battle the dust bowl conditions as well as the hardships that came with the Great Depression. All this was to inform his poetry and other writing in the years to come; a combination of the landscape, the hard times and the religious upbringing.
His politics were developed from a young age with association to organizations such as the Industrial Workers of the World. His early life was later swapped for the itinerant existence of many of his compatriots, traveling from place to place and taking any odd job that he could in order to survive. By his early thirties he found himself in New York where he worked on the waterfront but also moonlighted editing the newspaper that the local union ran.
By this time he was writing poetry, reading it to the local waterfront workers and he produced works such as Longshot O’Leary’s Garland of Practical Poesy in 1940. When World War II came along he joined the army and found himself posted to Aleutian Islands and later it allowed him to head for Oxford in England as a Rhodes Scholar.
Encouraged to devote more of his time to poetry, he began writing his most memorable work Letter to an Imaginary Friend at this time. Unlike many of his peers at the time he clung rigidly to his leftist principals that had been honed and nurtured on the plains of North Dakota. His unwillingness to engage with the later rise of McCarthyism led him to lose his job as a teacher in Los Angeles and a return to his home in North Dakota.
The first part of Letter to an Imaginary Friend was a long poem that he completed whilst living back in Dakota and contains a ripe mix of his political and personal life and it received strong critical reviews when it was finally published in 1962. It was a theme that he would return to with three more parts written over the next twenty years.
He returned to teaching in the 60s, first at North Dakota University and then Moorhead State University publishing works such as The Movie at the End of the World and The Sound of One Hand during this period. McGrath also wrote a number of documentary film scripts and novels including The Coffin Has No Handles which was published not long before his death.
McGrath died in 1990 at the age of 74 when he was living in Minneapolis. His last work of poetry Death Song was published a year after his passing.