Skip to main content

Sarett, Lew, 1888-1954



  • Existence: 1888-1954


Lew R. Sarett, poet, teacher, philosopher, woodsman and lecturer, was born Lewis Saretsky on May 16, 1888 in Chicago, the only child of Rudolph and Jeanette Block Saretsky. His parents had immigrated to the United States around 1880, his father from Poland and his mother from Lithuania.

The family moved in 1895 to Marquette, Michigan, where Sarett first began to acquire his knowledge and love of the outdoors and of wild animals. Sarett and his mother returned to Chicago's slums for two years while his father continued to look for work. Around 1902 the family was reunited and moved to Benton Harbor, Michigan, where Sarett graduated from Benton Harbor High School in 1907 as a champion orator, debater, athlete and scholar.

Sarett worked his way through the University of Michigan (1907-1908), Beloit College (B.A. 1911), Harvard Law School (1911-1912) and the University of Illinois Law School (LL.B. 1916). In his undergraduate days, nicknamed 'swat,' Sarett participated in athletics and won honors in oratory. He won the Wisconsin State Oratorical Championship in two successive years; his prize-wining orations were “The Slavonic Offering to the American” in 1910 and “Poland's Offering to the American” in 1911. Around 1911, he formally changed his surname to Sarett.

From 1912 to 1920, Sarett taught English and Public Speaking at the University of Illinois. It was during this period that he began to write poetry, publishing his first volume, Many Many Moons, in 1920. He became an advisory editor of Poetry magazine in 1921, won the Levinson Poetry Prize in 1921 and the Poetry Society of America's annual prize in 1925. He also began a lifelong career of public speaking, spending many summers on the lyceum and chautauqua circuits, in the employ of such agencies as the Redpath Bureau and the J.B. Pond Lyceum Bureau. Although his first important lecture, “Stranger at the Gates,” dealt with the urban immigrant experience, Sarett soon developed a reputation and repertoire as an interpreter of the American wilderness. Sarett described many of his performances as “lecture-recitals,” reflecting their combination of prose and poetry. For such popular lectures as “The Children God Forgot” Sarett took the stage in full American Indian dress; on other occasions, he appeared in the hiking boots and heavy plaid jacket of a woodsman. In 1921 Sarett, billed as “the poet of the wilderness,” shared the platform with his friend Carl Sandburg, “the poet of the city.” In 1951 Columbia Records released a recording of Sarett reading from his collected works.

In 1920, over the protests of his devoted students at the University of Illinois, Sarett came to Northwestern University, where his teaching schedule would allow him to spend more time in the wilderness. Sarett made news in 1925, when he decided to live in the wilds of Wisconsin, commuting six hundred miles roundtrip to teach at Northwestern for one semester each year. At Northwestern, where he remained as Professor of Speech until his retirement in 1953, Sarett developed and offered several popular courses, including Persuasion, Prosody, the Teaching of Speech, Forms of Public Address, and Building the Lecture/Recital. In 1950 he was granted a three-year leave of absence because of poor health, and at the end of this leave he retired. Upon Sarett's retirement, the University established the Lew Sarett Chair of Speech. From 1951-1954 Sarett was Visiting Professor of Speech at the University of Florida. He died of a heart attack on August 17, 1954 in Gainesville, Florida, at the age of 66.

From childhood, Sarett had been attracted to all aspects of nature, an affinity which, together with his appreciation for American Indian culture and lore, is clearly reflected in his poetry. For many years Sarett devoted served for several months as a ranger in National Parks in Montana and Wyoming. He also acted as a wilderness guide, traveling over 12,000 miles in the remote forests and mountains of northern Minnesota and Canada by pack-train and canoe. For a time he served as an adviser on Indian affairs to the Department of the Interior. He lived among the Chippewa Indians of the Lake Superior region, and was adopted by them and given the name of Pay-shig Ah-deek, which means “Lone Caribou.” In 1964, ten years after his death, the Lew Sarett Wildlife Sanctuary and Nature Center was established in Benton Harbor, Michigan, by a gift of Mr. and Mrs. William Vawter to the Michigan Audubon Society. Sarett's diverse interests included horticulture; during his lifetime he produced six new varieties of dahlia, each of which won many awards.

Lew Sarett published six volumes of poetry, including Many Many Moons, The Box of God, Slow Smoke, Wings Against the Moon, The Collected Poems of Lew Sarett and Covenant with Earth: A Selection from the Poetry of Lew Sarett. Carl Sandburg wrote forwards for three of Sarett's books. Sarett was also the senior author, with William T. Foster, of Basic Principles of Speech. The first edition of this text was published in 1936, and a revised edition in 1946. Sarett's widow, Alma Johnson Sarett, prepared the third edition for publication in 1958 after his death, and the fourth edition was issued in 1966. Sarett and Foster also co-edited Modern Speeches on Basic Issues (1939), and, with James H. McBurney as junior author, wrote Speech: A High School Course. All three of these textbooks enjoyed wide use in schools and colleges.

Sarett was awarded an honorary degree of Doctor of Letters by Baylor University in 1926. Beloit College awarded him an honorary Doctor of Letters of Humanity in 1946. He was a member of numerous societies and professional organizations, including Phi Beta Kappa; Delta Sigma Rho, honorary forensic fraternity; Sigma Tau Delta, honorary English fraternity; Phi Delta Phi, legal fraternity; and Zeta Psi, social fraternity. He also held membership in the Midland Author's Club and the London Author's Club, among other organizations. He was one of the founders, in 1914, of what is now the Speech Communication Association, a national professional speech organization, and was secretary of the SCA from 1918-1920. At the time of his death Sarett was regional vice-president of the Poetry Society of America.

In 1914 Sarett married Margaret Husted. They had two children: Lew Sarett, Jr., became a distinguished chemist (he synthesized cortisone in 1945), and Helen Osgood Sarett Stockdale became an attorney. Margaret Husted Sarett died in 1941. Two years later, Sarett married Juliet Barker, a voice teacher with a graduate degree from the Northwestern University School of Speech (1924); she died in 1945. In 1946 he married Alma E. Johnson, who had received her M.A. (1938) and Ph.D. (1942) degrees from Northwestern. Alma Johnson Sarett (Anderson), a professor of speech at the University of Florida, died in 1982.

Found in 1 Collection or Record:

Lew Sarett (1888-1954) Papers

Identifier: 20/9
Abstract Lew R. Sarett was a professor of English and public speaking at the University of Illinois and Northwestern University. The Lew Sarett Papers illuminate Sarett's personality and methods as a successful and popular teacher and poet. The Papers also shed light on a time period in American history when themes of respect for nature and for Native Americans found a receptive audience among poetry lovers and lecture audiences. The Papers are arranged in six general categories: Biographical...
Dates: 1902-1978