Conspiracy theories are as American as Diet Coke and extra-bacon cheeseburgers. How else to explain catastrophes like Pearl Harbor, the assassination of John F. Kennedy, losing the Vietnam War, or, in our time, AIDS and 9/11? It's a massive plot. Vast, shadowy forces are at work.
This is nowhere as apparent as in the Pearl Harbor conspiracy theories of Cape Girardeau proletarian poet-turned conspiracy theorist extraordinaire H.H. Lewis.
In "Plowhand Poet: The Spy Saga of H.H. Lewis," Columbia College associate professor of history Michael Polley dived into the bizarre life and times of this neglected Missouri literary figure in a Jan. 27 lecture in Dorsey Chapel. Polley chronicled Lewis' Alice-in-Wonderland dive into an elaborate theory involving the Communist Party, the Black Dragon espionage network, the FBI and many, many more.
Polley said his research on Lewis' theories began when he was teaching U.S. history from 1920 to 1945. Polley said he thought he'd touch on Jack Conroy, the Moberly, Mo., novelist who edited The Anvil, a left-wing literary magazine in the 1930s. Polley found some of Lewis' poems and was struck by their language, forcefulness and hair-trigger social consciousness. Polley said he then did what his students had taught him to do: "I Googled him!"
Polley found Lewis' papers at Southeast Missouri State's library in Cape Girardeau, where, with the help of a Columbia College research grant, he traveled last summer. Polley then decided to write on Lewis' Byzantine Pearl Harbor conspiracy theories.
Polley said that Lewis went so far as to write the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC), most notoriously headed by red-baiter Senator Joseph McCarthy; an incredibly stupid move for an admittedly Communist poet. But Lewis was in far too deep to bother about such trifles.
Harold Harwell Lewis, or H.H. Lewis as he became known, was born on a Missouri farm near Cape Girardeau in 1901 and raised on hard field labor and harsh discipline. In the early and mid-1930s, Lewis became the poet of the Midwestern and Western underdog, the sharecropper and the dispossessed in their timeless conflict with power and authority. "When I think of left-wing poets, Cape Girardeau never comes to mind!" Polley joked. "As far as I can tell, he was the only Communist Party members in the Cape."
Lewis received his secondary education at the Southeast Missouri State Normal School, now Southeast Missouri State University. Lewis then traveled as a common laborer, poor and increasingly alienated by what he saw as brute capitalism. Polley said that these rambling years and his exposure to raw capitalism probably soured him for life.
Here's an excerpt from a spell Lewis put in as a "stove devil," or cook, in a Los Angeles restaurant:
That "stove devil," heat-blanched and heat-crazed, gaunt and flagrantly dirty, up against it for twelve hours daily ... The restaurant belonged to a chain of such for dime-gripping bums and low-paid working-stiffs. Came gringos and greasers for coffee and stew, hash, beans—a large bowl of brown beans for a dime. Came Negroes, humblest of all. Came "mouthmen" and "wolves," proletarian beasts of the ghastliest ilk. From the poverty of America, in this bottomless hell, came these contorted and condemned souls.
And that was in then-boomtown Los Angeles, before the Crash of 1929.
His first published poem, said Polley, appeared in H. L. Mencken's American Mercury, an incredible stroke of luck akin today to an unknown writer appearing on The Oprah Winfrey Show. Lewis was also published in such leading literary magazines as Poetry, the New Republic and in left-wing publications. In 1937, Lewis's poetry won the prestigious Harriet Monroe Literary Prize for poems such as "Farmhands' Refrain" and "Tractors Eat Kerosene;" his co-winner was no one less than Welch poet Dylan Thomas.
Lewis' writings were translated into at least four languages, and he seemed poised to become a major talent. As proof, Polley displayed the cover of a Nov. 23, 1937 magazine (15 cents) that featured a study of Lewis' work by William Carlos Williams, still considered one of America's great poets.
Then the Communist International dropped its promotion of working-class writers to woo mainstream writers; almost all of the little magazines of the left had disappeared by 1938. Lewis increasingly clashed with what he saw as the effete Eastern literary establishment, communism, friend and foe alike.
Polley said that Conroy secured a prestigious a Guggenheim Fellowship – which infuriated Lewis. After several unsuccessful attempts to secure a fellowship himself, Lewis dove into Pearl Harbor theories.
We think of one nation united by the Dec. 1941 attack, but history shows this to be false. National complacency quickly became national anxiety, and the all-American tendency to embrace conspiracy theories to explain setbacks went into full gear in the months and years following Pearl Harbor. The official version of the attack was vigorously challenged by a veritable army of conspiracy theorists who spanned the American political spectrum: right-wingers thought the attack was a communist world-domination plot, Anglophobes a ploy to prop up the tottering British Empire, and the many who loathed President Franklin Delano Roosevelt thought that FDR had concocted the attack to become world dictator. In this context, Lewis' Japanese espionage-FBI-communist theory is entirely plausible.
Down the rabbit hole
Polley said that he had to plow through a mass of dated letters and other, undated material Lewis left behind in Cape Girardeau. Polley displayed a striking example: a letter from the Communist Party USA to Lewis, dated Dec. 6, 1941, just one day before the attack. This Lewis took as proof that the party had a hand in the attack. By October 1942, he had focused on Japanese-American Communist and literary scholar Saki Oka.
A letter from a Communist Party editor, and one from the FBI, only fueled this delusion. The editor admitted Oka could in theory be a spy – he was, after all, of Japanese descent, and left-wingers rather easily became right-wingers; some German communists became very enthusiastic Nazis. The letter from the FBI, said Polley, informed Lewis that his monomania may have been a simple case of mistaken identity; there was indeed a man in St. Louis stumping for a Japanese victory in the African American community, but this Japanese or Filipino man was probably more con man than spy.
It didn’t matter, and probably only made things worse, said Polley: If Lewis found three words out of 500 that stoked his imagination, he was encouraged. "If you disagreed with him," said Polley, "you became part of the conspiracy. His was a paranoid world with multiple layers."
His theories took him over and he stopped writing the forceful poetry that had made his star shine so brightly, if briefly. With no income, he took to writing letters on recycled insurance agency calendars, said Polley. He pursued his mania so far as to write HUAC, who – believe it or not! -- never asked him to testify, even though nefarious communist plots were a staple of the truly paranoid 1950s.
Lewis simply slipped off the map. In 1981, Lewis was the subject of the film “The Farmhand Poet," now out of print; he lived his final years a strange and incomprehensible eccentric to his neighbors in a one-room converted corncrib in Missouri's Bootheel. He died forgotten and alone in Chaffee, Mo., in 1985.
Polley said he discovered an unpublished Lewis poem, "Ozarkism," in the Newberry Library in Chicago and sent it to Big Muddy literary magazine. Polley said he believes this may have been Lewis' last poem. If published, this would literally be poetic justice: the magazine is produced by Lewis' alma mater, Southeast Missouri State University.
"Lewis was a remarkable, deeply troubled, seriously unbalanced individual," said Polley. "Maybe the saddest part is that he stopped writing poetry after 1943." Polley added that he wanted to go back on the Lewis research trail – "just not right away!" Polley said that spending time in Lewis' mind was so exhausting he would return to his motel room so frazzled it was all he could do to watch the Weather Channel.
Polley thanked President Gerald T. Brouder, Dr. Terry Smith, executive vice president and dean for academic affairs and Dr. David Karr, assistant professor of history, for their unflinching support.