After winter, famously, spring: it was perhaps in such a spirit that The Nation devoted five pages of its April 12, 1919, issue to “The Pick of the Spring Books.” The redirection of natural and intellectual resources to World War I—not to mention the Sedition Act’s criminalization of “disloyal, profane, scurrilous, or abusive language about the form of the Government of the United States”—had slackened the operations of healthy discourse during the war years, and The Nation, newly under the editorship of the crusading liberal Oswald Garrison Villard, was eager to participate in the regeneration of one. Though published as a merely promotional service and not a critical endeavor, the list, which would appear every year through 1933, is nonetheless an intriguing window onto an era: “The American Language. By H.L. Mencken. Knopf. $4.”
In 1950, The Nation published its first issue specifically devoted to “Spring Books.” It positively, if not surprisingly, screams 1950, in everything from its subjects to its reviewers to its poetry to its advertisements, but much of it also speaks to interests and concerns still with us today.
To lead things off, the splendidly named poet and critic Rolfe Humphries began a two-part essay on what was wrong with writers’ conferences. It seems curiously relevant in 2014, amid endless debate over Iowa, the MFA/NYC etc. “Too many of those who come,” Humphries scowled, “list their achievements, in the Conference Who’s Who, as ‘Housewife; interests general,’ or point with pride to their little book of verse, called ‘Flinging Piquant Whimsies,’ published by one of the more notorious vanity houses.
Too many are borderline psychopathic cases, whether deteriorating or convalescent; too many are not really serious about going to the trouble it takes to become writers. Too few have talent. Too many scheme in advance, doting on it later, for the opportunity of calling a writer by his first name, and getting his intimate inscription on the flyleaf of a book they will never read…. University administrations, and the Department of English, are coldly tolerant, or secretly hostile and suspicious; towns resent the intrusion of the invaders of Bohemia, whose private lives are probably not all they should be. The specter of economic determinism rears its ugly head…
But all that said, Humphries argued that those faults “lie on the surface; the virtues are deeper down.”
At a Writers’ Conference the writer is brought together, in a social way, with his function. The primary function of a writer is, of course, to write. A solitary and lonesome business; we sometimes tend, I think to make it a secret and furtive one. Writers are imperfectly gregarious: they need to, and do, meet other people, as often as not at literary parties. They need to, and do, talk shop with each other. But in all this there is something a little defensive, a little exclusive; the sociability is that of the occupants of a beleaguered city, or—this is exaggerating—that of the inmates of the cells of the condemned. There is the danger that inhabitants of cells, in order not to think of themselves as the condemned, will think of themselves as the elect: so we get cenacles, cults, coteries. What a Writers’ Conference does is offer the writer, in however limited and temporary a fashion, a community, where he has a position of responsibility, where he has status and dignity.
As for the central and still hotly debated question of whether it is possible to teach someone to write, Humphries was ambivalent, claiming he had “always maintained that no, of course, they could not, it would be arrogant to make such assumptions.” But he seemed to have moderated that position more recently, saying that with the right combination of “a little talent,” confidence in the teacher, and the teacher’s own ability, it would happen: “These requirements met, my word for it, you will get from your students work that will surpass anything they have done before, will surprise and delight student and teacher alike.” The jury assigned to that question, however, remains out, haggard and graying in its quarters.