[This profile of Charlotte Kohler was originally published on the website of UVa Today and produced by the University of Virginia Office of Public Affairs. Reprinted with permission.]
Among the renowned literary journals of the early twentieth century, women editors abound: Harriet Monroe at Poetry, Marianne Moore at The Dial, Margaret Anderson at The Little Review, Dora Marsden at The Egoist.
Yet academic literary journals did not share the forward thinking of their independent cousins. In fact, by the 1950s, among the preeminent university-based literature journals only one could claim a woman editor: The Virginia Quarterly Review.
Charlotte Kohler served as the journal’s sixth editor and enjoyed the longest tenure of any editor of VQR, from 1946 until 1975 (she was managing editor from 1942–1946). A graduate of Vassar, Kohler had studied under VQR founder James Southall Wilson at the University of Virginia, becoming one of its first female Ph.D.s in 1936. Kohler completed her M.A. in 1933 in only nine months and was U.Va.’s first female Phi Beta Kappa in 1936.
As with so many men working at the University during World War II, Kohler’s predecessor, VQR editor Archibald Shepperson, left in 1942 to go to war. Wilson and then-University president John Newcomb wanted to replace Shepperson with a “war-proof” editor, and Wilson thought of Kohler, his former student. Newcomb agreed with Wilson’s choice and insisted that Kohler become editor. Although Shepperson retained the title of editor until 1946, Kohler actually filled both the managing editor and editor positions in his absence.
Considering the hiring inequities faced by women editors at other academic journals, Kohler felt fortunate about being hired at VQR. As she recalled, “[Newcomb] made a point of [hiring me], which I think was very generous on his part when you consider that Miss Helen MacAfee was managing editor of The Yale Review for years untold under Wilbert Cross as editor. Then when he died, she wasn’t made editor. She kept on for the rest of her time as ‘managing editor’ even though she was doing the whole thing. A remarkable lady . . . and one reason why I appreciated Mr. Newcomb’s actions even more.”
Kohler’s indignation at The Yale Review’s rebuke of MacAfee should be put into an historical context. Kohler likely would not have described herself as a “feminist,” a term that did not come into vogue in the latter third of the twentieth century. But her sentiments were undeniably feminist.
Kohler wrote that the impulse behind her dissertation—The Elizabethan Woman of Letters: The Extent of Her Literary Activities—was to revise lopsided presumptions about women writers in the sixteenth and seventeenth century.
In her dissertation, Kohler took issue with the prevailing scholarly notion that Elizabethan women writers were scarce:
This study of the extent of the literary activities of the Elizabethan woman of letters owes its inception to a passage in an essay of Virginia Woolf’s, in which she remarks that “it is a perennial puzzle why no woman wrote a word of that extraordinary literature when every other man, it seemed, was capable of song or sonnet.”
I hope that this present attempt may serve to dispel any doubts as to the number of women who engaged in penwork in Elizabethan times, no matter how low a rating the quality of their work may still deserve and receive.
Women at work, Kohler believed, deserved the same credit as their male peers, whether they be Elizabethan sonneteers or editors at The Yale Review.
Born in Richmond, Virginia, in 1908, Kohler was product of the public school system. “Actually in Richmond in those days you could get a better public school education than a private school education,” she noted. “John Marshall was the only high school in Richmond at that time. So it was a melting pot. It drew everyone. It was very ugly, very crowded, but it had good teachers.”
Kohler was the first in her family to go to college. She recalled that her parents told her, “You can go anywhere you want, but you can’t cross the Mississippi.” Vassar College kept her on this side of the river but as far away from Richmond as possible. She had the misfortune of graduating just months before Black Friday in 1929. “The Depression made it hard to find work,” she recalled. Faced with few job prospects, she tried her hand at the latest cottage industry—becoming an expatriate American writer in Europe. “I thought I was going to be the Great American Writer and that would be a good place to do it. But you see it takes more to be the Great American Writer than just the wish. It takes a great drive and determination.”
Kohler returned home from Europe one year later with little to show for her time abroad. When she showed her mother her few pages of work, her mother said, “Is that all?” In a 1975 interview, Kohler said little about the quality of her writing, except to say that it was “jejune.” So she did what many liberal arts majors have done before and since: She went to graduate school. “If you can’t get a job, you can’t just sit at home and do nothing except read and be lazy. So I came here [to U.Va.].”
In 1936, she completed a Ph.D. in English, but without teaching experience (at the time, the University did not allow women students to be teaching assistants), she struggled to find work as a professor. She applied for a position at nearby Mary Baldwin College in Staunton, Virginia, but was rejected outright because she smoked, enjoyed an occasional drink, and “was not a Presbyterian,” she said. The Women’s College of the University of North Carolina in Greensboro had fewer ecclesiastical prerequisites, and Kohler taught there for two years beginning in 1941.
While her scholarship didn’t yield an immediate job, it did set the stage for one of her most generous gifts in a life full of generous gifts given to writers. In 1948, six years into her tenure as VQR’s editor, Kohler’s lifelong interest in Elizabethan women writers took her to a Waukegan, Illinois, bookseller. There she found and purchased an original edition of Mary Wroth’s Urania, a seventeenth-century pastoral romance.
In 1989, Jo Roberts, a professor of English at Louisiana State University, was researching Wroth’s work for an upcoming book. Kohler agreed to let Roberts see her copy of Urania. “Imagine my surprise,” Roberts wrote, “as I turned over the leaves and saw Wroth’s own distinctive italic handwriting in the margins!” Five years later, Kohler mailed the book to Roberts with the inscription, “For Josephine Roberts, with love and gratitude, Charlotte Kohler.” A friend of Roberts said later that “Kohler had clearly recognized that Jo was the volume’s ideal possessor, and then had the generosity to act on her recognition.”
Roberts, like Kohler, was a native of Richmond. Perhaps, in Roberts, who was forty years her junior, Kohler saw a younger version of herself. When Roberts published her study of Wroth’s work in 1995, a year before her death in a car accident, the book was simply dedicated, “For Charlotte.” Roberts was only one of many writers touched by Kohler’s largesse.
An Oasis of Southern kultur
In 1925, when U.Va. 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 famous founder, Thomas Jefferson.
Alderman’s invocation of Poe and Jefferson not only connected 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, serious 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. Filling the fledgling journal’s pages with works by outstanding regional authors might prove difficult, if not impossible.
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 William Faulkner, Eudora Welty, Zora Neale Hurston, Flannery O’Connor, and James Agee.
Works by the the Agrarian writers at Vanderbilt University—Robert Penn Warren, Allen Tate, John Crowe Ransom, and Cleanth Brooks—appeared in 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 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, VQR published what 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 authors and critics published by Kohler in the journal. Former U.Va. history professor Edward Ayers, in a 2000 essay in VQR, considered the journal’s 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 twentieth century.”
Pound, Vonnegut, and the Geriatrics
Despite its hospitable treatment of Southern writing, VQR was not intended to be 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.” 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 VQR. As she said in 1962 in a Times-Dispatch interview, “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 VQR. Pound told a Times Dispatch reporter 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.” But on his way out of town Pound did leave Kohler his “Canto 99” to publish.
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Kohler believed that 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 were 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.” She 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 , there was a run of stories dealing with geriatrics for some reason.”
Kohler was firm in her judgments. Those manuscripts she deemed not up to VQR’s standards were marked 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 she liked, she would happily pass it on to a third party to end the stalemate.
Kohler’s dry sense of humor was evident in her approach to some submissions. In 1975, she told a Times-Dispatch reporter about 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.”
Part of what distinguished Kohler’s editorial excellence was her ability to spot rare talent. John Berryman had submitted poems to her predecessor several times that were later published in lesser publications. But in 1948, she reached out to him 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.”
Kohler ended up publishing eleven of Berryman’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Dream Songs in the Quarterly.
Nurturing Young Talent
Throughout her career, Kohler demonstrated a capacity for nurturing writers who had not yet made a name for themselves. 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 VQR. “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 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, 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 thirty-three-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.
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 politely but firmly declined most invitations.
In what is, so far, her last interview, she spoke with University historian Charles “Chick” Moran at her home in Charlottesville in June 1975. Moran recorded the interview (the tape of it is now housed in the U.Va. Library). 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 Kohler have lilting Southside Virginia accents that soften Rs and make a “hoce” of a “house.” Moran has 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, and miles away from the point.
The interview reveals Kohler’s dry sense of humor. She recalls that 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 recalls 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. 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 says 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 unusual talent to dig through the piles of submissions and unearth the gems. By taking creative risks and showing an unerring instinct for top-quality writing, Kohler helped to shape not simply VQR itself but, indeed, the American literary landscape of the mid-twentieth century and beyond.