Sam Walter Foss--a regionalis poet of the common man.
Why are the streets in Boston—even main thoroughfares—so damn crooked? Sam Walter Foss could tell you. Foss was a New Hampshire born, Brown University educated librarian who wrote a fresh poem every day for publication in the newspapers. His poetry, in the rustic-voice-of-the-common-man style was popular with the public and a couple of his verses became oft-quoted staples of poetry anthologies. But Foss is officially designated a minor poet, a not-very-successful regionalist along the lines of the despised-by-the-cultural-guardians Hoosier Edgar Guest. But Foss was deft and highly skilled at what he did.
Foss was born on June 19, 1858 in the family home on a rural road near Candia, New Hampshire. He lost his mother when he was only four years old. Otherwise his experience was much like other farm children of the era—taking an increasing load of the farm chores year by year as he grew and attending a local school in the winter when his hands were not needed at home. But he was a good and promising student. The farm was prosperous enough for his father to be able to send him to Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island. He was so highly regarded there as a student that upon his graduation in 1882 his name was inscribed on the University’s ceremonial mace.
After graduation Foss worked as a journalist, editor, and writer, somewhat itinerant professions that took him to various corners of New England. He married the lovely daughter of a Methodist minister with whom he would have a daughter and a son and settled down as the librarian of the Somerville Public Library in Massachusetts.
Wiffs from the Wild Meadows, 1892, the second of seven volumes of Foss's collected poetry.
He supplemented his income by writing a daily poem in the local paper, surely not terribly remunerative. But the poems were so highly thought of that they were picked up and reprinted in papers around New England and beyond. There were enough of them—and enough demand for them, that he was able to publish seven volumes of collected verse before his death.
Foss’s poems were no mere trifles—they tended to run to several metered and rhymed verses each. They were often humorous, observational, wry but sympathetic comments on human foibles, with gentle moral lessons that did not clobber the reader over the head. He celebrated the common man, but wished him better and wiser. He spoke for tolerance and reason in matters of religion and had a perhaps naïve faith in progress—if that common man could shake the comfortable doldrums of the safely familiar.
Foss died at the relatively young age of 52 on February 26, 1911 in Boston and was buried at North Burial Ground in Providence near his beloved alma mater, Brown.
An old post card of the House by the Side of the Road, Foss's boyhood New Hampshire farm home which became a tourist attraction after the poem named for it became famous.
His most famous poem, The House by the Side of the Road was inspired by his boyhood New Hampshire home.
Foss’s other widely remembered poem, The Coming American, was a paean to hope and faith in his favorite common man, challenging him to a greatness and nobility that he doesn’t even suspect that he has. The opening quatrain from the poem were once inscribed on a granite wall at the United States Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs to inspire the cadets and officers, but they were removed in 2003 after the Academy began to admit women because Foss’s old fashion use of the word men to represent humanity was now thought exclusionary.
Bring me men to match my mountains,
Bring me men to match my plains,
Men with empires in their purpose,
And new eras in their brains.
But those lines found other homes. The words are engraved and displayed at Disney’s Epcot in Orlando, Florida, and on the Jesse M. Unruh State Office Building in Sacramento, California. They are also inscribed on the Rocky Mountain Cup trophy, which is contested annually between Major League Soccer teams Real Salt Lake and Colorado Rapids.
The Calf-Path might not be as well remembered as those verses, but is a prime example of his sense of place, wry observation, and a surprising gentle lesson,
One day, through the primeval wood,
A calf walked home, as good calves should;
But made a trail all bent askew,
A crooked trail as all calves do.
Since then two hundred years have fled,
And, I infer, the calf is dead.
But still he left behind his trail,
And thereby hangs my moral tale.
The trail was taken up next day
By a lone dog that passed that way;
And then a wise bell-wether sheep
Pursued the trail o’er vale and steep,
And drew the flock behind him, too,
As good bell-wethers always do.
And from that day, o’er hill and glade,
Through those old woods a path was made;
And many men wound in and out,
And dodged, and turned, and bent about
And uttered words of righteous wrath
Because ‘twas such a crooked path.
But still they followed—do not laugh—
The first migrations of that calf,
And through this winding wood-way stalked,
Because he wobbled when he walked.
This forest path became a lane,
That bent, and turned, and turned again;
This crooked lane became a road,
Where many a poor horse with his load
Toiled on beneath the burning sun,
And traveled some three miles in one.
And thus a century and a half
They trod the footsteps of that calf.
The years passed on in swiftness fleet,
The road became a village street,
And this, before men were aware,
A city’s crowded thoroughfare;
And soon the central street was this
Of a renowned metropolis;
And men two centuries and a half
Trod in the footsteps of that calf.
Each day a hundred thousand rout
Followed the zigzag calf about;
And o’er his crooked journey went
The traffic of a continent.
A hundred thousand men were led
By one calf near three centuries dead.
They followed still his crooked way,
And lost one hundred years a day;
For thus such reverence is lent
To well-established precedent.
A moral lesson this might teach,
Were I ordained and called to preach;
For men are prone to go it blind
Along the calf-paths of the mind,
And work away from sun to sun
To do what other men have done.
They follow in the beaten track,
And out and in, and forth and back,
And still their devious course pursue,
To keep the path that others do.
But how the wise old wood-gods laugh,
Who saw the first primeval calf!
Ah! many things this tale might teach—
But I am not ordained to preach.
—Sam Walter Foss