Mona Van Duyn: The Woman Behind the Modern Literature Collection

Mona Van Duyn in front of a bookcase, circa 1970s. From the Mona Van Duyn Papers.

We could not let Women’s History Month pass without highlighting a woman who was incredibly important to the history of Washington University Libraries’ own Modern Literature Collection: Mona Van Duyn.

Mona Van Duyn was a brilliant poet, editor, and instructor, who served as a pillar at Washington University for the nearly forty years she spent teaching and working here. As a writer, she won nearly every major award there is to win for poetry, including the National Book Award in 1971 for her book To See, To Take and the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1991 for her book Near Changes. She was appointed Poet Laureate in 1992–the first woman to serve in that post. The Washington University Libraries’ Mona Van Duyn Papers houses an extensive collection of her manuscripts, correspondence, and ephemera, including numerous notebooks in which she would draft poems and letters. Below is a page from one of her notebooks with a draft and notes for the poem “Homework,” which was published in Poetry in May of 1969.

A page from one of Mona Van Duyn’s notebooks with notes for and a draft of her poem “Homework.” From the Mona Van Duyn Papers.

Filling Washington University with Literary Giants

Mona Van Duyn came to Washington University with her husband, Jarvis Thurston, in 1950. Thurston became a professor in the English department and served as its chair from 1966 to 1969, and Van Duyn became a lecturer in University College. Both were influential in attracting brilliant creative writers to campus, including Stanley Elkin, Wayne Fields, William GassDonald FinkelJohn Morris, Howard Nemerov, and Constance Urdang, all of whom would contribute their manuscripts to the Modern Literature Collection. Below is a photo of a painting of Thurston and Van Duyn (seated near center) with Elkin, FInkel, Morris and Urdang in the background, among others. The painting currently hangs in the Coffee Room of Washington University’s Duncker Hall.

“Jarvis Thurston and His Circle” by Joan Elkin. Mona Van Duyn is depicted seated in orange in the left front of the painting.

Mona Van Duyn and Jarvis Thurston met many of writers they invited to Washington University through editing Perspective: A Quarterly of Literature and the Arts, which they had founded in 1947 and brought with them to the university. They continued to co-edit the journal until it ended, in 1975, and they donated the Perspective Archive to us, which includes correspondence with the writers published in the magazine (including the likes of Wallace Stevens and William Carlos Williams), editorial matter for each issue, and the magazine’s business records.

Below is the cover and table of contents from the 1962 Perspective, which featured a story by William Gass, who would later come teach in Washington University in St Louis’ philosophy department. Largely thanks to Van Duyn, Gass donated a large collection of his original manuscripts, proof material, and correspondence to Washington University Libraries, where it is currently housed in the the William H Gass Papers.

The cover of Perspective Magazine, Autumn 1962. From the Perspective Archive.

Table of Contents from Perspective, Autumn 1962. From the Perspective Archive.


Building the Modern Literature Collection

In 1964, Van Duyn became the poetry consultant for Washington University Libraries in its efforts to build the Modern Literature Collection. She was instrumental in obtaining the collections of a number of modern authors, including her friend and fellow poet James Merrill, and she worked for student-worker wage to help process the first papers that came in. Below is a letter from Van Duyn to Merrill thanking him for agreeing to gift Washington University with his papers in his will. The Merrill Papers remains one of Washington University’s most prized collections and includes Merrill’s extensive correspondence, thousands of pages of heavily annotated notebooks, typescripts, worksheets, and galleys, and audiovisual and personal materials like his Ouija board and death mask.

A letter from Mona Van Duyn to James Merrill, thanking him for agreeing to donate his literary papers to Washington University.



More On Van Duyn and Thurston

For more on Van Duyn and Thurston and their influence on Washington University, check out the recent articles written on them: from Off the Shelf and a&s magazine. Then there is the Mona Van Duyn and Jarvis Thurston Papers, one of the largest collections within the Modern Literature Collection. It includes hundreds of letters of correspondence to and from literary figures, publishers, editors, scholars, family, and friends as well as drafts and manuscripts of Van Duyn’s books, poems, essays, and reviews.The collection also includes a large assortment of college and teaching materials, artwork, ephemera, and recordings by Van Duyn, Thurston, and other literary figures.

About the author

Rose is a PhD candidate in English and American Literature at Washington University in St. Louis. When she is not working on her dissertation on post-1945 asylum novels or blogging about the amazing materials in Special Collections, she fills much of her time reading, writing, gardening, and wrestling.