The Iron City Controversy at Beloit
Published in Iron City
(Reprinted in 1994)
By Frederick Burwell
On May 26, 1913, Beloit College President Edward Dwight Eaton announced in chapel that he had appointed a new instructor of English and rhetoric for the coming school year. The scholar, 25-year-old Marion Hawthorne Hedges, arrived in Beloit, Wisconsin, the following September for what was probably the quietest and most uneventful year of the seven he spent at the College.
Indiana-born, Hedges had received his bachelor's degree and Phi Beta Kappa honors from DePauw University, a master of arts from Harvard, and had taught for a year at Iowa Wesleyan College. The summer before coming to Beloit, he married the former Agnes Elisabeth Becker. In Beloit, they settled in a house on Park Avenue, close to campus.
The college Marion Hedges traveled to in 1913 was a fairly typical Midwestern liberal arts school. Founded as "the Yale of the West" in 1846 by Yale graduates and based solidly upon the ideals and classical curriculum of that institution, Beloit College had gradually expanded to a residential population of a few hundred students. The City of Beloit itself had also grown and changed from a western frontier community settled in the 1830s, also by New Englanders, to an ethnically mixed, heavily industrialized, small midwestern city.
Hedges' entry into the life of the College was quiet and inconspicuous. He served as a judge for Shakespeare Society tryouts; helped organize Big Hill Day, the annual campus picnic; became secretary-treasurer of the faculty tennis club; and joined the faculty "All Stars" bowling club. Popularity with students came quickly, and he and his wife were invited to chaperon a number of fraternity and dormitory parties. William H. Short, class of 1922, recalls that Hedges "was a relatively short man, possibly five feet five inches tall, of medium build with a pleasant face and dark hair. His manner was open and friendly, and he seemed to be interested in you." A contemporary photography of Hedges reveals a confident face with a strong chin and warm, but direct-looking, eyes.
Hedges was first assigned to teach two sections of the freshman course Introduction to the Study of Literature and a freshman course in rhetoric. In 1914-15, he began teaching a course in American literature open only to juniors and seniors.
The Beloit College student paper, The Round Table, dutifully reported the young instructor's publications, which, among others in 1914, included an article in Forum, entitled "The Physician as a Hero: William James," and, in 1915, one in Play Book, entitled "A LaocoÃ¶n for the Movies."
In early 1915, The Round Table noted the founding of a new College literary society "composed of a dozen embryo geniuses who, under the guidance of Prof. M.H. Hedges, hold weekly meetings at which the productions of different members are read and discussed." The Milwaukee Sentinel picked up on the story, marking an eerie foreshadowing of Iron City: "For a time the activities of the group were shrouded in mystery. The secret at last leaked out. Every week the young writers grind out a chapter of 'A Step Higher,' a novel said to portray phases of Beloit College life." When interviewed, The Round Table reported, "members of the club unanimously refuses to be questioned."
Two more significant facets of Hedges' life at Beloit College emerged in 1915. In April, he invited several students to his home to discuss organizing a local chapter of the journalistic fraternity Sigma Delta Chi. While a student at DePauw, Hedges had co-founded that society. A Beloit College chapter was chartered in June, and, according to The Round Table, Hedges assisted in the performance of its "mystic rites." In fact, Hedges "wrote the first ritual used in initiations of the fraternity." During the summer, Hedges and a colleague, Professor Karl T. Waugh, began writing weekly editorial columns for the local newspaper, the Beloit Daily News, under the heading "Saturday Night Thoughts." The Round Table described Hedges and Waugh as two "community-interested professors." In addition, Hedges took on publicity work for the College, writing two pamphlets, "The Great Adventure - Your Part In It," and "Beloit in the World's Work," as well as publishing "unique announcements" in The Round Table, copies of which were sent to dozens of high schools.
Hedges became increasingly immersed in College affairs and, apparently contrary to College tradition at the time, seemed at ease discussing College problems with students, both in his home and at local establishments such as the Blue Tea Room. He occasionally contributed articles to The Round Table, most notably a February 1916 comment entitled, "Dress The Round Table in New Clothes -- An Open Letter On College Journalism." This article and his general outspokenness led to his first brush with controversy. Hedges urged the student newspaper to change from its staid, traditional magazine format, basically unchanged since the paper's founding in 1853, to a more representative "modern news sheet" style. "A change of form [means] a change in thinking," he wrote. "A change of thinking [means]. . . . constructive, not destructive thinking."
A scandal broke out when some students placed copies of an underground newspaper, The Beloit Student, on all the chapel pews. The "Yellow Sheet," as it became known, criticized in bold language both the administration and faculty of the College and demanded that The Round Table become a "news sheet." In the end, the perpetrators were never caught, Hedges was publicly exonerated of any involvement, and the flurry of discussion led in the fall term to the change in The Round Table format he had recommended.
Indications of Marion Hedges' radicalism also emerged in 1916, when The Round Table reported the formation of a local Socialist Society by eight students and two faculty members, Hedges and Sociology Instructor Lloyd Ballard. Within a few months, the society, "The William Morris Club," became a branch of the Intercollegiate Socialist Society. In March 1917, it brought Irwin St. John Tucker, an activist author and journalist with the American Socialist Party, to speak on campus.
In a 1959 letter to the College alumni office, Paul Pratt, class of 1918, recalled the Tucker visit:
Irwing St. John Tucker made quite a talk -- I have no recollection of what it was about -- presumably it was socialist doctrine, which was anathema around the College in old Prexy Eaton's time. But it did greatly entertain the members of the class and in today's parlance was considered "terrific." There were a lot of us kids in the class, mostly boys, of course, and after class they all stuck around and decided that a guy that good ought to have an opportunity to speak at the morning chapel, which was a daily event back in those days.
So -- off we went, presumably incited cleverly by Mr. Hedges, who at that point discreetly withdrew to the background. Over to Prexy Eaton's we traipsed, impressed with the thought that here was a guy that all the world ought to hear. Prexy came to his door, listened to the "avante-garde" with his leonine head inclined and his shoulders slightly bowed. The speaker paused for an answer. They Prexy swept the eager faces of the class, assembled at his doorstep, his white-grey mustachio bristled alarmingly, and all he said, as I recall, was "Sorry gentlemen, Mr. St. John Tucker may not speak in chapel tomorrow morning." And the manner in which he said it indicated that he meant "or any other morning, ever."
Instructor Hedges became Professor Hedges in short order as his popularity as a teacher continued to grow. In May 1916, eighty-four freshmen signed a petition to President Eaton noting that, according to the College catalog, no courses offered by Hedges would be open to them in their sophomore year. "It is our desire to take further work under Mr. Hedges during the 1916-17 term," they wrote. In December 1919, The Round Table reported that in a "beauty and popularity contest," Marion Hedges placed first as the student choice for most popular faculty member.
William Short recalls Hedges' teaching style:
Professor Hedges was pleasantly objective and very interested, as if to say, "I'll give you a word picture of the subject. I find it interesting, and if you wish, I'll help you with it." I have a hazy recollection of being invited to confer with him at his home about a paper that I had written for his class. This was a bit unusual.
In July 1917, Melvin Amos Brannon became the third president of Beloit College, succeeding President Eaton, who retired after thirty-one years. Unlike his two predecessors, Eaton and Aaron Lucius Chapin, Brannon was not a clergyman. He was a scientist and administrator and had left the presidency of the University of Idaho to come to Beloit. He brought a different style to the College presidency that met with some resistance from old guard members of the faculty. Among other things, he instituted "progressive" curricular changes, including semi-professional and pre-vocational programs such as a department of journalism and courses in home economics. To a young radical like Marion Hedges, Brannon's statement that "a reasonable liberalism, properly guided, is essential for the world's progress" was certainly a welcome change.
Publication of Iron City
In an interview with the Beloit Daily News in 1940, Marion Hedges recalled that Randolph Bourne, literary critic and editor of The Dial, peddled the manuscript of Iron City from one New York publisher to another. Apparently it was Bourne's letter to Boni & Liveright that persuaded the firm to accept the book. "Iron City is the strongest first novel I have ever read and I consider it to be one of the few really great American novels," he wrote. Bourne died of pneumonia three days after the book was accepted.
On September 25, 1919, the Beloit Daily News announced the publication of Iron City under the headline "Prof. Hedges is Author of Strong Novel." The paper interviewed Hedges, who said, "When a writer wishes to express his sense of life's beauty, unity or significance and chooses the novel as a form, he does so because he wishes to secure the broadest canvas possible for his picture." He went on to explain why he wrote the book: "[I]n Iron City I have embodied the results of ten years' study of American life, and it is this background of national culture against which the story moves."
Boni & Liveright was a natural home for Iron City. The publishers were known for bringing out work avoided by the more established houses and had made their considerable reputation on books by such authors as Theodore Dreiser (in 1917, Hedges published an article on Dreiser in The Dial), T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, George Bernard Shaw, and even Leon Trotsky.
Although Iron City was not available in Beloit book stores until late October, Hedges gave President Brannon an advance copy. Brannon read it and immediately spoke to the Beloit Daily News, praising the novel. He seemed quite aware that Iron City would provoke controversy: "[Iron City is] a courageous and direct attack on the inability of college education to take a dynamic hold on the world. . . . [U]nless we can have an open door policy in discussing intimately these things which are in all men's minds and hearts, we may as well write failure on the door of the entrance of civilization."
Brannon went on to praise Hedges' "ability and initiative," then admitted, "I read the book with probably less embarrassment than most others have. Any book that, dealing with a great problem, brings in sidelights on intimate things, is bound to embarrass judgment. The things touched on all happened prior to my coming to Beloit College and as a result leave me free to see the message and appreciate it."
The Iron City Controversy
Others, however, were not so appreciative. The Beloit College Archives has a number of letters to History Professor Robert Kimball ("Dickie") Richardson, detailing the reaction of various faculty members and others to Iron City. At the time, Richardson, a highly regarded faculty member, was on leave on the East Coast. In November 1919, Professor of Religion John Pitt Deane was the first to write Richardson about the controversy:
. . . I need not say that I am profoundly disappointed in it. You know that I have always found Hedges stimulating and have believed in him. This, although I know his impatience with the church and most social institutions. I have attributed that to his earnest interest in the poor and the disadvantaged. . . .
I know that it was probably written for a purpose, probably to jar something loose, to compel thought. But what possible excuse can there be for the parody and caricature of the local situation and of the men with whom he is professionally associated? I resent with all my heart these caricatures. It seems to me that there is such a thing as professional etiquette, as professional decency, and that he has violated it many times.
Deane went on to say that he was certain that "[President] Brannon may wish that he had not endorsed the book so promptly. I imagine that something will happen as a result of it."
Another professor, J. Forsyth Crawford, made light of the great stir the book had caused: "In the town there is just now a bit of a flurry over Hedges' book. The situation is unpleasant, of course, but highly amusing. It will probably soon blow over."
In general, however, those who wrote Richardson were righteously indignant. Venerable Professor Almon W. Burr spoke for the "old guard" when he wrote:
We are weathering the storm that the Iron City has brought. It has struck pretty deep into Beloit, alienated some of the College's best friends. I am still deeply indignant over it. I call it crude, cruel, crass and carnal. I would not have this author teach another day in Beloit. . . . [W]e are in trouble, and the other day the students voted that man "the most popular professor." It makes shivers run down my back.
Reviews of Iron City were generally positive, although some critics found Hedges' message heavy-handed. Without fail, however, all insisted that the young novelist showed great promise. Survey stated that "the author of this first novel has with one leap entered the highest realm of American social fiction." The Chicago Tribune agreed: "[Iron City] is far better than we dare expect any first book to be." The Times of London found Iron City "an authentic account of American life." Other reviewers praised the novel's "remarkable power," its "sense of real life and actual men and women" its "unusual merits in irony," and even the love story's "poetic charm," though a reviewer in the Springfield Republican found that "crudity, however, is apparent in many places."
The New York Times published one of the first reviews of Iron City and, even though critical and unfair to Beloit College, one of the most balanced:
[T]he chief purpose of the book is to put into story form a scorching criticism of American methods of higher education and to charge them with failure to meet the demands of modern life. And it is evident that Mr. Hedges has had intimate knowledge of the inside workings of college faculties, or, rather, of some college faculty. Therefore his criticism deserves attention, and will undoubtedly receive it, since it is informed, constructive and aspirant for the best. . . . Mr. Hedges' criticism partakes of the nature of caricature; it is unfair in that it generalizes from one backward and unrepresentative institution. . . . Nevertheless, the spirit which he cauterizes does exist in varying degree in some, perhaps a good many, American educational institution, and wherever it hides it deserves to be hunted out and spiked as thoroughly as St. George pinned the dragon to the ground.
Iron City sold well enough (at $1.75) to go into a second edition, for which the book's dust jacket was revised to include glowing excerpts from the many reviews. Years later, however, Hedges said that when the final copy was sold, he had earned the grand sum of $336.
On November 29, 1919, President Brannon tendered his resignation to Beloit College, ostensibly because of his failure to raise a "patriotic fund" of $110,000 for the College. Years later, however, Brannon said that the issue of academic freedom had much to do with his decision. Several professors had come under attack for their radical views, including Marion Hedges, and Brannon was under pressure to have them dismissed. In a letter to Richardson in 1949 (who at that time was writing a history of Beloit College), Brannon recalled that he had told the Beloit College trustees:
Academic freedom is the most important thing in institutions of higher education. That is possible only when faculties are free to seek the truth, teach the truth, and have the respect of people who recognize that truth alone gives freedom to our world. Moreover, unless the president of the institution is allowed to decide whether his faculty is competent and trustworthy to teach the truth to youth, he can not make a success of his administration.
The College's Board of Trustees pledged its support of Brannon and his policies and asked him to withdraw his resignation. On the recommendation of President Brannon, they also granted leaves of absence to two of the professors accused of radicalism, Arthur E. Suffern and Clayton D. Crawford.
In a letter to the trustees dated December 1, 1919, Marion Hedges said: "After a conference with President Brannon, subsequent to your meeting on November 25, I in these words tender to you my resignation as professor of English in Beloit College to take effect on June 25, 1920, or earlier if you so desire." His resignation was not immediately accepted, and it appears that Brannon fought to keep him at Beloit.
In 1922, the well known novelist and political muckraker Upton Sinclair published his indictment of American education, The Goose Step. In a chapter titled "The Little Toadstools," Sinclair discussed the "singular fate" of Beloit College and Iron City. He described Hedges as a "young man of talent, who wrote a live novel. . . . Mr. Hedges declares that he did not indicate Beloit especially, and has received many letters from professors in other college towns, saying that the cap fitted them. But the gossips of Beloit insisted upon riveting the cap upon their own heads, and there was a dreadful scandal." Sinclair went on to describe the course of events leading up to Hedges' resignation, finally claiming that "three liberal professors were driven from the institution." Brannon wrote in 1949 that Sinclair "was right about some of the details, but totally wrong in regard to the ending." He insisted that those professors were not fired at all, but moved on to more financially lucrative positions.
Much of Brannon's correspondence from that period survives, including a few letters to him from Marion Hedges. One letter in particular, dated March 15, 1918, reveals many of Hedges' feelings and attitudes about his life at Beloit and presages some of what would appear in Iron City a year later. First he complained about the burdens of teaching 140 students each year, while also carrying on with extracurricular work with students, community service, and his own private projects: "It is not wise, I conclude, to take off years at the end of life to burn them at the present. . . ." He continued:
In Beloit we are living in an era of fierce industrial expansion. The manufacturers have begun a new kind of activity calculated to leave them in a very real sense masters of the town. Much of what they are doing is admirable, but the result is, without a single doubt, the erection of barriers against ideas, and it is the business of the College to dispense ideas. If we are to have any real place in the community, if we are to be preserved as a real institution we have got to meet their activity with our united activity. . . . If I am to face my present state with no tangible promise of change [including a higher salary], I better, while I am yet young, seek some other field of employment.
Like his protagonist, John Cosmus, Hedges had an uneasy relationship with fellow faculty members. "I am aware in what light I am regarded by many of my colleagues," he told Brannon. "To them I am an educational adventurer, unbacked by any orthodox educational popery. How far is there power going to be allowed to circumscribe my usefulness?"
Also anticipating statements made in Iron City about the faculty in relation to the City of Beloit, he wrote: "I believe that the effectiveness of the College has been lessened by the persistence of the notion of a few members of the faculty that there is something sacrosanct about us, that we are a gentleman class -- neuters, who have no definite duties to our times. Moreover, I believe that we shall never be fulfilling our full mission until we prepare industrial Beloit for the impending social and industrial changes which are coming, changes where are being very definitely resisted here."
Among the alleged "resistors" condemned by Hedges were local business leaders such as Alonzo Aldrich, who was the president of Beloit Iron Works, a manufacturer of paper making machinery (Crandon Iron Works in Iron City). Aldrich reflected the business community's perspective of dismay over Iron City in a letter to President Brannon, dated January 13, 1920:
Most colleges have now connected with their staff of teachers, agitators that are as dangerous as any Bolsheviki or I.W.W. in the country; in fact, I think, more so, because they are genteel and therefore more insidious. I feel that every college should sever their connection with all such men as Mr. Hedges and several others of the type you have. . . . I believe the fundamental and particular business of all colleges and the part of the curriculum that should be stressed, is the teaching of Americanism, Patriotism, and Loyalty. . . .
President Brannon wrote back seeking to placate Mr. Aldrich. After noting that the trustees had Hedges' resignation at hand, he continued: "I can only say this now that it would probably mean a difference of about $15,000 to $20,000 a year to the income of the College if this resignation was accepted. . . . You may or may not know that Mr. Hedges has been voted the most popular man on the College faculty and that means something in the operation of a complex thing like an education institution."
Aldrich replied, asking for the method by which Brannon calculated the monetary loss to the College and adding, "the 'most popular man' vote does not impress me, only perhaps as a warning. You know some of our most noted rascals were models in gentility and suavity."
Brannon responded with meticulous calculations that he hoped Aldrich's "business mind will grasp," adding: ". . .Mr. Hedges had 150 students in his various classes [and]. . . . they share the same opinion with everybody acquainted with the inner workings of this college relative to the fact that Mr. Hedges is one of the most inspirational teachers on the Beloit College faculty, more than that, has few equals in America. . . ."
Early in 1920, an overwhelming majority of the Beloit College faculty signed a petition in support of President Brannon's retention. Among the few who did not sign, were Professors George Collie and Richardson. (Years later, Collie, the son of Beloit College's first student, described Marion Hedges as an "able man, but a natural-born troublemaker.") Probably sparked by the petition, Richardson wrote an angry letter to Brannon on February 2, condemning Iron City and criticizing Brannon's praise of it:
With the general drift of the book's thought or imagery I am not here primarily concerned: what I would emphasize as serious is that you should have been led, from conviction or by surprise -- and I believe the latter -- to sanction by your praise and toleration a heedless, spiteful, or wanton literary exploitation of neighbors and colleagues: an exploitation which, in itself, is less "radical" than downright muckerish. . . . He [Hedges] fights with weapons of a type that others may not use. And one can but wonder what are the methods and results of his influence on students, in teaching, and in that conversational manipulation which he practices and recommends.
Three days later, Brannon replied saying that Richardson's letter was an implied resignation. Richardson responded, on February 9, by officially transmitting a notice of resignation letter to the College trustees. Brannon, however, recommended that the trustees not accept the resignation, and though Richardson (and others for him) had looked for teaching jobs elsewhere, he withdrew his resignation on March 21.
Even though he was just in his early forties, "Dickie" Richardson had aligned himself with the old guard among the Beloit faculty. Like the College's founding fathers, Richardson was a Yale graduate, and he revered the classical education traditions and ideals they had championed. Though a very different sort of teacher than Marion Hedges, he was also beloved by the students, and his courses are legendary today. In a 1949 letter to the then President of the College, Carey Croneis, Richardson summed up his own feelings about the Brannon administration and Marion Hedges:
Dr. Brannon's own forward looking -- and he always looked forward -- made him kindly to freedom of thought on his faculty: and there was plenty of it. . . . Hedges was a great leader of students and doubtless an inspiring teacher. I think he had all the assurance of the typical young radical leader, and a complete contempt for those who might disagree with him. And some of them found themselves used for examples of obscurantism and pig-headedness in his Iron City.
In March 1919, several months before Iron City was published, President Brannon wrote an assessment of Marion Hedges' abilities, describing his scholarship as "sound, thorough, and excellent," and his academic performance as "[e]xcellent in every respect." Brannon observed that Hedges had "[n]o habits or peculiarities which interfere with success" and summed up by stating his view of Hedges as "[a]n exceedingly high grade of man who can carry college work in the best institutions of the country." After Iron City, that man would never teach again.
Fiction vs. Fact
Just how closely was Iron City based on Beloit College and the City of Beloit? In his 1940 Beloit Daily News interview, Marion Hedges said: "People seemed to think that Iron City particularized about Beloit people and Beloit institutions. But it didn't at all. I was interested in the American scene and the things that I tried to write about were not Beloit scenes. But I couldn't convince some of my readers that this was so. So I was canned and had to pick up my life anew."
Hedges' protestations to the contrary, a careful reading of Iron City reveals dozens of similarities, to actual events, people, and places, too numerous to be coincidental. Hedges was well acquainted with the history of Beloit and Beloit College, having co-written in 1916 with Professor Theodore Lyman Wright, a Beloit pageant entitled, "From the Turtle to the Flaming Wheel." It covered the story from the pre-history to the Native American turtle mound builders,1 to the present age of industry. Like many authors of fiction, Hedges took what he knew well, made some changes, added liberal doses of imagination, and came up with a novel.
The reason so many in Beloit were outraged was that was too obvious in his work. The history of Iron City too closely resembled the history of Beloit; Crandon Hill College President Crandon too closely resembled former Beloit College President Edward Dwight Eaton; and the great strike mirrored exactly the Beloit strike of 1902-03 in which the unions were broken by the "Beloit Citizens' Alliance."
Professor Richardson, in notes he made about the book, stated that "some of my own private conversation [with Hedges] is repeated." Richardson compared the funeral of Professor Christopher Mather early on in the novel to that of Robert Coit Chapin, the son of Beloit College's first president, in 1913, the year Hedges came to Beloit: "Even the pictures are accurately described as they hang in the room."
What surely bothered Beloit College History Professor Richardson most was Hedges' description of Crandon Hill College History Professor Charles Henry Clarke:
Of all his colleagues, Clarke stuck Cosmus as the strangest specimen of the academic mind; he always thought of him as a medieval Tory, if there were Tories in the middle ages. The psychology of Clarke was beyond his comprehension. How he could daily interpret the radicals of the past, and daily reject the radicals of the present, Cosmus could not see. It seemed to Cosmus that Clarke considered the middle ages a kind of Utopia from which mankind had moved forward like a crab.
That Marion Hedges would skewer a fellow faculty member in that fashion was beyond Richardson's comprehension.
Hedges Leaves Beloit
Hedges must have realized what his fate might be if Iron City were published. He was considering moving on many months before he resigned. In April 1919, for example, he wrote President Brannon, thanking him for his continued confidence in him, but adding, "I shall bring you a final decision as to my continuance here soon. Believe me the delay is not from a selfish motive; just now I am wrestling with an ethical problem, which I hope to solve soon." It is difficult not to surmise that the "ethical problem" was the upcoming publication of Iron City.
The social ostracism and subsequent "firing" of John Cosmus, the hero of Iron City, anticipated what befell Hedges. Hedges, however, believed he had something vital and worthwhile to say in Iron City. He probably summed up his perception of his own character when he wrote of John Cosmus: "There are some natures who find their happiness in the farther reaches of the spirit; in patriotism and in religion, and love of humanity. Cosmus was of such disposition. It seemed more important to him that justice triumph than that his own body be comfortable."
On April 23, 1920, President Brannon wrote to Marion Hedges: ". . . . the resignation which you tendered the Board of Trustees under the date of December first, 1919, was accepted by the Board at the quarterly meeting held on April 20th. In accepting your resignation, the Trustees went on record as desirous of expressing their appreciation of your services to Beloit College and their good wishes for your success in your future undertakings." Brannon, too, thanked Hedges, but said no more. In contrast, in accepting at the same time the resignation of Professor T.W. Galloway, a less radical friend of Hedges, the trustees adopted a resolution praising at full length his "scholarly leadership" and "masterful teaching."
Also at the April 1920 trustees meeting, "it was moved and carried with enthusiasm that President [Brannon] be requested to withdraw his resignation. This the President consented to do." The Board also acceded to Brannon's recommendation that the trustees allow Richardson to withdraw his resignation.
The Round Table got wind of Hedges' resignation a few weeks before it was accepted and contacted Brannon, who declared, "Personally I regret very much that we shall lose Prof. Hedges. I consider him one of the best English teachers in America." An April 3, 1920 editorial in The Round Table described Hedges as "one of those rare men, best termed practical idealists." The paper went on to praise his work especially as a teacher, but also with the Beloit Players, the Shakespeare Society, The Round Table, and, ironically, his producing "some of the more effective college publicity matter." (Nearly 75 years later, Hedges' former student William Short agreed: "I have always felt that his classes were the most enjoyable and inspiring that I had at Beloit. I enjoyed the work and felt inspired to do my best. Professor Hedges seemed to me a practical idealist with a vision of mankind."
That the students would miss Marion Hedges, The Round Table was sure: "Considering all things, the resignation of Prof. Hedges means a great loss to Beloit College. We have not tried to say how great it will be, because that is impossible. But consider the facts and figure it out yourself." These lamentations, of course, came too late. In a month the paper announced that Hedges had accepted a position as special editorial writer for the Minnesota Daily Star, a radical free labor newspaper owned by farmers and union members.
In early June, well before Commencement, Hedges and family packed up and left Beloit for good. The Beloit Daily News reported in its 1940 article that "after seven years on the faculty there had been only one staunch friend [presumably Galloway] at the station to see him and his family off." The article said he had not been back to Beloit in all that time.
In a letter to Professor Richardson, dated March 29, 1949, Brannon wrote:
[Y]ou will state the absolute truth if you make a direct denial of Upton Sinclair's claim "that their [Professors Hedges, Suffern, and Crawford's] liberalism, radicalism or conservatism" [had] anything to do with their leaving Beloit College. . . . As you recall, the salaries at Beloit College were very low -- $2,100 for full professorships. . . . Hedges went to a position with a Minneapolis paper which paid twice as much as he received at Beloit. . . . They were appreciative that I took the stand I did with the trustees. They knew that it was necessary for some president in the U.S.A. to show that he did not let his own job stand in the way of protecting academic freedom in higher education. I did no more than my duty, of course. However, we made history. I am not sure that any other college or university president followed the Beloit example.
In later published accounts, Hedges always insisted that he was "canned" from Beloit College. He said that he was not only fired, but also blacklisted in all the colleges and universities in the country. His friend Galloway reportedly wrote personal letters to the presidents of 165 colleges and university asking that Hedges be given a job. The "most popular teacher" at Beloit College received not a single offer.
"I am glad of what happened at Beloit," Hedges said in 1940. "It made me, but it did something else, too. It was stark tragedy to me then, and to my family. Even yet the hurt is here. I couldn't understand it then, and I can't understand it now."
Hedges pursued a varied and interesting career after leaving the classroom for good. He lived for several years in Minneapolis, where, in addition to writing about public affairs and economics for the Daily Star, he served for eight months as special investigator for Floyd Olson, then a Minnesota district attorney and later a famed reform governor of the state.
From 1924 until his retirement 30 years later, Hedges was an active trade unionist, labor lobbyist, and leader in the American Federation of Labor. For 23 years he worked as the supervising editor of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers' IBEW Journal. Hedges also held the position of director of research for the IBEW, leading a staff of seven assistants from offices in Washington, D.C.
For a time, Hedges did not neglect his literary aspirations. Though The Round Table had announced in January 1920 that Hedges would publish a second novel, entitled "Mark Clinton's Daughter," in the fall, and in March reported the book would be called "The Great Undertaking," the book was never published. In 1928, however, Hedges finally published his second, and last, novel, Dan Minturn. Although it attracted less attention that Iron City, this story of a young labor leader in Minnesota who enters politics was published by the Vanguard Press to positive reviews.
Hedges maintained friendships and corresponded with notable authors, Carl Sandburg and Edgar Lee Masters among them, and continued to write articles on literary subjects for a variety of prominent magazines, including The Nation, The New Republic, and The New Masses. By the late 1920s he had begun to concentrate his writing on labor and economics topics, writing two more books; A Strikeless Industry: A Review of the National Council on Industrial Relations for the Electrical Industry (1932), and Educating for Industry: Policies and Procedures of a National Apprenticeship System (1946).
Among his many union activities over the years, Hedges traveled to Geneva, Switzerland, in 1935, where he was the first accredited labor representative to address the International Labor Conference. He was labor consultant to the Social Security Board (the predecessor agency of the Social Security Administration); special consultant on labor to the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), and planner for the Missouri Valley Authority. Hedges was also a founder and later vice chairman of the National Economic and Social Planning Association and a recipient of its Gold Medal Award. He maintained a strong interest in social security legislation and workers' education. According to an article dated August 28, 1947, in the Minneapolis Labor Review, "Hedges' capacity for work astonishes his friends. When he testifies before Congressional committees, as he has on such subjects as housing, economic planning and public power, his knowledge of the particular fields elicits the envy of his colleagues and the wholesome respect of members of Congress. The latter, in fact, learned quickly that they could not bait and heckle Hedges as they could other witnesses."
It was for his work directly on behalf of organized labor that Hedges ultimately became best known. According to the Minneapolis Labor Review 1947 article:
[L]abor leaders credit Hedges with having laid the groundwork for an era of labor-management relations almost unparalleled in private industry. . . . Since the beginning of TVA, Hedges has presented every economic brief for the TVA workers. It is typical of this unassuming AFL leader that he wears an impressive diamond ring that he would consider too ostentatious to wear if it had not been given to him by 42,000 Tennessee Valley war workers a few years ago.
The esteem and brotherhood of those 42,000 war workers was the sort of thing that a young sociology instructor was looking for in a novel Hedges wrote 28 years ago.
After he retired in September 1954, Hedges remained in Chevy Chase, Maryland. On January 6, 1959, he died of a heart attack at age 70.
The Iron City controversy expanded intellectual freedom at Beloit College, though it would be many years before some of the changes it pointed toward would take root. With the advent of a new, more traditional, administration in 1924, many of Brannon's "progressive" programs were dismantled.
The critic H.W. Boynton, writing about Iron City in The Review, may have best summed up Marion Hedges' legacy to both Beloit College and to literature: "For such a book, beginning and ending on a note of sane if impassioned inquiry, we may well be grateful."
Frederick Burwell is the archivist of Beloit College. He is the editor of a series of publications dealing with the College's history and of the letters of former Beloit faculty member Joel Carl Welty, entitled The Hunger Year in the French Zone of Divided Germany, 1946-47 (1993). Burwell also serves as an associate editor of the Beloit Fiction Journal and writes short fiction.
1. The Beloit College campus is dotted with effigy mounds built by the prehistoric predecessors of the Winnebago Tribe. The most famous is the Turtle Mound, a mound in the shape of a turtle. When it was first settled, in 1836, the Town of Beloit was, possibly because of the Turtle Mound, briefly known as "Turtle."