Charlotte Kohler, the sixth and longest serving editor of VQR, passed away this week—one day shy of her 100th birthday. She held the editor’s chair from 1942 through 1975, helming the journal confidently from the dark days after the bombing of Pearl Harbor through the fall of Saigon.
Kohler studiously avoided the spotlight, but she deserves to be remembered as one of the most important journal editors not only of her own time but of the entire 20th century. She brought the titans of literature to the pages of VQR—writers like Robert Frost, Pablo Neruda, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Eudora Welty—but, more importantly, she had an uncanny eye for major new talent. She was the first American editor to take a chance on Nadine Gordimer (who went on to receive the Nobel Prize), the first to publish Adrienne Rich and Hayden Carruth, both of whom went on to win National Book Awards, and she was an early supporter of George Garrett, Reynolds Price, and Wallace Stegner.
She was also an incredibly courageous editor. In 1945, she featured drawings by Diego Rivera when he was seen by many in the United States as too pro-Communist, but she also published Ezra Pound in 1958 at a time when he had only narrowly escaped hanging for treason for his pro-Fascist leanings. (Of Pound’s “Canto 99,” VQR board member Thomas Abernethy wrote: “If this is poetry, God save the arts!” But Kohler published it anyway.)
And she never lost her touch. For the 50th anniversary issue, published in 1975 right before Kohler retired, she assembled a virtual who’s-who of literature—Cleanth Brooks, Hayden Carruth, Richard Eberhart, Donald Hall, Howard Nemerov, Reynolds Price, William Stafford, Allen Tate, Peter Taylor, Robert Penn Warren, C. Vann Woodward. For more than three decades, she was one of the best—maybe even the best. None of us now employed at VQR had the pleasure of knowing Ms. Kohler, but we work every day to honor the high standard she set.
Update: The New York Times has posted a longer obituary.