From early childhood, Marguerite Vivian Young believed she was destined to be a writer. She was right: Her long career was devoted to writing, as author, editor, and teacher. While she published few books during her lifetime, the sheer mass of two of them clearly illustrates her passion for writing. Although many now agree that Young’s books were received less enthusiastically than they deserved, they nonetheless earned for her a respected position within the body of twentieth century American writers.
Young’s parents divorced when she was three, an event both disruptive and momentous in her life. Marguerite and her younger sister were then raised by their maternal grandmother but remained in contact with their parents and stepparents. Their grandmother helped instill in young Marguerite a love of literature and the desire to express herself creatively. With her grandmother’s support and encouragement, Young read well and widely as a child and young adult, feasting on the works of William Makepeace Thackeray, George Eliot, Charles Dickens, Honoré de Balzac, and other classic English and French writers. After a stroke altered her mental state, Young’s grandmother sometimes spoke delusively about angels and other such creatures, a recurrent theme throughout some of Young’s later works.
With an English and French major and a criminology minor, Young earned a B.A. from Butler University in Indianapolis in 1930. She helped edit the university’s poetry publication (The Cocoon) and literary magazine (The Tower). Shortly after graduation, she experienced her first published success with the inclusion of four poems in Chicago’s Poetry: A Magazine of Verse. After earning her M.A. from the University of Chicago in 1936 with a focus on epic, Elizabethan, and Jacobean literature, Young did some postgraduate work at the University of Iowa but never completed the degree. Returning to Indianapolis after a brief period of living in Kentucky, she accepted a position teaching high school English in her hometown.
The year 1937 saw the publication of Young’s first volume of poetry, Prismatic Ground; it was also the year she began her fascination with a topic that would fuel her third book. During a visit with her mother and stepfather to New Harmony, Indiana, Young developed an interest in the area’s utopian societies of the early 1800’s. Dividing her time between Indianapolis and New Harmony, Young spent the following seven years learning and writing about these societies, in particular those of the Rappites and Owenites. Originally composing a series of folk ballads on the subject, she later revised them as blank verse. After a final revision to prose form, this work eventually became her third published book, Angel in the Forest.
By 1942, Young was keeping busy as an English lecturer at the University of Iowa, a Ph.D. candidate, a high school teacher, and a teacher at the Indiana Writers’ Conference (Indiana University), all the while continuing her writing. When, in 1943, she submitted Moderate Fable, her second volume of poetry, and Angel in the Forest, both were accepted for publication. With those successes and with her increasing status in the American literary community, Young felt compelled to relocate from the Midwest to New York’s Greenwich Village. This move was partially funded by a fellowship from the American Association of University Women. Around this time, a noticeable shift occurred in Young’s writing, with a new focus on fiction rather than poetry. While writing and publishing several short stories, she also continued working on her novel. In 1945 Young submitted a draft of what would eventually become her epic 1,198-page Miss MacIntosh, My Darling, and she was extended a contract for that novel. However, the book’s completion took a long, agonizingly slow path before its publication in 1965.
New York life brought Young into proximity with other notable authors: In 1945, she and Henry Miller coedited The Conscientious Objector, and for two summer seasons (1946 and 1947), she lived at Yaddo, an artists’ community in Saratoga Springs, New York, where she enjoyed the company of such literary figures as Robert Lowell, Theodore Roethke, Carson McCullers, and Truman Capote. Young was one of the editors of the short-lived The Tiger’s Eye and a frequent contributor to many other periodicals, in addition to her teaching. Following a 1952 to 1954 extended visit to Europe, she returned to the United States, teaching three years at the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop, gaining widespread respect as a creative writing teacher and influencing countless students and future writers, among them John Gardner. Returning to New York City, Young taught at various colleges and universities throughout the rest of her years and received numerous prestigious awards and honors. Her relationship with her students was warm and inviting, and classes often extended into long, late-night discussions at local pubs and coffeehouses.
After taking nearly twenty years to write her first novel, Young began her next book, a biography of Indiana poet James Whitcomb Riley. Her research into Riley’s friendship with American labor organizer and socialist leader Eugene V. Debs, however, led her to shift her topic from Riley to Debs. Twenty-five years in the writing, Harp Song for a Radical: The Life and Times of Eugene Victor Debs was published posthumously, the enormous 2,500-page first volume (prior to editing) of an intended three-volume work. Shortly after signing the biography’s publication contract, a frail and ill Young moved once more to Indianapolis, where she lived with a niece until her death on November 17, 1995, at age eighty-seven. Young’s writing style, with its profound symbolism, mythical imagery, and poetic syntax, along with her unwavering lifelong dedication to the teaching of writing, has secured her place among contemporary American writers.