'U.Va. Profiles' Features Charlotte Kohler: A Discerning Editor of Uncommon Generosity

January 14, 2008

Part II, Taking the helm of the Virginia Quarterly Review

An Oasis of Southern Kultur
In 1925, when University of Virginia president Edwin Alderman’s dream of creating a literary journal became a reality on the centennial of the University’s founding, the journal’s first pages were devoted to the University’s most famous student, Edgar Allan Poe. Editor Wilson, himself a Poe scholar, gladly christened the new Virginia Quarterly Review with an article by Alderman on Wilson’s favorite subject.

In his essay, Alderman imagines a young Poe strolling on Grounds during the University’s second session in February of 1826, perhaps even greeting its founder Thomas Jefferson.

Alderman’s invocation of Poe and Jefferson not only connected the VQR with its intellectual and literary heritage at the University, but it also revealed the journal’s greatest challenge. The University’s — and by extension Virginia’s and the South’s — inheritance of literary genius had apparently skipped a generation (or two). Prior to 1930, Southern writers appeared to be in short supply.

If H.L. Mencken were to be believed in his 1920 essay describing the South as “the Sahara of the Bozarts,” the journal was doomed from birth. But manifestos by cynics like Mencken were a war cry in the South. While no reputable southerner would willingly give Mencken credit for awakening the sleeping giant of southern letters, his condemnation did precede the storied “southern renascence” that produced such writers as William Faulkner, Eudora Welty, Flannery O’Connor, Zora Neale Hurston and James Agee.
Works by the agrarians at Vanderbilt University — Robert Penn Warren, Allen Tate, John Crowe Ransom, and Cleanth Brooks appeared in the VQR. Fiction by William Faulkner and Erskine Caldwell was defended by Gerald Johnson in the journal against those who charged the authors with portraying a “horrible South.”

Even Mencken himself made the cut in 1935, in an essay in which he refereed the argument between southern regionalists and agrarians.  He couldn’t help himself, however, referring to things southern as “sub-Potomac kultur.” He wrote to editor Lambert Davis: “Thanks very much for my check. I only hope that my piece didn’t cost you any readers.”

For its tenth anniversary edition in 1935, the VQR published what editor Charlotte Kohler would later call, “the core of the southern renaissance including almost every prominent southern writer except William Faulkner.” Katherine Anne Porter, Thomas Wolfe, Andrew Lytle and fellow agrarians Robert Penn Warren, Cleanth Brooks, Allen Tate and John Crowe Ransom were all crowded into one issue.

The VQR that Kohler inherited in 1942 had already become the crucible of southern ideas and southern identity. Eudora Welty, C. Vann Woodward, James Dickey, Reynolds Price, and Peter Taylor were among the region’s greatest critics and authors published by Kohler in the journal. Former U.Va. history professor Edward Ayers, in a 2000 essay in the VQR, considered the journal’s paramount role in forging southern identity: “To survey the essays on the South that have appeared in these pages is to survey much of the region’s history in the 20th century.”

Pound, Vonnegut and the Geriatrics
But the VQR was not intended to be solely a regional journal. Alderman hoped it would be “national, not sectional … The Virginia Quarterly Review is a journal of national discussion. The idea is to discuss fundamental matters from every point of view.” And the Richmond Times Dispatch had welcomed the new publication in 1925, praising it for neither being “too sectional nor too detached.”

More than her predecessors, Kohler fulfilled Alderman’s broad vision for the VQR. As she said in 1962 in the Richmond Times Dispatch, “The Quarterly hopes to be intelligently entertaining on all sorts of subjects, old and new, and yet retain more than a modicum of old-fashioned courtesy and good taste.”

Perhaps it was this desire for courtesy that led Kohler to demur when poet Ezra Pound, just released from St. Elizabeth’s Hospital in 1958, met with her in Richmond and offered to write a regular column for the VQR. Pound told a Richmond Times Dispatch writer that he would be happy to stay in an unused stable at Jefferson’s Monticello. “All I’d need is a stove and a cot.”

Later that year, with no stove, cot, or regular column awaiting him in Charlottesville, Pound returned to Italy, declaring that America was a “giant insane asylum”—not the kind of “old-fashioned courtesy” Kohler had in mind. But Pound did leave Kohler his “Canto 99” to publish on his way out of town.
Kohler believed that the VQR should attract writers because of its “reputation for attracting readers who are careful thinkers.” She looked forward to the daily flood of submissions. “Every mail is like Christmas.”

But some Christmases are better than others.

Kohler read as many as 4,000 manuscripts a year, “from all sorts of people,” she said. “Many who’ve never seen the Quarterly but who’ve read those ads that say, ‘You, too, can write,’ and believed them.”

Kohler once complained to a reporter that she had read far too many entries with themes of “home, the flag, and motherhood and nothing above that.” Trends and bandwagons presented constant problems as well. “One year it was Vonnegut. Last year [1974], there was a run of stories dealing with geriatrics for some reason.”

These manuscripts by Vonnegut wannabes were marked by Kohler with an ‘R’ for rejection and sent to the Quarterly’s advisory editors for a second opinion. But if an advisory editor rejected a manuscript that Kohler liked, she would happily pass it on to a third party to end the stalemate.

Kohler’s sense of humor was evident in her approach to some submissions. In 1975, Kohler told a reporter at the Richmond Times-Dispatch of a persistent writer who had sent submissions to the journal every year since 1942. “He must be getting the idea by now that he won’t be published,” Kohler said. “But if he stopped sending material, I’d probably worry some about him.”

Works that were spared the Scarlet R revealed Kohler’s eye for rare talent. John Berryman had submitted poems to Kohler’s predecessor several times that were destined for lesser publications. But in 1948, Kohler reached out to Berryman in a letter, saying, “How interested all of us are here in some of your recent poetry, and how pleased we would be if at some time you’d give us the opportunity of reading and considering some.”

Eleven of Berryman’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Dream Songs were first published in the Quarterly in 1968.

Support for Young Writers
Besides having a keen eye for talent, Kohler demonstrated a capacity for nurturing writers at the beginning of their careers. Reynolds Price wrote, “Charlotte Kohler published a brief story of mine — “The Warrior Princess Ozimba” — early in my career, 1961. Having it appear in so distinguished a place meant a great deal to a writer who was then twenty-eight years old, and I've never ceased to be grateful to her.”

Likewise, Adrienne Rich had seen her poetry rejected by several magazines and journals, but poems from what became her first collection, A Change of World, appeared in the VQR.  “The VQR came into my sights because my father and maternal uncle had both graduated from U.Va. — and Edgar Allan Poe had of course studied there,” Rich wrote later. “I was a very young poet, a Baltimore girl with Southern roots: it felt, thus, an honor to be published in the VQR.”

Poet Hayden Carruth spoke colorfully about his debt to Kohler: “During the dark time when I was struggling to make a go of it in the north woods of Vermont and the literary establishment in New York treated me as something less than the roach on its kitchen counter, the VQR published practically everything I sent. I never met Charlotte Kohler or had any personal connection with her, but I regarded her, naturally, as a very wise, competent editor.”

Kohler’s colleagues and peers were equally effusive on the subject of her editorial skills. When Staige Blackford was named Kohler’s successor on her retirement from the journal in 1975, he said, “Following Charlotte was like following Queen Victoria to the throne.”

In 1975, Kohler’s 33-year tenure as VQR editor ended after U.Va.’s Board of Visitors declared the editorship at the Quarterly an “administrative position,” requiring retirement at age 65. She stayed on at the University as an associate professor of English until 1979, passing on her enthusiasm for literature to countless students.

Her last issue was the Quarterly’s fiftieth anniversary issue. By then, Kohler had read at least 90,000 manuscripts, won a National Endowment for the Arts award, published a collection of poems from the Quarterly, presided over the Quarterly’s Balch Awards for poetry, and received an honorary doctorate from Smith College in 1971.

A Good MS is Hard to Find

In retirement, Kohler, who never married, became reclusive. Anniversaries and commemorations came and went on Grounds and at the journal; she firmly but politely declined most invitations.

In what would be her last interview in June 1975, she spoke with University historian Charles “Chick” Moran in her home in Charlottesville. On a recording of the interview, Kohler is apparently sitting by an open window. A breeze can be heard underneath the quiet tone of her conversation with Moran, and their conversation is occasionally interrupted by the chirping of birds in her yard.

Both Moran and especially Kohler have lilting Southside Virginia accents that soften Rs and make a “hoce” of a “house.” Moran has about two hours to coalesce a lifetime and a career into something manageable, but Kohler prefers to digress and pore over details that are beside, above, below and miles away from the point.

The interview reveals Kohler’s dry sense of humor. Her Chaucer professor at U.Va. made a point of skipping whole portions of the Canterbury Tales without the desired effect: “He went through the Canterbury Tales … cut out all the lewd passages. So you knew just what to read if you wanted to.”

Kohler also recalled fielding complaints from disgruntled Quarterly readers: “We published an article by Albert Gerrard, Jr. about wartime Britain, in which he said the rosy cheeks of the children were the products of malnutrition … and that the English girls were not above reproach as far as their behavior with soldiers. And this old doctor who not only subscribed but had given the Quarterly a good deal wrote to me and to Mr. Newcomb and complained, saying that it was not so and that it downgraded the name of Great Britain.”

Kohler said she wrote to apologize, but that only made matters worse. “That just set him off again. He thought it was an insouciant reply that he didn’t care for at all. A soft answer does not turn away wrath. It increases it.”

Moran listens politely and interjects only occasionally, waiting for some insight from Kohler about editing and literature and why she was so expert at both.

“Some things are just very hard to find,” Kohler says. “Good literary articles. You’d think they would be a dime a dozen.”

But they weren’t. It took an exceptionally competent editor who happened to be a woman — to dig through the piles of submissions and unearth the gems. Kohler discovered new voices and encouraged new talents that continue to shape the national literary landscape today.

— Written by Tim Arnold