Literary Present

Ford Madox Ford, Caroline Gordon, Judith Biala and others at Benfolly. Courtesy of Cornell University

Benfolly, a home on the Cumberland River where Allen Tate lived with his wife Caroline Gordon, was a retreat for such writers as Robert Lowell and Ford Madox Ford (pictured) in the summer of 1937. Photo from Ford Madox Ford collection, #4605, box 97, folder 28. Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections, Cornell University Library.

Initial Cap convention among literary scholars is the use of the literary present. “Tate writes,” it is said of the American poet of the mid-20th century, rather than “Tate wrote,” even if the writing in question was over 50 years ago. Literature is ever-fresh, ever-present, experienced every time as if for the first time, which in part explains the fascination Dan Boeckman, C’82, has had with Southern literature.  

“I’ve been collecting these books forever and until yesterday,” says Boeckman, who in January completed a gift of rare books to the University Archives in honor of his old friend and mentor, Tam Carlson, C’63. Boeckman had been planning to make this gift to Sewanee for several years, and on becoming a regent, he thought the time was now.

According to a summary description, the Tam Carlson Collection of Southern Literature is “1,250 volumes and related material, including a near complete collection of the first American editions of all the Fugitive poets and Agrarian essayist works. Almost all copies are signed and there are numerous notable association copies, review copies, anthologies, limited editions, broadsides,  proofs, letters, contracts, fair copies, ephemera, and a few manuscripts. In addition the collection contains similar works of students, friends, other contemporary Southern authors, and significant Southern women authors.”

That description belies the obvious joy that the collection and collecting has meant to Boeckman. Each book has a story, and Boeckman knows all of them. A case in point: he has traced the career of Robert Lowell across time and geography, from Lowell’s native Massachusetts to Tennessee, where he spent a summer with Allen Tate at an antebellum home called Benfolly on the Cumberland River, to Kenyon College, where he studied with John Crowe Ransom and lived with Randall Jarrell and Peter Taylor. The writings of all these authors are in the collection.

Lowell’s sojourn at Benfolly has become part of the lore of Southern literature. He appeared one day without notice, having been sent by Merrill Moore, a Fugitive poet and mentor at Harvard who told him to go to Tennessee to learn to write. In an attempt to discourage the young enthusiast, Tate told Lowell he could stay if he pitched a tent. Lowell refused to take the hint and went to Sears, Roebuck and purchased one. The house was full of writers, including Ford Madox Ford and his lover Janice Biala, the painter. According to Boeckman, Andrew Lytle drove in with chickens and turkeys for the party, and Lowell spent the summer in Tennessee achieving the inspiration for which his Harvard mentor had hoped.

The Carlson Collection gathers books and manuscripts connected to that story, and the living history of other Southern writers, a testament to Professor Carlson’s ability to connect his former student to the subject matter. “Putting this collection together took many years,” Boeckman says. “I was really inspired to do this by Tam, who was my professor and friend. I was fortunate enough to know many of the authors I collected, and many of them had connections with Sewanee.”

In addition to this literary present, Boeckman and his family have made a commitment to the University of a lead gift toward a renovation and reconfiguration of duPont Library.

April 2015 marked the 50th anniversary of Sewanee’s duPont Library. Opened on April 3, 1965, the library has provided excellent resources and study experiences for several generations of students. But after half a century, the library is ready for a makeover, and the Boeckman family is more than willing to help make that possible.

An English major at Sewanee who went on to complete an MFA in creative writing at Columbia University, Boeckman spent ample time in duPont Library as a student. He recounts the library he knew as having a “warm feeling,” and he claimed that it was “more of a hub for socializing and studying than it is now,” an opinion he developed when he attended its anniversary celebration last April. Boeckman describes the current library as “old and tired-looking and in need of help.”

Boeckman recognizes that as modern technology increases, “getting books off the shelf is not going to be occurring the way it used to.” As a result, he envisions duPont Library’s future not only as being “a great place to hang out and study,” but also a place in which students “can do things digitally and more efficiently.”

A project team has been working on plans for a library renovation and hired an architect to hasten the project along. Vicki Sells, associate provost for information technology and University librarian, is excited about a new learning commons on the main floor, featuring a help center as well as access to databases and academic technology. “While we want to bring the library up to date, we definitely still want to preserve some of its original feel and tradition,” she says.

Boeckman and his family have provided a lead gift to the library renovation for a project that will cost about $4 million. “The Boeckmans have given us a great start,” notes Jay Fisher, vice-president for advancement. “We would love for others to step up and finish the project.”

The planned renovation is the second major renovation in the library’s history. The first in the 1990s created the Academic Technology Center, which put computers in the hands of Sewanee students and helped faculty learn how to use the technology in their classes. Three Rhodes Scholars have passed through the Academic Technology Center, as have numerous Watson Fellows and Fulbright Scholars. “When the ATC was established, a minority of students came to college with their own computers,” says Sells. “Now virtually all of them do. Whereas the focus at the creation of the ATC was on technology access, today the challenge is interconnectivity, collaboration, quantitative reasoning, spatial analysis, and development of 21st-century skills.”

Sells and DebbieLee Landi, director of University Archives and Special Collections, are grateful both for the monetary gift and the gift of books. “The Boeckmans are really helping us think clearly about the future of the library,” says Sells, “and at the same time, they are giving us a gift that uniquely celebrates the past.”

For information on making a gift to the renovation of duPont Library, contact Terri Williams at or 1.800.367.1179.

Photo from Ford Madox Ford collection, #4605, box 97, folder 28. Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections, Cornell University Library.