James Hearst

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Hearst, James Schell (8 August 1900 - 27 July 1983)

Hearst, an Iowa farmer-poet who was a grandson of a pioneer Iowa farmer near Cedar Falls, was a democratic humanist who, although he did not like labels, could be described as a humanistic naturalist - one with a scientific, pragmatic, down-to-gumbo-soil outlook that combined with his expertise in the humanities. He was uncomfortable with all organized religions.

Following are samples of the work of a man who, following a diving accident into shallow water, was confined to a wheelchair for most of his life. First, from “Belief”:

We should stand often against the sun—
And what of the work if it isn’t done?
For we are two neighbors who like to share
A friendly word in the open air.
And we should talk swiftly against the time
When crops and men and women and rhyme
Shall be as quiet as to us as stone—
The time of forever we spend alone.

In “The Grail,” Hearst is naturalistic:

What greater praise canst thou have
Than that we seek the grail,
Not in the heavens, Lord, among the stars’ cold radiance,
But in the furrow, the plowed field, the meadow,
The places where it blooms for man in his short life.

In “The Reason for Stars,” Hearst continues,

I never wonder a lot about stars.
I’m much too busy with things of this earth
That show when a season of labor is done
Just what the labor’s been worth.
Stars are all right to admire like flowers,
I like to see pretty things when I’m done
Working in the fields, but what do I care
Whether a star is stone?
There’s plenty to learn in the ways of a seed.
What do you get if you study the sky?
It’s greater for holding one fruit in my hand
Than a heaven of stars in my eye.

Similarly, he philosophizes in “Cows Bawl on Sunday”:

The image of God
in a warm mackinaw and rubber boots
daily fights his way into the steaming barnyard
into a multitude of hungry, angry, playful and determined animals
through a cloud of raging sound
to bring order out of chaos.
Six times a week and rests not on the seventh—
and there fails his divinity.

Critiquing Hearst’s Country Men (1943), Dr. H. Willard Reninger of the University of Northern Iowa (UNI) wrote concerning the “Robert Frost of the Midwest,”

  • He is suspicious of metaphysical systems and expects no final answers in this world. One would never catch Jim Hearst trying to crack the nut of the universe—he would work harder trying to understand a friend. Consequently he thinks and writes from no thesis. Fine meshes are suspect; he shakes no self-righteous sieve. His mind is eminently receptive, a listening mind with ‘schools and creeds in abeyance.’ Not argumentative, he is a man of peace, practicing a quiet self-reliance, but compromising at times because of his reluctance to offend a guest. Unlike his father, he is no swinging fighter for his ideals, winning, instead, through a personal appeal to one’s humanity. . . . Jim Hearst believes that there may be no order in nature except the order imposed upon it by man. From nature man can learn isolated facts and lessons, but the totality he must forge for himself. Man is therefore obliged to impose an order on nature, on his own life, and on everything he makes. This order is necessary to give his life meaning, and above all man is in search of the meaning of existence: he must somehow wrench point and direction from his environment—a reason for being.

Asked about humanism, Robert Frost’s respected friend responded to one of his students, Warren Allen Smith:

  • I don’t know where I fit. I can go along with “democratic humanism” because it is vaguely reassuring. If it will help, I’m a backslid Congregationalist with firm leanings away from denominationalism. As my friend August Bang said, “Denominations are God’s little kindergartens.” Mostly I start with the individual as the hitching post for meanings and beliefs. There must be a point of reference somewhere and I like to start with a person. Then he can choose the ground he wants to stand on. There is nothing on this earth more important than people. People think the abstractions, make up the legends and myths, form and reform societies, contain the unconscious, the id, the super-ego—in spite of what some poets, scientists, and other generalizers would have you think. Maybe I’ll change my mind later on, but it will be only a slight shift. Can you make anything out of this? I am more at home in the hayfield right now than in the various aspects of humanism.


Hearst wrote about his views to Warren Allen Smith, one of his poetry students at Iowa State Teachers College (now the University of Northern Iowa). Smith once told Robert Frost, who was friendly with Hearst, that he was "New England's Jim Hearst." Smith became book review editor of The Humanist:






{WAS, 12 June 1949, 1969, 1970s}