A look at seventy-five years of the Kenyon Review, through a personal lens.
My recollections of the Kenyon Review begin well before I became editor in 1994, and these memories are a heady mix of the journal’s history and influence on my own life. They provide a certain angle of perspective by which to appreciate the Review’s seventy-five-year journey and to anticipate the decades to come.
1937. John Crowe Ransom is lured to Gambier from Vanderbilt by President Gordon Keith Chalmers and Roberta Teal Swartz to found a journal of national significance. After some squabbling and debate, it comes to be called the Kenyon Review. ]
Maybe I knew this, if only vaguely, as an undergraduate at Kenyon. I surely did not know that Mr. Ransom was also a renowned mentor for generations of writers. Ambitious students from around the nation followed him to Kenyon—Robert Lowell famously pitched a tent on Ransom’s lawn until he was accepted. Randall Jarrell arrived as well. Peter Taylor transferred from Vanderbilt, too. In fact, he and Lowell were fated to be roommates and lifelong friends. (Taylor’s great story “1939” recounts a Thanksgiving road trip by two aspiring writers to New York, only for them to return by train, chastened, to Gambier.) James Wright and E. L. Doctorow would follow in years to come.
Nor did I know, not for many years, that Taylor was later lured again to Kenyon in the 1950s to teach, and, so, plans were drawn to succeed his mentor as editor of the Review. But Taylor realized that accepting the task would smother his ambitions as a writer. He sparked, instead, a little ruckus, supposedly having been passed over for a particular faculty cottage. He used the excuse to flee to the wider world. (Another famous story: “Dean of Men.”)
1972. Like wisps of burning maple leaves around the village, legends of the Kenyon Review lingered in the air a million years ago, give or take—about the same tectonic distance as the early 1970s, as far as my students today are concerned. That was my own undergraduate era at Kenyon. But the Kenyon Review’s transoms had been shuttered in 1969 because of financial distress, a year after women arrived on campus, also due to financial pressures. Yet such is the short horizon of student vision that, for me at eighteen, Kenyon might always have been coed. The Kenyon Review? Its literary echoes were faint, indeed, felt only in the bone.
During my student years professors such as Galbraith Crump and Ronald Sharp, Fred Turner and Bill Klein, rallied to revive the journal. But not until 1979 was the Kenyon Review reborn with a flourish.
For my part, that first year out I was tending bar in an English pub in the evenings and writing fiction during the day. I was living in Exeter, not far from two Kenyon professors and friends, John and Maryanne Ward. And it was they who first mentioned an American author, Peter Taylor, whom they’d met at the University of Virginia. I located (sans Internet) Taylor’s most recent volumes of stories, “In the Miro District” and “The Old Forest,” and was smitten. Writing to him, I dared ask: Might I come? I had no idea of the Kenyon connection, nor that I’d be miming his own lead in following a great teacher nearly half a century earlier.
That first fall in Charlottesville, Virginia, I sat, deeply moved, in Taylor’s workshop the day he learned that Lowell was dead. What could he do while waiting for his flight to New York, but read from letters Cal, as he was known to closest friends, had posted to him over thirty-five years? And later that same year, he and I were to sit talking quietly in his old station wagon one day after lunch. I was marking time before a flight as well, my father having died the night before.
1988. Early in the mornings and in the shadows of evening, my wife, Wendy Singer, and I walk our golden retriever through the streets of lovely, forever-transitional Mt. Pleasant, just up the slope from the National Zoo. We’ve moved to Washington, D.C., from Charlottesville while she finishes her doctorate on India’s Freedom Movement. I’ve a fine editing job, and I write fiction. My old friend John Ward calls from Kenyon. How might I feel about a stint as writer in residence?
Only a year, Wendy and I tell ourselves—a delightful lark in the Midwest.
During that lark, however, the editor of the Review, Terry Hummer, decamps for Middlebury College. I stay on as acting editor. Among my first duties is to organize the Kenyon Review 50th-anniversary festivities.
2014. My happy task now is to celebrate the journal’s 75th anniversary. Yes, I’m proud of the journal today, its financial health, its bright future, its crack staff. Excited, too, about a new design and bimonthly format we’ll be introducing this winter. Readers worldwide—hundreds of thousands—enjoy the stories and poems, the reviews and interviews, even the podcasts we now offer online.
But it’s our student volunteers who truly light my eyes. Launched in 1994 when my principal charge as new editor was to bring the Review “back to the Hill,” the Kenyon Review Associates now number fifty and are the sinews of our vibrant community. Will they carry away their own versions of literary memories and traditions that have become such a profound part of Kenyon’s identity and have so thoroughly braided my own? That’s my dream.