Hackett, Francis (1883–1962), novelist, historian, and journalist, was born 21 January 1883 at 34 Patrick St., Kilkenny city, one of six sons and three daughters of John Byrne Hackett, a Kilkenny-born doctor, and Bridget Hackett (née Doheny), daughter of a prosperous farmer of Liss, Tullaroan, Co. Kilkenny. Educated locally by the Christian Brothers and at Clongowes Wood College, Co. Kildare (1897–1900), he developed a passion for literature, and, influenced by his father's Parnellite and Dreyfusard sympathies, a fierce hostility to British government and Roman Catholic influence in Ireland. Emigrating to America (1901), he worked variously in a law office, the advertising department of Cosmopolitan magazine, and a railroad office, as paymaster's yeoman on a school ship, and as cub reporter on William Randolph Hearst's Chicago American, which sacked him for exaggerating stories. Joining the Chicago Evening Post (1906), he wrote features, reviews, and editorials, becoming literary editor in 1908, and founding editor of its nationally renowned literary supplement, the Friday Literary Review (1909–11). Resigning because of editorial differences and personal issues, he spent a year with his dying father in Kilkenny (1912–13). Returning to America, he was founding literary editor of the influential New York-based left-wing journal the New Republic (1914–22). A champion of individualism, cultural pluralism, social democracy, and literary modernism (he enthusiastically reviewed A portrait of the artist as a young man by James Joyce (qv) in 1917), he was a leading intellectual of the American progressive era. Selections from his literary journalism were collected in Horizons (1918) and The invisible censor (1921).
Hackett married (1918) a Danish-born colleague at the New Republic, Signe Toksvig (see below); they would have no children. For the rest of his life they pursued parallel careers in literature and journalism. With his interest in Irish history and politics reinvigorated by the reemergence in Ireland of revolutionary nationalism, he wrote three works on the country: Ireland: a study in nationalism (1918); The Irish republic (1920) (published independently, then included as preface to later editions of the earlier work), in which he moved from support of dominion home rule to advocacy of separatism; and The story of the Irish nation (1922), a breezy survey from the legendary Fir Bolgs to Michael Collins (qv). As special correspondent on the Irish troubles for the New York World (1920–23), he twice visited the country with his wife, meeting and interviewing leading politicians and literati. Resigning from the New Republic amid increasingly acrimonious political differences with his co-editors, especially regarding Ireland and Soviet Russia, he embarked with Toksvig on a period of literary vagabondage in Europe (1922–6), primarily in southern France; freelancing for major American periodicals, he completed a novel, That nice young couple (1925), a well observed study of American middle-class domesticity. Confidently hoping to contribute to the cultural life of the new state, the couple moved to Ireland, residing firstly at Clonsharragh Lodge, Duncannon, Co. Wexford (1926–9), then at Killadreenan House, Newtownmountkennedy, Co. Wicklow (1929–37). After years of precarious finances, Hackett achieved critical acclaim and a measure of financial stability with his most accomplished work, the vividly written, best-selling biography Henry the Eighth (1929). Continuing his ‘psycho-historical’ examination of the origins of nationalism, he followed it with Francis the First (1934), conceived as a study of a contrasting historic personality who engendered a contrasting nationalism, and of the historical dichotomy of reformation and renaissance. Charging unauthorised exploitation of his research, he initiated highly publicised suits for plagiarism against Alexander Korda for his film The private life of Henry VIII (1933) and Maxwell Anderson for the play Anne of the thousand days (1948); neither came to court. Disdainful of Ireland's newly risen political and social elite, despairing of the country's straitened cultural milieu, after the censorship board banned both Hackett's novel The green lion (1936) – a Kilkenny and Clongowes Bildungsroman, the protagonist of which is the illegitimate son of a seminarian – and Toksvig's novel Eve's doctor (1937), the couple left Ireland and moved to Denmark.
In December 1939 they travelled to New York to publicise Hackett's newly published historical novel Queen Anne Boleyn. The German occupation of Denmark obviating their return, they remained twelve years in America, living firstly in Bethel, Connecticut, then in Martha's Vineyard, Massachusetts. Hackett's semi-autobiographical book I chose Denmark (1940), extolling the virtues of a progressive, independent, cooperative-driven society, and implying in the process much criticism of Ireland, was awarded the King Christian X liberty medal. Long mindful of the dangers of fascism, he excoriated American isolationists in What Mein Kampf means to America (1941). His final novel, The senator's last night (1943), satirises crass and hypocritical conservatism in American politics. He wrote book reviews for the New York Times and the American Mercury, and published a collection of his literary essays, On judging books: in general and in particular (1947). His fluent writing style verging at times on the merely glib, he attained greater restraint in his fiction than in the frequently florid rhetoric of his histories. Returning with Toksvig to Denmark in 1952, he earned a meagre living from his writing, while maintaining his extensive international network of literary and journalistic friendships. He died in Virum, near Copenhagen, on 25 April 1962. A memoir of his early years in the USA, American rainbow (1971), was edited by Toksvig.
His wife, Signe Toksvig (1891–1983), novelist, biographer, and diarist, was one of two daughters and two sons of P. K. Toksvig, of Jutland peasant stock, editor of a Danish provincial newspaper, and Marie Toksvig. At age 15 she emigrated with the family to America, where her father, frustrated in efforts to establish a newspaper for Danish immigrants, worked at various odd jobs, becoming a grinder of lenses for spectacles. After secondary-level education in Troy, New York, she studied on scholarship at Cornell University, graduating in 1916. She worked for Vogue magazine before joining the New Republic, of which she eventually became an associate editor. Throughout her career she wrote solely in English, her fiction including short stories published mostly in American periodicals, and four novels: The last devil (1927), Eve's doctor (1937), Port of refuge (1938), and Life boat (1941). Sharing Hackett's alienation from the prevailing social ethos of Ireland, she particularly objected to the country's religiosity, provincialism, poverty, and shabby gentility. Her banned novel Eve's doctor is a harrowing critique of the influence of catholic ethical teaching on Irish obstetric and gynaecological practice, and of Irish indulgence of clientelism and mediocrity. The protagonist, a humane and liberal-minded surgeon, is based on Bethel Solomons (qv), the Jewish master of the Rotunda maternity hospital, whom Toksvig knew through her and Hackett's friendship with Solomons's sister Estella (qv) and her poet husband Seumas O'Sullivan (qv), editor of the Dublin Magazine; the novel's romantic interest reflects Toksvig's own, largely unreciprocated, attraction to Solomons. Her non-fiction journalism was written primarily for American periodicals; during the second world war she edited a fortnightly news bulletin on the Danish resistance. Her best work, like that of her husband, was contained in biographies, of which she wrote two: The life of Hans Christian Andersen (1933), translated into every Scandinavian language and long adjudged the best work on the subject available in English, and Emanuel Swedenborg: scientist and mystic (1948). Her research on the latter stimulated an interest in spiritualism that led to her editing Swan on a black sea: a study in automatic writing (1965), transcriptions of scripts purportedly transmitted through the Irish medium Geraldine Cummins (qv). She and Hackett collaborated on an unpublished dual autobiography, ‘Free lances’. Spending her last years in a nursing home, she remained intellectually alert till her death in Denmark in 1983. The posthumous publication Signe Toksvig's Irish diaries 1926–1937 (1994), compiled by Lis Pihl from holdings in the Royal Library, Copenhagen, while a wryly entertaining observation of the Ireland of the period as viewed by a gifted ethnic and ideological alien, also reveals the dogmatic, humourless, and opinionated aspects of the author's character.