John Hall Wheelock (1886-1978) published his first poem in 1900, when he was fourteen. He died seventy-eight years later, with fifteen books of poetry to his name. As an artist, his work was modestly esteemed, in part because the modernist movement supplanted his appeal as a traditional, conservative poet. As an editor, his legacy is more easily appraised. Charles Scribner’s Sons hired him in 1911 to work in their bookstore. In 1957, he retired as editor-in-chief. During that time, he oversaw the Poets of Today series, which gave first-book publications to some of the century’s finest, among them May Swenson, James Dickey, and Robert Pack. As he liked to say of the people he discovered, “All my poets turned out well.”

About his mistakes, Wheelock was candid in the way only genuinely successful men can be. He turned down Malcolm Lowry’s Under the Volcano and Robert Musil’s The Man Without Qualities. That said, these were the glory years of Scribner’s, with trade lists that included Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Thomas Wolfe, Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, and James Jones.

Wheelock was a publishing insider as well as a participant in the literary life of his times. The figures discussed here, most of whom were not Scribner’s authors, testify to the range of his connections—Sara Teasdale, Vachel Lindsay, Robert Frost, Marianne Moore, Alan Seeger, Marilyn Monroe, John Reed, and John Hayward. Wheelock recorded his recollections for the Columbia University History Research Office in 1967. The following excerpts from the transcriptions appear in The Last Romantic: A Poet Among Publishers, which was edited by Matthew J. Bruccoli and Judith S. Baughman and will be published later this year by the University of South Carolina Press.





Personally, I think that the finest woman poet of her time was Sara Teasdale. I knew Sara very well, better than any other writer or poet, largely because she admired my work so much …

I became friendly with Sara when she wrote me a “rave” letter about my first book, The Human Fantasy … Then Sara came to New York one winter. She was an excruciatingly shy, over-sensitive human being, so excruciatingly sensitive that she couldn’t read any poem of her own aloud—not even to one person. Never did read them. She would hand me a new poem she’d just written, and I used to amuse her very much by doing the following: I would take a look at a sonnet she’d handed me, and I would tell her what I thought of it. Then I’d say, “Just let me read it aloud to you,” and I could read it aloud to her once. She would often be absolutely thrilled because it sounded so well when read aloud, and perhaps she’d been in doubt about that particular poem. Then I would I hand it back to her. We’d have dinner together. After dinner I would recite it to her from memory. I’d have memorized the sonnet in that one reading. This made a deep impression on her.

Well, anyway, she regarded me as the greatest living poet, and of course I was tremendously set up. You can’t please anyone more, who’s a poet, than by saying that. And we became fast friends …