The literary climate in Texas for the first half of this century was one of masculine domination; and yet, one woman in particular, because of her unusual talent and determination, was able to go above this atmosphere to become the foremost poet in the South. By the time of her death in 1960, Karle Wilson Baker was known both statewide and nationally as one of Texas' most talented writers of poetry, essays, and fiction. The forces that were not able to suppress her success in her lifetime were able, unfortunately, to bring about the "fall from memory" later of this very talented writer. The problem is two-fold. Male writers in Texas had a history of not making room for or encouraging female writers. Only after she was established nationally, did Karle Wilson Baker gain the respect of many male writers and publishers in Texas. Later, when the description of the Texas literary scene appeared in textbooks, once again men determined the point of view and the emphasis was always placed on male authors as the "literary giants" of the day often ignoring or giving little attention to female writers. Karle Wilson Baker overcame the "odds" in a male dominated literary environment to be recognized on a national stage outside their reach. Today, national readers need to become reacquainted with this poet.
Karle Wilson Baker received more recognition and honors than any other female poet in Texas did in the twentieth century. She was a charter member of the prestigious Texas Institute of Letters, the Poetry Society of Texas, and the Philosophical Society of Texas. Only the third person to be named a Fellow of the Texas Institute of Letters, she followed J. Frank Dobie and Walter Prescott Webb in that honor. The exacting and highly respected Yale University Press, Blue Smoke (1919) and Burning Bush (1922) published her first two books of poetry. Indeed, she was the best known and most frequently anthologized poet from Texas in her lifetime. Baker received an honorary Doctor of Letters from Southern Methodist University in 1924 because of her widely recognized talent. In 1929, Dr. A. J. Armstrong, Chairman of English at Baylor University, wrote to Mrs. Baker asking her to introduce Edna St. Vincent Millay at a program at Baylor. He wrote, I conceived the idea that it would he nice to have the greatest of Texas' poets introduce the greatest woman poet in the world." The Southwest Press published a third book of collected poems, Dreamers on Horseback, (193 1), which was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. How did a female poet from Texas reach such heights of fame? Between 19 14 and 1920, a shy, retiring, but talented young woman from Nacogdoches, Texas, became the most frequent contributor to the prestigious journal, The Yale Review. Because of the recognition she received from The Yale Review, Karle Wilson Baker became one of the most famous poets in the South. This article is a double tribute to Karle Wilson Baker, Texas poet, and to Wilbur Cross, editor of the Yale Review, who gave her the exposure and opportunities that brought her national fame.
The unconventional publishing initiative of The Yale Review in the early years of this century and the remarkable talent of one of the Review's earliest and most prolific contributors combine to demonstrate how an editor's encouragement and advice can move a talented but unknown writer into the national spotlight. Wilbur L. Cross conceived the creation of The Yale Review in 1911, as a national quarterly devoted not only to literature, the fine arts, science, and philosophy, but also to current issues of import to all citizens interested in the economic, social, and political life of the country. The new editor exhibited courage and creativity when he took risks and published famous authors in the same issues with writers who were not yet established. Also, he challenged the publishing industry in yet another way when he willingly supported and published works by female writers and writers who lived in places other than the East Coast. These initiatives persisted in spite of the fact that wartime restrictions on paper and publishing meant that editors had to be highly selective.
Karle Wilson Baker, born in 1878, in Little Rock, Arkansas, attended the University of Chicago before she moved in 1900 to a small town in East Texas, Nacogdoches. Prior to her move, she had lived in larger towns and cities. The move to a village was met with both positive and negative results. She was attracted to the natural beauty of her surroundings, the fascinating history of an old frontier town, and the local citizens-one whom she married. On the other hand, as a writer she was away from other writers, culture and education found in cities, or people who might help her in her writing. She published her first poem in Harper's in 1903, and in the next year or so she published short stories as well as poetry in national magazines such as Century Scribner's, and the Atlantic Monthly
Poetry came naturally to her, and the case of writing is reflected in her verse. A diary entry in 19 17 expresses her feelings: 'Writing my poems is seldom more laborious than skimming the cream from my thoughts. It just needs time and quiet to rise." Later, after much success as a poet, she wondered if it did not come too easily. Oddly, her notion that writing should be more difficult was one of her motivations for turning to writing novels, which often was more difficult for her. Her poetic styles include the lyric, sonnet, narrative, and ode. She had a strong sense of imagery and of figures of speech, especially metaphor. A study of Baker's poetry reveals the wide range of interests that occupied her writings. Her subject matter was always influenced by her personal life. The early poems focus on family, religion, and nature, followed by contemporary concerns and the role of women; the later poems reveal her life-long interest in Texas history. Regardless of the subject matter, however, she goes beyond the specific to a larger lesson. Her verse is misinterpreted when she is labeled merely as a local colorist or regionalist. Careful reading of her poetry supports the evidence of universal themes, which she herself recognized in her work. diary entry when she was seventy-seven years old verifies this statement: "Throughout my life I have had one theme: the universal set in the common place, the essence piercing the husk -- at first instinctively and graspingly, next confusedly, now freely and in the light."
Without question, her national reputation as a writer was established by her poetry. The real breakthrough came for Baker when the Yale Review published "A Group of Sonnets" in October 1914. This issue included two previously unpublished poems by Robert Browning and four sonnets by Karle Wilson Baker. The Yale Review carried a national distinction that would create respect for Karle Wilson. Baker in the literary world in America. A regional press or popular magazine could not have achieved the same results for her. Upon receiving the sonnets, the assistant editor, Edward Bliss Reed, wrote enthusiastically to Baker: 'This is the first time I have had the pleasure of seeing anything of your work, and I should be glad to read anything you may wish to submit." Reed also added, 'Will you kindly send me a few items about yourself, for we always publish brief information about our contributors. Baker responded:
As to myself, I am a Southerner born and bred and -- with exception of about two years spent at the University of Chicago, where I studied English Composition under Robert Herrick & Wm. Vaughn Moody-A have lived all my life in the South.... I am Mrs. Thomas E. Baker, and I have a husband of my own and a small son and daughter. I am a 'self-made author'. . . Perhaps a dozen published stories and some fifty poems in various magazines constitute my title to a right to exist.
Very sincerely yours,
Karle Wilson Baker
Baker had published some fifty poems in a variety of magazines including the Atlantic, Harper's Magazine, and Scribner's, but she was still not well known nationally. By nature she was retiring and modest, yet senior editor Wilbur L. Cross fueled her ambition and creativity by enthusiastically supporting most of the poems she sent to the Review. Along with his assistant editor, Helen McAfee, he offered both criticism and encouragement to Baker. Letters from
Wilbur Cross reflect how he felt toward the newly discovered poet. Comments such as, "We like every one of your poems" and "let me see more of your poems" testify to the high regard with which she was held. Karle Wilson Baker published some twenty-six poems with the Review in a six-year period. Cross was interested enough to take the time to offer critical suggestions to Baker. His skillful, conscientious editing and pride of craftsmanship helped her improve her poems. "At the Picture-Show," which would appear in the October 19 15 issue, is an example of a poem that benefited from of his editing skills. Karle Wilson Baker had never before received this kind of support from an editor.
October 22, 1914
My dear Mrs. Baker:
I like very much your poem "At the Picture-Show," and will publish it in the course of the year. In this kind of verse, of course, you intend to come at times rather close to prose. I think that you reach the point in "Out of the fragments; that is plain to see." Again, "with damask cheek' is rather stale. If you wish to look over the poem again, we should like to send it to you. Otherwise, it will go to the printer as it is. On the whole, the poem seems to me one of the best that I have seen in the new style.
Very truly yours
W. L. Cross
Later correspondence indicates that Baker welcomed Wilbur Cross's recommendations.
January 12, 1915
My dear Mrs. Baker:
I thank you for returning "At the Picture-Show," with the changes, all of which seem to me to be for the better. I do not see any "weak spots" in it as it stands, though the repetition of all in the two lines—Through all her wholesome days; but when, at night, They all go voyaging across the screen"—troubles me a little. What do you say to making a change here? ...
Very truly yours,
W. L. Cross
About two weeks later, editor and author reached an agreement:
January 27, 1915
My dear Mrs. Baker:
I think your emendation of "They all go voyaging" to "They go a-voyaging" a very good way out of the difficulty, and will have the poem set up as it now stands. It seems to me perfectly clear.
Very truly yours,
W. L. Cross
By accepting Cross's advice, Baker produced an improved poem. Advice from other people, however, was rare for Karle Wilson. Baker. After all, she was writing in a rural area of East Texas, far removed from sophisticated editors, writers, or others who could read her work astutely or with whom she might even discuss her work. Writing in her diary in 1934, Baker comments that in her youth she had felt a great desire which she describes as a "famine-like craving for association with other writers, "if they were right for me." Wilbur Cross met this qualification, and she welcomed his editorial skills. One the other hand, she wrote that "much contact with would-be writers, the members of authors' clubs, even the 'little great "fills me with a deep impatience approaching disgust, and does me more harm than good." She was very much aware that she was working alone and that seeking outside help from just anyone would not prove beneficial.
Rarely were her early poems and short stories published in Texas. Not only was the climate male-oriented, but also the more important and influential journals were located in the North. However, in 19 15, she submitted "Poet's Song," to the Texas Review ' and the editor, Stark Young, called it the best of the poems in the Review. Also in 19 15, Baker published "The Housemother" in the much-admired journal, Poetry: A Magazine of Verse, edited by Harriet Monroe. During these exciting years of early publication, Karle Wilson Baker found her verse published in journals and magazines throughout the country.
The year 1916 was an especially good one for Karle Wilson Baker at Yale Review. Seven of her poems were published in the October issue. On November 22, 1915, Cross had written to Baker: 'We like every one of the poems which you have let us see, and are keeping "A Little Boy's Bath," "A Clear Night," and "The Family.". . I wish that you would let me see some more of your poems in the course of a month or two. Perhaps additions might be made to the group." The poem, "A Clear Night," reflects Baker's use of metaphor and imagery:
I have worn this day as a fretting,
Impatient to be rid of it.
And lo, as I drew it off over my shoulders
This jewel caught in my hair.
Again Cross wrote enthusiastically to Baker: "I am delighted with the poems which you sent in, and am keeping the following: 'Wild Geese"; "Stillness"; "The Rain-Pool."; and "Apple and Rose." They seem best adapted to my use. . . ." Wilbur Cross designated the seven poems that appeared in the October 1916 Yale Review as 'A Group of Lyrics." Subject matter for the lyrics "A Clear Night," "Stillness," "Wild Geese," "Street Doves," "The Family," "A Little Boy's Bath," and "Apple and Rose," focused on nature and domestic life, natural themes for a woman living in a rural area with a young family. "Apple and Rose" is a gentle dedication to her two children:
My little daughter is a tea-rose,
Satin to the touch,
Wine to the lips, And a faint, delirious perfume.
But my little son
Is a June apple,
Firm and cool,
And scornful of too much sweetness,
But full of tang and flavor
And better than bread to the hungry.
O wild winds, and clumsy, pilfering bees,
With the whole world to be wanton in,
Will you not spare my little tea-rose?
And O ruthless blind creatures,
Who lay eggs of evil at the core of life,
Pass by my one red apple,
That is so firm and sound!
Wilbur Cross continued to press Karle Wilson Baker for more poems. By 1918, Baker was well established as one of the best female poets in the South. Her poetry was appearing in highly regarded national journals. In February of that year, Wilbur Cross admonished Karle Wilson Baker for sending some poems elsewhere. He wrote, "You say that you have formed the habit of thinking of The Yale Review first. I hope that you will not lose the habit."
In 19 18, when Karle Wilson Baker was preparing a book of her collected poems for publication, it was only natural that she turn to Wilbur Cross for advice. By this time, Cross and Baker were on very amicable terms; many of the poems in her collection had already been published by The Yale Review. He encouraged her to submit her poems to the Yale University Press. Doubtless, Wilbur Cross's introductions helped to pave the way for Baker at the university's press. As a result, Yale University Press published her first two books of poems, Blue Smoke (1919) and Burning Bush (1922). It also published a children's book, Garden of the Plynck (1920) and a book of fables, Old Coins (1923). A letter from the editor at Yale University Press expresses the approval by the Press of her talent, describes the hardships of the University Press during wartime, and explains the exacting nature of the Press as a part of the University.
April 22, 1918
My Dear Mrs. Baker:
Your letter of April 9th to Mr. Cross has been referred to the Yale University Press. I find that I am tempted to do something which we had decided not to do and that is, consider another volume of poetry. We had fairly definitely decided not to bring out any poetry until 1919 as our lists have been rather overbalanced on this side. I will, however, esteem it a favor if you let us examine your manuscript.... The Press would not be able to promise a speedy publication . .since publishing conditions are very uncertain owing to the war. The Government may at any time cut off our full supply of paper and the manufacturers of book cloths are becoming nothing less than brigands in the attacks that they make upon our financial resources.
I shall await your answer with much interest, and hope that even without the promise of speedy publication, you will be willing to allow us to examine your work. . . . I must tell you that everything submitted to us has to go to the Council's committee on Publications of Yale University; and that we are not allowed to bring out anything without their permission....
Very sincerely yours,
(Mrs. George P. Day) for Yale University Press
As a result, Yale University Press published her first book of poems, Blue Smoke, in 1919. In the October 1920 issue of Yale Review, Edward Bliss Reed reviewed Blue Smoke:
Blue Smoke, a volume whose very form is a delight, will place its author in the foremost ranks of our lyric poets. In every page there is distinction, a power of suggestion, an emotion deep in its restraint, clear in its freedom from the blight of sentimentality.... this, poet gives only her best. Her style is simple, vivid, . . . there is perfect ease in all the beauty of these songs... To find much in little, to hold the world in a grain of sand, to see where two worlds meet, is, in part, the endowment of a poet, and Karle Wilson Baker possesses it.
Reed recognized Baker's simplicity of style and her ability to find the universal in the particular.
The publication by Yale University Press combined with the publications in the Yale Review, placed Karle Wilson Baker in a larger arena than any other poet in Texas at the time. Blue Smoke, however, was only the beginning of the poetic output that established her reputation across the nation. Further national recognition came in 1921, when a tribute to Karle Wilson Baker appeared in the Library of Southern Literature, submitted by the Texas writer, Dorothy Scarborough: Karle Wilson Baker is an author of whom the south may well be proud... she is an authentic poet ... worthy to stand beside Sara Teasdale and Edna St. Vincent Millay in the "essential fire" of her poetic thought and the tooled beauty of its form.
That same year, Baker wrote to Mr. W. S. Lewis, the editor at Yale University Press, of her hopes that they would publish a second book of her collected poems. Yale University Press published Burning Bu in 1922. The Yale Review and Yale University Press launched the poet onto the national scene, but her continued success came because of her talent and hard work.
Baker was always interested in being a "modern" or "new" woman with a career and the ability to earn an independent income. When a new college was founded in her home town of Nacogdoches, she agreed to teach Contemporary Poetry. Married women were not allowed as part of the faculty at the college, but an exception was made for Karle Wilson Baker. The college president at Stephen F. Austin State Teachers College bent that rule and asked her to be on the faculty because her nation reputation as a poet brought recognition to the young college. She taught at the college until 1934. Never receiving an earned university degree, she took courses both at Columbia University and at the University of California at Berkeley (on leave from SFASTC) to strengthen her own education. The fact that her name sounded like that of a man sometimes presented a problem. An amusing anecdote has come from a time in her life when she had already become a national literary figure. During 1926-1927, Baker attended the University of California at Berkeley where she enrolled in a class of Contemporary Poetry. The story goes that the professor in the class read a poem and then proceeded to explain to the class what the poet intended. He did not realize that Karle Wilson Baker, his student, was the author because he thought the poet was male. After he spoke at some length about the poem, Baker raised her hand, identified herself as the poet, and gave the real meaning she had intended in the poem!
The national attention Baker was receiving from her publications brought invitations to speak on college and university campuses across Texas. In the spring of 1929, Baker was invited to an out-of-state campus to speak: prestigious Wellesley College in Massachusetts. Katherine Lee Bates, president of Wellesley and the author of "America the Beautiful," had asked her to come for their annual speakers day, an important day on campus when a noted writer was invited to lecture. Baker's national recognition as a poet brought about the invitation. The speaking engagement included an unexpected, additional opportunity for Baker. Katherine Lee Bates had been scheduled to speak at the Boston Author's Club, but due to illness, she asked Baker to speak in her stead. Such an opportunity for a Texas poet was rare indeed.
An important change associated with her writing occurred when Baker began to turn to a subject that would interest her in both poetry and prose for the remainder of her writing career. A poem pivotal to her career, "Song of the Forerunners," had won first prize at a poetry contest sponsored by Southern Methodist University in 1922. It was about the men and women who dreamed and made Texas. Much of Baker's writing that followed focused on Texas and its fascinating history. Harriet Monroe remarked about the award in an issue of Poetry: "John Hall Wheelock, gave first place to Karle Wilson Baker's 'Song of the Fore-runners,' and probably the state of Texas will endorse his verdict by remembering it longest." Her national reputation firmly established, Baker turned to her adopted state for the subjects of her verse. With this change, Baker entered the realm usually written about by possessive male writers in Texas. There is little evidence of established male writers offering a helping hand or encouraging Baker to write on Texas topics, but she was befriended and encouraged by friends in the academic community, both male and female.
As Baker wrote more about her state and its history, she collected the poems for another book, Dreamers on Horseback. Southwest Press published this collection in 1931. "Song of the Forerunners" and "Within the Alamo" are two well-known poems from this collection. The latter poem begins with a prose statement explaining the situation at the Alamo just before Santa Anna's final attack when Col. William B. Travis allegedly drew a line on the floor with his sword-point and asked that every man who was ready to die with him cross over to his side. The ballad ends:
But as long as there travails
A Spirit in man,
In a war that was ancient
Before Time began,
Here will the brave come
To read a high Word -- cut clean in the dust
By the stroke of a sword.
Baker had a true affinity for her adopted Texas. Speaking through her poetry, she brought recognition to the state in a manner that had never occurred before. Ten years had passed since Dorothy Scarborough's high praise of Baker as a poet worthy to stand beside Sara Teasdale and Edna St. Vincent Millay, and Baker's poetry had continued to be first rate. She had moved from the personal lyric to historical narratives maintaining the poignancy reflected in her earliest works. Publishing in Texas and about Texas was restrictive, however, to her national fame, but after Coward-McCann published her first novel (about Texas) in 1937, she regained a position on the national publishing scene. Always self-analytical, she admitted in a public speech that she owed all her national recognition to her poetry. 1t began to come to me as a curious surprise that whatever recognition I had managed to achieve was as a poet. I had gone on writing poetry because life had to be expressed." Her reputation as Texas' most famous poet brought many invitations for speaking engagements in the 1930s and 1940s. On November 26, 1932, she was a luncheon speaker at the National Council of Teachers of English Meeting in Memphis, Tennessee.
The question remains: Why has the Texas poet most frequently anthologized in the first part of the century fallen from memory in recent years? It is not difficult to prove that an "ole boys club" existed in Texas literary circles until recent years. Karle Wilson Baker gained recognition in her lifetime in spite of "the club" led by the Texas folklorist, J. Frank Dobie. After her death, the prevailing masculine climate continued to cloud the importance of female writers in the state for many years. However, the emphasis in this article is on the making of a Texas poet rather than on the suppression of one—that is another article. Thanks to Wilbur Cross's insight and daring and the liberal nature of the Yale Review at the time, Karle Wilson Baker made her mark.
A final triumph for Baker came eight years before her death. In 1952, she was named a Fellow in the Texas Institute of Letters. She was the third Fellow named (after the literary roosters, J. Frank Dobie and Walter Prescott Webb). She is the only woman to hold this rare, coveted title in Texas Letters. Due to her national importance, men of letters have had to accept Karle Wilson Baker's talents and recognize her as the best poet in Texas in the first half of this century. Even though she had known great acclaim as an honorary Doctor of Letters and as a nominee for the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry, she considered the most cherished accolade of her life to be named a Fellow of the Texas Institute of Letters, July 18, 1952. Baker was one of the founders of the Texas Institute of Letters in 1936, and a charter member of the Institute. For her acceptance address, Baker chose to read two poems to follow a short expression of gratitude:
I want to thank you from my heart for the honor of being made a fellow of the Institute.... It was a lonely and innocent thing to be a so-called "Texas writer" when some of us began. The dew was not so heavy upon us in 1936, but we would have gasped at the signs and portents erupting every day upon the Texas Literary Front in 1952.... For myself, thinking of these things, of old friends present and absent, of the kindness you have shown to me and of the future, I am offering you my final word in a sort of gift package.... I am reading you two brief lyrics- -companion pieces in a way."
She then read the poems, "Pause of the Year" and "High Summer."
At the time of her death in 1960, no other poet from Texas had received the recognition or honors that had been bestowed on Karle Wilson Baker. The recognition Baker received from the prestigious Yale Review and Yale University Press established her reputation across the nation, but her great talent ensured her steady climb toward fame. Always proud of her early association with the Yale Review, she never forgot her indebtedness to Wilbur L. Cross and the Review's progressive publishing philosophy that allowed a shy woman from Texas the opportunity to sing her poetry on a national stage and launch a writing career of nearly five decades. Trusting in her own ability, Karle Wilson Baker set herself apart in a literary world in Texas dominated by men and established a national reputation few Texas writers have enjoyed in this century. Her determination and creative capacity are best described in "The Tree" from Blue Smoke:
My life is a tree,
Yoke-fellow of the earth,
By roots too deep for remembrance,
To stand hard against the storm
To fill my Place.
(But high in the branches of my
green tree there is a wild bird singing:
Wind-free are the wings of my bird:
she hath built no mortal nest.)