America’s Literary Connectors

I just spent a few days in the British Library, where I was looking into the papers of James Stern, a little-remembered author who kept popping up in the files of other writers. Stern was a frequent and assiduous supporter of fellow artists, through friendship and correspondence. Measuring the amount of help he offered others, he could be compared with Noel Coward in theatre, Cecil Beaton in photography, and—perverse though he could be at times—Evelyn Waugh in fiction. These artists had very different personalities yet were all examples of what Malcolm Gladwell calls “connectors,” people whose sociability, energy, curiosity and self confidence allow them to span different groups and assist others in productive ways.

Who are America’s literary connectors of the past few years—writers who have extended careers of being—to use Gladwell’s phrase “almost pathologically helpful” to their friends and students. I posed that question to several authors at the Sewanee Writers’ Conference a few weeks ago and we came up with the following names:

Robert Pinsky, who taught at Wellesley College, Berkeley, and now at Boston University. Pinsky served as poet laureate in the late nineties and is perhaps best known for his translation of the Inferno in 1994. He is a brilliantly helpful friend and self-confessed email addict.

Another is poet Ken Fields. I met Ken as a would-be student to the Stanford program in 1968, the year after he began teaching there. Ken is sociable, helpful, a great reader, and a fine poet, who has been a friend and supporter for hundreds of young writers over the years (Ken also knows more than anybody should know about the history of movies).

Ellen Bryant Voigt developed the first low-residency writing program at Goddard in the 1970s and since the eighties has taught at Warren Wilson College. She became a Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets in 2003. Throughout her career has shown a gift for bringing writers together and helping with their work. An interview of Ellen is in our spring 2009 issue.

By founding and supporting McSweeney’s, a publishing house and literary magazine, Dave Eggers has created a vital literary scene and helped advance the careers of young writers. Despite the huge success of his memoir A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, Eggers publishing enterprise hasn’t had it easy. In 2006, its distributor went bankrupt, owing the company about $600,000, a problem which he successfully resolved by undertaking an internet auction and taking on a new distributor.

Finally, I and a number of others regard Wyatt Prunty as a connector of the first order. He’s the author of seven collections of poetry and the tireless promoter and acting executive of the Sewanee Conference. I first met Wyatt at Sewanee, when we were both students there, not yet legal drinking age. Wyatt grew acquainted with Allen Tate and others among the Formalists and New Critics who had shaped views in modern American literature. His own poetry is sometimes associated with the New Formalism, although you’d never know it by his personality. His program at Sewanee, with the aid of the Tennessee Williams estate, has powered the careers of a growing number of writers and every year continues to make available a remarkable experience for early career writers.

There are obviously a number of others who could be included in this list, including Hilda Raz, who has been the editor of Prairie Schooner for over twenty years and Rod Smith who continues to edit another superb little magazine, Shenandoah. We should celebrate and thank them all for lifetimes of being so helpful to other writers.