The one-hundredth anniversaries this spring of the births of Robert Lowell and Peter Taylor provide the chance to celebrate not only their achievements as writers—and they were two of the most influential artists of the twentieth century—but their central roles in a vibrant literary community began at Kenyon College and stretched out across the nation. In the late 1930s both transferred to Kenyon, Lowell from Harvard and Taylor from Vanderbilt, to study with the poet, critic, and mentor John Crowe Ransom. Ransom himself had been attracted to Kenyon from Vanderbilt with the express mission of founding what would become The Kenyon Review. Although he rarely published undergraduates, both Lowell and Taylor placed their work in these pages.
Perhaps more remarkable was the literary community Ransom created in a remote village in central Ohio. Along with Lowell and Taylor, Robie Macauley, Randall Jarrell, and others banded together as a cadre of aspiring writers, distinct within the larger student body. They were housed in a converted private home known as Douglass House, although it soon was simply referred to as the Writers’ House. Not only did they stimulate—and challenge—each other, but Mr. Ransom inspired them informally as well as in class. And he hosted his own distinguished friends regularly to Gambier, among them Alan Tate, Robert Penn Warren, and Andrew Lytle.
Peter Taylor offers a portrait of this group of students, and of his close friendship with Robert Lowell in his story “1939”:
For we were nearly all of us walkers. We walked the country roads for miles in every direction, talking every step of the way about ourselves or about our writing, or if we exhausted those two dearer subjects, we talked about whatever we were reading at the time. We read W. H. Auden and Yvor Winters and Wyndham Lewis and Joyce and Christopher Dawson. . . . (Of course, I am speaking only of books that didn’t come within the range of the formal courses we were taking in the college.)
We might call “1939” a nouvelle à clef, painting a picture of a narrator and his friend Jim Prewitt (a thinly disguised Lowell), as they set out from Gambier on a road trip for Thanksgiving in New York with their “girls.” They are also eager to establish themselves as ready for the larger world and superior to the boys left behind. The narrator, however, is humiliated, discovering that the young society woman he knew in Nashville is no longer interested in a college boy. Jim Prewitt experiences much the same humbling with “Carol Crawford,” the pseudonym here for Jean Stafford, a significant figure in the twentieth century in her own right. Carol angrily announces that she has just sold a story to the Partisan Review and has a publisher for her novel—and no time for him. Although she dismisses Jim in the story, Jean Stafford married Cal Lowell in 1940.
The two young men return to Gambier, privately chastened, only to find their room invaded by the other writers of Douglass House. Using the narrator’s hot plate without permission, the trespassers are cooking a late-night snack. Ludicrous outrage and embarrassment are transformed almost immediately into a secular ceremony of welcome and, yes, of community.
Many of the friendships launched in the Douglass House of those years, like that of Lowell and Taylor, indeed became lifelong. They challenged and goaded and inspired each other then and for decades to come. Their influence on American literature radiated widely.
Peter Taylor returned to teach at Kenyon in the 1950s (when he wrote “1939” and another great Kenyon story “Dean of Men”). In 1959, Robie Macauley, another of the men of Douglass House, succeeded John Crowe Ransom as editor of the Review. It was my own privilege as an undergraduate, during the years when The Kenyon Review was only a distant legend, to hear Robert Lowell read at the inaugural lectures in honor of John Crowe Ransom in 1976. His straight, gray hair was combed back across his great dome of a head, while heavy, black-framed glasses rode on his nose.
Only two years later, as it happened, I was sitting in Peter Taylor’s workshop in Charlottesville. He entered the small class that day, ashen, disheveled—unheard of for Peter—a bit bewildered. A phone call had just brought news that Cal Lowell had died in the night. Rather than sit at home waiting for his flight north later in the day, Peter brought with him a wild clutch of correspondence—physical letters, some handwritten, some typed, some on mere scraps of paper—and he flitted through them, reading aloud, not so much to those of us actually sitting there in witness: he was sharing shards and memories and stories from across thirty years.
The tiny, literary community of Gambier, Ohio, in the 1940s and ’50s thus created a fertile field from which sprang, not just The Kenyon Review and its outsized influence around the world, but writers who journeyed there over twenty years and more to work with Mr. Ransom and to be part of a special group who shared a common purpose. Some were Ransom’s friends, many of whom came for extended stays during the summers. Talented students such as James Wright and Edgar Doctorow continued to arrive, especially with the advent of the G.I. Bill. And Mr. Ransom extended the reach of the Gambier community to a first generation of KR Fellows, including Flannery O’Connor and W. S. Merwin.
I recount these stories, this history, to celebrate the birthdays of Robert Lowell and Peter Taylor, and to remind readers of those halcyon days. But the larger point is that we take active inspiration from them. Literary communities continue to create a generative creativity. Gambier, in fact, has never more than today been home to so many talented and committed writers working together, during the academic year and through the summer as well.
Writing and reading are both ultimately solitary activities. Yet, perhaps paradoxically, when shared, when we are walking “the country roads for miles in every direction, talking every step of the way about ourselves or about our writing, or if we exhaust . . . those two dearer subjects, we talk . . . about whatever we [are] reading at the time,” the aspirations of writers and readers together can truly soar.
On the Cover
Jody Hewgill is a Toronto-based artist and award-winning illustrator. Her varied clients include Rolling Stone, Random House, Entertainment Weekly, Time magazine, St. Supéry Wines, and the United States Postal Service. A series of her theater posters for Arena Stage are included in the Permanent Poster Collection of the Library of Congress. Her illustrations are included in many anthologies and award publications, including Taschen’s 100 Illustrators.