This week’s #TBT features “Welcome, Lost Dogs,” by Vanessa Blakeslee, which appeared in our winter 2011 issue. It later appeared in her debut story collection, Train Shots (Burrow Press), which won the 2014 IPPY Gold Medal in Short Fiction, and was also long-listed for the 2014 Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award and named a finalist for the 2014 Sherwood Anderson Foundation Fiction Award. Her debut novel, Juventud, is forthcoming from Curbside Splendor Publishing in Fall 2015.
By J. Gerald Kennedy
My late colleague James Olney had a sign hanging in his office when he was editor of The Southern Review. It was a framed quotation from Everybody’s Autobiography by Gertrude Stein, expressing her regret at not visiting (during her recent American tour) the home state of her friends William Cook and Carl Van Vechten: “You are brilliant and subtle if you come from Iowa and really strange and you live as you live and are always very well taken care of if you come from Iowa.” That observation, at once dogmatic and elliptical, captures both Stein’s genius for epigrammatic wisdom and James’s ineffable substance. He especially felt the aptness of the suggestion that people from Iowa were well taken care of. As Voorhies Professor of English at LSU, he had good reasons to feel valued. But his quiet groundedness derived, I suspect, from his Midwest origins. Born in 1933, he grew up in a big family in the small town of Marathon, Iowa, which sits amid farms 150 miles northwest of Des Moines and which in a more prosperous era boasted a population of almost 600. The Olney family came to Iowa from New England by way of Pennsylvania. James’s great-grandfather, Richard Olney, settled in Buena Vista County in 1869, and neighbors remembered him as “a gentleman of culture, a fine scholar, and still a student from habit.” According to a county history, the family traced its lineage to Thomas Olney, a disciple of Roger Williams, the fugitive cleric who established religious freedom in Rhode Island, gave sanctuary to outcasts, and respected the Indians, whose language he endeavored to learn.
James’s father Norris, trained in the law, owned the local bank, which was, because its books were well kept, one of the first in Iowa to reopen after the stock market crash. Norris’s prudence and expertise must have protected the family from the worst effects of the Depression. James’s mother Doris bore eight children–four older, three younger than he—and most of them attained professional eminence. Two sisters, Margaret and Elizabeth, became accomplished painters; one brother, John, still holds an appointment as a distinguished professor of psychiatry at Washington University medical school, and another, Byron, has retired from a career as a heart surgeon at the Mayo Clinic. James remained especially close to his oldest brother, Richard, the painter, poet and author of influential cookbooks on French provincial cuisine. Richard expatriated permanently in 1951, the year James entered college, and was the onetime partner of James Baldwin as well as the mentor, in the 1970s, of renowned chef Alice Waters. James spent many a summer sojourn at Richard’s home in Solliès-Toucas near Toulon and shared his brother’s love of fine food and exquisite wines. After Richard’s death in 1999, James and four siblings took charge of the house in France.
The Gertrude Stein quote always seemed an apt explanation of James’s gentle manner and personal appeal. He was undeniably “subtle and brilliant” in his scholarship, which encompassed several fields, including African literature, African American literature, and modern poetry. His professional friends were equally brilliant, though one discovered this more or less by chance; James refrained from name-dropping. Perhaps his most significant scholarly accomplishment came in the field of life-writing: he was the veritable founder of modern autobiography studies. James, however, would have conceded that distinction, with characteristic modesty, to Georges Gusdorf, Paul John Eakin, or another of his illustrious acquaintances. His books Metaphors of Self (1972) and Memory and Narrative (1999) virtually bracket his career and display the growth of his mind as well as the scope of his understanding. The latter volume won the Christian Gauss award from Phi Beta Kappa. If one adds to this list the 1980 edited collection, Autobiography: Essays Theoretical and Critical as well as the edited volume, Studies in Autobiography (1988), James’s impact on this field is apparent.
The part of the Stein quote that has always seemed to me most enigmatic is her claim that if you come from Iowa you are “really strange.” Perhaps Iowans would agree with Miss Stein; in my observation, though, based on my daughter’s four years at Grinnell, people from Iowa tend mainly to be hard-working, unpretentious folk. But James liked that quote, and though I never thought him strange, I must admit that he was different. He was, so far as I could see, entirely averse to disputation. He knew his mind and thought what he thought. He could therefore sit through a long, noisy faculty meeting and never say a word, though afterward he might grumble just a bit in private about long-winded colleagues. James practiced reticence as an art form. His culinary tastes were also surprising; one evening when we had dinner together with our wives at a French restaurant in Baton Rouge, James was scanning the menu to see if he could order breaded, fried animal glands, or “sweetbreads” as those treats are euphemistically called. He was also, for a man so seemingly imperturbable, sometimes moved by sudden, deep emotion. On one occasion, at the 1985 Southern Review conference organized by James and co-editor Lewis P. Simpson, he seemed in fine form. The all-star lineup included the two famous founding editors, Cleanth Brooks and Robert Penn Warren; Southern authors Walker Percy, Eudora Welty, Elizabeth Spencer, and Ernest Gaines; and such eminent scholars as Denis Donoghue, Henry Louis Gates, Houston Baker, Walter Sullivan, and Louis J. Rubin. At a plenary session in the Union Theater, Warren had been asked to give a poetry reading, but at the age of eighty he proved unequal to the task, sitting down after two or three poems, which he read (it seemed) with clenched teeth. He conferred with James, while a hushed audience contained its uneasiness. Then James stepped to the podium, and for twenty minutes or so, he read Warren’s poems in a high-pitched, quavering voice that I had never heard before. It was unforgettable, partly because Warren was slumped in his chair, listening to his own work, and partly because James delivered those lines in an almost keening tone.
But there were other differences and curiosities, some associated with James’s academic past. When Donald Stanford retired as co-editor of The Southern Review, the search for a replacement turned up some extraordinary candidates, including poet-scholars Robert Pack and Daniel Hoffman. But neither was ready to leave exalted positions at elite institutions to begin editing a journal in Baton Rouge. The candidate who was ready to answer LSU’s call was of course James, but he was not leaving a prestigious school. In fact his academic address seemed at first puzzling. Here was a dignified, accomplished academic with a PhD from Columbia University, a mid-career scholar with four books to his credit (three from Princeton) who had been teaching in Durham, North Carolina—not, as might have been the case, at Duke University, but at humble North Carolina Central, a historically black institution.
I don’t know precisely what motivated James to leave NCCU or to seize the opportunity to come to LSU and edit The Southern Review. He surely hoped to give added impetus to the study of autobiography and modern poetry. I think he also saw journal editing as a new way to underscore the importance of African culture and the African American literary tradition, beginning with the slave narrative. But his long tenure at NCCU seemed nevertheless unusual, as did an earlier professional adventure. I mean James’s decision in 1967 to leave an assistant professorship at Drake University in Des Moines to become a Fulbright Scholar at Cuttington College in Liberia, the African nation created in the nineteenth century by “repatriated” former American slaves. For whatever reasons, James never returned to Drake. At Cuttington, as a foreign visitor, he was improbably designated chair of the English Department, a position in which he served a second year after renewing his Fulbright appointment. One of James’s nieces told me why he went to Africa. It seems that while he was living in England, researching George Herbert and Gerard Manley Hopkins on a fellowship from Columbia, James had befriended some Africans, becoming interested both in their poetry and in the continent from which they came. But I don’t know the full story. I suspect James’s sojourn in Liberia had been motivated by more than cultural curiosity, though, and perhaps that chapter of his life story exists somewhere in manuscript or print. But I like to think his African journey was linked, in some way, to his Iowa roots, to the abolitionist ethos of the state’s early white settlers, or to the example of his Olney ancestors, those principled folk who believed in learning, decency, and equality.
When James came to Baton Rouge, he opened The Southern Review to a wider perspective. Thanks to him, the magazine published an unprecedented special issue on Afro-American literature. He arranged other special issues dealing with T. S. Eliot and with Irish poetry. In similar ways he contributed to curricular reform in English, affirming the importance of African American literature and drawing new attention to autobiography and African literature. On one occasion, he gave a brilliant public lecture contrasting the representative, collective voice in African life stories with the individualistic, distinctive self in modern, Western autobiographies. He also arranged a spectacular campus event about twenty-five years ago, bringing Nigerian Nobel Laureate Wole Soyinka to campus for a heavily-attended lecture. The graduate seminars that James offered during two decades at LSU must have afforded his students rich intellectual sustenance; over the years, he directed dissertations by many of the finest students ever to come through the doctoral program.
And he edited The Southern Review with consummate brilliance for twenty years, facing budget challenges and personnel changes. His co-editors included the late Lewis P. Simpson, Fred Hobson, and (during the 1990s) poet Dave Smith, but it was James who carried the review through three transition periods (including Smith’s departure). James kept the journal moving ahead by updating its physical appearance, exercising wise judgment in vetting submissions, and soliciting luminous contributions from distinguished friends. Over the years he also contributed several of his own essays to the review, including reflections on such topics as autobiography, Wole Soyinka, T. S. Eliot, Stephen F. Foster, and the broad topic of poetry and life-writing. The Foster essay, from the Winter 2001 issue, includes tantalizing hints of the life story that began in Marathon, with James’s recollection of being made to memorize, as a schoolboy of ten, the lyrics of such Foster songs as “Camptown Races” and “Oh! Susannah,” and to perform them “in what was intended to pass for black dialect.” In that same essay, James recalls playing his treasured Mae Barnes recording of “I Ain’t Gonna Be No Topsy” for James Baldwin in the 1960s. These vignettes add a bit more insight into the life journey that took James from Iowa to Liberia to a black university in North Carolina and finally to the Deep South.
Among the many contributors to the 1995 Southern Review issue on “Contemporary Irish Poetry and Criticism”—which included James’s friend Seamus Heaney—was Laura O’Connor, then a rising scholar and now Associate Professor of English at the University of California, Irvine, a teacher of modern poetry as well as Irish literature and culture. James met her through the common tie of Irish studies and the two subsequently married; their daughter Marina, now 15, was born in Louisiana and (like her mother) shuttled between California and Baton Rouge for a few years, until James’s retirement in May 2004 and subsequent relocation to Irvine. Since that move I saw James only a few times on visits to Louisiana to see Nathan, his son from a prior marriage. From time to time I e-mailed James to discuss the changing fortunes of the review, but more often in recent years, I simply passed along greetings to him through Laura, whom I saw annually at MLA conventions. When I crossed paths with her in Vancouver in January, she told me that James seemed at last to be going downhill, physically and emotionally. I planned to e-mail him and resume our long-distance planning of a jolly reunion at Solliès-Toucas in the summer. But as classes began, deadlines loomed, and I postponed e-mailing James. Then three weeks after speaking with Laura, I received the dismaying news, conveyed by Brook Thomas (a former chair at Irvine) of James’s death, at home, with Laura and Marina at his side.
Family members were a bit surprised to learn that James wanted to be buried in Iowa—he’d been gone a long time—but that was apparently one of his last requests. Gertrude Stein’s Everybody’s Autobiography includes the story of her return, during that American tour, to Oakland, California, the town where she grew up. But on her arrival she famously quipped about Oakland, “There is no there there.” But that is not the case with Marathon, where there is a there, and where James lies among his illustrious Olney kin. About his great-grandfather Richard it was said that despite his acknowledged “superior ability and worth of character,” he was “ever modest and retiring” because “vanity [was] not one of his characteristics.” These were the very traits that endeared James to his colleagues. He was indeed “brilliant and subtle” and, in his unspoken devotion to righting the wrongs of the past, “really strange” only in his reticence about this unstinting, lifelong labor.
All done with that Valentine’s Day chocolate? There’s plenty more sweets from the candy store in Cary Holladay’s “Sailor’s Valentine.” The story originally appeared in the summer 1997 issue of The Southern Review and was subsequently published in The Quick-Change Artist: Stories (Swallow Press, 2006).
The Southern Review mourns the passing of poet Philip Levine, who died on February 14. Levine served as the Poet Laureate of the United States and won the Pulitzer Prize for his work, which has appeared in The Southern Review since 1965. We are grateful that two of his final poems will be published in our spring issue’s tribute to Larry Levis. Read more about Levine’s life and work here.
by John Easterly
It was my great good fortune to work with James Olney during the last two years of his editorship of The Southern Review, right before he rode off into the sunset, westward to his California retirement. In our offices in the basement of Allen Hall we were constantly swamped with submissions of poems and stories, of course, so there was nearly always much work to be done as our small staff struggled to even come close to keeping up.
James was a wonderful person in so many ways, in so many roles, and he was an ideal boss for this mini-staffed TSR enterprise, for in his quiet way he somehow managed to give us a sense, each and every day without harping on it, that what we were doing was important, even a bit noble.
One of my favorite memories of him comes from the days we were putting together what would be his final edited issue of the magazine. One morning he walked into my office with some pages of manuscript in his hand and, smiling, told us that we would absolutely have to find space for this longish story, even though the issue was already crowded. The story was John Fulton’s superb, heartbreaking “Hunters.”
As I say, James was smiling, not rare for him at all, but it was a somewhat more intense smile than usual. He seemed to be almost beaming in his delight at having this story in his hand and giving it to me for the last issue. And again I was struck, as I had been so often, by his love of fiction and poetry and good writing, which was so deep and so obviously something that he believed with all his being should matter to the world.
Near the end of Cormac McCarthy’s novel The Road, the young son asks his father, “Are we still the good guys?” His father answers without hesitation, “Yes, we’re still the good guys.” The son says, “Are we carrying the fire?” and the father: “Yes, we’re carrying the fire.”
I think of James as carrying the fire.