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James Baker Hall
A Conversation

This interview with James Baker Hall was conducted by KET’s Guy Mendes, producer/director of Living by Words, on November 28, 2001.


Guy | Let’s begin by telling me your name and where you’re from.

Jim | Well, I’m James Baker Hall, and I was born in Lexington in 1935. I went to school at Ashland Grade School, Morton Junior High School, Henry Clay High School, and [the University of Kentucky]. And I didn’t leave Lexington, in fact, until I got out of school, ’til I got out of college.

Guy | Boy, you just went right through those Chevy Chase schools and Morton Mustangs. I remember when you got—on Tates Creek Pike—“James Baker Hall and Morton Mustangs.”

Jim | Yeah, yeah, yeah. You were the one who told me about that, Guy—that there was a sign up on Tates Creek Pike that said something about it. And I went out there to look for it, but I couldn’t find it. It was only on one side of the marquee, right? And I drove out and it was on the ... driving-in side. But I knew it was there. Other people told me it was there.

Guy | Jim, if you would, tell me about growing up. Were there books in your household? Did you want to be a writer when you were 5 years old?

Jim | No, no, no. I didn’t know what a writer was when I was 5 years old, or 10, or 15. There weren’t any books in my house. I think probably there were some Reader’s Digest condensed novels. And my sister insists that she was a reader. But if there were books in the house, I didn’t see them, and I didn’t have any contact with them. Didn’t have any contact with any books, really, until I got to college.

Guy | In high school?

Jim | I read a little bit of what I had to read in English, right? And in order to get through. But no.

I got a buzz off of Edgar Allan Poe when I was a junior or senior in high school. And that meant something to me. I remember writing an imitation Edgar Allan Poe poem when I was in high school. But there was nothing that I could do with it, you know. I mean, I was an athlete, an all-sports athlete at Henry Clay. I may have given the poem to my English teacher. That would have been the only thing, I’m sure, that I could have imagined doing with it. But that was the end of that; it went nowhere.

And I didn’t get a connection with literature until I was, I think, a freshman, maybe a second-semester freshman at UK, when I had an Introduction to Literature class with Hollis Summers and read The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock by T.S. Eliot, and it really changed my life. And this conversation, the words that I’m speaking now, are a distant echo of that experience. It changed my life. It was an enchantment, the likes of which I had never had before. Put me in contact with a part of my mind that I didn’t know was there, which was starved for connection and attention. And once I got connected with it and started paying attention to it, it was overwhelmingly powerful. And it was a long, long rush.

Guy | Well, talk about, as you entered ... your expectations upon entering UK. What were they?

photo of James Baker Hall as a teenager Jim | My father tried to get me an appointment to Annapolis or West Point and couldn’t do it. He was a military man. And when I didn’t get an appointment to West Point or to Annapolis, I came to UK. The only thing that I could imagine at that time—that my heritage had prepared me to imagine—was being in the military, a businessman, or a lawyer. And I don’t know what I thought I was going to major in. Maybe I had no idea. I wanted in ROTC, in Air ROTC. I wanted to get into pilot training. And when I couldn’t get into pilot training, I couldn’t get in for several reasons. One, they gave you a test to determine whether or not you could tell whether the plane was flying straight or backwards or upside-down and whatnot, and I couldn’t tell whether I was flying upside-down or right-side-up or this way or that way, and that was a problem if you wanted to be a pilot, right? And I also had asthma or hay fever, the residue of hay fever, which disqualified one from flight training.

So I didn’t get in ROTC. And I had been taken over by this enchantment, by this experience which led me ... this experience with poetry which led me to Faulkner and Hemingway and Franz Kline and Jackson Pollock and Rothko and the painters and Gauguin and Van Gogh and Bach, Monet. And I got completely taken over by art. And I packed my bags and went to Paris when I was 20 years old with my paper-route money. I had no French, had little enough money, I knew nobody; I was 5,000 miles away from anybody I knew. And completely delighted to be where I was, doing what I was doing, which was going to one museum and another museum and to art galleries, sitting in the cafés in Paris. I went to language school for about five days, but I got so far behind that I quit that. I stayed in Paris for the summer. And then I came back, and by that time I wanted to be a writer. I wanted to be an artist, and writing seemed to be the thing that was most immediately in front of me.

Guy | You mentioned it was T.S. Eliot’s form, but that it was Hollis Summers, the teacher ...

Jim | Yes.

Guy | ... so it was something of each of them, I imagine?

Jim | Hollis Summers was an important teacher to me early on. And his class in Introduction to Literature obviously was very important to me. Maybe ... I don’t remember how important Hollis was. What Hollis did that I remember very clearly is he got me connected with The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, which led me to the rest of Eliot’s work and to Ezra Pound and to Wallace Stevens and to these painters. And then it was all under its own full sail at that point. Hollis was a very, very dear man and a very, very good classroom teacher.

Guy | Were you encountering others of like mind at this point? You know, were Wendell [Berry] and Ed [McClanahan] around?

Jim | Yes. I had ... Hollis was a writer, a poet and a novelist. And he taught, basically, creative writing. And I went from the Introduction to Literature class with him, I think, into a series of writing workshops that he taught. And if I’m remembering correctly, the first writing workshop that I was in, Wendell was in. And certainly other workshops that I was in, Wendell Berry was in.

photo of James Baker Hall Ed came later, and Gurney [Norman] came after. But we were all at one time or another, in the short period, editors of the literary magazine at UK. And we all knew one another and had a lot to do with one another, and Wendell and I became very fast friends—hung out together all the time. I visited him in Henry County, stayed with his family for weekends. We went coon hunting, we went on the river, we did all kinds of things apart from exchange manuscripts, which was probably our deepest and most lasting connection, writing. We were bonded early on by being young writers together.

Gurney came later, Bobbie Ann [Mason] came later, Ed came later. I knew all of them. We all had, also, not just the common bond of our writerly ambitions forming at that time, but a teacher who was transforming to all of us: Robert Hazel, who came to UK from New York, young, 30-year-old, an editor from McGraw Hill, I think it was, who had published a number of poems and a novel—two novels, actually. And he came in Hollis Summers’ absence to teach Hollis’ writing courses for one year and stayed on for six. He transformed our lives. I speak for myself, obviously, and should speak for myself only, but I know that he transformed Wendell’s life and Gurney’s life and Ed’s life and Bobbie Ann’s.

It wasn’t in the classroom; he was not a classroom teacher. Nothing happened in the classroom that was of any interest to any of us, that was of any importance—well, I can’t speak for them—that was of any importance to me. But what happened was, he saw that we had something that interested him, and he took us into his life. We were welcome at his home. We went out to his home a lot. We hung around out there, together, with him and with his beautiful young wife. He cultivated our talents in the most profound and ongoing way as a friend, as an older man who was a friend, not ... Of course, he was a friend of our persons and our personalities. He was a friend of our prospects. He was a friend of our talents. He was a friend of what he saw that we might be able to do.

And the one thing that Robert insisted upon, that had an immediate and lasting effect on us all, was that we get out of Kentucky. We had to leave in order to escape the provincialism of our heritage. And what leaving Kentucky at that time meant, more often than not, if not all the time, was New York. So we went somewhere.

Hazel was such an important teacher and such a transforming presence, such a profound influence. One way of getting ahold of it in the public world is, we had, each of us—Wendell first, then Gurney and myself in the same year, and then Ed a year or two later—Stanford Stegner Writing Fellowships, which were very, very prestigious and competitive. No school in the country had that many writing fellows at Stanford. No school in the country had produced that many winners of that fellowship, and we had four right in a row, and Gurney and I in the same year.

So at Stanford, they thought that we had a real big writing program at UK. We didn’t. We had one teacher, really, basically, with two courses: a 200-level and a 500-level writing seminar, writing seminars. That was all we had. But we had Hazel.

Guy | You know, I’ve heard several people talk about him now, and still it’s hard to get a handle on what he had that ...

Jim | He was ... Yeah, it’s hard to get a handle on what Hazel had, Guy, because ... He’s a very ... He was; he’s dead ... He [was] a very, very good poet. He was not a good novelist, as far as I’m concerned. The novels weren’t even in the same class with his poetry. His poetry should last. Let’s hope that it does; it’s still in print now. Let’s hope that it remains in print. His novels ... I don’t know. I read them recently, and my opinion, which was never all that high, was not changed.

He had unlimited ambition as a writer, as an artist. He had shameless devotion to it, to unlimited ambition. He was charming, absolutely charming. He had the most beautiful wife. He had the most beautiful, vivacious, sexy wife there ever was. And he had a great desire to help young writers, to help young artists. He knew that he could do it. He knew what was involved. And I suppose I never saw any of this quite this way, but he had a particular connection with this part of the country. He was from southern Indiana; he thought of himself as a Hoosier ... He thought of himself as a country boy, and a country boy who had gone to New York and sort of made good and had these grand, worldly ambitions for himself as an artist. We’d never seen anything like that.

Guy | Yeah, well, I started this project and questioned myself as to what it was that made you all think that you could be writers in this world in a state that was very illiterate.

Jim | That made us believe that we could be writers? Well, it was Robert Hazel. And if there were two things, it was Robert Hazel and Robert Hazel, probably. I don’t, by any manner ... I don’t in any way want to ignore or minimize the influence of the literature we were reading. But the literature that we were reading—the poems and the stories and the writers that we were particularly and intensely connected with—were, in our imagination, shaped and delivered to us in person by Hazel. He made us think that the only worthy literary ambition was to write the next Wasteland, which is a crock, you know. I mean, it’s crazy. It’s full of foolishness and confusion. And it took us a while to get detached from that.

But he did. And I remember giving him manuscripts, poems that I was working on, and he would write in the margins, “Why?”—with a question mark, you know. “Why do this? Doesn’t have any ambition. It’s exercise.” You know, I can remember writing exercises, verse exercises, showing them to Bob, and he said, “Why’re you doing this? Why’re you doing this?”

And the spirit in which his mind as an artist lived and worked and thrived and was nourished and fed was transmitted to us. He knew ... He loved to call people by their first names. He knew a lot of ... He knew Phil Roth—he called [him] Phil. And Bill Styron, he called Bill. And he claimed to know a lot of people that he did or didn’t know by first name. And it was dazzling, it was dazzling. We had never, ever imagined living in that world. We didn’t know what it was.

Guy | So he made you think you could ... [made you] understand that you could be artists in the world?

Jim | Well, yes, but he made us think that we lived in that world, that we were ... that we were compatriots, that we were brothers, were William Styron and Phillip Roth. And they weren’t ... They weren’t in textbooks; they were in our conversation. Does this make any sense? They were in our conversations. And John Crowe Ransom, Allen Tate and Robert Penn Warren, and all of the Southern writers, and Frank O’Connor—they were our kin. They were our preceding generation or preceding two generations. They were where we came from. And it was not academic; it was nothing academic at all. It was one big family that he was the patriarch of. Am I making any sense?

Guy | Yeah, sure. I’m loath to stop you while you’re on a roll. So the classes ... Did you ... Would you read your work in classes, or ...

Jim | Yes, yes, we would read our work in class, and it would get responded to. And I tell you, I don’t remember any of that. I don’t remember any of that. Nothing happened in the classroom that was important. Some teachers operate in a very, very important way in a classroom. Some teachers operate only in the classroom. He didn’t, as far as I’m concerned. He operated completely outside the classroom. And you might say he would be better called a mentor than a teacher. He was our guide.

You know, one of the things I got out of The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock—I didn’t understand this until years and years, decades later—was that I got the understanding from that poem that I was on a journey and that I would encounter guides. And that the guides would see me through this, that, and something else, and they would disappear and be replaced by another guide. I didn’t understand that I was on a journey. But Robert was a guide. He took us by the hand and said, “Here’s what’s worth thinking about. Here’s what’s worth dreaming about. Here’s what’s worth your heart and soul.” And asked us to take it up. And we did.

Guy | Do you have pictures of him?

Jim | Yes.

Guy | Several?

Jim | Yes.

Guy | Where are they?

Jim | Yes. There’s one picture of Bob and Wendell on my grandmother’s front porch in A Spring-Fed Pond [a book of Jim’s photographs].

Guy | Let’s go on from UK to Stanford. Tell how that came about and what classes there were like.

Jim | I went to Stanford out of UK as a graduate student in English. I was the first one to get out there. And this was in 1957, in the fall of 1957, as a regular graduate student in English. I don’t remember exactly, but I think this is how it happened.

I became, then, aware of the Stegner Writing Fellowships, told Wendell, Wendell applied and got one, then he came out there. I stayed on for a while as a regular graduate student and then dropped out. And I dropped out because I had been telling myself for a long time that what I really wanted to do was to be a writer. And a lot of graduate students, many graduate students, most graduate students, were saying the same thing, and it began to sound like just a crock of shit to me. And I thought, you know, you either got to stop talking about it ... put up or shut up. And so I dropped out of graduate school and started to write. I had written as an undergraduate in these classes and all, but I hadn’t written any ... I hadn’t gone to the desk every morning. I hadn’t put it first. I had talked about it, wanting to put it first. So I dropped out of school and started writing, took writing to be my first order of business.

And then I applied for a Stegner Fellowship at Stanford. I was in Seattle at the time. I got one; I went back to Stanford. Gurney, from Kentucky, applied for one in the same year, and he got one. So we ended up there together. And then two years, I think it was, later, Ed McClanahan came.

Guy | It’s amazing.

Jim | Yeah, it is amazing. It is amazing.

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