Looking for William Blackburn's Legacy

After moving into the former home of the legendary English professor, an aspiring novelist rediscovers her inspiration.
October 20, 2016

The lovely white brick cottage, one block from campus, with a rose garden out front and firethorn twining a filigree against the chimney, looked like a house where Jane Austen might live—perfect for an aspiring novelist. Every time I drove past I couldn’t help but let escape a sigh of longing and recognition: One day this would be my home; I just knew it. So, four summers ago, when my husband and I heard through the grapevine that 713 Anderson Street soon would be on the market, we made our offer.

The house proved to be as old-fashioned and charming on the inside as outside. Its layout—built-in bookshelves everywhere, cozy reading nooks, writing rooms with a view—and provenance seemed particularly auspicious. Built in 1928 for William Blackburn, the legendary Duke English professor who taught celebrated novelists Reynolds Price ’55 and Anne Tyler ’61 and poets Fred Chappell ’61 and James Applewhite ’58, A.M. ’60, Ph.D. ’69, among many others, the home had been the scene of countless gatherings with Blackburn’s students. To think, William Styron ’47 had sat right there in my living room. Surely the house’s walls were charged with writerly energies that would spur me to finish the two books I’d been working on.

I set up shop in the professor’s old bedroom— a garret-like space joined by a spiral staircase to his study downstairs. Day after day I would sit at the keyboard, waiting for the words to come. Nothing. Or worse, I could write—and write and write—only to find one untenable flaw after another. I would begin again, slowly losing heart with each new attempt.

But when it came to other people’s work, the creative energy flowed effortlessly. I organized writing retreats, edited novels, cajoled friends and colleagues through massive rewrites, talked them through agent woes and publishing contracts. It was as though I’d become a modern-day reincarnation of Blackburn, the perpetual teacher, editor, enthusiastic first reader. It was a role I enjoyed, but I had hoped to be more like one of Blackburn’s prolific students. I wanted my own words, my own stories, to make their way into the world.

So I did what any blocked writer does—I procrastinated, diving into a deep research rabbit hole. I pored over every word of Alex Blackburn’s well-researched and poignant memoir about his father, Meet the Professor, read memoirs by Price plus biographies of Styron. I tracked down former students, colleagues, and family members to ask for their recollections. As I buried myself for days at a time in Duke’s David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library, paging through Blackburn’s personal letters and course materials, newspaper clippings, and records of the English department, I began to wonder what had become of his legacy at Duke. At one time he was an important character in the narrative of the university’s history, but was William M. Blackburn still a familiar name on campus?

A young, gangly, and newly engaged Blackburn arrived at Duke in 1926 when West Campus was still a construction site (some might say it still is), at the invitation of President Preston Few. He served the school through the Roaring Twenties, the Great Depression, World War II, and the advent of the civil rights movement and flower power. Like a James Bonk or a Pelham Wilder, he was an iconic presence on campus, inspiring countless anecdotes as well as the slavish devotion of former students. Outside the university, he was hailed as the archetypical academic, so much so that ABC featured him on one of its “Meet the Professor” episodes in 1963.

By the time I arrived at Duke as an undergraduate in the early ’80s, I knew his name only from the Blackburn Literary Festival, a marquee campus event that had drawn luminaries from around the world—Tennessee Williams, Robert Lowell, Joseph Heller, Saul Bellow, Margaret Atwood, Joyce Carol Oates, Maya Angelou, Elizabeth Bishop, John Irving, James Baldwin, the list goes on—for readings, discussion, and critiques. Curious about how the event fared today, I googled “Blackburn Literary Festival” and was whisked to The Archive website and a page describing how Blackburn helped conceive and launch the annual festival, and how grateful student editors renamed it in his honor in 1969.

But as I scrolled through the results, I noticed that in 2006 the festival dropped the Blackburn name, becoming the Archive Literary Festival. After that, the professor’s name was attached to the festival some years and not others, until this past spring when the editors settled upon calling it the Archive Lit Fest.

I got in touch with The Archive to find out why Blackburn’s name was fading in and out of view. The adviser in Student Affairs said that he and the current editors weren’t aware the name had changed or even who Blackburn was. As well-meaning and eager as they all were, somewhere along the way, the second-old-est student-run literary magazine in the nation had lost a sense of its history and tradition. All they had left was a folder with records of venues, budgets, and the name of an agent to call to book a festival speaker. While the professor continues to be remembered through an undergraduate scholarship for students interested in writing or prose, and a visiting writer fund, his name had been erased from his most visible legacy. It was a poignant reminder that legacy depends more on institutional keepers of the flame than on the inherent worth or original contributions of the honored.

During his decades-long tenure, Blackburn built an undergraduate creative-writing program that established his reputation at home and abroad as one of the top instructors of fiction writing of his time. In 1965, the London Times Literary Supplement singled him out as one of the rare individuals with the necessary “combination of critical acumen and charisma” to lead young writers to success. By then, the Blackburn student family tree included Pulitzer Prize-winning novelists, influential New York editors, celebrated poets, critics, and professors of literature, who have in turn inspired the next generation of writers and teachers.

It was a remarkable development. When Blackburn first arrived on campus, fresh from a Rhodes scholarship at Oxford University, he was just one of a bustling corps of freshman-comp instructors hired to accommodate the rapidly growing student body at the newly named Duke University. He was not a published author, a résumé hole that would have disqualified him from teaching at most current-day university writing programs. He had not studied the modern American novel or short story. His field was Elizabethan and seventeenth-century British poetry; his doctoral dissertation was on the work of Victorian poet and cultural critic Matthew Arnold. What’s more, he claimed that creative writing could not be taught. In fact, he abhorred the term, saying that it was too “high hat.” He much preferred that his yearlong writing seminar, English 103-104, be called “Advanced Composition.”

He stumbled into his role of writing guru by mere happenstance. Inspired by his time at Oxford, he believed he had a moral imperative to provide his students with a strong humanist education, and that required teaching them to read deeply and with enthusiasm. In those first years at Duke, he chafed against the directive to adhere rigidly to Edwin C. Woolley’s grammar workbook, which was used in comp classes, and bristled at the moribund topics assigned for essays. He came up with his own, more intriguing, writing prompts. “I’m for trying to give them a sense of style, a sense of strong workmanship in paragraph construction, a feeling for words,” he wrote in a letter to his then-fiancée, Elizabeth Cheney Bayne. Rather than ask his pupils to expound on the qualities of a gentleman, for example, he asked them to write about night sounds. The results delighted him. “Given a subject which fits in more or less with the experiences of all, the themes as a whole show an amazing improvement.”

A few years later, when one of his comp classes begged to write short stories instead of essays, he acquiesced. Conscientious educator that he was, he studied the composition of fiction, and by 1932 he found himself in charge of an upper-level seminar on the writing of fiction and poetry. He continued to teach classes on seventeenth-century literature, but he most notably held the position as lead creative-writing professor at Duke until he retired in 1969. (Blackburn’s successor was his protégé Reynolds Price, who continued the tradition until his death in 2011.)

As his classes gained popularity, so did his mystique. Novelist Josephine Humphreys ’67 remembers being “in awe of Dr. Blackburn long before I laid eyes on him,” thanks to the frequent references by Price, her freshman-composition professor. She says she “envisioned a great, gloomy, tragic genius of enormous wit and intellect, a man of sorrow, unfairly treated by the university, beloved by everyone else.” And that is whom she found.

Blackburn often vented to anyone who would listen about that unfair treatment, convinced for his first three decades at Duke that the “Philistines,” as he called the higher-ups in the English department, were going to sack him at any minute. For an up-and-coming department in an ambitious young university, scholarly achievement trumped exemplary teaching. And Blackburn accurately felt his contributions were undervalued. As one of his colleagues sniffed in an unpublished history of the English department, Blackburn offered “convincing evidence that his forte was not scholarship but man-to-man tutorial work with neophytes.”

Those neophytes—including Styron, Duke’s first Pulitzer Prize winner—would have been shocked by such dismissiveness. To them, Blackburn was almost a deity. Humphreys recalls how the women in her dorm would cry when they didn’t get into his class: “No other teacher’s name was heard more often in the Jarvis House rooms, sometimes with love, sometimes with fear, often with both.”

Considering the literary accolades his students won and his reputation as a genius of writing instruction, I expected to come across some glittering, quotable Blackburnian advice on craft in his papers. The particularities of the writing process held little interest for him. His secret for guiding so many writers to greatness was Chroniembedded in his style and sensibility, his passion for the canon and the power of his eloquence.

Former students and colleagues recalled a masterful performer who looked the part of the distracted professor: a tall, bulky man, usually rumpled, with a large, handsome head, a high forehead, and glasses perched on his prominent nose. Duke English professor emeritus, poet, and former Blackburn student James Applewhite likens his countenance to Carson, the butler from Downton Abbey. Although he was serious, often melancholy, and had the air of a disapproving clergyman hanging about him, Blackburn also possessed a rich, sardonic sense of humor. Described as charismatic, yet also taciturn and overly sensitive, he was as famous for his deep baritone laugh as his stentorian sighs.

He possessed the voice of an Anglican archbishop—soft and gravelly, with a cultured Southern accent—that could mesmerize. (How cruel that at the end of his life, cancer robbed him of it.) And his powers of recall were extraordinary. Oliver Ferguson, also an English professor emeritus, remembers observing a Blackburn lecture to all the freshman-composition students. Blackburn arrived thirty minutes early, scribbling phrases in what seemed to be random order on all three blackboards. He then collapsed into his chair and stared off at some mid-distance, in a trance of sorts, not once looking up as hundreds of freshmen filed into the hall. At the appointed hour, Blackburn stood and delivered a full lecture on Joseph Conrad without consulting any of his notes. But as the professor talked, Ferguson saw the snippets of information on the blackboards slowly merge into a coherent, brilliant whole.

Blackburn presided over his own classroom with a similar theatrical air. His stage was a former storeroom on the third floor of the East Duke Building that he transformed into a shabby version of the don’s rooms he remembered at Oxford, filling it with pictures, rugs, books, and a large table in the center. A prominent place was given to an ancient samovar, which he used to prepare steaming cups of tea for his student writers during the break in his two-hour seminar.

Students sometimes would find Blackburn reading at the seminar table before class, so rapt that he would not acknowledge their presence. Intimidated, they too would sit down in silence. When all were assembled, the professor at last would look up, close his book with his notorious sigh, and recite with reverence, sometimes tears springing to his eyes, a poem by an English lord from the time of Queen Elizabeth, somehow making it feel immediate, relevant. Styron called this talent “that subtle, ineffable, magnetically appealing quality—a kind of invisible rapture— which caused students to respond with like rapture to the fresh and wondrous new world he was trying to reveal to them.”

He made his students feel that their work—their study of literature, their attempts to create literature—was profound and meaningful. “He never taught writing merely as writing,” wrote former North Carolina poet laureate Fred Chappell. “He taught writing as literature, as part of a civilized discourse that always had been and always would be going on. When you wrote a story, no matter how naïve or clumsy, he made you feel that you had contributed to that great conversation.”

Blackburn fostered a sense of belonging and community for his young writers, welcoming them to a larger literary tradition at Duke. Whether he was leading poetry readings in the Nelson Music Room, or arranging a shared picnic for Duke and UNC students, he created places where young authors could come together and be among their own. Former students remember fondly his spaghetti dinners, where he would fiddle with the pot of sauce for hours, adding spices, stirring, fretting, until at last the hungry, exasperated crowd would demand to be served. He loved to share his recordings of classical music at home gatherings, and he often enforced an uncomfortable concert-hall silence as Bach, Mozart, and Schubert’s Trout Quintet spun on the gramophone. Later in life, when he became a fan of jazz and blues, he loosened up a bit.

Like a proud father, he would point to the pictures of his published students on his classroom walls and urge his current undergraduates to emulate them. Those students would return to campus as speakers and to pay homage to their old mentor. Others returned as faculty members—notably Price and Applewhite—quite conscious of continuing in the Blackburn humanist legacy, to encourage and nurture new generations of writers, editors, teachers.

Long after his students had graduated, Blackburn remained a generous mentor, helping them find agents, jobs, even housing. And he continued to be a trusted first reader of their works in progress. In turn, they learned how to pay it forward by becoming sympathetic readers for their peers. “In a way, you can’t be a writer until you find someone who can see what you can do, what you’re capable of,” remarked the poet and novelist Robert Morgan at the 2003 Blackburn Literary Festival. Morgan’s own first reader is a Blackburn acolyte, Chappell.

In The Archive, Blackburn’s students found another outpost of community. Here, Styron published his first stories, and Robert Loomis ’49 built his editing chops before going on to a celebrated fifty-year career at Random House. Clay Felker ’51 toiled in the offices of The Archive (as well as The Chronicle), long before taking the helm at Esquire and The Village Voice and cofounding New York magazine.

Although the student magazine had a storied past, it was often under fire from faculty and other students, who argued that the content was too juvenile, not polished enough. For Blackburn this criticism underscored the very purpose of the publication: He believed students should not be judged by professional standards; after all, they were learning. As The Archive’s champion, he not only defended it from its critics but also advised the student editors and published three anthologies of its work.

“A college literary magazine cannot possibly be Life or like the Saturday Evening Post,” he wrote in a 1959 memo arguing for more support from the English department. “Its object is to publish the best literary and artistic efforts of undergraduates, which is another way of saying that the Archive is limited in its appeal and always will be. Of all the student activities it is the most subtle and less immediate in its results, requiring faith and patience, imagination and insight.” The purpose of a student literary journal, Blackburn maintained, was not to showcase exemplary writing so much as it was to give beginning writers “courage.”

At the same time Blackburn was urging administrators to have patience and writers to take courage, he was working to connect the literary community he had built on campus to the larger literary world. In 1959, the magazine’s student editors, along with Blackburn, invited distinguished alumni, notable faculty, and local and acclaimed writers—Styron and Price, Randall Jarrell, Doris Betts, Mac Hyman ’47, Helen Bevington, Frances Gray Patton ’26, and Peter Taylor—to hold readings and to sit on panels to review student work. And thus the Archive/Blackburn Literary Festival was launched.

One afternoon, while panning for more Blackburn treasure in the library, I came across a tidbit that suggested the professor and I shared more than his former house. Campus lore held that he was a tragically blocked writer. Styron was convinced that was the case: “[His] very rare ability to make his students feel, to fall in love with a poem or poet, came from his own real depth of feeling and perhaps, from his own unrequited love, for I am sure he was an unfulfilled writer or poet too.”

As poetic as it sounded, I could find no evidence that Blackburn ever considered himself an unfulfilled, unrequited writer. I discovered no unpublished works of fiction, no notebook of poems, not even a verse scribbled on a cocktail napkin. And there was nothing in his correspondence to indicate that he aspired to be a writer. Teaching was his vocation, his great passion, his life’s work.

Still, I believe that Styron might have been right—that his mentor sheltered a hidden creative longing. Blackburn’s relatively scarce academic publishing credits—mostly limited to anthologies and annotations of other people’s texts, and a small book on Duke’s architecture—and the fact that it took him thirteen years to write his doctoral thesis suggest that he struggled with putting his own words onto the page. And it is true that Blackburn did not write with the fluidity and grace that he so expertly coaxed from his students. As Price wrote in his memoir Ardent Spirits, “[Blackburn’s] own prose was stamped by the hulking awkwardness of his tall stout body.”

I found, though, that in his letters and editorial notes to students, Blackburn’s personality and wry sense of humor came through. Here he was not striving to “perform” writing, to create something perfect, something that was worthy to take its place next to the work of John Donne, or Joseph Conrad, or Edmund Spenser. His best writing came when he was only trying to communicate, to connect with his reader—just as his most inspired teaching flowed from his desire to connect literature’s past generations to today’s readers. I can’t help but wonder what Blackburn might have produced if only he’d had a Professor Blackburn of his own to guide him—a first reader as generous and sympathetic, judicious yet encouraging.

I can attest to the power of that encouragement for writers of all ages, at all stages in their development. I came to Duke a decade after Blackburn had retired. Too cowed to enroll in one of Price’s vaunted writing classes, my senior year I somehow got up the nerve to write a short story and submit it to The Archive. It was my first effort, and written in one long night under the bracing influences of Gauloises and a six-pack of Heineken. Still, it somehow made its way into the spring issue. Emboldened by that tiny stamp of validation, I eschewed law school and went into publishing, first as an editor, later as a writer.

Now, forty years after Blackburn’s death, I find myself working in the professor’s old bedroom and study, writing fiction again. I never had the good fortune to sit at the conference table in Blackburn’s workshop, sipping tea from cracked china and sweating my turn with the other anxious young writers, but I’ve been taking lessons from the legendary writing teacher nonetheless. He’s taught me the values of faith and patience, imagination and insight—those same qualities he so passionately advocated for The Archive. Blackburn conveniently provided me a way to avoid writing—I was doing research, wasn’t I? Then, with a small, knowing sigh, he gently led me back.

Schoenfeld ’84 is an editor, educator, and writer in Durham who is back at work on a novel for children. She was previously director of Vanderbilt University’s Programs for Talented Youth before earning an M.F.A. in writing for children and young adults.