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OBITUARIES : Charlotte Kohler, 1908 - 2008

Editor cultivated distinguished writers for Virginia journal

October 07, 2008|Matt Schudel | The Washington Post

Charlotte Kohler, who helped shape the path of literature as the longtime editor of the small but influential Virginia Quarterly Review, died Sept. 15 of congestive heart failure at her home in Charlottesville, Va. She was 99 and died one day before her 100th birthday.

Kohler joined the literary journal, published at the University of Virginia, in 1942 as managing editor. University President John Newcomb had announced that he wanted a "war-proof" editor -- a woman, in other words -- to keep the publication running while its top editor was away during World War II.

Kohler led the quarterly through the war years and was given the title of editor in 1946. In her 33 years at the review, she continued its historical role as a champion of Southern letters, publishing works by Eudora Welty, James Dickey, Reynolds Price, Allen Tate and Peter Taylor.

But she also gave the journal an international profile, soliciting work from French writers Albert Camus and Jean-Paul Sartre, Chilean poet Pablo Neruda and Mexican artist Diego Rivera. Kohler also was the first U.S. editor to publish South African writer Nadine Gordimer, who later won the Nobel Prize for literature.

"She was indeed one of the great literary journal editors in this country, ever, in her taste and her ability to attract outstanding contributors," said David Lee Rubin, a University of Virginia professor emeritus of French whose association with the quarterly dates to 1970.

After her predecessor turned down several poems by John Berryman, Kohler wrote to the poet, saying "how pleased we would be if at some time you'd give us the opportunity of reading and considering some."

She published 11 poems from Berryman's "77 Dream Songs" collection, which won the Pulitzer Prize.

In 1958, she received an offer from poet Ezra Pound, who had just been released from years of confinement at St. Elizabeths Hospital in Washington, to write a regular column for the review. Pound said he could stay in a stable at Monticello, Thomas Jefferson's historic home outside Charlottesville.

"All I'd need is a stove and a cot," he wrote.

She turned down his offer but agreed to publish some of his poems.

Charlotte Kohler was born Sept. 16, 1908, in Richmond and was a 1929 graduate of Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, N.Y. She moved to Europe, thinking "I was going to be the Great American Writer," according to a profile published this year on the "UVa Today" website.

When that plan didn't work out, she enrolled at the University of Virginia as a graduate student -- women were not allowed as undergraduates until 1970 -- and received a master's degree in English in 1933.

In 1936, she was the first woman at the university selected to the Phi Beta Kappa honor society, and she was among the first women to receive a doctorate. Her dissertation was on female writers of the Elizabethan period.

Kohler was rejected for a teaching job at Mary Baldwin College in Staunton, Va., because she was known to smoke and drink. She taught at the Woman's College of the University of North Carolina (now the University of North Carolina at Greensboro) before returning to Charlottesville and the Virginia Quarterly Review.

During her years at the review, she approved every aspect of the publication, from design and assignments to the selection of first-time book reviewers.

She eagerly sifted through an estimated 90,000 manuscripts during her tenure and once said, "Every mail is like Christmas."

She retired in 1975 after publishing the review's 50th anniversary issue. Her successor as editor, Staige Blackford, said: "Following Charlotte was like following Queen Victoria to the throne."

Kohler taught in the university's English department for four years, then retired to a genteel, somewhat reclusive life of reading and thinking.

She was known to cite long passages of poetry and to quote ancient Greek.

"Throughout her life, books and the written word were more important than relationships," said her goddaughter, Lindsey Truitt, one of the few people to see Kohler much in recent years. "But right up to the end, she was quietly connected to the world."

There are no immediate survivors.

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