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Poet Foss Spoke for the Common Man

sam_Foss_medalHISTORY MATTERS  

A divided America needs another Sam Walter Foss, the poet with the common touch. Born in Candia, NH and educated in Portsmouth, Foss’s reputation today hangs largely on a single poem entitled “The House by the Side of the Road.” The poet urges everyone to stop their cynical, partisan bickering and become good neighbors.  “Let me live in a house by the side of the road,” Foss says, “and be a friend to man.”  (Continued below) 

 

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It is a simple, sentimental, optimistic work that has been reproduced on tea towels, printed in greeting cards, and framed in homes countless thousands of times. But it is far from his best poem. I know because I tracked down all five out-of-print volumes of poetry by Sam Walter Foss – and read them all. My goal, come hell or high water, is to resurrect the best works of our native poet, because we need him now more than ever.  

The fundamental Foss   

Sam_Foss_House_PoemSam Foss was as much philosopher as poet. His moral compass was dead on. He carried a healthy distrust for authority. He had no patience for lazy, pretentious or quarrelsome people. A humanist of the highest order, Foss believed entirely in the goodness of “the average man” and wrote entirely for a popular audience that he hoped to inspire with his “homespun” verse. It was his dedication to popular topics and clear writing, one literary critic has suggested, that doomed Sam Walter Foss to obscurity. He refused to write with the “imagist obliqueness” employed by “major” poets of his era. In other words, when Foss wrote, you knew what he was talking about.

          Foss railed against crooked politicians, immoral clergymen, deceptive newspaper reporters, abusive bosses, bigoted institutions, oppressive governments, and uninspired teachers. Here he makes fun of the rigid school curriculum:          

    There was a man – a mighty man – 
     Who wrote a mighty grammar, 
    To be beaten into children’s heads, 
     And knocked in with a hammer.  

The world, for Foss, was a fascinating comic opera. The richer and more powerful men grew, he pointed out, the sillier they became. If he wrote about a boy “who was dumber than snowbirds in summer,” that boy was likely to grow up to be president – or at least the mayor. Foss was fascinated by careless commuters who consistently showed up at the railroad station “just in time to miss the train.”  His hero was often a humble farmer, artisan or shopkeeper who came up against local power brokers. The common man doesn’t always win, Foss knew, but he does the best he can.  

Foss showed his compassion for the homeless, the immigrant and the jobless. “All Nature is sick from her heels to her hair,” he wrote, “When a feller is out of a job.” (That message cost President Obama the House of Representatives in last week’s Republican election upset.) The common man, Foss said, must overcome mediocrity and conformity, rise up from the crowd, and take a leadership role. Unfortunately, Foss points out, the average man inevitably becomes corrupt and drunk with wealth and power. That is the human comedy Foss loved to write about.  

Continue SAM WALTER FOSS


 

Sam_Foss_Common_Man

The human comedy  

His witty rhymes still strike home. In “The Coming War” the narrator tries to warn his wife that World War I is approaching, but she wants him to take out the garbage instead. Foss rails against the unstoppable railroad as the tracks cut through a farmer’s fields, bringing both progress and corruption.  

In his poem “The Logic of the Gun,” a farmer posts 200 signs warning hunters to keep off his private property. Then he spots a hunter trespassing on his land. The farmer confronts the sportsman and points to the “No Hunting” signs. “You may have the rights,” the hunter says to the farmer, “but I have got the gun.”  

In another poem, Foss plays the part of a storeowner who tries to join the local church, because he knows that religion is a good way to attract new customers. But the church elders try to block the storeowner by insisting that he first talk directly to God. The determined merchant returns a few weeks later and tells the shocked elders that he has, indeed, talked to God about joining their church. What did the Lord say? – the elders ask incredulously. God understands my problem, the shop owner tells the elders. God said: “I’ve tried ten years without success to get in there myself.”  

A New Hampshire boy  

Sam_Walter_FossBorn in Candia in 1858, Foss moved with his family to Portsmouth when he was a young teen and attended the local high school. Then, like so many of his Industrial Age generation, Foss abandoned the family farm for the urban landscape. Foss, like many poets of his era, spent the rest of his days in the crowded city writing about country life.  But unlike the stiff, scholarly and romantic verse of poets like Thomas Bailey Aldrich, Foss remains funny, relevant, and poignant today.  

Like many comic poets, Sam Walter Foss came to poetry through journalism. After graduating from Brown University, he tried to run his own newspaper in Lynn, MA. When a freelance humor writer failed to turn in his column, Foss took a hand at writing comic pieces. His readers loved them. Foss later wrote for humor magazines, for The New York Sun, The Boston Globe and the Christian Science Monitor, and developed a large following. Four hundred of his poems appeared in five popular collections.   

But Foss never made enough money writing poetry to quit his day job. In 1898 he accepted the position as city librarian in Somerville, MA, one of the most densely populated cities in America. True to his philosophy, Foss used every method available to put books in the hands of average readers. He promoted the revolutionary practice of letting patrons take books directly off shelves, without the help of a librarian. He pioneered the use of travelling book collections in public schools, factories, prisons and nursing homes.  

During his tenure there, Somerville was among the most-trafficked libraries in the nation. Foss held the library position until his death of a liver ailment in 1911. He married the one love of his life, had two children, and died before he was able to write longer, more serious verse.  

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Foss in Portsmouth  

Sam Walter Foss still has no biographer. His books are long out of print (although now available on Google Books). But thanks to an unpublished article by his high school chum, E. Scott Owen, now archived at the Portsmouth Public Library, we have a rare snapshot of the artist as a young man.  

Foss lived with his family, Owen wrote, in a small farm by Gosling Road, near the present day Newington Mall. He walked three miles to school and back each day, to attend school in the ancient brick building near the modern post office on Daniel Street. He was stocky, deeply tanned, slightly stooped, and wore his curly hair “brushed smooth.  

Although Foss was witty and likeable, he was neither a scholar, nor a leader. His life was too busy for girls, Owen tells us. The minute school ended each day at 1:30 pm, Foss hiked up his unfashionably “high tide trousers” and trudged home to the family farm. His school chum remembers only seeing him angry once, when another boy swore at him. Foss was distinguished, not by his features or deeds, but by his total honesty and dogged determination to go to college.  

E. Scott Owen recalls an early humorous essay that Foss wrote and read aloud to his classmates at Portsmouth High. It mocked the Portsmouth school “Growlers,” who spent so much time complaining about others, that they accomplished nothing themselves. It was a theme Foss often returned to in his later poetry. But when selected to pen “something poetical” for commencement, Foss wrote a bland and forgettable farewell ode.  

Only two of the 19 Portsmouth High graduates from the class of 1877 went on to advanced schooling. At that time, public schools were not adequate preparation for college. Foss got his Latin and Greek the next year at a prep school in Tilton, NH, before going on to Brown University, where he worked his way through and was again, likeable, but unremarkable. When he consistently came up with “C” level work, his Portsmouth teacher reportedly said, “My boy, you know you want to be on good terms with both ends of the class.”  Foss was the ultimate common man even then.  

But for Sam Walter Foss, being average was something to be proud of. Average men and women were uncorrupted, hard working, good-humored and resilient, he wrote. The poet’s job, Foss believed, was to speak in an authentic voice that everyone could understand. His mission was not to use language to confuse or impress, but to use it like a bullhorn to call common people to step up and perform great deeds. Foss ends his poem ‘The Man from the Crowd” this way:  

       We are waiting for you there --- for you are the man!
      Come up from the jostle as soon as you can;
      Come of from the crowd there, for you are the man –
      The man who comes up from the crowd!  

 

Copyright © 2010 by J. Dennis Robinson, all rights reserved. Robinson writes books on local history that are available in selected bookstores and on Amazon.com. His history column appears every other Monday in the Portsmouth Herald and can also be seen online exclusively on Robinson’s history Web site at SeacoastNH.com.

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