Monday, November 8, 2010

David Clay Jenkins 1926-2010

Doctor David Clay Jenkins died last Thursday, after a long illness brought on by a stroke.   He joined the English Department at William & Mary in 1956 as an instructor in modern poetry and advanced and critical writing. He was a scholar of Alexander Pope and Dylan Thomas, but his academic passion was reserved for Owen Geronwy, an early American poet and teacher at W&M.

That's what the official record will tell you.  It misses the man, however, the eccentric goateed semi-bohemian academic, the writer who placed two stories in the New Yorker, the founder of the William and Mary Review which published not only me but Joanna Russ, the teacher who was never my official advisor but whom I always turned to when I needed advice because the advice he gave me was always practical.

I first met Dr. Jenkins in my freshman year when I asked permission to join his creative writing class, despite the fact that it was only available to sophomores and above.  He recognized my passion and let me in, and for two years I submitted terrible stories and fragments for his and the class's advice.  His suggestions were always good and invariably infuriated me, and I would rewrite the story in question from top to bottom in order to correct his criticisms without taking his suggestions.

I learned a tremendous amount about writing from him.

As a very small example, when I was writing "The Edge of the World," I remembered a story he had written in which a mugged cripple falls to the sidewalk with his arms extended, and Dr. Jenkins's explanation that this was a crucifixion image (which was a new and startling idea to my teenaged self), and so found the end of my story.  As a larger principle, I remember his mentioning in conversation that he was working simultaneously on two essays -- one serious on Dylan Thomas and the other frivolous on an obscene limerick found in the margin of one of Alexander Pope's manuscripts, proving that it was not written by him.  Ever since, I have sought to balance the serious with the frivolous, the light with the timeless.

Once, he told me that he'd liked something I'd written but it had "aggravated the hell out of" him.  I knew what he meant and was elated.  I was still years from publication, but he'd seen the virtue in what I was trying to do.  Not many people could have.

When I failed to graduate on schedule and was estranged from my family and had no way of earning any money, Dr. Jenkins heard me out and then offered to hire me by the hour to plant tulip bulbs in his yard.  He pointed out that I could perform similar services in the neighborhood and in short order I was supporting myself.  Which gave me a platform from which to launch myself out into the world.

Many years later, I returned to William & Mary to thank him for all he'd done for me and meant to me.  We had dinner at the King's Arms Tavern and, overruling my objections, he paid.

Dr. Jenkins was instrumental in bringing Avram Davidson to W&M as a writer in residence and published one of his Dr. Esterhazy stories as a chapbook.  Rather than focus on such safe academic perennials as Pope and Thomas, he put his best efforts into the reclamation of the 17th century poet "Black Owen" Geronwy, the first serious intellectual (in a series that would later include Thomas Jefferson, James Branch Cabell, and almost but not quite me) who was violently ousted from the College of William and Mary.  He chose to devote his life to promoting a writer who could benefit from his work rather than those who could advance his career.

Along the way, he helped me.

God bless you, Dr. Jenkins.  Wherever you are, Black Owen owes you a drink.



Anonymous said...

what a fine tribute. I corresponded with Jenkins about the Davidson pamphlet, many moons ago.
I was also interested to learn about the Welsh bard of Virginia, it got me looking into his life. The DNB says: “He was involved in an affray in 1760, when he and another professor of the college, Jacob Rowe, led their students in a drunken revolt against the youths of Williamsburg. Both Owen and Rowe were summoned to appear before the board of the college for causing public disruption, and were also charged with drunkenness and swearing within college bounds. Rowe was dismissed; Owen was forced to resign. Thomas Jefferson had enrolled at the college when Owen was one of the masters there, and was probably one of his students.” Can one infer from this that Jefferson was involved in the town vs. gown revolt?


David Stone said...

You're very fortunate to have found such a helpful and friendly mentor as a college undergraduate. My condolences.

Lasky said...

Thanks for posting this. I'm just learning of Professor Jenkins' passing. I was in at least 3 of his classes (including creative writing) in the late 1980's, and learned a lot from him. I corresponded with him a bit after college, and appreciated his friendship and continued advice. He was someone who made a difference in my life, and I miss him.

Also: I had no idea, until now, that he had been published in the New Yorker!