Is Kenyon still literary?I s Kenyon still literary? It's a question that occurs with more frequency than some alumni might expect. After all, many of them came to the College, at least in part, because of Kenyon's reputation as a place where writing was taken seriously, even if they didn't aspire to become writers themselves.
The question isn't an easy one for several reasons. For instance, can a college be literary if only one department aspires to make writers of its students? If its graduates don't go on to become distinguished men and women of letters? Or if its claims to greatness lie solely in the past?
Arguably, the College's association with matters literary can be dated to the arrival in Gambier of poet and critic John Crowe Ransom, fresh from Nashville, Tennessee. With him from Vanderbilt University came Peter Taylor '40, soon to be followed by Robert Lowell '40 from Harvard University. In the heady decades that followed--that "Golden Age" we've all heard about, even if we didn't experience it--literary history was made in Gambier with the Kenyon Review, the Kenyon School of English, and such groundbreaking, newsmaking events as the conferences on "The Heritage of the English-Speaking Peoples and Their Responsibility."
In the intervening years, though, the College has found many other claims to fame. Its programs in the fine arts and the natural and social sciences have attracted notice for both their faculties and their graduates. Too, the Kenyon Review is no longer the only worthy magazine on the literary landscape. While it is once again a leader in the field, it has gone through difficult times, including a total cessation of publication for a time in the 1970s. Nevertheless, in some circles it remains as well (if not better) known than the College: "Oh, is that where they publish the Kenyon Review?"
If the answer could be determined by the numbers, and if English departments were the sole key to literary reputations, there would be no doubt about Kenyon's pedigree. With sixteen faculty members in tenured or tenurable positions, along with assorted visitors, the Department of English is the largest in the College. Of course, that reflects the fact that students who choose to major in English--let alone those who just take the occasional course--come to the department in formidable quantities. In the Class of 1997 alone, there were seventy-two English majors (of whom nineteen were double majors) among the three hundred sixty-five graduates.
Another obvious indication that the literary life is still important at Kenyon can be seen anytime a poet comes to the College for a reading. The usual venues--the Crozier Center, Peirce Hall Lounge, Weaver Cottage--quickly fill up with faculty members, students, and people from the local community, often to the chagrin of literary types from other campuses where such events are considerably less popular. And literary magazines, the venerable Hika prominent among them, are still among the most popular extracurricular diversions.
In the following pages, two members of the Englishdepartment's faculty, Visiting Professor P.F. Kluge '64 and Associate Professor David H. Lynn '76, consider the question of Kenyon's current literary status for us. Also in this issue, Kay Koeninger '73 looks at the research of another member of the English faculty, Adele S. Davidson '75. (No, a Kenyon degree isn't required to teach in Sunset Cottage, but Kluge, Lynn, and Davidson, along with Perry C. Lentz '64, make up the largest alumni contingent in any department of the College.) And Michael Matros and Christopher B. Hammett '88 focus, respectively, on two prominent literary alumni, William H. Gass '47 of Washington University in St. Louis and Allison E. Joseph '88 of Southern Illinois University in Carbondale.
We hope you enjoy all the articles in this issue of the Bulletin, and we also hope you'll let us know your thoughts about what makes today's Kenyon literary--or not.
The author of Alma Mater: A College Homecoming weighs in with an opinion
by P.F. Kluge '64
J ohn Crowe Ransom had little idea of who I was and Robert Frost had no idea at all and yet there they are in an old photograph that keeps following me around from place to place and there I am, sitting with two other students on a couch at Cromwell Cottage back--I guess--in 1962. Two of us were Collegian editors, the third edited Hika, and all I remember of that session was how Frost recited Kipling by the yard, loving every line of it, without irony or reservation. It took me years to get the point, to see the depths, to read, say, "Mandalay" and hear not just tub-thumping imperialism but a wrenching cry of exile and loss. So there I am in that photo, which, when I look at it, seems--Kipling again--"long ago and far away." It's the sort of photo you don't put on your wall--it claims, advertises, presumes too much--and you can't bear to throw it out. In that respect, it's a lot like Kenyon's literary reputation.
Is Kenyon still literary? The question makes me nervous, and the answers. Say yes and you risk swelling the ranks of people like those pathetic latecomers who sit around the lobby of the Algonquin Hotel waiting for the witty folk to arrive, or who journey to Key West, traipsing through Hemingway's empty house, admiring the furniture, the trophies, the swimming pool, the cats. If people come to visit Kenyon, literary Kenyon, would things be any different? What would they be looking for, I wonder, and what would they find?
Granted, Gambier still makes a winning first impression: that uphill climb to a story-book, one-block village, then the green and handsome campus, spined by Middle Path. Every time I return, whether after months or years away, the first sight of this improbable college on a hill pleases me as does that first walk through town, confirming--as if it might have vanished--that it is all still here. It is and so, too, is the surrounding countryside, realm of farms and creeks called runs, fields and wooded hillsides. It's increasingly threatened by subdivision, deal by deal, but . . . for now . . . it's still around, a landscape that concentrates the mind, that focuses and defines ambition, encourages hope, spawns dreams. If Kenyon is literary, these must be something more. Happily, literature isn't the exclusive property of any single academic department. Still, I assume that anyone curious about what magic reposes will head for Sunset Cottage, headquarters of Kenyon's English department. What the visitor will find is a sizeable collection of hard-working people who are committed to teaching, studying, and--in some cases--producing literature. The department describes its offerings as "richly articulated," which translates as, "Don't bother with the menu, just head for the buffet." It's a full table. We do basic courses, starting with English 1-2, we consider major authors and important periods and recurrent themes. We do friendship, landscape, Canada and Ireland andAfro-America, we do Vietnam and postcolonial and--while doing all this and more--we usually manage to get along. It's a good place to work and to be. But all of this does not add up to a nest of prominent, nationally known writers and critics, a literary nerve center, a cultural hub. Put it bluntly: John Crowe Ransom, buried one hundred yards away, has not been replaced. And neither has the Ransom effect. Example: in Ransom's time, and for a while thereafter, Kenyon was a place that people sought out for its own sake. When Robert Frost--and dozens of others--came it was out of respect and friendship. Often, they lingered in a place they knew and liked. These days, for the likes of Maya Angelou and Jane Smiley, Gambier is a whistle stop on the big-bucks lecture circuit. Their visits are costly, short, and--from where I sit--sad.
What, then, of our students? What do they tell us about the Kenyon literary tradition? A remarkable number of incoming students express an interest in English, and a remarkable--some would say dismaying--number of them actually follow up. We've got a lot of English majors. Does this make Kenyon literary? Not necessarily. We have our share of dazzling students, service-acers. We brag about them. We expect great things. Sometimes, early promise is quickly fulfilled, sometimes it takes longer: in literature, unlike elections, it can take forever for returns to come in. Anyway, I feel alright about our best students. And maybe I'm getting soft, but I find myself interested in the second- and third-rank students, flawed performers, in-and-outers who sometimes come to life in front of you. They might not get Ph.D.s, they may or may not publish, but their instincts, taste, and informed love of reading make them the graduates I most like hearing from, wherever they wind up. They send back livelier letters than our grad-school clones. Then--the weak of stomach may skip to the next paragraph--there are those other students, the complacent and the uninterested, the ones who waste their money and our time by being here. For all the advantage they take of Kenyon, they might as well be in the Coast Guard, if the Coast Guard would admit them. At Sunset Cottage we get our fair--our unfair--share of these, probably because majoring in English enables students to avoid perplexing entanglements with mathematics, lab sciences, and foreign languages.
What, then, does it come to? Put it altogether--amiable landscape, able un-famous colleagues, a bigger but not invariably better bunch of students, threaten me with a subpoena and a syringe of sodium pentothal, and I feel a "No" coming on. You could take that literary tradition, what's left of it, and put it on a roadside historical marker: "On this site, beginning in 1939, poet and critic John Crowe Ransom . . . poet Robert Lowell . . . novelist Peter Taylor . . . poet James Wright . . . novelist E.L. Doctorow . . . " Is Kenyon still literary? The honest answer is no, not especially.
I can't leave things at that, though. If I resist mounting that old photograph I mentioned, neither can I discard it. There's more to say. In Gambier, the memory of poets and writers who taught, and studied, and visited isn't an historicalcuriosity; it's a living truth. The stories about them keep coming, memoirs and memories. The principal actors have died or moved on, but the place they left behind, they changed. They gave it a sense of past accomplishments and constant promise. I can feel it in the dozens of letters that came to me after my book Alma Mater: A College Homecoming was published, people sharing memories of a special place. I feel it in the interest that Gambier people have in writing, not just English department colleagues but everyone from the president to the night supervisor at the library to a guy who lives in the wooden apartment building on the alley at the side of the bookstore. I sense it in the College's renewed commitment to the Kenyon Review. And I find it most of all in the expectations of students who arrive here, year after year, believing--sometimes only vaguely--in the persistence of magic. No one's told them that the clips are yellow, the greats are under the earth, and the party's over. Come right down to it--like it or not--Kenyon's literary reputation, dated or dubious, wishful or irrelevant, is what separates us from dozens, probably hundreds of other pretty good colleges. Is Kenyon literary? Well, lots of people think it is. Our reputation endures. And that brings us to a critical point, a discovery I made in Alma Mater that I don't retract: the thing about reputations is that you can live up to them or live off them. Living up or living off: that choice confronts Kenyon, right now. Living up or living off: it's the difference between drama and . . . charades.
A reputation mens more than sustaining an English department or supporting a magazine, more than genuflecting toward glory days, garnishing ceremonial speeches and College publications with names and quotes. If that is what we do, and that is all we do, every year that passes weakens us, distancing us from our source of strength. If Kenyon is to live up to its reputation, every year must bring us closer to a renewal of tradition, a new magic. It comes to this: literature means writers, living writers, who find Gambier a good place to visit, to live, to work. We need a connection with people who are producing today's books, and tomorrow's. The writers won't be hard to find: if you build it they will come. First we must convince ourselves and, if we find that conviction, if we commit to something more than serendipity and pot luck, here are some proposals worth considering.
Lectures. Stop the whistle stops. Quit following Oprah around. Put an end to overpriced, perfunctory, wham-bam-thank-you-ma'am appearances by circuit-riding literati. If they're not interested in staying for a week or so, if the idea of meeting classes, sitting in the bookstore, stepping out onto the Kokosing Gap Trail, hoisting a beer doesn't appeal to them, let them deliver their canned speeches someplace else. And if this forecloses booking a handful of celebrities, so be it. We'll catch them on their way down.
Endowed chair. The dozen or more endowed chairs that Kenyon seeks to establish as part of its upcoming capital campaign must include at least one distinguished creative writer. The choice is crucial. We're not looking for an eminence who simplyconsents to reside here, gracing us with her or his presence. We want an accomplished writer who welcomes anchorage in Gambier, who will participate in the life of the College, not excluding the occasional silliness, who will enrich and be enriched by Kenyon and whose association with this place will demonstrate that Gambier is a good place for writers to be.
Writer(s)-in-residence. That's me, at the moment. But it shouldn't just be me. There should be three or so other writers calling Gambier home. To make my point, though, it's necessary to talk a little more than I'd like about my arrangement with Kenyon. It started ten years ago as an ad hoc, one-time hiring. I kept coming back on the same terms. Then, I had a three-year contract that sadly relapsed into the old one-at-a-time gig. And, when I came, it was always, except for the year I reported Alma Mater, for one semester. Generally, I never knew until late in one year whether there'd be something the following year. A few years ago, all this changed. We worked out a relationship that has two important principles that, taken together, are a model of how things should be between a writer and a college. The deal is continuing, not tenured but long-term. It is also part-time--one semester--and that's important. You leave, you write, you gamble, and--in an increasingly long-odds publishing climate--you know that Gambier is there for you. You don't get rich but the money you make, and save, makes you feel a lot less speculative sitting down to write a book. I like this arrangement and I think lots of other writers would. I contend that Kenyon should have a number of writers coming and going as I do. Raise the number of writers--or editors, or critics--in my position from one to four. That's the rough equivalent of two full-time positions on a faculty of one hundred forty. The chance of magic is quadrupled.
Places for writers. Assuming that by now I am surfing on a crest of enthusiastic consensus, I'll push things a bit further and then close. So far, my proposals involve bringing writers to the College. Fine. But where do we put them? Do we offer Salman Rushdie an apartment in Lewis Hall? Treat Isabel Allende to her choice of library carrels? A commitment to writing should be reflected on the ground, in Gambier. Instead of tucking writers into whatever sabbatical-vacated offices turn up, we should develop office space and housing. Take the Kenyon Review out of its cellar-redout in Sunset Cottage, accommodate it and Kenyon writers right in the heart of town, where they belong, in the soon-to-be-vacated Peoples Bank. And then, unless we expect our guests to sleep at their desks--not that there aren't precedents for this--I suggest we select a place in town or renovate a house and barn out in some of our rapidly-being-butchered countryside. Call it the writer's house and I'll bet the money in my wallet that someday the house will be famous--a landmark, historically registered. I'll bet that the magic that came once will come again. And the question of whether Kenyon is still literary will no longer arise.
P.F. Kluge, writer-in-residence at Kenyon, is the author of MacArthur's Ghost and The Edge of Paradise as well as severalother works of fiction and nonfiction. His most recent novel is Biggest Elvis. Kluge earned a Ph.D. in English from the University of Chicago before beginning his career as a writer.
The editor of the Kenyon Review says yesterday's legacy equals today's excitement
by David H. Lynn '76
T he Golden Age of writing at Kenyon was a rare epoch indeed--as one of the few "golden ages" anywhere that ever actually existed. There's no doubt that with the arrival on campus of Gordon Keith Chalmers in 1937 as president a new era began--deliberately and self-consciously. Chalmers, a vigorous thirty-three years old when he was appointed, was intent on transforming the College into a place of intellectual, particularly literary, renown.
The Golden Age resonated far abroad, as we all know. Rarely has such a constellation of talents been drawn to so small and isolated a place and over such a considerable period. But a further truth about this great era of fame and achievement is that it represented a fairly shallow slice of life at Kenyon, directly affecting relatively few students.
The legacy of those decades of the 1940s, 1950s, and early 1960s may be surprising, and it represents part of a general transformation of the College. Today's Kenyon is far, far different in most every way, again as we all know. The enduring legend of literary writing here now draws a far greater proportion of prospective students to Gambier than in those earlier, heady decades. The passions and energies and drudgeries of writing, the discipline and the criticism, also penetrate student life as never before.
Is the College still literary?--why, yes, in my opinion. In fact more so--more honestly so, than during its goldenest of earlier times.
Early on and most famously, of course, Chalmers lured John Crowe Ransom away from Vanderbilt University and (with significant prodding from his wife, the poet Roberta Teale Swartz), supported Ransom's desire to found a new literary quarterly. Remarkable, talented young writers from around the country hurried to study at his side in Gambier, among them Robert Lowell '40, Peter Taylor '40, and Robie Macauley '41. Naturally enough, given that they were writers, they later provided some of the clearest evidence that Kenyon's gold did not run very deep--that a profound rift always separated their small community from the larger traditions and social hierarchies of the College.
Peter Taylor, who returned to teach at Kenyon during the 1950s, paints a vivid picture in one of his great stories, "1939," of that first generation of young writers lured by Ransom to Gambier. What comes clear in that portrait is that they never saw themselves as typical students at the College; they belonged to a community apart, generating for themselves a new identity, new values. Even where they lived, Douglass House, an improvised house-cum-dormitory in the village, set them apart both physically and symbolically from the rest of the campus:
- "Generally speaking, we at Douglass House were reviled by the rest of the student body, all of whom lived in thevine-covered dormitories facing the campus, and by a certain proportion of the faculty."
And the narrator goes further, setting up the explicit hostility between those who valued the traditional patterns of life at Kenyon and the new literary pretensions.
- "Oldness had for so many years been the most respected attribute of the college that it was natural for its prestige to linger on a few years after what we considered the new dispensation and the intellectual awakening."
In fact, however, for most students and faculty members the "new dispensation" did not dramatically change the day-to-day curriculum or intellectual life of the College for many years to come. In his moving and beautiful memoir, "James Wright at Kenyon," E.L. Doctorow '52 offers a picture of the College a decade--nearly three generations of students--after Taylor's. Doctorow is even more pointed about the hostility felt by the "Independents," young men who had come to Kenyon after the war, many to work with Ransom as well, but unwilling to adapt to a vision profoundly inimical to them and their backgrounds:
- "This was 1948, there had been the Holocaust and a world war that had killed forty million people, and the same college that published the Kenyon Review expected me to go around with some stupid-ass school cap on my head like an idiot in a Cruickshank drawing."
Doctorow too felt caught up in a struggle for the life and spirit of the College. Like the writers who'd come before him, he and James Wright and their friends were embattled on the fringe of a Kenyon that was indifferent to them and suspicious of the larger external world that bruited the fame of the College as a mecca for the literary arts.
- "I think we were making an alternate college. It was as if the lines had been drawn; some sort of battle for Kenyon's soul was under way. . . ."
That battle continued for a decade and more. Though fine writers, fine teachers such as Philip Wolcott Timberlake '17 and Denham Sutcliffe and Charles Monroe Coffin, in addition to Ransom and philosopher Philip Blair Rice among others, exerted a powerful influence over many young and serious Kenyon students into the 1960s and beyond, those committed to literary endeavor were often seen as a community apart.
As a Kenyon alumnus as well as a faculty member, I marvel at where the College stands today. Top to bottom, our students are stronger academically than ever before, they come from across the country and indeed the globe, they are diverse in ways beyond simple measure. It is an exciting time to be in Gambier. All of these changes are a legacy of profound change forced on Kenyon in the mid-1960s. In many ways, it was truly a case of change ordie. Finances were brought under a strict new regimen; sadly, the Kenyon Review became dormant; College life was transformed, not least by the admission of women. Since then, strength has followed on strength.
After being shut down for nearly a decade, the Review was revived in 1979, and literary writing has, since about that time, become an ever more important part of the curriculum. Let me list some of the ways that writing permeates the atmosphere of Kenyon and the village more profoundly than ever before, beyond even the frequent public readings by distinguished visitors and a plethora of new student literary magazines and activities.
The English department now boasts an "Emphasis in Creative Writing" as an elective part of the regular major. Unlike the situation in the days of Lowell and Taylor, of Wright and Doctorow, workshops in poetry, fiction, creative nonfiction, and playwriting (in the dance and drama department) are integrated into the curriculum.
Certainly, one may be wary of the institutionalization of such courses. I am. Lowell was a gifted major in classics--the study of writing for him and Taylor and many others was something done on their own, an extracurricular passion. But here, too, the world has changed. The College is principled (and healthily unusual), I believe, in insisting that creative writing belongs closely yoked to the study of literature, not as a rarified activity that exists in a vacuum.
Beyond that, we also now argue that creative writing adds an important facet to the liberal arts. It teaches students to read in a new way--to understand how a poem or story works rather than what it means. Recognizing that even great writers have to make constant practical choices in their craft--and sometimes less than successful choices--can be liberating.
No longer hidden away and separate unto itself, the Kenyon Review has become a flagship for a broader program of writing. For example, our Young Writers at Kenyon (YWAK) Program brings in forty-five high-school students each summer, young people of extraordinary ability, for two weeks of intensive writing. Often--and not surprisingly for those of us who know Kenyon--they fall in love with the place. Many apply to and enroll in the College. YWAK provides Kenyon with a strong pool of prospective students.
For three years now, we have also offered the Kenyon Review Writers Workshop (KRWW) for college-age and older participants. What marks this out from many other writing programs around the country is its very intensity. And that's our philosophy: for adults who give up their vacations and pay $1,450, we want them to go home exhausted, in need of a holiday. Their euphoric testimony on this year's evaluations suggests we have succeeded very well. KRWW, with its public readings by accomplished writers every evening, adds to what Writer-in-Residence P.F. Kluge '64, in remarks to the Kenyon Review trustees, has called the "magic" that has returned to Gambier.
Nevertheless, Kluge's suggestions in the previous article about strengthening the literary life here at the College make good sense. It's absolutely true that we more rarely these daysfind authors coming to Kenyon for longer stays than will accommodate a quick dinner and a canned reading. Yet, as an example of better things to come, this fall the College's Faculty Lectureships Committee is sponsoring a three-day visit by Caryl Phillips, a Caribbean writer of international acclaim, who will give a public reading and meet with the advanced fiction-writing workshop and a literature class. It's a step in the right direction.
The English department is also proposing to the administration that an endowed chair in creative writing be established. Such a chair, perhaps with a new incumbent every three or four years, would bring distinguished writers to campus to anchor the creative-writing program, to attract their colleagues from around the country, to recruit talented students, and to raise still higher Kenyon's profile in the national literary community.
It's true, of course, that we boast no critic of Ransom's international renown. We may not--may not--discover the next Robert Lowell or Edgar Doctorow in our classes, but, then again, how would we know? Without listing them by name, I warrant that our teachers of writing--and not merely in the English department--are as strong as at any small college. And that, too, is part of the point: we cannot fairly measure ourselves against legends of the past, only against our strongest peers and our own highest aspirations.
My own credo here is that we are seeing something of a new golden age. Kenyon is building on the legacy of its very real historical strengths and traditions. While we are attracting increasing numbers of talented students to Gambier partly because of the fame of faculty members long gone and the distant achievements of alumni, we are also creating new programs, new opportunities, new excitement for the next generations of poets and storytellers. And not only for them: for future surgeons and lawyers and businesspeople as well who happen to love writing and reading literature. They are only now driving down the Bishop's Backbone and up the Hill to our door.
David Lynn, an associate professor of English and editor of the Kenyon Review, has been a member of the faculty since 1988. He earned his doctorate in English from the University of Virginia. Lynn and his wife, Associate Professor of History Wendy F. Singer, live in Gambier with their children, Aaron and Elizabeth.
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