James Maxwell Anderson was born December 15, 1888, in Atlantic, Pennsylvania, the second child of William Lincoln Anderson and Charlotte Perrimela (Stephenson) Anderson. His first three years were spent growing up on his maternal grandmother's farm in Atlantic. His family moved to Andover, Ohio, where his father worked as a railroad fireman and studied at night to become a minister. The family moved often, before coming to Jamestown, North Dakota in 1907.
Maxwell Anderson graduated from Jamestown High School in 1908, and began attending the University of North Dakota later that year. While at UND, he was involved with the Dacotah Annual, was an active member of Ad Altiora, a literary society, and served as the assistant director of the Sock and Buskin Dramatic Society. As a way of earning money, Anderson also waited on tables and worked at the night copy desk of the Grand Forks Herald. He graduated from UND with a Bachelor of Arts degree in English Literature on June 14, 1911.
After graduation, Anderson took a position as principle of a high school in Minnewaukan, North Dakota, where he also taught English. His contract was terminated in 1913, following pro-pacifism comments he made to his students.
He enrolled at Stanford University in Palo Alto, California, in the fall of 1913. He obtained a Master of Arts degree in English Literature in 1914. He was a high school English teacher in San Francisco for three years, before becoming chair of the English Department at Whittier College near Los Angeles, in 1917. He was fired at the end of his first year, for public statements he made on behalf of a student seeking conscientious objector status.
He next found work for a short time with several newspapers in San Francisco, before moving to New York to join the editorial staff of the New Republic. While in New York City, he also worked for the New York Globe and the New York World. In 1921, he was a founding member of Measure, a magazine dedicated to verse.
Maxwell penned his first play, White Dessert, in 1923. The play lasted only twelve performances, but it won the attention of Laurence Stallings, a reviewer for the New York World. Stallings and Maxwell collaborated on What Price Glory? in 1924. This play was a giant success, earning both critical praise and box office success. What Price Glory? had a run of more than 430 performances, and enabled Anderson to retire from journalism and devote all of his energies to play writing.
His theatrical works included: The Buccaneer and First Flight (with Stallings) and Outside Looking In (1925); Saturday's Children (1927); Gods of the Lightning (with Harold Nickerson) and Gypsy (1928); Elizabeth the Queen (1930); Night Over Taos (1932); Mary of Scotland (1933); Valley Forge (1934); The Masque of Kings and The Wingless Victory (1936); Star- Wagon (1937); Knickerbocker Holiday (1938); Key Largo (1939);Journey to Jerusalem (1940); Candle in the Wind (1941); Eve of St. Mark (1942); Storm Operation (1944); Truckline Cafe (1945); Joan of Lorraine (1946); Anne of a Thousand Days (1947); Lost in the Stars (1949);Barefoot in Athens (1951); Bad Seed (1954); The Day the Money Stopped (with Brendan Gill) and The Golden Six (1958). Anderson won the Pulitzer Prize in 1933 for Both Your Houses. He won the First Annual New York Critics Circle Award for Winterset in 1935, and for High Tor in 1936.
Anderson also wrote several one-act plays, including: The Feast of Ortolans (1937); Second Overture (1938); The Miracle of the Danube (1941); Your Navy (1942); Letter to Jackie (1944). Several of these plays were written specifically for the radio. Besides his plays, Anderson also collaborated on numerous screenplays, including All Quiet on the Western Front (1930), Washington Merry-Go-Round and Rain (1932), Death Takes a Holiday (1934) and So Red the Rose (1935). He published You Who Have Dreams, a book of poetry in 1925, as well as two collections of essays: The Essence of Tragedy and Other Footnotes and Papers (1939) and Off Broadway Essays About the Theatre (1947).
In 1946, Columbia University awarded him an honorary Doctor of Literature degree. In 1954, he was honored with the Gold Medal in Drama from the National Institute of Arts and Letters. In 1958, on the occasion of the 75th Anniversary of the founding of the University of North Dakota, Anderson was conferred a Doctor of Humanities degree. Too ill to attend the ceremony, the degree was granted in absentia.
He married Margaret Haskett, a fellow classmate, on August 1, 1911 on the Haskett family farm in Bottineau, North Dakota. They had three sons, Quentin, Alan, and Terence. Margaret died on February 26, 1931. He married for a second time to Gertrude “Mab” Higger in October 1933. A daughter, Hesper, was born August 2, 1934. Gertrude died on March 21, 1953. He married again to Gilda Hazard on June 6, 1954.
Maxwell Anderson died in Stamford, Connecticut, on February 28, 1959, two days after suffering a stroke.
On March 24, 2022 Anderson was honored with a plaque at UND's Burtness Theatre as part of its designation as the first Literary Landmark.
Shivers, Alfred. The Life of Maxwell Anderson. New York: Stein and Day, 1983.
The National Cyclopedia of American Biography. vol. 60: pp. 323-325.
Dictionary of American Biography. Supplement Six: pp. 14-16
Additions to the collection were received from Laurel Reuter, North Dakota Museum of Art, Grand Forks, North Dakota; the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center, University of Texas; Dan Rylance, Department of Special Collections; J. F. S. Smeall, English Department, UND; and George Starcher, former President of UND, between February 1984 and April 1985 (85-1397 through 85-1400).
Material was also received from Allen Anderson in March 1984 ( 84-1287); Larry Hill, Department of Speech and Theater, Western Carolina University, Cullowhee, North Carolina, on August 1, 1989 (89-1669); Judith Leroux, Atlantic Beach, Florida, on April 6, 2006 (2006-2820); transferred from the Law School Records (UA# 108) in June 2006 (2006-2827) and from Larry Hill, Bloomington, Minnesota, in February 2018 (2018-3376).
Donation; material was received throughout 1956 and 1958
The Maxwell Anderson Papers have been divided into seven series:
Series 1: Manuscripts
Series 2: Production Copies
Series 3: Photographs
Series 4: University of North Dakota
Series 5: Maxwell Anderson Theatre and Design Conference, UND, October 14-16, 1983
Series 6: Miscellaneous