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Is Kenyon still literary? by Palau RPCV P.F. Kluge
Is Kenyon still literary? by Palau RPCV P.F. Kluge
Is Kenyon still literary?
The author of Alma Mater: A College Homecoming weighs in with an opinion
by P.F. Kluge '64
John 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.