As long as poet John Ciardi was in charge of the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference in the 1960s, John Williams and a dozen other regulars— almost entirely white male writers and poets— had a pleasant gig to look forward to in Middlebury, Vermont every summer.
But then the counterculture caught up with Ciardi and his happy crew and a putsch by younger staff changed everything.
Ciardi had attended Bread Loaf before World War II and almost every year thereafter beginning in 1947, making him “the conferences anchor in teaching poetry as surely as his deep baritone found a place in the evening sing-alongs,” wrote Howard Bain in his history of Bread Loaf, Whose Woods Are These? Ciardi’s weakness however was an “utter (sometimes dismaying) lack of modesty” about his financial success, despite coming from a poor Italian neighborhood in Boston’s North End neighborhood. Now the poetry editor of the Saturday Review and host of Accent, a weekly television magazine program, his proudest possession— the first poet in America to own one, he said— was a pink Cadillac DeVille, parked outside the Bread Loaf Inn.
Ciardi handpicked his faculty. He had definite ideas about who belonged at Bread Loaf: primarily middle-aged white males who were part of the literary establishment and given to looking like Oxford dons with sports jackets and briar pipes. And among them was a subset of staffers who called themselves the Good Guys— John Williams and fellow novelists Dan Wakefield and Harry Crews; poets Maxine Kumin, Miller Williams, and Robert Pack; and magazine journalist Brock Brower. They were a hard drinking clique and not everyone looked kindly on their revels, although the Beatnik-bohemian atmosphere at the conference had been growing stronger since the early 1960s.
The “torrid romance of 1963” was between forty-one-year-old novelist John Hawkes and twenty-eight-year-old Joan Didion, who had come to Bread Loaf on a fellowship. “‘They were like tragic teenagers,’ observed one Bread Loafer. ‘Two weeks left to live!’— before they had to go back to their respective lives.” A staff member suffered a nervous breakdown during Ciardi’s tenure as director. “God did not intend for all those writers to gather in one place at one time,” he warned from his hospital bed.
By August 1968, Bread Loaf crackled with tension and dissent. The earlier part of the year had seen the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Kennedy; civil rights demonstrations overlapped with anti-Vietnam War protests. The little summer camp for writing was not immune to feelings of restless and impatience with authority. There was also a change in belief about fiction writing among young attendees coming to Bread Loaf.
Three weeks before the start of the 1968 conference, Williams had received a memo addressed to the staff from William Sloane in which he tried to prepare instructors for a change of attitude among their students. Beginning the conference with “the old [Bernard] De Voto approach” of delivering a lecture about theory, “no longer impresses the young who approach writing with the belief that the reader owes them a hearing and that the reader is supposed to absorb the story or the material in such a manner and way as the artistic sensibilities of the writer determine.” In other words, the reader should have to work harder to understand the author’s meaning, instead of the author trying to court or please the reader.
John Williams believed he knew exactly what the problem was, looking back. “Anyone who could afford a ballpoint pen or a typewriter was allowed to think of himself as a poet or a novelist; talent and craft were suspect, more often than not described as ‘elitist,’ a curse-word of the period; and literacy was thought by many to be a species of corruption, a loss of innocence or a kind of damnation.” Schooled as he was in New Criticism, which emphasized the formal properties of literature, the idea that self-expression automatically deserved respect, regardless of its merits, was absolutely anathema to him.
However, he was right that the term “elitist” was being used to object to many things perceived as undemocratic at the conference, including how the staff and attendees were treated as separate but equal. Complaints were lodged with Ciardi over delaying dinner until the staffers were ready to arrive from cocktails at Treman Cottage, and then they were seated at their own “high table.” Why were cliques tolerated? A reference perhaps to the Good Guys and their privileges.
Ciardi, in his sonorous, baritone voice— like a captain in command speaking to a wayward crew— made it plain he didn’t want to hear any more grumbling about differences in rank. In a photograph taken in 1970, Ciardi— large, graying, bespectacled— is seen arguing with a longhaired young man who looks resentful. The issue could have been the war in Vietnam, but actually there was no one on the faculty who was defending it. Instead, the “rabble-rousing,” as Ciardi called it, stemmed from differences of opinion about the relationship between politics and art, and the responsibility of an artist during an unjust war.
When the axe finally fell on Ciardi as director of the conference, there was an air of inevitability about it. Complaints from attendees and a few younger instructors continued to reach the Middlebury College administration. Defiantly, Ciardi typed a letter of resignation and submitted it, undated, to the president of the Middlebury, adding, “When you want it to be time, just fill in the date and I’ll be gone.” It was time. The president called his bluff and accepted his resignation. Ciardi would be given the 1972 session as his last to run.
The person long expected to take over one day was Miller Williams, who “with his beard and glowing eyes beneath a shiny scalp looked as much like a poet as he did a necromancer.” But the line of succession had faltered during a bibulous dinner among the Good Guys. Miller drank too much on top of pain pills he was taking for his back, and wandered alone into the cavernous Vermont woods at night. Hours passed, and the police were called. The episode ruined his chances of taking over the helm.
The new director would be Robert Pack, instead. Even though he was one of the Good Guys, Pack was determined to recruit fresh blood. The criteria for choosing the staff would not depend on personal friendship or amiability, or how long they had been “up on the hill.” They would have to be good teachers and demonstrate respect for beginning writers, both published and unpublished.
John Williams had the requisite qualifications. “I was very fond of John,” Pack said. “He was a good teacher, a good raconteur and charming, but he had a drinking problem.” And that was the deciding factor— he was not among those invited back after 1972 for what would have been his seventh year.
John Williams: The Man Who Wrote the Perfect Novel will be published by Lebowski in the Netherlands in 2017.