We are honored and excited to announce this year’s recipients of the Emerging Writer Awards, which recognize emerging writers who possess exceptional talent and demonstrate potential for lasting literary careers. The winners will join us in Key West for the 2022 Seminar:

The Cecelia Joyce Johnson Award for a short story goes to Nishanth Injam; the Scotti Merrill Award for poetry goes to Lisa Beech Hartz; and the Marianne Russo Award for a novel-in-progress goes to Aimee LaBrie.

A jury made up of past award winners, KWLS board members, and staff reviewed hundreds of entries this year over the course of multiple rounds. The overall quality of the manuscripts submitted was extremely high, a testament to the fact that artists are survivors — and that we need your voices.

Program coordinator Katrin Schumann sat down via Zoom last week for a brief video interview (below) to introduce our winners and offer a peek into their lives and work. Congratulations to Nishanth, Lisa, and Aimee!

for a short story

Nishanth Injam is a fiction writer from Telangana, India. He has received an MFA from the University of Michigan’s Helen Zell Writers’ Program where he is currently a Zell fellow. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in VQR and The Georgia Review.

Our judge, Cecelia Johnson, said of Nishanth’s winning story: “The tenuous way they [the protagonists] relate to each other, their individual character and the portrayal of their relationship, becomes intensely and painfully real.”

for poetry—selected by Billy Collins

Lisa Beech Hartz directs and teaches through Seven Cities Writers Project which brings cost-free writing workshops to underserved communities. Her ekphrastic collection, The Goldfish Window (Grayson Books, 2018) explores the lives and work of visual artists. Her poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Crazyhorse, Beloit Poetry Journal, Poet Lore, The Gettysburg Review, The Massachusetts Review, and elsewhere.

In picking Lisa as the winner, Billy Collins wrote that he was moved by the almost “devotional” nature of her writing.

for a novel-in-progress

Aimee LaBrie’s short stories have appeared in Minnesota Review, Iron Horse Literary Journal, StoryQuarterly, The Cimarron Review, Pleiades, Beloit Fiction, Permafrost, and others. In 2020, her short story “Rage,” won first place in the Solstice Literary Magazine’s annual fiction contest. In 2007, her short story collection, Wonderful Girl, was awarded the Katherine Anne Porter Prize in Fiction and published in a small print run by the University of North Texas Press. Her short fiction has been nominated for three Pushcart Prizes. In 2012, she won first place in Zoetrope’s All-Story contest. Aimee works as a senior program administrator and lecturer of creative writing at Rutgers University’s Writers House.

Carol Balick, one of our judges, said of Aimee’s novel-in-progress: “Deceptively funny, the [excerpt] routes us through grievances of social inequalities with language that is uncluttered and powerful.”

Winners of the Emerging Writer Awards receive full tuition to the 2022 Seminar and Writers’ Workshop Program (January 6 – 14), round-trip airfare, full lodging support, a $500 honorarium, and the opportunity to appear on stage during the Seminar. We will begin accepting submissions for 2022 next spring.

Key West Literary Seminar’s board of directors has made the unanimous, sensible, and very sad decision to postpone “A Seminar Named Desire” for one year. It will now take place January 6–9, 2022. We are in the process of reconfirming the roster of presenters, and it appears that all will be able to join us for the new dates, along with others to be named later.

This will be the first January in nearly 40 years without the seminar. For many of us, it is the center around which the rest of the year turns. But it has become increasingly clear that it is not possible to hold the seminar during a pandemic, which, by all likelihood, will still be with us in January. It will be strange for the seminar not to be there — as so much about our lives is strange now.

As of now, the workshop program is still scheduled to take place in January. The smaller numbers of people involved leave us some room for optimism that it could be held safely come January, and we will continue to evaluate this over the next several weeks.

Read on for a personal letter from our president, Nancy Klingener.

Thank you for your support of the Seminar during this time, and always,

Arlo Haskell | Executive Director

A letter from our president, Nancy Klingener

I became president of the Key West Literary Seminar on January 19, after the end of this year’s program. The next day, the first case of COVID-19 was confirmed in the United States.

We’ve all learned a lot since then and many have suffered — and continue to suffer. Postponing our annual gathering is a relatively small sacrifice. It’s still painful.

The pandemic has forced me to consider what is essential in my life, and brought new appreciation for those who provide it. For us — the extended Key West Literary Seminar community — books are essential. They’re helping us get through, bringing us solace and escape, information and enlightenment. Long before air travel or the Internet, books took us almost anywhere in time and space. I would add bookstore and library staff to the essential workers on the front lines. We need to support them now, and also take care not to place them — or anyone — at any unnecessary risk.

That’s what a gathering of hundreds of people in a pandemic would be. A risk we cannot take with the community of writers and readers who create the Seminar every year. All of you, and your safety, are essential to us.

In January, every year until now, we connect — in person — with writers we have admired for decades and writers we are introduced to for the first time on our stage. With old friends and new arrivals. We can’t do that now. But we will be working hard to stay connected with you, through technology as new as the digital realm and as old as words on paper.

Please take care of yourself and the essential people around you. We’ll see you in person when it’s safe. Until then, we’ll keep reading, keep writing, keep working on our mission of fostering literary culture, connecting with the universe of letters from a tiny island at the end of the road.

Thank you for your essential part in that mission.


Nancy Klingener | President of the Board of Directors

Photo courtesy Florida Keys Public Libraries: Betty Suarez's third grade class, Reynolds Elementary School, 1965-66. Gift Lisa Suarez.
Photo courtesy Florida Keys Public Libraries: Betty Suarez's third grade class, Reynolds Elementary School, 1965-66. Gift Lisa Suarez.

It’s a joy to share with you the many recent achievements of our alumni, especially now. We hope you have found ways to keep your own creative growth and literary conversations going, despite the unprecedented events of the past few months. Read on for more …

Support local & independent booksellers! Purchase any book highlighted here from Books & Books @ The Studios of Key West and get a 20% discount. Use code “KWLS21” at checkout.

featured achievements

Alexandra Lopez-Nadal

Alexandra Lopez-Nadal’s undergraduate honors thesis, “Greatest National Treasure: Elizabeth Bishop’s Influence on James Merrill” (May 2019) is now available through the Florida Atlantic University Digital Library. “The KWLS audio archives—specifically Merrill’s contributions to the 1993 seminar dedicated to Bishop—inspired and shaped my work,” Lopez-Nadal says. Her essay on the same topic was recently published in the FAU Undergraduate Research Journal. (KWLS Intern 2017/ Manuel Gonzales 2018)

Sandra Jackson-Opoku received the inaugural Esteemed Artist Award in Literary Arts from the City of Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events for her novel-in-progress, Black Rice. These special new $10,000 grants are awarded to highly-qualified artists for expenses associated with an artist’s practice.

Jackson-Opoku’s first work of crime fiction, “She Loved Trouble,” appears in Both Sides: Stories from the Border, an anthology of original and riveting stories that tackle controversial border issues. (Workshop Financial Aid 2020/ Fernanda Eberstadt 2020)

Sandra Jackson-Opoku
James Brennan

James Brennan is a 2020 recipient of an Excellence Award and a Suanne Davis Roueche Faculty Conference Scholarship from the National Institute for Staff and Organizational Development (NISOD), a consortium of community and technical colleges committed to promoting and celebrating excellence in teaching, learning, and leadership. (Teacher & Librarian Scholarship 2018)

From her experience at the 2020 Key West Literary Seminar, “Reading Between the Lines: Sports & Literature,” Clarissa West-White created a reader’s advisory “LibGuide” on the confluence of sports and literature to assist faculty in selecting works to pique the interest of students. “The beauty of such guides is that they do not require much upkeep and additions can be inserted at any time,” she says about the variety of LibGuides she has created as a reference librarian and instructor at Bethune-Cookman University in Daytona Beach, Florida. (Teacher & Librarian Scholarship 2020)

Clarissa West-White


Glenn Frankel’s non-fiction book about New York at the dawn of gay liberation in the 1960s and the making of Midnight Cowboy has been accepted by Farrar, Straus and Giroux for publication in 2021 (working title: Shooting Midnight Cowboy: Art, Sex, Loneliness, Liberation, and the Making of a Dark Classic). Frankel researched the life of James Leo Herlihy, author of the novel Midnight Cowboy upon which the Academy Award-winning film was based, while he was a KWLS writer in residence in 2019.


Jeannette Brown’s novel The Illusion of Leaving was published in May by Texas Review Press. Set in West Texas, the book is a “coming of old-age” tale complete with betrayal, decades-old grudges, and inclement weather. (Fernanda Eberstadt 2020)

Daniel Fitzpatrick’s first novel, Only the Lover Sings, was released in March. It tells the story of a New Orleans family displaced by a hurricane and of the physical and spiritual harrowing they undergo in the storm’s wake. (Gregory Pardlo 2020)

Sharon Harrigan‘s novel Half (published this month by University of Wisconsin Press) grew out of the story by the same name that won the Cecilia Joyce Johnson Award in 2013. Publishers Weekly calls it “riveting and inventive, a cut above the average coming of age novel.” (Emerging Writer Award 2013/ Hilma Wolitzer 2013)

Diana Abu-Jaber‘s YA fantasy novel Silverworld was published in March by Crown/Random House. It’s the fantasy-adventure story of a Lebanese-American girl who finds the courage to save her grandmother. (Writer in Residence 2017 & 2018/ Faculty 2016/ Presenter 2011)

Dan Ornstein‘s new book, Cain v. Abel: A Jewish Courtroom Drama (Jewish Publication Society), invites readers of all backgrounds to enter the courtroom and take their seats as jurors at the trial for the world’s first murder. (Billy Collins 2015/ Madeline Blais 2014/ Mary Morris 2013)

Theodore Wheeler‘s second novel, In Our Other Lives, was published March 3. It’s a provocative story about abandoned faith, heartbreaking loss, and inescapable government surveillance in the heartland of a post-9/11 nation. Kirkus Reviews calls it “a compelling portrait.” (Emerging Writer Award 2014/ Mary Morris 2014/ Robert Stone 2012)


Beth Aviv‘s poem “Summer Light” was published in the Fall 2019 issue of the Bellevue Literary Review (Madison Smartt Bell 2018)

Ross Belot‘s book, Moving to Climate Change Hours, forthcoming from Wolsak & Wynn, is “… a beautiful, intimate, ambitious, moving book written by a poet of great skill and deep feeling.” –Matthew Zapruder. From industrial accidents to frozen highways, Belot charts what faces a working man in stripped-down lyric poetry. The first poem in the collection was written at KWLS. (Jane Hirshfield 2015)

Lorraine Cregar‘s poem “O Winter! My Winter!” was published in issue 11 of the Writers Circle journal. It’s a play on Walt Whitman’s “O Captain! My Captain!” and an elegy to the promise of winter’s relief from menopausal hot flashes. (Luis Alberto Urrea 2020)

Allison Hutchcraft‘s first poetry collection, Swale, was named 2019 Editor’s Choice by New Issues Poetry & Prose and is forthcoming in October. Poems from Swale have appeared in Boulevard, the Gettysburg ReviewKenyon Review, the Missouri Review, and the Southern Review, among others. (Jane Hirshfield 2015)

Catherine West Johnson was selected as a finalist for the 48th New Millennium Writing Award for poetry for her poem “Even the Sparrow,” which will be published in issue 29 of New Millennium Writings later this year. (Rowan Ricardo Phillips 2018)

Leatha Kendrick’s fifth collection of poems, And Luckier (Accents Publishing 2020), is “an unflinching and holistic look at our world,” says poet Kathleen Driskell. “[Her] work is complex and masterfully figurative, always allowing for two things to be said at once, two things to be true at once.” (Campbell McGrath 2016)

Ellen Birkett Morris‘s poem “Abide” was featured on the radio show and podcast A Way with WordsListen here. (Billy Collins 2010)

Andrew Shaffer has published his first poetry chapbook, Let’s See Them Poems. His poems are playful, hilarious, and accessible—three adjectives he didn’t associate with poetry until reading Billy Collins. Several of the poems were written during his KWLS residency last fall. (Writer in Residence 2019/ Daniel Menaker 2019)

Scott Brennan‘s first book of poems, Raft Made of Seagull feathers, was published in January (Main Street Rag Publishing). “Brennan combines a straightforward tone with an agile knack for associative hopping,” says Billy Collins. “The result is a debut collection bursting with smart, genial poems laced with surprises.” (Emerging Writer Award 2013/ Billy Collins 2013)


Drew Larimore’s short play Text Angel appeared as part of Planet Connections Theatre Company’s Dark Planet: Not Your Mother’s Valentine’s Day at the 14th Street Y in New York City in February. (Writer in Residence 2018 & 2019)

Kristine Mietzner’s play Reservations–the Cat and Dog Comedy premiered at Winters Theatre Company’s 10-Minute Play Festival in January. The play received an honorable mention in the category of “Best Comedic 1 Act” by the Avalonia 7 Theater Festival. (Teacher & Librarian Scholarship 2017/ Daniel Menaker 2018)


Pamela Gay’s memoir I’m So Glad You’re Here was published on May 26 by She Writes Press. Kirkus Reviews calls Gay “a perceptive and compassionate narrator who manages to explore the gaps in everyone’s stories, including her own.” (Dani Shapiro 2017/ Antonya Nelson 2016/ Madeleine Blais 2014)

Fraser Smith self-published his memoir, The Daily Miracle: A Memoir of Newspapering, a social and political history of the country and of the newspaper, in 2019. Smith credits Workshop Faculty Dan Menaker for suggesting the opening scene: in the Jersey Journal newsroom on the day of JFK’s assassination just weeks after Smith’s first day on the job. (Marie Myung-Ok Lee 2017/ Menaker 2016/ Paulette Alden 2015)

short stories & articles

Melissa Coleman’s article “The Book That Birthed the Back-to-the-Land Movement” in DownEast magazine was partially researched during her KWLS residency. Her book on the same topic is forthcoming. (Writer in Residence 2016 & 2018)

Faran Fagen has written several articles for the Palm Beach Post pertaining to COVID-19: a Delray Beach mom who makes masks for autism awarenessa YA author who’s promoting her fourth book online about a teen’s triumph over cerebral palsyteachers using plants to promote science online, and a local bookstore manager winning a literary award(Teacher & Librarian Scholarship 2020)

Leah Griesmann’s short story “Klondike” was published in issue 40 of the Worcester Review. Her essay “Helicopter Parenting, the College Admissions Scandal, and James M. Cain’s ‘Mildred Pierce’” was published in the Los Angeles Review of Books in January. (Jennine Capó Crucet 2017)

James Victor Jordan’s short story “Victims of Love” was published in the September 2019 issue of The Society of Misfit Stories(Madison Smartt Bell 2018)

Michael Adno’s work has appeared in the New York Timesthe Bitter SouthernerSurfer’s Journal, and Southern Living recently. (Writer in Residence 2018, 2019, & 2020)


Rebecca Dwight Bruff‘s historical novel, Trouble the Water (2019), was awarded first place in Adult Fiction and first place in Debut Author from the Feathered Quill Book Awards and was named winner in African American Fiction of the 2019 American Fiction Awards sponsored by American BookFest. (Workshop Financial Aid 2017/ Kate Moses 2017)

Esperanza Cintrón’s collection of short stories, Shades: Detroit Love Stories (Wayne State University Press), was chosen as a 2020 Michigan Notable Book and was a finalist in the short story category for the 2020 Midwest Book Awards. (Teacher & Librarian Scholarship 2018)

Kristine Simelda was voted “Dominican Literary Artist of the Year” in 2019. She was longlisted for the Commonwealth Short Story Prize in 2020. Her third YA novel Back to the River was published in 2019. She has work forthcoming in the Caribbean Writer and WomanSpeak. She is currently working on a memoir. (Workshop Financial Aid 2018/ Naomi Jackson 2018/ Lee Smith 2015)


In March, Program Coordinator Katrin Schumann released her second novel, This Terrible Beauty, which explores the collision of art, love, and power in post war East Germany. Schumann managed to sneak in a Key West launch and an event at the Key West Public Library just days before everything shut down.

Executive Director Arlo Haskell edited Harry Mathews’s Collected Poems: 1946-2016, which was published by Sand Paper Press in February. Mathews (1930-2017) was an editor of the Paris Review and former board member of KWLS. Haskell continues to research Key West’s history of Black political activism and white violence; he recently presented a lecture, “Invisible Island: Key West and the K.K.K., 1921-1926,” at the College of the Florida Keys.


Scott Brennan‘s photo essay “Framed Sculptures” was published in the Winter 2020 issue of Contexts, a publication of the American Sociological Association; an interview and selections from his photo essay “Drive” were the Art Feature in issue 43.2 of the Journal; and his “The Sacred and the Profane” photo essay was published in Columbia Journal in May. (Emerging Writer Award 2013/ Billy Collins 2013)

Daniel Fitzpatrick‘s new translation of Dante’s Divine Comedy will be released in three parts leading up to Italy’s Dantedì celebration in March 2021, which marks 700 years since Dante’s death. Each canto will be illustrated by sculptor Timothy Schmalz. Subscribers may donate to receive two cantos in their inboxes weekly, with proceeds going to Italian hospitals beset by Covid19. (Gregory Pardlo 2020)

in memoriam

We are sad to report the death of Kimarlee Nguyen, 2017 Teacher & Librarian Scholarship winner. She died of the novel coronavirus on April 5 at age 33. Read about her accomplishments in the New York Times obituary.

We love hearing from KWLS alumni! Keep us up to date by sending your latest news to [email protected].

Robert D. Richardson, 1934–2020. Photo by Curt Richter, 2009.

The Key West literary community lost one of its most brilliant and beloved members with the death of Robert D. Richardson last week. He was 86.

Richardson was a celebrated historian whose books included biographies of Ralph Waldo Emerson (The Mind on Fire), Henry David Thoreau (The Life of the Mind) and William James (In the Maelstrom of American Modernism). His honors included the Francis Parkman Prize and the Bancroft Prize, perhaps the two most prestigious awards in the field of American history.

Bob was a steady and reliable friend of the Seminar, full of good advice and goodness of heart. He served on our board of directors from 2001-2009, and our honorary board since that time. He had a special interest in supporting young and emerging writers and was a strong advocate for our scholarship program and our 2008 “New Voices” seminar.

In Emerson, Thoreau, and James, Richardson took on subjects viewed by many as the founding fathers of American intellectual life, and ones who have been extensively studied by historians for over 100 years. But Richardson’s approach was utterly new. In addition to their own writings, Richardson endeavored to read every single thing that Emerson, James, and Thoreau read — every book, every pamphlet, every article and essay. Richardson’s aim was what he called the “intellectual biography,” a work that would chart the development of the writer’s mind.

The results are thrilling. Washington Post book critic Michael Dirda called Richardson’s Emerson biography “one of those exciting books that flash bolts of lightning across an entire intellectual era and up and down modern history.” Irish novelist and Booker Prize winner John Banville said Richardson’s works belong “among the glories of contemporary literature.”

While Richardson’s scholarly mastery of his subjects is impressive, it was his ability to provide the reader with a visceral experience of their lives that astonishes his readers. Richardson, who was married to novelist Annie Dillard, with whom he lived in Key West on Margaret Street, had a novelist’s sense of pacing, structure, and humor. “The past can be understood only if we imagine each moment of it as present, with ourselves as the actors in it,” he wrote.

He credited Dillard with helping to activate his writing process. “I learned from her that you have to go all out, every day, every piece. Hold nothing back. The well will refill.”

In an interview in 2013, I asked Bob what it was about Emerson, Thoreau, and James that sustained his attention over decades of research and writing. His answers point to a belief in the essential value of the American experiment, and the ever-more-urgent imperative to balance personal interests with the collective good:

“Emerson is for me the best describer of real individualism, the best explainer of why we can and must trust our best selves,” Bob remarked. But instead of the so-called rugged individualism adopted by some as a political philosophy, Bob emphasized something infinitely more humane and well-suited to our times. “In their pluralism, in their respect for mind, those three are voices for democratic individualism. Each voice counts. Every voice counts.”

Bob’s voice will continue to comfort, guide, and enlighten us through his books. But we will miss his presence and his friendship a great deal.


(—Arlo Haskell, June 23, 2020)


Related resources:

read:Concord Is Where You Are Right Now“: a conversation with Robert D. Richardson (2012)

listen: “The Work of a Biographer”; Robert D. Richardson in conversation with Brenda Wineapple, James Atlas, and Judith Thurman (2013).

watch:Biography and Fiction”; Robert D. Richardson (2013)



Michael Lee
Michael Lee, 2018 Emerging Writer Award winner in poetry

by Michael Lee

I’m incredibly excited and grateful to announce that this fall I’ll be on the road east again to Cornell University to get my MFA in creative writing with a focus in poetry. I’ve been holding on to this one for a while, partially because so much has been tossed into the unknown with COVID-19 that I wasn’t sure if I would be able to go. And also because as my work is so personal and my professional life is increasingly public, I like to keep more and more to myself. (I’ll continue to do so until I unceremoniously disappear into the woods to become a subsistence farmer writing under a pseudonym.)

I wanted to share this because what my creative process requires has changed so much, I think it’s worth noting. Twelve years ago, I simply needed to get sober. Then I needed to read obsessively and feverishly. Then I just needed to be heard. Open mics and slams became my life blood and my community. Then I felt the need to be alone, to trave, and to connect more deeply with nature. Finally, I turned partially from writing and focused heavily on youth and community work. I will always be glad I did that, but after some years I felt my writing slipping away more each day until I thought I wasn’t going to get it back.

At that point, I was lucky enough to receive an Emerging Writer Award from Key West Literary Seminar, where I had the good fortune of working with Rowan Ricardo Phillips. His workshop changed my life and trajectory—I wrote more in the two months following that workshop than I had the previous two years! Many of the poems ended up in my first book and are among my all-time favorites. I learned I needed dedicated time to workshop, to study, to dialogue, and to critique—to focus my energy on craft. I made a decision to put my writing first for the first time in several years.

We are always changing: how we see and relate to the world, ourselves, our pasts, and, thus, our processes will also change. We must be open to these shifts. I’m making a big decision to fully invest in my dreams, and I’m hoping everyone is able to make one decision—small or large—each day, bringing you closer to your own. I can’t wait to see what writing comes out of this and share it with all of you.

By Dena Rebozo

The final day of Key West Literary Seminar winds down in uplifting triumph. With most of his crew mates gone and the last couple months of his own life remaining, Joe Rantz meets Daniel James Brown. Unbeknownst to Brown, Rantz rowed in front of Adolf Hitler in the 1936 Berlin Olympics. He and eight other boys of the American Olympic Rowing Team in that 2,000-meter race faced staggering, irrefutable adversity and obstacles leading up to the most spectacular almost six-and-a-half-minute race ever rowed, a race of imperishable triumph of a team pulling together, a perfect living thing. If you are out of breath reading this, I was out of breath just watching the video clip Brown showed of the actual race from Leni Riefenstahl’s Olympia. Maybe you feel like the rowers now – post-race hunched over, gasping. Just one second separated the top three finishing boats.

Back to Brown and Rantz.
“Can I write about your life?” Brown pole vaults.
“No,” croaks Rantz. Silence.
“You can write a book about the boat,” he says, joy and pride shining in tears.
The boat refers to all the guys who rowed, all nine of them.

Four years later, Brown finishes the book, indeed, about the boat. What makes this book about rowing the kind of book audience members stood up to proclaim and urge others to read during the Q&A session? After all, what might be more boring than a book about rowing? How did this book win the most votes from independent booksellers nationwide within a year of being published?

Boys in the Boat does not simply keep alive a previously untold story as compelling and important as Jesse Owens’s in the 1936 Olympics. It keeps alive the flame of a great generation, one gouged by mighty suffering, deprivation, and hardship. This is the story of the forging of a great team and their achievement “pulling together” that at once belongs to them and to a generation with the Herculean task of triumphing come Word War II.

Brown distills six remarkable “comeback” qualities embodied by every boy in the boat. First, through a brutal self-selection “whittling” process just to earn a seat, each boy personifies perseverance and resilience. Second, they epitomize adaptability rowing in different length races, different bodies of water with different currents, winds, waves, different air temperatures, employing different strategies against various opponents. Third, every man pulls his heart out, pulls for the others. An extraordinary level of mutual respect and trust is present. Fourth, these are Zen rowers focusing with single-pointed attention on their secret mantra “mind in boat, mind in boat.” Fifth, in one word, is earnestness. Summed up best by George Yeoman Pocock, not only their shell-builder, but inarguably their rowing guru. “I leave a piece of my heart with every boat,” he said. “Leave a piece of your heart with every race.” Least obvious yet most important, a measure of humility hallmarks their approach to rowing, each needing the other to surpass adversity.

Pocock once said, “In a sport like this – hard work, not much glory, but still popular in every century – well, there must be some beauty which ordinary men can’t see, but extraordinary men do.” Dan Brown, you are Pocock’s extraordinary man. Thank you for seeing the beauty and opening our eyes. May this story kindle the hearts of our generation so that together we can find our “swing.”

Dena Rebozo, a public librarian turned special educator, is a 2020 Teacher & Librarian Scholarship Recipient. Her sports are swimming in the Salish Sea and hula hooping.

By Shannon Korta

Saturday afternoon’s literary panel tackled the topic of parents’ increasing over-involvement in their children’s sports lives for the discussion “The Case for Banning Parents.” Author Buzz Bissinger, best known for his New York Times bestseller Friday Night Lights, was joined by Ben McGrath, a staff writer for the New Yorker, and award-winning novelist Megan Abbott. The panelists discussed the perils of overzealous, misguided, emotionally stunted sports parents who have created a toxic culture that Bissinger acerbically summarizes “has completely removed all fun from sports.”

The panelists touched on various situations they’d experienced or read about exemplifying poor parent behavior ranging from verbal attacks on other parents to physical fights on the field with officials. McGrath noted that many officials have opted to quit in the face of increasingly confrontational situations. The intense pressure from parents on their children to win at all costs has given rise to year-round travel sports and specialized camps promising to give your child a competitive edge over the rest. Abbott conveyed that, although she was not involved in sports growing up, her brothers’ little league games and commitments took up an exhaustive amount of time, stating matter-of-factly, “I never had a summer.”

Abbott segued from embarrassing spectacle parents and addressed a subtler, yet insidious, element of youth. In the case of Olympic gymnastics, countless female athletes were abused repeatedly by Larry Nassar over several years. Abbott questioned the claim from many of the girls’ parents who “didn’t know anything was going on.” She said that while watching the Nassar trial on television, some of the girls looked at their parents as if to say, “Why didn’t you help me?” Lack of action from parents can be more harmful than the overreactions, according to Abbott. It is difficult to imagine a parent would knowingly turn a blind eye to such atrocious acts in the quest for their daughters to win gold – difficult, but sadly, not impossible, she noted.

Despite his best-selling book focusing on small town football, Bissinger was the most vocal about how detrimental sports can be for a child’s mental health. He attributed much of parental pressure in sports to the disillusioned aspiration of getting a D1 scholarship, which he pointedly told the audience “isn’t happening.” Reiterating his earlier assessment, he said sports should be about fun – acknowledging his son was lost on the soccer field, but still enjoyed it. He admitted he did have moments where his son’s lack of athleticism bothered him, ruefully asking the crowd “Why do I care though?” “Am I that insecure in myself?” The question hung uncomfortably in the auditorium air along with the dust particles in the spotlights. It wasn’t hard to imagine many in the crowd had asked themselves this same thing.

Bissinger said earlier in the discussion that every athlete is haunted by four words: “What could have been?” I think it’s fair to say parents are equally haunted by these words. What could have been if I read to them more? What could have been if I listened a little more? Parents are athletes in a different sense. We compete against other parents, we compete against time, and we compete against this perfect version of ourselves – this version of ourselves that always gets it right with our kids. The version of ourselves that is completely confident with parenting. That version of ourselves that can conjure up honest, transparent, bonding discussions from the most sullen teenager. That version, though, is like the D1 scholarship:largely unattainable for most. Maybe we make it harder than it needs to be. Parenting and sports could both benefit from Bissinger’s advice, “Let’s just have fun with it.”

Shannon Korta teaches at Landmark Christian School in Fairburn, Georgia. She is the recipient of a 2020 Teacher and Librarian Scholarship.

By Yesenia Flores Diaz

To kick off day three of the 38th Annual KWLS Reading Between the Lines: Sports and Literature, Kevin Young and Arnold Rampersad discussed the history of black sportsmanship in a thought-provoking session entitled: “In Conversation: Biography and the Black Athlete.”

According to Young, childhood hero Arthur Ashe was “the first athlete who existed as a person.” Despite a privileged life and the irony of his nationally-ranked status and exclusion from a local tourney, Rampersad affirmed Ashe had a “desire to be taken seriously, [he] prized the intellectual side of life, [was] a noble person who believed in spirit.”

Attendees were offered poignant glimpses of the experiences, triumphs and villification, notwithstanding, of 20th century greats such as: Jackie Robinson, Wilma Rudolph, Jack Johnson, Muhammad Ali, Althea Gibson, and sisters Venus and Serena Williams.

One cannot ignore how these black athletes in particular have dealt with “the jagged edge of circumstances,” to rise above controversy and go beyond the call of duty with audaciousness, dignity, grace, and humor.

Young questioned whether it was possible to “play sports and protest at the same time,” like free-agent QB Colin Kaepernick. This garnered an immediate response from Rampersad who said that for black athletes, their “presence is a signal of protest.”

This session challenged us to think critically about black athletes and their personas as well as unrealistic expectations and pressures to “educate and uplift a nation”–a nation that has often rejected their humanity and proclaimed “game over” when they’ve deliberately crossed a line and strayed out of bounds.

Yesenia Flores Díaz is a 2020 Teacher and Librarian Scholar who credits her parents and elementary school librarian for cultivating an early love for reading. She is an English Composition Assistant with Montgomery County Public Schools and a firm believer that sports, like books, should be accessible to all. 

David Wolkowsky at Ballast Key in 1994. Photo by Timothy Greenfield-Sanders for L’Uomo Vogue.

Key West lost one of its defining figures with the death of David Wolkowsky on Sunday, September 23, 2018. He was 99.

Wolkowsky was a member of the Key West Literary Seminar board of directors from 1988-1991 and a member of its honorary board since 1992. But his impact on Key West and its literary and cultural scene was far greater than these official contributions. Among other things, Wolkowsky was a legendary host and matchmaker without peer, who brought an astonishing assortment of writers, artists, and “interesting people” together in the subtropical island city where his grandfather had arrived as a penniless immigrant following Key West’s great fire of 1886.

Wolkowsky’s annual writers’ party, held during the seminar each January, was a glittering affair at the penthouse apartment Wolkowsky built atop his father’s former Duval Street department store. A guest list of renowned writers mixed with celebrated artists, filmmakers, politicians, and A-listers from around the world, along with the local bartenders, tradespeople, fishermen, and friends for whom it was the most coveted social occasion of the year. Even more coveted was an invitation to Ballast Key, Wolkowsky’s private island, where he hosted friends in the heart of the 200,000-acre marine wilderness known as the Key West National Wildlife Refuge, far from the bustle and noise of the downtown district whose once-dusty streets he had known since childhood in the 1920s.

I was lucky to know Wolkowsky and count him as a friend throughout my adult life. From the moment I met him, in the winter of 2001-02, I was charmed by his unique combination of refined elegance and deep informality. I had returned to the Florida Keys that December after graduating from college and was drifting about, with vague ambitions of being a writer and an even vaguer idea of how to earn a living. My mom, who had known Wolkowsky from her time as director of the Seminar, suggested I call him and ask if he was looking for any help. I looked him up in the phone book and placed a call.

“Hello, Mr. Wolkowsky?,” I said, nervously.

“Call me David,” he said, deeply familiar and kind before even knowing who I was. “Who is this?” he asked, brusquely now.

“Hi, David, this is Arlo Haskell, I’m Monica Haskell’s son.”

“Arlo,” I was struck again by his familiar tone, and his distinctive, almost Mid-American accent, whose type I’d only heard in movies. “Yes, I was hoping you might call. How are you?”

I offered a brief recent history: graduated college, home again, looking for work. I told him my mom had said he might be looking for someone.

“She did?” David asked, seeming surprised. “Well, yes, I might. How would you like to come over for lunch on Friday?”

“Um, sure,” I said, “that’d be great.”

“Let’s say one o’clock, then, at my house. O.K.? Ten-fourteen Flagler.”

“O.K., great. One o’clock—” the phone clicked as David hung up—“on Friday. Thanks, David.”

I called him David ever after.

David's father and grandather, Isaac and Abraham Wolkowsky, ran a men's clothing store around the turn of the century. It appears at right in Mario Sanchez's "Old Island Days No. 23, 'Golden Era,'" shown here at David's home. Photo by Michael Adno.

Arriving for lunch that Friday, I entered the property through an ornate set of teak doors, removed from a Thai temple during the early 1980s, when David had been a partner in Kavanaugh’s furniture store, whose dusty storerooms full of strange, large, and wonderful eastern relics, I used to love to wander. Directly through these doors, which were set in the concrete block wall that hid his grounds from the passing public, was a swimming pool the size of which I’d only seen in hotels. On the left of the pool was a grand-seeming house, whose interior could partly be seen through the wall of sliding glass doors that fronted the pool.

No one answered when I knocked and called out, but the front door was standing open so I walked in. A single large room, with two sides of sliding glass and a high, vaulted ceiling, from which slowly whirring fans descended. The fans hanging through such volumes of space drew your eyes up, as in a cathedral, to the little windowed cupola that formed the apex of the room, where every surface seemed to overflow with fascinating items. On top of the grand piano were black-and-white photographs of Tennessee Williams, drinking and laughing in a Key West garden along with some glamorous-looking women and other men. Upon the table, a mound of reading material: the New York Times lay open, rifled through and obviously well-read, and dozens of books ranging from large-format coffee-table art books to biographies of historical figures. A striking wooden sculpture by the local artist Duke Rood—the vertical figure of a man descending headfirst—was situated among flowering orchids on a table at the center of the room, giving the impression that he he was diving, or had fallen, from a perch in that airy cupola. A drawing, signed “Picasso,” was on the back wall, near the porch, obviously neglected. There were a few Russian-constructivist-ish collages, and, scattered about, several of the colorful painted wood reliefs created by Mario Sanchez, a folk artist of rare talent and humor who had chronicled the Key West of David’s boyhood.

I found David in the middle of all this, sitting and talking on a white couch with his friend Tom Schmidt, who owned one of David’s favorite restaurants, the Rooftop Café. The three of us exchanged pleasantries and I noticed another man standing in the entryway to the kitchen, who seemed to be a little older than I was. He was dressed in white tennis shorts and a polo shirt, with white tennis shoes, white gardening gloves, and sunglasses, and he stood quietly in place, with his head and its artfully disheveled afro pitched slightly down.

“Arlo, this is Zach,” Zach raised his head and smiled beatifically, showing a mouthful of crooked teeth, two plated in gold. “He helps out here,” David said.

“Hi Zach.”

“Hello,” Zach said, and he seemed to float away on the word, smiling at some memory, of what I didn’t know.

“Perhaps you could give Zach a hand in the kitchen,” David suggested.

“Sure,” I said.

“Let me show you.”

I followed David into the kitchen and watched as he opened the refrigerator. Zach remained in his original position.

“We’re just going to have a little salad,” said David, “I buy this salmon salad from Publix, and here’s Boston lettuce. I like just a scoop of the salmon on a bed of lettuce, with a little olive oil. There will be three of us.”

“Sure, David. No problem.” As David left the kitchen, I saw my lunch invitation transform into an audition for a job I wasn’t sure I wanted.

“Zach, where are the plates?” I asked. “In the cabinet,” he said, indicating the corner, and smiled again, without moving from the spot where I’d first seen him.

I prepared, quickly and artfully, in the fashion of the restaurant line cook I had been off-and-on through college, three simple salad plates, drizzled with olive oil, topped with ground pepper, and garnished with a lemon slice. David stepped back into the kitchen at this moment.

“Arlo? Join us in the other room, won’t you?”

It was a test, I suppose, and everything seemed like a test for a while, but eventually I guess I passed, as that shift in the kitchen marked the beginning of my employment as David’s roaming man Friday and caretaker of his various properties.

Ballast Key, roughly nine miles west of Key West in the Key West Wildlife Refuge.

During the year I worked for David, my duties tracked his interests and eccentricities, mapping a social tableau that spanned from high to low. At night, I was his driver, delivering dinner guests that included U.S. Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan and John Hersey’s widow Barbara Hersey, to whom David was deeply devoted, to and from dinner at the Rooftop Café. In the early morning, I accompanied him to Simonton Beach, where a group of homeless men slept in the shadows of the Pier House, the fashionable resort David had developed in the 1960s. At that first lunch with David, I had told him about my experience as a stonemason in upstate New York, and without exactly telling me, David had decided that I would build a stone retaining wall at Ballast Key, where storms and shifting tides had eaten away at the beach where his dear departed friend John Malcolm Brinnin had once sat and read the New York Times while the Gulf of Mexico lapped at his feet. There was plenty of limestone surrounding the island, David pointed out to me on my first visit there, and indeed there was. The fact that it was underwater at all but the lowest tide, and would require a great deal of hard labor to extract, went unmentioned.

David’s methods were inscrutable, but somehow, among the tall grasses of the sea oats and empty vodka bottles at Simonton Beach, offering $5 an hour plus room and board on his private island, he always found one or two men who said they were willing to put in a few good days’ work. In the afternoon, I ferried men whose names were Miles and Popeye, and whose weathered skin and full beards made them look older than they were, aboard the smaller of David’s two boats, which pitched and rolled uncomfortably in the current-driven chop of Northwest Channel, out to Ballast Key, where we established a work camp. Against the incoming tide and in the blazing sun, they worked with heavy iron bars to break jagged slabs of limestone from the shallow waters that surrounded the island and carry them in overloaded wheelbarrows to the beach where I was building the wall, piece by piece. Lunch was hot dogs and potato chips, the same again for dinner. Who knows what the men thought after the sun went down and they found themselves alone on this otherwise deserted island—a millionaire’s paradise and private retreat, or something wild and forbidding? Ballast Key always seemed a bit of both, and while Miles and Popeye returned for multiple engagements, it wasn’t for everyone. One morning, I found Rudy, a gentle, bearded man who lived as a hermit in the Maine woods in the summer, and in the Key West cemetery in the winter, desperate to “escape,” as he put it, holding a cardboard sign that read “Key West, Please!” as he waved frantically at passing boats. “I can’t take it anymore,” he told me, obviously shaken. I told him that everything would be ok, he was under no obligation to stay, and I took him back to Key West. I would see Rudy around town occasionally in the years that followed. Although the island’s black and glittering night had terrified him, he apparently remained charmed by the man who had brought him there. “How’s David?” he would ask me, and you could tell that part of him wished he could return to the island.

On the weekends, as my retaining wall slowly came together, I began ferrying more illustrious guests to Ballast Key, a Vanderbilt here, a Rockefeller there, and the ever-growing cast of dazzling writers among whom David always seemed most at home. Driving the 27’ Boston Whaler that David reserved for guests, I delivered Robert Stone to the island one evening as darkness fell, leaving him there, alone, to work on completing the manuscript that became the novel Bay of Souls. While navigating the shallow expanse of water known as “the lakes” that separates Northwest Channel from Ballast Key, I was introduced to Laurent de Brunhoff, co-creator of the Babar series of storybooks I had known as a child, and his brilliant wife, the writer Phyllis Rose, who would later help edit my first book. I met famed writer Judy Blume and her husband George Cooper, another couple David recruited to Key West and who in turn created its only independent cinema and its leading bookstore. I talked with Renata Adler, whose thick braid of white hair swayed in the heavy wind generated by the boat’s forward motion. I met Bill Wright, a writer whose charm at times rivaled David’s and whose friendship with him then spanned nearly forty years. So many people whose names and backgrounds dazzled me, either immediately or only when I eventually realized who they were, years later—guests from London, New York, South Africa, Paris, Rome. An endless, rotating cast of fascinating writers, shouting literary references and friendly gossip over the roar of the twin outboard motors, with David occupying the co-captain’s chair and smiling on at the scene he had designed and casted. At the island, David served them hot dogs and potato chips for lunch too.

David with his friend Sarah Benson, during a 2012 party at his penthouse above Duval Street. Photo by Nick Doll.

David loved people and conversation and he had a gift for making his friends feel wanted. When David phoned to invite you over for lunch, there was often no need to check your schedule. He meant lunch today, and that you should arrive within the next fifteen minutes if possible. When I could, I dropped everything to join him. When I had something that seemed more pressing, I declined and regretted missing the opportunity. I regret those missed opportunities still.

Once, in September of 2008, David phoned to invite me over as Key West was being lashed by the winds and rain of Hurricane Ike, which was churning along the southern coast of Cuba. A mandatory evacuation order was in effect, but when I arrived I found the house on Flagler un-boarded, and David the picture of ease, chatting leisurely on the phone with Bill Wright, who, since our first meeting at Ballast Key years earlier, had also taken me under his wing, surely with David’s encouragement. I followed David into the kitchen, where he removed two salads from the refrigerator that had been prepared earlier—Boston lettuce and Florida avocados, seasoned with olive oil, salt, and pepper. After we ate the salads, David prepared lamb chops on a George Foreman grill—they charred and filled the air with rich aroma as succulent juices sizzled on the electric heating element. David cooked them to perfection on the unlikely surface, utterly delicious. For dessert, David warmed two slices of pumpkin pie in the oven and served them with vanilla ice cream.

After lunch, David said he wanted to see the island—not “the island,” as he always called Ballast Key, but the one whose ascendant place in the national consciousness had led to his popular nickname in the press, “Mr. Key West.” We climbed into the car as the rain drove down and David, who had just turned 90, got behind the wheel. He drove to a house he was renovating on Von Phister Street, where we took advantage of a brief break in the rain to have a look inside. The new roof and windows were holding up nicely in the storm; there were no leaks and it was utterly quiet inside, without even the hum of electricity. Ike was his father’s name and I think the hurricane had made David nostalgic—for the man whose death had brought him back to Key West over a half-century ago (a 1962 obituary said Ike had “a strong sense for the absurd or ridiculous”), and for a Key West that he felt, at times, was changing from authentic to commodity.

“You used to meet them all the time,” David said, “newcomers, writers, interesting people. But no one comes anymore.”

After surveying the rising waters on Eaton Street, David drove me back to my house on Love Lane. I’d been fascinated by the twists and turns of our conversation, and all the bits of Key West history he had revealed, and I asked if I could do a formal interview with him at some point.

“I’ll be happy to help,” he said, “but I’m rather overexposed already. At first you know it’s fun, and everybody likes a little acclaim, but after a while it starts to upset the neighbors.”

As the years went by, David’s oldest friends seemed to pass away one by one. Some time after Bill Wright died in 2016, David told me that he had never expected to live so long. It was lonely, at times. I could see that. Arriving at a friend’s party, filled with people, he joined me on a couch at the edge of the crowd and surveyed the room. “Who are these people?” he asked. But of course everyone knew who he was, and soon his many admirers were crowding around, patiently waiting their turn to share time—that ineffably precious resource—with David.

Photo by Michael Adno.

David introduced me to and made me welcome in the fascinating world that was his. He opened doors that have helped define my life and career. Through it all, he kept me laughing with his inimitable sense of humor, by turns cryptic, campy, wry, self-effacing, and bold. Over the past two years, with David occasionally having difficulty talking, a flurry of handwritten notes came in place of the usual phone calls. On my 38th birthday, a postcard from Ballast Key, showing a small boat at rest on a pile of jagged limestone—“I still remember the Ballast Key stone wall of Arlo”—a teasing joke, since Hurricane Ike had largely destroyed the wall I built and shifted John Malcolm’s beach yet again. Another postcard arrived soon after I took over the directorship of the Seminar, one that showed David at the beginning of the construction of the Pier House, standing in shorts and a t-shirt with the old Tony’s Fish Market hoisted high on blocks—“Arlo, it’s so great to have you where you belong. So hello, Dolly.” David even started emailing, surely one of the very few times someone opened a Gmail account at the age of 96. A stream of jokes and references followed from his iPad. There was a YouTube clip of Marlene Dietrich in concert, a selfie of David with someone’s dog in the driver’s seat of his vintage Excalibur (this to congratulate me for a talk I had given, saying “you don’t need a pup to charm an audience”), a simple photo of flowers on a table in that cathedral-like living room of his, and another selfie with his old friend, Mickey Wolfson, whose illustrious family history in Key West tracked David’s to the 1880s. “Wolf wolf,” he typed, and I could almost hear him laughing.

When I published a book last year that explores the roots of Key West’s Jewish community and the role played by David’s grandfather in its founding, David took on a new role as my biggest fan. “You have recreated Key West — a pioneer feast,” he wrote. “Even Tennessee Williams would be proud.” He bought dozens, maybe more than a hundred copies, throwing them over fences into the yards of his friends like a newspaper delivery boy. “Meanwhile I have raided Books & Books of Arlo,” he wrote me last winter, “not because I’m in it, but because I am not in it enough.”

David and I at a yard sale in 2013 — he ended up with the hat. Photo by Ashley Kamen.

Key West will go on, and David’s vision for it will continue to inspire me to work toward a more interesting island. But there will never be enough David here again. I will miss him a great deal.

One more memory. When Ashley and I were planning for our wedding in the spring of 2012, we knew exactly where we wanted to throw the party. There are a lot of beautiful old homes and gardens and venues in Key West, but there was only one place that, when you were there, you reliably felt that you didn’t want to be anywhere else, and you didn’t want the night to ever end.

“David’s penthouse,” Ashley said.

“But it’s David’s penthouse,” I said. I couldn’t imagine that our party could happen in a place that was so thoroughly David. And I couldn’t imagine asking him for something so personal. During the year I worked for David, there was an expression, a single word, actually, that he would deploy if you asked a question that was too personal, or if you said something within the hearing of someone who shouldn’t hear what you were saying.

“Seven,” David would say. And, only the very first time he said it, by way of explanation, “that’s a seven. Seven means don’t.”

I was sure that asking David if we could throw a party at the penthouse was a seven. But Ashley convinced me, and I picked up the phone.

“Hello,” David said.

“Hi David, it’s Arlo. Ashley and I are planning our wedding for the spring. We’re going to get married at the end of White Street Pier, and we’re looking for a place to hold the reception.”

“O.K.” he said, and paused.

“We thought of the penthouse. And we were wondering, I don’t know if you ever, if you would ever consider renting it to—”

“I wouldn’t,” David replied sharply. I knew it. It was too personal, too private a thing to ask. I felt my cheeks flush as I struggled to think of how to continue the conversation.

“O.K.,” I said. “I thought so. I just thought I’d ask—”

“I wouldn’t rent it,” he said now. “But I’d like for you and Ashley to have your wedding and spend the night there. As my guests. Of course.”

A toast to David on our wedding night, 2012. Photo by Nick Doll.

Friends and relatives from around the country flew in to join us and dozens of local friends “on the roof” at David’s penthouse. It rained all day, but the clouds broke before the ceremony to reveal a dazzling sunset. As we arrived at the party, stars were visible above the glow of Duval Street. David stayed home at Flagler Avenue that night, but his gift was all around us. Out-of-town guests were in awe—this is Key West? Where are we? Key West friends felt the same. They’d only ever heard of this place, and now they knew why. The handful of mutual friends of David’s and ours that attended, including a number of the writers I’d first met on the boat rides to Ballast Key, seemed impressed and proud. They had known me when. Now here I was with Ashley on our wedding night, a night that only David could have made possible, filled with the glamour that only David possessed.

I phoned David the next day to say thank you. “Don’t mention it,” he interrupted, as I tried to find the words to tell him how much it had all meant to us. “Let’s have lunch sometime soon.”



Arlo Haskell is executive director of the Key West Literary Seminar and author of The Jews of Key West: Smugglers, Cigar Makers, and Revolutionaries (1823-1969).


More about David Wolkowsky:

In 1986, the Fourth Annual Key West Literary Seminar was devoted entirely to the playwright Tennessee Williams. “Tennessee Williams in Key West” brought a number of Williams’s friends and associates to Key West, including publisher James Laughlin and playwright James Leo Herlihy. In preparation for his panel, “The Playwright as Poet,” John Malcolm Brinnin drafted a five-page manuscript on Williams. In the text, Brinnin recalls the first time he met Williams in Greenwich Village and likens the young playwright to a “shy child.” He then delves into what made Williams a “man who spoke from, and to, a broad seam of modern consciousness,” which Brinnin finds established Williams as a poet as much as he was a playwright.

Robert D Richardson
Robert D. Richardson. Photo by Curt Richter.

In his biography of Ralph Waldo Emerson, The Mind on Fire, Robert D. Richardson writes “the past can be understood only if we imagine each moment of it as present, with ourselves as the actors in it.” This emphasis on the value of personal experience is the core of Emerson’s message; “there is no history, only biography,” Emerson wrote. The appeal to individual empathy inherent in this outlook is also a hallmark of Richardson’s work, which, in addition to Emerson, includes biographies of Henry David Thoreau (The Life of the Mind ) and William James (In the Maelstrom of American Modernism ). While Richardson’s scholarly mastery of these subjects—the founding fathers of American intellectual life—is impressive, what astonishes is his ability to provide the reader with a visceral experience of their lives. Richardson’s books bear the vivid energy of our most imaginative writers and belong, says John Banville, “among the glories of contemporary literature.”

Richardson was born in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and spent his early years in Medford and in Concord, Massachusetts. Today he lives in South Wellfleet and in Key West, where he and his wife, the writer Annie Dillard, are honorary directors of the Key West Literary Seminar. In this interview, which began on the Fourth of July and continued by email over the recent weeks, Richardson discusses his work as a biographer, his own biography, and the points at which the two are woven together. We talk about John Keats’s theory of “negative capability,” about using Thoreau to find muskrats in the urban West, and about Dillard’s one-word key to understanding Emerson. Richardson, who spent a decade on each of the books discussed here and who has taught at the University of Denver, Harvard, and Sichuan University in China, also gives valuable practical advice about how to stay organized, where to look online, and when to start writing; and he reminds us why “we can and must trust our best selves.”


Littoral: In Emerson, you describe a meeting of the Transcendental Club that was held at Caleb Stetson’s house in Medford and attended by Emerson and Thoreau. Did I read this right? Is this the house you grew up in?

Robert D. Richardson: I did indeed grow up in the house at 141 High Street, and yes, it is the parsonage for the First Church in Medford and has been since 1789. But I’ve just recently learned that when Stetson was minister at Medford he lived in another house on the other side of High Street and 100 yards away. The house he lived in was torn down and there’s a Catholic rectory on the spot now. So Emerson did not attend a meeting at 141 High St. and the passage, one of the very few moments when I tried to insert myself into the book, has to come out. I hate to do it, but there it is. Nice spotting!

L: I’d begun to wonder how literally I should take your remark that “all biography is at last autobiography.”

RR: I was thinking of Emerson saying all history is at last biography; it all comes down to what men and women have done. And if it’s not quite right to then say all biography is at last autobiography, it’s fair to say all biography is to be taken personally.
Biography certainly has an autobiographical element in that what’s interesting to the reader is the subject seen through the eyes of the writer, but most readers want the eyes of the writer to be pretty clear lenses with not a lot of ego involvement. Still, you can’t avoid asking who is doing the writing, and while a writer may try, as I do, to write by the historian’s rules (there should be evidence for any statement or claim), the writer is on his own when he chooses how to start, where to stop, what to foreground, what to ignore, what to quote, what to describe, and so on.

Thoreau said to look along the bank right at water level and to stand still for a few minutes and right where the grasses stuck up through the water you would see a muskrat if there were any. I stood still for a bit, and sure enough in a few minutes I saw a muskrat in the middle of the city 2,000 miles from Walden Pond. And I realized that Concord is where you are right now, and Walden Pond is the nearest body of water. Denver was my real Concord.

L: After Medford, your family moved to Concord, Massachusetts, famous hometown of Thoreau and Emerson. Did their spirits still animate the place? Did you know their work at that time?

RR: When we moved I was already away at a boarding school, so Concord was summers, vacations, and holidays. And for a 15- or 16-year-old, Concord was pretty dull. No movie theatre, no bowling alley, no public tennis courts, no public swimming pool, no pool hall or community center. Walden Pond was there if you cared to walk all the way out there or could cadge a ride, but the best swimming was White’s Pond which was privately owned and you had to belong. Concord was in many ways a great bore. Everything was Emerson this and Thoreau that and Hawthorne and Alcott by the way. From a young person’s point of view, Concord was drowning in its own past. We drove to Maynard for fun. My chief interests were not Emerson and Thoreau, but getting a car and meeting girls.
I read Thoreau later, in college. I didn’t get through the first chapter. When he said “Many of you lead mean and sneaking lives,” I put the book down. “I don’t need this,” I said. I couldn’t face having been found out.
Many years later, with a PhD in hand, I went to teach in Denver, Colorado. I was supposed to teach American Literature so I read a lot of Thoreau, and one day I read a description of where to look for muskrats feeding along a stream. I went out and walked down to the stream 50 yards from my home in Denver, a stream called Harvard Gulch. It ran under a shopping center in a concrete box, then it came out and wandered west amid weeds and urban rubble. Thoreau said to look along the bank right at water level and to stand still for a few minutes and right where the grasses stuck up through the water you would see a muskrat if there were any. I stood still for a bit, and sure enough in a few minutes I saw a muskrat in the middle of the city 2,000 miles from Walden Pond. And I realized that Concord is where you are right now, and Walden Pond is the nearest body of water. Denver was my real Concord. That’s where I lived and work and where I eventually, around the age of 40, wrote a book about Thoreau.

L: You describe Bronson Alcott as lacking “even a hint of negative capability,” Keats’s phrase for the essential poetic faculty, or as you put it, “the ability to set aside (one’s) own personality and enter imaginatively into the lives and situations of others.” What is the role of the creative imagination in the crafting of biography? Continue reading

2018 Emerging Writer Award Winners: Sara Allen (short story), Dantiel Moniz (novel) and Michael Lee (poetry)

Greetings to all,

Each year, we present three awards to unpublished writers with exceptional talent who demonstrate the potential for lasting literary careers.

This year will be no different–at least in this respect. Even as many of our other programs are suspended due to the pandemic, we’re pleased to once again have the opportunity to support new voices in American literature through the 2021 Emerging Writer Awards.

Applications are open now and the deadline has been extended to September 15, 2020. Winners will be announced in early 2021.

Each award is tailored to a particular literary form. The Scotti Merrill Award recognizes a poet, while fiction writers may apply for either the Cecelia Joyce Johnson Award (for a short story) or the Marianne Russo Award (for a novel-in-progress).

Winners will receive a prize package including full tuition support for our January 2022 Seminar and Writers’ Workshop Program (January 6–14, 2022); round-trip airfare and lodging in Key West; and a $500 honorarium. Each winner will also have the opportunity to read their work on stage during the 2022 Seminar, and will be invited to private events with presenters and faculty throughout their time in Key West.

Please help us spread the word about this unique opportunity by sharing this news with talented writers in your circle.

Looking forward to seeing you in Key West!

Arlo Haskell | Executive Director
Katrin Schumann | Program Coordinator

Testimonials from past award winners:

Dantiel W. Moniz, 2018 Cecelia Joyce Johnson Award
“Winning was a life changing experience for me as it was my first literary award. It was amazing to be able to read my material in front of writers I admire.  Moments that were not scheduled were also important—like riding around Key West on bikes, learning about its literary history, becoming friends with other winners… It was a completely immersive experience.”

Theodore Wheeler, 2014 Marianne Russo Award
“The mentorship aspect of this award is key because you have access to the ‘authors in the room.’ The sense of belonging is special and you really feel celebrated.”

Diana Khoi Nguyen, 2012 Scotti Merrill Award
“The highlight of the experience was being able to go on stage to read my work, then sitting next to George Saunders, who said, “Good job!” when I was finished. It was nerve-wracking and so affirming.”


We are now accepting applications for our three main funding opportunities. Please note our new application deadlines:

Teacher and Librarian Scholarships – deadline July 15
Emerging Writer Awards – deadline September 1
Workshop Financial Aid – priority deadline July 30

Our Scholarship Program aims to nourish a vibrant literary culture by providing support to a diverse group of teachers, librarians, readers, and writers while promoting the work of new voices in American literature. Since 2008, we’ve granted over $580,000 in scholarship support to more than 570 individuals.

Answers to FAQ here. Feel free to email [email protected] if you have additional questions.

More details about these opportunities below:

Scholarships for Teachers and Librarians

Twenty full scholarships are available for teachers and librarians who wish to attend the 39th annual Seminar, “A Seminar Named Desire,” featuring Jami Attenberg; Judy Blume; Jericho Brown; Susan Choi; John Irving; Eileen Miles; Dani Shapiro; and Edmund White, among other renowned speakers.

We seek individuals who are making a positive impact upon readers in their communities, and we hope that participation in our literary community will inspire fresh engagement with literature in schools and libraries around the country.

Scholarship recipients will receive a full waiver of the Seminar registration fee of $675, and financial assistance to offset lodging costs as needed. The deadline to apply is July 15.

Emerging Writer Awards

Each year we honor three new writers with Emerging Writer Awards. The Marianne Russo Award, the Scotti Merrill Memorial Award, and the Cecelia Joyce Johnson Award recognize and support writers who possess exceptional talent and demonstrate potential for lasting literary careers.

Each award is tailored to a particular literary form. The Merrill Award recognizes a poet, while fiction writers may apply for either the Johnson Award (for a short story) or the Russo Award (for a novel-in-progress).

Winners receive full tuition support for our January Seminar and Writers’ Workshop Program, round-trip airfare, lodging, a $500 honorarium, and the opportunity to appear on stage during the Seminar. The deadline to apply is September 1.

Workshop Financial Assistance

We offer up to twenty financial assistance scholarships to writers who wish to participate in our Writers’ Workshop Program. We aim to support the development of diverse new voices in American literature and provide opportunities to those who may not otherwise be able to attend.

Workshop faculty for 2021 includes Billy Collins; Nicole Dennis-Benn; Joyce Maynard; Liz Moore, Bich Minh Nguyen; Rowan Ricardo Phillips; Porter Shreve; David Treuer; and Laura van den Berg.

Scholarship recipients will receive partial or full fee waivers to our Writers’ Workshop Program (up to $600). Limited financial assistance to offset lodging costs is also available. The priority deadline is July 30.

All photos by Nick Doll

Amy Bass: “City Divided, Team United: A Coach, a Team, and the One Goal That Brought a Town Together”
Dan Simpson, Sound Technician Extraordinaire
Emerging Writer Award Winners Andrea Rinard, Chloe Firetto-Toomey, and Chase Burke
Chase Burke, winner of the Cecelia Joyce Johnson Award for a short story.
Chloe Firetto-Toomey, winner of the Scotti Merrill Award for Poetry
Andrea Rinard, winner of the Marianne Russo Award for a novel-in-progress
Jane Leavy, Gish Jen, Joyce Carol Oates, and Lionel Shriver on “Sports and Fiction”
Megan Abbott and Jane Leavy
Seminar Technical Director Ben Pegg
Louisa Thomas on “How Did It Feel?: The Ineffability of Sports”
The free and open-to-the-public afternoon session draws a crowd before doors open at 1:45 pm.