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Working Group Commemorates Thomas McGrath’s Radical Poetic and Political Legacies by Curating Holy City Adrift Exhibition

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Among the many figures of literary importance to have worked in Cal State LA’s English Department is the radical poet Thomas McGrath.  Born in North Dakota in 1916, McGrath was a poet and faculty member at Los Angeles State College (now Cal State LA) in the early 1950s, serving as faculty adviser for some of the first issues of Statement magazine and lending formative instruction to students including Henri Coulette, Gene Frumkin, and Mel Weisburd, all of whom went on to play notable literary historical roles. 

McGrath, however, was blacklisted and fired after his recalcitrant testimony before a House Un-American Activities Committee hearing in 1953.  His students organized in response to the firing, forming an organization devoted to protecting academic freedom, and publishing a small book, Witness to the Times!, honoring their professor.  The ensuing tumult eventually contributed to McGrath’s departure from Los Angeles entirely.  He returned to the upper Midwest, eventually to resume teaching and to labor over his masterwork, Letter to an Imaginary Friend, a four-volume “pseudo-autobiographical” work that he started in 1954, which is regarded as a significant contribution to the tradition of the American long poem.

The English Department’s McGrath Working Group is organizing events this spring to commemorate McGrath’s centenary and to explore his Los Angeles legacy.  The Working Group, made up of six Cal State LA graduate and undergraduate students under the leadership of English faculty member Dr. Andrew Knighton, is currently curating an exhibition of archival documents, photographs, and obscure editions to be hosted by the Cal State LA library. The group has been working diligently at crafting the show’s narrative, selecting materials, designing an outreach campaign, and conducting original research – including a February 26 visit to UCLA’s Special Collections division to pore over old journals and the archival papers of McGrath’s second wife, Alice.

The exhibition, entitled Holy City Adrift: Thomas McGrath’s Los Angeles, opens March 28th.  For more information, please check out the group’s Instagram and Facebook pages (the handle is holycityadrift on each).  Student-led tours of the show are available to interested classes or groups during spring quarter; contact Andrew Knighton at for further information.

McGrath Events

Library Exhibition

Holy City Adrift: Thomas McGrath's Los Angeles
Opens March 28 in the John F. Kennedy Library at Cal State LA

Exhibition Extended to July 30

Working Group Presentation

On Wednesday, March 2, members of the working group will be discussing McGrath’s poetic and political legacy – and talking about the ways they are trying to make sense of it

Holy City Adrift: Thomas McGrath's Los Angeles
Wednesday, March 2, 3:15-4:15, U-SU Montebello Room
Featured speakers include McGrath Working Group members Sal Ayala, Francisco Gutierrez, Amanda Kong, Gabriela Valenzuela, and Dr. Andrew Knighton.  Light refreshments will be served. This event is part of the American Communities Program's Works-in-Progress series.

Members of the McGrath Working Group review archive materials

Members of the McGrath Working Group review archive materials