Ogden Nash (1902-1971) was arguably one of the most commercially successful English-language poets of the twentieth century.
Nash's verse skewered the pretensions of the modern middle class existence and gave voice to the inner seethings of the average, besieged-by-life individual-and he did it with a cunning, swift humor. Though sometimes the object of criticism from literary purists, Nash's talent for composing verse using the common American vernacular earned him great success over a four-decade period.
Nash was born Frediric Ogden Nash in Rye, New York, to Edmund Strudwick and Mattie (Chenault) Nash in 1902. His father was in the import-export business, but the Nash family's ancestry was a distinguished American blueblood one. Their roots in North Carolina stretched back to the American Revolutionary era, and the city of Nashville, Tennessee, was named in honor of another forbearer. Nash himself grew up in various East Coast communities, and also lived in Savannah, Georgia, during his youth. He was accepted to Harvard College, but dropped out after a year in 1921.
Found Success in Advertising
From there Nash held a variety of jobs, none for very long. He worked on Wall Street as a bond salesperson, but admittedly sold only one bond, to his godmother, and instead spent his afternoons in movie theaters. He was a schoolteacher for a year in Rhode Island at his alma mater, St. George's School, and from there was hired as an advertising copywriter for streetcar placards, a job in which he finally discovered his calling. In 1925 he was hired at the publishing house of Doubleday in their marketing department, and did well enough that he eventually moved on to its editorial department as a manuscript reader.
Nash has said that it was the abysmal quality of the manuscripts he read that compelled him to take up the pen himself as a writer. He tried his hand at serious verse in the style of the eighteenth-century Romantic poets, but soon came to realize his own limitations. There were, however, some creative efforts that he was not hesitant to share with others-his scribbled comic verse that he frequently crumpled and lobbed across the office to the desks of colleagues. This led to a collaborative effort with friend Joseph Alger to produce a 1925 children's book, The Cricket of Carador. A few years later, he teamed with two Doubleday colleagues to produce Born in a Beer Garden; or, She Troupes to Conquer, which lampooned the canon of classic literature.
An Overnight Success
In 1930, Nash's career as a published poet began in earnest when he wrote a poem called Spring Comes to Murray Hill and submitted it to the New Yorker, considered one of the most respected, well-read periodicals of the day. Nash had been gazing out his office window and contemplating his own particular spiritual burden:
"I sit in an office at 244 Madison Avenue And say to myself you have a responsible job, havenue? Why then do you fritter away your time on this doggerel? If you have a sore throat you can cure it by using a good goggerel If you have a sore foot you can get it fixed by a chiropodist And you can get your original sin removed by St. John the Bopodist."
The New Yorker published Spring Comes to Murray Hill, and invited Nash to continue to submit; his regular appearances, in turn, led to a contract for his first work, Hard Lines, published by Simon & Schuster in 1931. It was a tremendous success, and catapulted Nash into a certain, albeit unique, place in American letters. "In comparing Ogden Nash to [seventeenth-century English poet John] Milton we should have to go over to the Public Library and do a good deal of reading, so we won't compare him to Milton. The great thing about him is that he doesn't really compare with anyone, " opined William Rose Benet in the Saturday Review of Literature in 1931. Another critic, Lisle Bell of New York Herald Tribune Books, also bestowed plaudits: "Any one who is under the impression that the English language is not sufficiently flexible should study 'Hard Lines, "' Bell asserted. "It demonstrates that our mother tongue can be made to behave in a manner hardly becoming a mother, but irreproachably amusing." Bell concluded by granting that while Nash's work appears at first reading rather superficial in subject matter, some examples hint of Nash's more contemplative side as an artist: "A very definite attitude toward life underlies the most skittish of verses, " Bell noted. "They have a flavor apart from their pattern and from their infectious novelty."
Hard Lines went into seven printings its first year alone-at the height of the financial hardships of the Great Depression-and Nash soon quit his Doubleday job. Over the next few years, he contributed to the New Yorker and a number of other periodicals, and penned a prolific amount of verse for additional books. For a brief period in 1932 he was on the staff of the New Yorker, but never again held a day job after that. As a writer of comic verse, Nash found great success with his own unique brand of anti-establishment humor; his ability to express incredulity and dismay at the foibles of modern American life fit in perfectly with the mood of many Americans, who saw their financial catastrophes as perhaps the product of unknown forces within banking and financial sectors of the economy. Elsewhere in his poetry Nash offered trenchant observations on American social mores, or lambasted religious moralizing and pompous conservative senators. He was also skilled at presenting the common citizen amusingly beleaguered by the intricacies of the English language. He once observed, in non-verse form, that barbed sentiments could be better, less maliciously expressed in rhyme.
Nash and the New Yorker
Another example of Nash's talents came with the publication of The Primrose Path in 1935. Critiquing it for the New York Times Book Review, C. G. Poore called Nash "still fundamentally and magnificently unsound." A 1938 work, I'm a Stranger Here Myself, featured the comic travails of the much-harried Ballantine, an attorney. During this era, Nash was a regular contributor to Life, Saturday Evening Post, Harper's, Vogue, the New Republic, and McCall's, among others. Yet it was his decades-long association with the venerable New Yorker that essayist Reed Whittemore cited as his greatest impact on American letters: in contrast to the serious, classical-form poetry written by the magazine's roster of earnest bards, "Nash was the one who practically singlehandedly kept the verse department of the magazine in the business that the rest of the magazine was in, of commenting with intelligence, wit and asperity upon the contemporary American scene-its fads and fashions, its promotional and rhetorical excesses, its varied social and cultural crises, " Whittemore declared in the New Republic.
During the 1930s and 1940s, Nash was praised as the heir of the revered American humorist Will Rogers, and he was also fixed among the pantheon of cutting American satirists such as Ring Lardner, Dorothy Parker, Robert Benchley, and H. L. Mencken. Still, Nash referred to himself simply as a "worsifier, " in comparison to a "versifier." British reviews of his work were sometimes scathing in their assessments, for he was known to take great liberties with spelling and rhyme. One of his more famous examples is the line: "If called by a panther/Don't anther." In another poem, he offered his own assessment of "serious" works of prose: "One thing that literature would be greatly the better for/would be a more restricted use of simile and metaphor, " he quipped.
Mined the Minds of Children
Nash had married Frances Rider Leonard in 1931, with whom he had two daughters. His experiences with fatherhood provided more comic fodder for his verse, evident in the 1936 collection The Bad Parents' Garden of Verse. He offered this observation as a result of a party, comparing his children and their companions to tribal warriors: "Of similarity there's lots/Twixt tiny tots and Hottentots." Nash also satirized the country-club set to which he belonged, and like other acclaimed writers of his generation, spent some time in Hollywood as a screenwriter. His efforts there included screenplays for three Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer films-The Firefly (1937), The Shining Hair (1938), and The Feminine Touch (1941). In California he met another well-known scribe, S. J. Perelman, who had written for the Marx Brothers films. They collaborated on a musical, recruiting the German-born composer of satirical operas, Kurt Weil, to write the score. The result, One Touch of Venus, was a huge success on Broadway during the 1943 season.
Nash was a celebrity during his day, appearing on radio and later television programs as a panelist. He was inducted into both the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and National Institute of Arts and Letters. During the 1950s, he wrote more frequently for the children's market, finding success with such titles as The Boy Who Laughed at Santa Claus (1957), Custard the Dragon (1959), and Girls are Silly (1962). He also wrote lyrics for television programs, such as adaptations of Peter and the Wolf and The Sorcerer's Apprentice. Though his children were grown, he maintained contact with the juvenile state of mind through his grandchildren, and often wrote humorously about his experiences babysitting them. He was also prone to illness, and recounted his experiences with the medical establishment in a number of poems that were later published in an entire volume, 1970's Bed Riddance: A Posy for the Indisposed.
Nash died a year later on May 19, 1971. Several collections of his work were published posthumously, including I Wouldn't Have Missed It (1975) and A Penny Saved Is Impossible (1981). Fellow poet Morris Bishop eulogized Nash in Time magazine with these lines: "Free from flashiness, free from trashiness/Is the essence of ogdenashiness./Rich, original, rash and rational/Stands the monument ogdenational."
Further Reading on Ogden Nash
Contemporary Authors, New Revision Series, Volume 34, Gale, 1991.
Contemporary Literary Criticism, Volume 23, Gale, 1983.
Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 11: American Humorists, 1800-1950, Gale, 1982.
Nash, Ogden, The Bad Parents' Garden of Verse, Simon & Schuster, 1936.
Reference Guide to American Literature, second edition, St. James Press, 1987.
New Republic, October 21, 1972, pp. 31-34.
New Yorker, 1930.
New York Herald Tribune Books, January 18, 1931, p. 7.
New York Times Book Review, February 17, 1935, p. 4.
Saturday Review of Literature, January 17, 1931, p. 530.
Time, May, 1971.