While working on a critical history of The Kenyon Review, an investigation of the letters of Isabella Gardner — a gifted but somewhat forgotten poet of the mid-20th century — brought Dutch scholar Marian Janssen to Washington University Libraries’ Isabella Gardner Papers. The Isabella Gardner Papers are housed in the Libraries’ Special Collections.
Janssen returns to WUSTL to discuss her biography of Gardner, titled Not at All What One Is Used To: The Life and Times of Isabella Gardner, at 4 p.m. Friday, April 29, in Olin Library’s Ginkgo Reading Room. Free and open to the public, the event will include a lecture as well as a brief audio recording of Gardner reading her poetry, with a reception following.
“We’re very pleased to welcome Ms. Janssen back to the libraries,” says Anne Posega, head of Special Collections. “The book is terrific, and we are always excited to see the new scholarship that is created using our collections. The Isabella Gardner Papers are a perfect example of the sort of rich resources we can provide.”
Isabella Gardner is the niece of famous Boston arts patron Isabella Stewart Gardner, whose name still adorns a Boston art museum.
Isabella Gardner’s biography, published in December 2010 by the University of Missouri Press, has received strong reviews, with critics praising Janssen’s “perfect pitch” writing and calling the book “an intimate examination of this charming, intriguing, largely self-educated woman who either was sidelined by the paternal bias of the day or sabotaged her own gifts.”
In answering Janssen’s own questions about the poet, Not at All What One Is Used To opens for readers a window into the tumultuous life of a complex figure as well as the complicated mid-century America in which she lived.
In a 1962 issue of The Sewanee Review, one critic of Gardner’s day praised what he called “the feeling content” of her poetry and particularly her handling of grief and pain in her elegies. Those poems pinpoint a kind of guilt, he wrote, “guilt for the continued, unearned, gratuitous gift of life — which is so gratuitously denied those who in each case are grieved for.”
Over the course of her career, Gardner was nominated for significant literary awards. These included two nominations for the National Book Award, with her first book of poetry, Birthdays from the Ocean (1955), deemed second only to work by W.H. Auden. Karl Shapiro, the editor of Poetry during Gardner’s own tenure there as associate editor, described her second volume, The Looking Glass (1961), as deserving of the Pulitzer Prize. Her third volume, That Was Then, was nominated for the 1980 American Book Award, and in 1981 she was named the first recipient of the New York State Walt Whitman Citation of Merit for Poetry.
Janssen is head of the International Office at Radboud University Nijmegen in the Netherlands and also is the author of The Kenyon Review: 1939-1970: A Critical History.
For more information, call the Department of Special Collections at (314) 935-5495.