The Students of Marianne Moore

Reading the ugly history of the Carlisle Indian Industrial School, where the poet taught.

Late last fall, after the evenings of phone-banking and before the day of patriotic devotion, after the election returns and before the Women’s March, after one sort of horror receded and before a different, more permanent sort set in, I stood in a Native American graveyard and thought about Marianne Moore

The graveyard lies on the outskirts of Carlisle, Pennsylvania, where I live and where Moore lived from the age of nine until she was near 30. It’s also where the Carlisle Indian Industrial School operated from 1879 to 1918. Moore remembered seeing the founder, General Richard Henry Pratt, on the streets of her small town. She found him “so monumental,” as she told an interviewer in 1960, that “no one could dare approach him to tell him one approved of the work he was doing.” That work was cultural genocide. Pratt fought for the Union in the Civil War and for the United States in the Indian wars before deciding that his true vocation was educating Native American youth in the ways of white America. He convinced the federal government to repurpose some outdated army barracks in central Pennsylvania for this elevating, assimilating, decimating purpose. “The last great Indian war,” David Wallace Adams writes in Education for Extinction, “[was] waged against children.” 

Moore enlisted in 1911. She taught in the business department. When she biked to classes and study halls and supervisory duties from her house on Hanover Street, she was, to use her own word from a later interview, “soldiering.” She mostly hated the job. She liked her students, though. Among them was Jim Thorpe, later declared the greatest athlete of the first half of the 20th century. Thorpe and Moore might be the two most famous figures associated with the school. But Moore’s fame came later, after her department was dissolved and she left teaching. It can be hard to find traces of the Carlisle school in her poems.

Or it can be hard if you’re not looking in the right places. I hadn’t been. I started thinking about Moore’s Carlisle experience, after the election. But I’d been thinking about it in the context of journalism that describes “a growing rural-urban split.” For more than five decades, Moore lived in New York City, where she edited the Dial and wrote “An Octopus” and talked over Bryher’s nude photographs and argued with Ezra Pound; the city seems to be where Modernism happened. But Carlisle, in fact, was where Moore the Modernist grew up. Her first acceptance from Poetry came to her Carlisle address. Jeff Wood, a Moore scholar who runs the excellent local bookstore, helped me see the town then, in all its Moore-ish detail: how many millinery establishments Moore would have passed en route to church every week, for example. Carlisle at that time had two opera houses, two daily newspapers, and a railroad station. Moore’s minister held “the largest private library in the Cumberland Valley,” Wood explained. When Moore’s mother fell in love with the minister’s daughter, a Bryn Mawr graduate and suffragist, the young woman became part of the poet’s family for nearly a decade. Much of what makes Moore’s work so distinctive and modern, much of what makes Moore’s life in New York so distinctive and modern—a combination of queer families and friendships and moral rectitude, for example, a love of hats and books and scrapbooked facts, an investment in patriotism and feminism—came from her time in a borough of 10,000 people.

“It could not be dangerous to be living / in a town like this,” Moore writes in “The Steeple-Jack.” I used to chant the line on my way to work. It’s infused with something of Carlisle, I think, though its true source, as Linda Leavell’s biography explains, is a combination of Monhegan and Brooklyn. But the very impulse to put together coastal Maine and metropolitan New York—that seems Carlisle-nurtured. Also political and not just for readers like me, mired in 21st-century US electoral news. “The Steeple-Jack” opens Moore’s 1932 triptych, “Part of a Novel, Part of a Poem, Part of a Play,” which ushers in the decade of Moore’s most political and to my mind most interesting writing. “The Steeple-Jack” remembers how “presidents” treat “sin-driven // senators. ...” The last poem of the three, “The Hero,” ends with a “Negro” pointing out George and Martha Washington’s tombs. 

But I had missed so much—forgotten so much—I began to realize on my late-November visit to the Native American cemetery. So much in many areas. And in my reading of Moore, too. I had forgotten the “Indian- / named Virginian / streams, in counties named for English lords” from “Virginia Britannia” (1935). I had forgotten Moore’s contrast of the “Indian buffalo” and the “white / Christian heathen” in “The Buffalo” (1934). I had neglected “Rigorists” (1940), a poem that describes how reindeer prevented the “extinction / of the Esquimaux.” Above all, I had missed, among the “Part Of …” assemblage, the way Moore’s experience in the Carlisle Indian Industrial School might infuse the perpetually overlooked middle poem, “The Student.” Reading Moore in and after 2016 means questioning the urban-rural divide, perhaps. But it also means thinking about another imaginary American line—the frontier.

The frontier: on one side, “civilization”; on the other, “wilderness.” It’s a way of imagining the division between European and Native American cultures and a way of justifying violence against Native American nations as well as appropriation of land and resources they once held. Moore’s poems know the frontier. “New York,” the one explicitly focused on her great Modernist city, does not combine metropolis and un-dangerous small town but rather metropolis and wilderness. It begins with “the savage’s romance.” The rest describes New York as “the center of the wholesale fur trade,” “plunder” that comes from as far away as “the conjunction of the Monongahela and the Allegheny.” These are Native American names for rivers in Pennsylvania. Moore turns the city westward, backward, toward an ongoing history of settlement and exploitation.

Carlisle is a good place to think through that ongoing history. The “frontier” made Carlisle a sensible spot for a settlement back in the 18th century, when the borough was founded. The Carlisle Barracks were established because Carlisle was a good place from which to venture out in the French and Indian War, later a good place to train 19th-century cavalry who would kill Native Americans and take their land. When Pratt thought Carlisle a fine setting for his Indian school, the frontier—supposedly closed—moved east again, back to the town, part of a mission to perpetuate and deny its existence. 

Frontier as scar. Frontier as double consciousness. “Kill the Indian,” Pratt wrote, “and save the man.” Over the 39 years of the school, more than 10,000 children were transported to Carlisle over vast distances, from Alaska and Puerto Rico, the Dakotas, and the Southwest. Students from different nations were deliberately housed together to enforce English speaking and accelerate assimilation. They were dressed in uniforms and drilled to band music. Classes taught academic subjects and trades such as painting, carpentry, sewing, cooking, preparation for the jobs Native Americans were meant to take up after graduation. For some, school did lead to employment. For many, school years enforced a traumatized liminality that afterward prevented happiness in either predominantly white or predominantly Native American cultures. 

Others—the cemetery, those rows of stones—others had no afterward at all. Jacqueline Fear-Segal, a professor of American history and culture, reports that Pratt tried to send seriously ill students home to avoid scrutiny of the school’s high mortality rate. Fear-Segal’s varied scholarship on the Carlisle Indian Industrial School contributes to efforts at knowing and reclaiming the names and histories involved, often in conjunction with scholarship by descendants of students. A Dickinson College initiative digitizes archives for further access and study. A 2012 conference produced an invaluable volume edited by Fear-Segal and Susan D. Rose. (I am indebted to all this work.) 

Even at the time Moore taught there, the school’s obvious wrongs were noticed and decried. Moore knew of “cruel neglect and abuse,” as her mother put it in a letter included in Leavell’s biography. Moore did not protest. In 1914, federal investigators examined conditions at CIIS and dismissed the superintendent (Pratt had already left, in 1904). Congress found financial corruption and mismanagement as well as incidents of wrongful expulsion and physical harm. A student in Moore’s department organized the petition requesting the investigation, which 276 students signed. Moore was accused of supporting insurrection, but she sidestepped the charge, as she reports in a letter to her brother: “I crush out disrespect and rancor whenever I see it, and I give the students as thorough a training in political honor as I can.” When inspectors came to Carlisle, she dodged them. Her brother advised her not to say anything definitive or particular. She took his advice.  

It’s hard to know how much of her silence was self-protection or family protection; in her unpublished autobiography, the poet implies that she took the job for money, and her $2,000 a year seems to have been essential to the Moores’ finances. Moore leaves only when her department is shut down and her job canceled, at which point she assures her brother that she will still bring in income. She plans to write for a gardening periodical, an article about botanical camouflage. Camouflage is a good Moore theme. In an essay, Lesley Wheeler and Chris Gavaler make the interesting argument that Moore’s poetic self-concealment and changeability, especially in her animal poems, reflect her Indian Industrial School tenure.  

Experience is also a good Moore theme. It also might reflect her tenure at the Carlisle institution. In “New York,” she contrasts the record of plunder with “accessibility to experience.” And then there’s “The Student.” “Experience” is there too. If we are to look for the poetic results of Moore’s only teaching job, it makes sense to look to her most explicit discussion of education. “The Student” deserves more attention than it has gotten, especially in the original, 1932 publication that Poetry preserves. That version includes a key citation of “experience,” later excised: “The football huddle in the / vacant lot // is impersonating calculus and physics and military / books; and is gathering the data for genetics,” Moore writes. “If

                   scholarship would profit by it, sixteen
                   foot men should be grown; it’s for the football men to
                                 say. We must lean


    on their experience. There is vitality in the world of sport.
    If it is not the tree of knowledge, it’s the tree of life.

In Moore’s educational Eden, football signals the kind of experience from which we can learn. Might we see in this athletic scholasticism, out on an overlooked “vacant lot,” the presence of those student-athletes Moore would have known in Carlisle? 

Moore’s interest in sports, of course, is well-known and overdetermined. Late in life, she wrote liner notes for Muhammad Ali, a poem about a polo pony, and a song for the Brooklyn Dodgers. The latter prompted Sports Illustrated to discover, in 1960, that Moore also had a “background” in athletics by virtue of her long-ago teaching job. For most US readers then—and maybe even now—the Carlisle School was known, if at all, not as the template of a destructive educational experiment but as the source of some wildly successful football teams. How wonderful to learn that a “neat and gentle” senior-citizen poet with a “delightful personality” knew those “almost mythological” sportsmen at the time of their “epic striving.” “The Poet, the Bums and the Legendary Red Men” was the headline for Robert Cantwell’s article. 

Jim Thorpe, 1912 Summer Olympics


In the interview, Moore obligingly remembered “James” Thorpe carrying her umbrella on an outing. A Sac and Fox student, Thorpe was part of Moore’s department when he won a pair of gold medals in track and field at the 1912 Olympics—for a country that had not granted him citizenship. As the star of the football team, Thorpe helped Carlisle defeat colleges such as Georgetown, Harvard, and Brown; Carlisle even beat Army, and at West Point. “Pop” Warner, a coach famous for experimenting with tactics just shy of cheating (the “hidden-ball” play) whose practices with ticket revenues were not always scrupulous (he was also dismissed in the federal investigation), knew how to design a schedule and promote his team. Fans and journalists were not shy in pointing out the symbolism in Indians’ defeating white men and cadets. Football, more violent at the turn of the century than it is now, was busy consolidating its status as a symbolic crucible of US militarism and masculinity. Carlisle’s team helped. The line of scrimmage? Another frontier. The excitement of violent territorial advance turned into wholesome exercise and entertainment, an honorable part of education, even—something citizens could watch and cheer for on a weekend afternoon.

The subtle or not-so-subtle racism involved colored accounts of Thorpe: he was a “natural” athlete, supposedly. He was lazy, but he did not need to practice. He trained little if at all for his Olympic events. When the “Indian Service medical inspector” came to measure him at Carlisle, as Kate Buford describes in her biography (I am indebted to it for many details), Thorpe was touted as “half-way … between the sinuous aborigine … and the modern product of civilization.” He was proof of refinement, and he was a primitive rejoinder to it. So was the entire Carlisle squad—for white spectators, at once an expiation of guilt and a reinforcement of prejudice. Decades after, Moore’s Sports Illustrated interview demonstrates much of the same. Cantwell’s first question about the Indian School is whether the poet was “afraid” of “her charges.” Moore responds that this never occurred to her. 

She has the chance for more interesting responses to the conjoined US myths of football, Indians, and education in her earlier poem. “The Student” uses sporting experience to empower its largest claims for educational democracy. At first, Moore’s lines seem to center on elite universities such as Harvard and Yale—she includes their mottoes (“Christo et ecclesiae,” “lux et veritas”). But she in fact scrutinizes elitism. Is college only for the few? Can educational enfranchisement coexist with genuine superiority? Moore answers no and yes. Education should be “for everyone.” Yet education must not comprise only college study. Look at how that unassuming huddle performs its interdisciplinary research. Look—and then the poem takes off, “changed from that which creeps to that which is / angelic,” comparing genuine learning to dancing or swimming or the turning of a windsock in the breeze, an attunement of one’s physical being and circumstances that allows all the multiplying, highly Moore-an distinctions on the penultimate page: “the difference between cow / and zebu,” the attributes of the “golden eagle.” 

Is the city (New York, perhaps) “accessible” to this experience? Is the country (the United States, perhaps) so open? “We’re not / hypocrites,” Moore says in lines of “The Student” just before she invokes the football team. “We’re rustics.” Rustic means “countrified.” In Britain, rusticated also means “expelled from school.” Moore punningly reclaims that exclusion as a point of political distinction. Education as experience, knowledge as life, exceeds the academy and its timetables; “‘science is never finished.’” British dons might not think so, nor snobbish Frenchmen, since “the French … don’t / say everyone must go to college.” But out in the wilderness, Americans have the chance to get it right. If football is to be a repository of the country’s values, Moore implies, let it not be in remaking as spectacle the racist, violent frontier. Let it be through its “vitality,” its embodied wisdom. So says the ideal “student,” in Moore’s poem, who is like “the poet,” who has a “heroic mind,” who “concentrates and does not like to fight,” and who “is reclusive, and reserved.” In an interview with George Plimpton, Moore remembers watching the Carlisle team practice: Thorpe “crouched in the lineup for football … was the epitome of concentration, wary, with an effect of plenty in reserve.”  

Moore changed “The Student” later. She edited out references to rustics and hypocrites and specifically American thinkers (Emerson, Audubon). She also edited out the football. (“She never wrote anything about the Indian School,” Cantwell claims in the 1960 Sports Illustrated interview, “because it never really became a part of her life.”) The result is less interesting, less personal—also less emphatic. Only in the Poetry version does Moore venture a statement as plain as this one: “Education augments our natural forces and / prompts us to extend the machinery of advantage / to those who are without it.” 

It could be the motto—the justification—of an Indian School teacher. Certainly, Moore continued to want to justify the work of men like Pratt. “Rigorists,” her reindeer poem, wants to extol another educator, also bent on suppressing Native American languages and culture in the name of a “civilizing” goal, because of his efforts to import reindeer that Native Alaskans could use. Moore’s revisions to this work make it less interesting, again, emphasizing the benevolence of the missionary, Sheldon Jackson, rather than the mysterious sympathies and symbioses between animal and human. That mystery, in the original version, retains some challenge. The sentence about “education” and “natural forces” in “The Student” is also a challenge. One pleasure of reading Moore is discovering how her detailed particulars—and their sources—add to the nuance of any definitive claim. What are “natural forces” in the context of an educational history imbued with racist arguments about “the data for genetics” as well as racist uses for “calculus and physics and military / books?” What sort of augmentation do those natural forces require?

In 1913, when Carlisle students were petitioning against the machinery of disadvantage and Moore was trying to avoid inspectors, she received a Christmas card from Thorpe and his first wife, Iva. Thorpe was just beginning a troubled post-Carlisle career. He was stripped of his Olympic medals when the Committee discovered he had played professional summer baseball—common practice, though others kept deniability by using fake names. In later years of professional sports, Thorpe never found lasting financial security or happiness. He worked as a Hollywood extra, a security guard, and a barkeep. At one point in 1941, he was hired to dress up in “Indian” costume and parade a New York gridiron. He had just split from the second of his three wives. When he died in 1953, he was buried in Jim Thorpe, Pennsylvania, a place formed when two municipalities changed their names in order to receive his body and, they hoped, spark tourism and business—Pennsylvania coal was failing and jobs were dwindling. Those hopes fizzled, of course. Thorpe’s grave did not revitalize a small-town economy. His descendants tried to remove his body to Oklahoma, near his birthplace and childhood home but were unsuccessful. 

The card to Moore is postmarked Nagasaki, Japan, where Thorpe was on a world tour with the New York Giants. Inside is a mere line of greeting. When I saw the card in the Moore archive back in December, its significance seemed rather to inhere in the envelope’s simple delivery address: “Miss Moore, Carlisle, Pa., U.S.A.” Miss Moore in Carlisle. Miss Moore in Carlisle, USA. To think about the poet here means thinking about small-town values and national political geography. “As a nation, perhaps,” Moore writes in “The Student,” “we are undergraduates not students.” That is, we are trapped in institutions that do not help us study what we need to know? Or we are deluded enough to think we might graduate from the need? We cannot. Reading Moore’s work now means reading the history of the places in which she taught, lessons to keep learning and relearning.

Originally Published: March 14th, 2017

Siobhan Phillips's poems and essays have appeared in Boston Review, Harvard Review, Southwest Review, and other journals. She is the author of The Poetics of the Everyday: Creative Repetition in Modern American Verse (Columbia University Press, 2010).

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