On a day in late summer 1962, I parked my red Corvair on University Avenue as near as I could get to Anderson Hall, which, I was told, housed the University of Florida's English department. I had just switched off the engine when, like an omen of something unguessable, as spectacular a young woman as I had ever seen emerged from the end door of a dingy wooden building next to Anderson Hall, crossed in front of my car and continued across the Avenue. I can still see her flowing, fierce red hair, her pale and freckled muscular legs displayed on platform sandals, her short, snug flowered dress. This was not going to be like the small all-male college where I had just spent four years.
I sighed, locked my car, and entered Anderson Hall in search of the office of Dr. John Tyree Fain, the man I was supposed to see, the adviser to new graduate students. I found him to be a lovely man—white hair, tie, seersucker jacket (practically a uniform for professors it seemed)-- a southern gentleman of the old school, a Vanderbilt product and former student and associate of those hallowed figures I knew only from my college course in the Literature of the South: Ransom, Lytle, Tate, Warren. I soon learned that Dr. Fain was an authority on Donald Davidson and was in the process of editing Davidson’s letters. He greeted me warmly, gave me the Master’s reading list (books I was made responsible for reading and being tested on before I could receive my degree—a list that might stand up to some PhD lists of today), signed me up for a couple of obligatory courses which I frankly can’t remember. I only remember asking about the creative writing class at the graduate level; Dr. Fain said I would have to seek the permission of the instructor and he directed me to the office of Mr. Kirkpatrick, just next door in the “temporary building” (temporary since WWII—it was old Army surplus stuff, brought in like the FlaVet villages to accommodate the swarms of veterans that settled on campus after 1945).
I found the man in question in a second-storey corner room of Building D that I imagined must have once been a company office. It contained a long center table with chairs, odd seats around the walls, a desk at the end farthest from the door, a worn easy chair, and, at the desk, a swivel chair that at that moment contained a fairly slight pleasant-looking man who, feet up, listened to my request, asked how much I had written, what I had written, and asked me for a writing sample. During the conversation it came out that Mr. Kirkpatrick was experiencing his 40th birthday and was having a little trouble coming to terms with it. I tried to commiserate (I silently agreed with him that 40 was awfully old) and left. I came back later in the afternoon, bearing a silly story I had written during the summer. I believe he actually looked it over while I waited. It was about a dying boy with a pet king snake he named Villon. I was full of Swinburne in those days, of that “sad bad glad mad” language (so, I will say in my defense, had Faulkner been at my age), and I alluded heavily to Algie’s poem about Francois Villon. Smith, as I would come to call him, did not laugh, as I probably deserved, but said I seemed to have a way with words, and granted his permission.
I wonder how many of us can identify except in retrospect those moments when life’s direction changes, when, for good or ill, we close one pathway and open another. My desire to take a creative writing course seemed not so momentous at the time, instead of another period course to fill in the considerable gaps in my knowledge of English literature. But what if I had taken the more academically rigorous path and gone on to write a solid critical thesis under the direction of one of the department’s several competent scholars? My Southern lit professor in college had told me that I could get a “very respectable Master’s” at Florida. Perhaps I would have gone on to earn a PhD there or somewhere else (I never did). But I remember Smith saying once, “The PhD program is the graveyard of the creative writer.” Maybe I took these words to heart, either ignoring or simply not knowing at the time about all those fine writers who did hold PhDs (Robert Penn Warren comes immediately to mind). Whatever the reasons, and whether Smith had much to do with it or not, I came along the way to think of myself as the non-doctorate type, that the idea of holding a doctorate was incommensurate with the idea I had of myself. Decisive or not, that line is one of the many Kirkpatrician utterances that have stayed with me for over four decades.
So I became a member of the Thursday night writing class. Consisting of graduate students and selected undergraduates (including to my intense pleasure the young woman I had seen crossing University Avenue), it met in Smith’s office in Building D. He also required newbys to attend his undergraduate course, 327, where we worked our way through Brooks and Warren’s Understanding Fiction, one of the greatest and most influential textbooks ever produced in America. (We used the 2nd edition, one of only three to appear in thirty years; the 3rd has been in print for some 35 years.) For the graduate class we used The House of Fiction, a critical anthology by Caroline Gordon and Allen Tate.
Smith had been a student and close friend of Andrew Lytle, one of the Vanderbilt crowd and a contributor to I’ll Take My Stand. Mr. Lytle had been at Gainesville until a year or two before I arrived and was still an almost visible presence in Building D. No doubt Smith did a lot of what it is fashionable these days to call “channeling.” Well, all right. I have done a lot of channeling myself over the years. Even now, in my late sixties, I will hear echoes of Smith’s words in what I say to classes.
Many of us, maybe most of us, move in and out of tight groups during our lives, knots of people like clubs that seem to hold, quickly as we might enter into them, everything that matters, whether the organizing principle or practice or belief be religious or intellectual. The bond might be ownership of an Open Road camper or a Harley-Davidson, a love of Bluegrass music or contract bridge. It might be a church, or a group within a church. Or a cell of Amway salespersons. Whatever the basis, the group can become life's very center, offering the certain knowledge that these are the only people who matter, that everyone else is benighted, ignorant, incapable of sharing what we share, knowing what we know. With me, at that time in my life, it was the Thursday night writing class.
I’ll name some names. Smith’s designated assistant was Don Hammond, a big crew-cut ex-serviceman who owned the ragged easy chair that sat to one side of Smith’s desk. He would take over when Smith was ill or otherwise indisposed. This rarely happened. There was Doug Taylor, whose mother, Kressman Taylor, wrote the famous story “Address Unknown” in the 1930s, which has appeared as a book in several editions and still occasionally shows up in anthologies. (Amazon lists a recent edition with an introduction by him.) There was Al Himber, whom I presume to be the Alan Himber who has made a career as a Yates scholar. There was Frank Hannold, now teaching English at The College of New Jersey. Hill Pearce (a particular friend of mine), Helen Anne Easterly, Charles McCarthy, Karen Becker (the red-head), Pat Butler, Wes Patterson. Harry Crews—and believe me we heard a lot about Harry Crews, ditto Merrill Gerber, Claude Koch and others-- had already left and was teaching at a junior college in Fort Lauderdale, yet to publish a novel in spite of having written several, though Mr. Lytle had accepted a story for the Sewanee Review.
Not everyone in this group was a registered student. Frank Taylor had published a novel in England years earlier called Mortlake. Frank lacked any sort of college degree, but was one of the most erudite people I ever knew. Lytle would send him stacks of books on critical theory and medieval philosophy to review for the journal. Sometime in the mid-sixties, Frank was given a full faculty appointment at the University of Florida. I remember J. Wayne Reitz, the president at the time, saying that feeling ready for such a move was a measure of the institution’s maturity. Frank never presented anything for comment in the class, but was a steady, enlightening, self-effacing voice in the discussion of students’ work. Blessings on thee, Frank Taylor.
There was Janos Schoemyen (forgive the spelling if inaccurate), a colorful Hungarian who lived in Gainesville and supported himself by various means while he wrote short stories. One of these, “Brandenburg Concerto,” appeared in Short Story International while I was in Gainesville and I have a copy to this day. Since, he has published many collections, at least one with LSU Press. He writes and teaches (now at Santa Fe Community College), under the name Lawrence Dorr. I remember a nice lady from the non-university community named Mary Robertson, who had studied under Lytle for some years. I think she might have edited technical books while writing stories for children. There was, unforgettably, Felicity Trueblood, who should have become a successful romance writer on the strength of her name alone.
The class typically started with Smith leading discussion of whatever story from the text we were assigned that week, something by J. F. Powers, Truman Capote, Faulkner, Frank O’Connor. Sometimes we were told to read a whole book between classes—The Craft of Fiction or As I Lay Dying. It was here that I learned to read, much more so than in any literature class I ever had. That, in the last analysis, is what the New Criticism, and Smith identified himself as a New Critic, brought to us: a sense of the necessity of and, gradually, a facility for close reading. That was the whole deal. Read closely, account for every word. That’s why we studied the same stories over and over, to a degree that students wouldn’t stand for these days. But Smith believed it was necessary. He had a stable of stories he had worked up over the years—Welty’s “A Memory” and “A Piece of News”; Warren’s “Blackberry Winter”; Faulkner’s “Was”; Conrad Aiken’s “Silent Snow, Secret Snow”—I could go on and on. The New Critics, or strict Formalists, are today mostly dismissed, even politely made fun of in academic circles. And maybe the followers of Feminist Criticism, Deconstruction, Cultural Poetics, and all the rest have good reason for their derision. But I have never heard a convincing argument against close reading.
Where they have us, I suppose, was in the New Critical assumption that a community (or class) of intelligent, close-reading, dispassionate critics will eventually settle upon a shared--and correct --reading of, say, “A Good Man is Hard to Find.” The literary culture’s long overdue dose of multiculturalism and feminism and postmodernism, as well as the always present but disregarded (by us) biographical approaches, have opened New Criticism to legitimate questioning. We weren’t even supposed to consider what a writer said about her own work, and might have ignored what Miss O’Connor says about the meaning of her story in The Habit of Being, of that staggering, enigmatic line the grandmother delivers to the Misfit, “Why, you’re one my babies! You’re one of my own children!” even had her interpretation been available to us then.
This is why we were forbidden to open our mouths when our own stories were talked about—more often flayed—in the class. Occasionally someone would find it impossible to keep quiet when his story was being torn up, but that was considered a grave offense against propriety. And sometimes it was hard to stay quiet. I can remember sitting with clenched fists, ready to hit somebody when an especially tender passage from a maudlin little story of mine called “Jimmy Creek” was the occasion of great amusement, causing Al Himber I think to suggest retitling it “Jimminy Creekits.” Of course, one always got a chance to strike back. Don Hammond had been working for months on a long story about a white dolphin (Pat Conroy readers will recall the same conceit turning up much later in The Prince of Tides) and was having trouble finding a good title; I suggested “Flipper.” Well I thought it was funny.
But Smith was always gentle with us, unless someone presented something clearly fraudulent, something designed only to tittilate or shock or impress. Then he could be ruthless. People who tried to float trash didn’t last long.
For those who were sincere, fellow communicants in the belief that what we were doing was the most important thing there was and therefore must be approached with respect, even reverence, he always had good advice. Some of it was recycled from his mentor: “Andrew always said to look for the archetypal action”; “Andrew used to say that if you wrote the story right the ending would fall off in your hand like a ripe fruit.” Or out of his own insights he might say, “We need to know more about the grandmother. She’s the key to that story.” Or, “You need to cut all that description. It’s pretty, but it doesn’t advance the action.” You didn’t want pretty.
I forget who said, “Lytle made you want to go home and write. Smith makes you want to go home and revise.”
It wasn’t all reverently sitting at the feet of the master. After class we usually went to Knott’s Tavern, a hangout on NW 13th Street near 6th Avenue. It was a beer bar, as were all the bars in those days, and it was presided over by a bartender named Vernon, who I felt sometimes took a dim view of all these writer types crowding into the side room with their pitchers of beer. The talk, all of it about writing and fiction, got more sweeping, declamatory, authoritative and absolute with every pitcher. “Faulkner is the second Shakespeare!” (This would be Smith himself.) “Flannery O’Connor is the second Faulkner!” There was an electric bowling/shuffleboard machine called Flashomatic and we all had to line up for our turns. It flashed all over and made a lot of gratifying noise when you got a strike and Smith loved it. Well into the third or fourth pitcher one evening, someone remarked how much fun this was, though it didn’t have much to do with writing. “Creative people like games,” he said. Inevitably closing time rolled around—we never left earlier—and there would come Vernon’s dread cadence, “You don’t have to go home but you can’t stay here. You don’t have to go home...,” always the same deadly rhythm.
Gainesville didn’t get liquor until two or three years after this, so if we wanted the hard stuff we had to go to some other county, maybe to Williston or south on 441, across Payne’s Prairie to a roadside tavern and liquor store that might have been 15 miles away. Once two classmates I have already mentioned and I thought it would be a good idea to have a few snorts of bourbon—southern writers are supposed to drink bourbon-- before Thursday night class so I drove us down there and we picked up a bottle of the cheap stuff, something like Ten High. We drank probably two-thirds of the bottle on the way back. I somehow got parked outside Building D and the three of us, dog drunk, made our way up the dark steps, trying to be quiet. When we got to the second floor I could hear Smith’s voice through the open door of his room, quietly reading somebody’s story. We tiptoed toward the door, running into fire extinguishers and waste cans, by this time wishing we were anywhere else but here. The room fell silent as we stumbled in. Smith looked at the three of us, more or less expressionless. One of us managed to get to his chair, sink ungracefully into it, and become comatose. I sat at the table, gripping the edges and starting to feel sick. At some point I had to excuse myself and go to the men’s room where I rid myself of a lot of my load, using both ends. I was deeply ashamed.
I try to imagine what I—or any other teacher I ever had—would have done in the event of three students showing up for class in that condition. Certainly not what Smith did, which was nothing. In his mild way, he thought it was funny. But he somehow let it be known that it would never happen again.
I don’t know if this story got out among the graduate students at large, that crew of seersucker-clad PhD candidates who, though some of them were nice enough to us—at least to me—individually, looked on our group with skepticism and, it turned out, a certain amount of disdain. We learned that one of them had dubbed us “Caesar’s Irregulars,” for reasons I am still uncertain about, though the term seems to imply a certain sense of the motley, the undisciplined. Of course we saw ourselves as the chosen, the future of American literature. Instead of picking through the bones of culture as our accusers did, we were creating new culture. And how did that work out? What did that little group of 1962 and 1963 actually accomplish, then and later?
Here is what I am aware of. Al Himber, as already noted, had a story in the Sewanee Review. Wes Patterson and I got included in Story magazine's volume of Prize College Stories of 1964. We certainly did not measure up to those who went before us, Crews, Gerber, et al. Nor to many who came later. I only got to know Lawrence Hetrick when we were both teaching at Miami-Dade and then at UF in the late 'sixties (Lawrence had also placed a story with the Sewanee Review in the mid-sixties). That was when I had the privilege of meeting and knowing Sterling Watson and seeing the beginning of his distinguished career as a novelist. That was when I knew William Mickelberry and John Miglis, both of whom seem to have had success in the movie industry. All these were students of Smith Kirkpatrick.
I’m going to close with a memory that has little to do with writing. In that undergraduate class I was expected to attend I immediately spotted a young woman I wanted to know (not the red-haired young woman). I found out her name somehow and, after thinking about it for a few days, called her one night and asked if she wanted to go out sometime. “Well I don’t know. I’m not sure which one you are,” she said. But we met and began a relationship that was on and off for much of my year and a half in the program. I guess I was infatuated or something and was devastated one day when she sat me down over lunch and told me about her illness. She had become addicted to the barbiturate Seconal during the previous year and regarded her situation as practically hopeless. She saw no future for us. Of course this might only have been her way of dumping me in a way she thought might allow me not to feel too bad about myself. It hurt, though. I moped around campus well into the afternoon and found myself in Building D, climbing the stairs to Smith’s office. He was at his desk, feet up; my demeanor gave me away. He asked what was wrong, and I went through the story from the beginning. When I finished, the room was quiet for a time. Then I said, “Isn't it a hell of a world.” Smith thought for a minute. “But it’s a beautiful world.” I’m not sure why that little conversation made me feel better, but it did. That was Smith Kirkpatrick.