My purpose in this dissertation has been to prepare a brief biography of Joyce Kilmer, using unpublished as well as published sources, and to provide a bibliographical index to Joyce Kilmer's work and to material written about him.
This study, especially the bibliography, should be of material assistance to the writer of a future definitive biography of Joyce Kilmer. No comprehensive bibliography on Kilmer has ever been published, and much of the material is difficult to locate. For example, many .of Kilmer’s book reviews in the New York Times were unsigned and none are indexed. This is also true of many of his articles in the Times and elsewhere.
In order to locate this material, the writer used, in addition to the standard bibliographical tools, family notes and scrapbooks (in the possession of Kenton Kilmer, son of Joyce Kilmer) which contained many of his poems, articles, and book reviews both signed and unsigned. A search was made through Kilmer's letters for mention of earlier articles and poems and their place of publication, thus unearthing considerable material published in minor journals and therefore not indexed. A check through files of these journals in the years when Joyce Kilmer was a contributor turned up more material. Three poems published under a pseudonym (Alfred Watts) and written in collaboration with Margaret Widdemer were pointed out to the author of this study by Kenton Kilmer, who also made available to the writer a copy of a History of the Kilmer Family in America, edited and published by C. H. Kilmer in 1897, which provided some background information. Additional family material was drawn from Annie Kilburn Kilmer's books: Whimsical Whimsies, More Whimsies, and Memories of my son, Sergeant. Joyce Kilmer. The memoir by Robert Cortes Holliday in Joyce Kilmer's Poems, Essays and Letters provided much of the biographical information on Joyce Kilmer, supplemented by articles written on Kilmer, listed in the bibliographical section of this study.
Although an attempt was made in this dissertation to index everything Kilmer ever wrote for publication, some gaps remain. It is known that in about 1908 he wrote a series of articles for Red Cross Notes on the psychology of advertising. Later on, around 1913, for a short time Kilmer contributed articles to the New York Socialist newspaper, The Call, and in 1914, while on a trip to England, he contracted to supply a number of articles for an English newspaper: T.P.’s Weekly. No record of these has been found. Moreover, a bibliography of Kilmer's works, or the works of any journalist, must necessarily be incomplete because so much is published unsigned. It is the writer's belief, however, that almost everything of any significance is listed in the bibliographical portion of this study.
Since the writer is, by marriage, a member of the Kilmer family, the information and family material made readily available has greatly facilitated the research for this dissertation and the writer wishes to express his thanks to his father-in-law, Kenton Kilmer.
THE LIFE OF JOYCE KILMER
II. A SUMMARY OF THE CRITICISM ON JOYCE KILMER
A Bibliography of Joyce Kilmer’s Books
Poems by Joyce Kilmer in Magazines and Newspapers
Articles by Joyce Kilmer in Magazines
A Bibliography of Kilmer’s Contributions to the New York Times
Books about Kilmer and Containing His Writings
Articles about Joyce Kilmer in Books
Articles about Joyce Kilmer in Magazines
Poems about Joyce Kilmer
Articles about Joyce Kilmer in Newspapers
THE LIFE OF JOYCE KILMER
In alien earth, across a troubled sea
His body lies that was so fair and young.
His mouth is stopped, with half his songs unsung;
His arm is still, that struck to make men free.
But let no cloud of lamentation be
Where, on a warrior's grave, a lyre is hung.
We keep the echoes of his golden tongue,
We keep the vision of his chivalry.
So Israel's joy, the loveliest of kings,
Smote now his harp, and now the hostile horde.
To-day the starry roof of Heaven rings
With psalms a soldier made to praise his Lord;
And David rests beneath Eternal wings,
Song on his lips, and in his hand a sword.
This poem of Joyce Kilmer's, "In Memory of Rupert Brooke", might have been written about Kilmer himself. One of the number of brilliant young poets killed in the First World War, he is remembered today for a handful of poems and a few essays. Had he lived he might have become an American Chesterton or Belloc - one of the major Catholic poets and essayists of our century.
Kilmer was only thirty-one when he died, but it is remarkable what he produced during this short time: seven books (one a posthumous collection of his poetry and prose) and innumerable newspaper articles, book reviews and columns. He was a tireless newspaperman and lecturer, poet and scholar; a devout Catholic and a fearless soldier.
Alfred Joyce Kilmer was born on December 6, 1886, at New Brunswick, New Jersey. His mother, Annie Kilburn Kilmer, belonged to an old English family of Cambridgeshire. She was a descendant of Thomas Kilburne, "church warder at Wood Ditton, near Newmarket in Cambridgeshire, who came to Connecticut in 1638. The ‘e’ was lost apparently in Massachusetts, and the word became, as in his mother's maiden name, Kilburn."1
His father, Frederick Barnett Kilmer, an analytical chemist in the factory of Johnson and Johnson, New Brunswick, came of German stock. The Kilmer family originally came from Hesse Castle in the Palatinate. At the time of the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes (October, 1685), since Louis XIV was invading the Palatinate, and they were Protestant, they thought it wisest to leave for England at once. The English, unenthusiastic about the influx of poverty-stricken Germans, finally shipped them off in 1710 to the American colonies with the promise of employment. They were to collect white pine tar for His Majesty's ships, in the domain of Robert Livingston along the Hudson River in what is now New York State.
Unfortunately the enterprise was doomed. The white pine tar was unsuitable for shipping, suitable tar proved to be easily procurable from Bermuda, and the English somehow overlooked paying the five pounds promised in advance to the immigrants, and providing them with the tools and supplies necessary for subsistence. The Kilmer family and their companions were obliged to take up farming, blacksmithing, and similar occupations.
Joyce Kilmer's birthplace, New Brunswick, was not far from the original settling place of his ancestors. His mother describes his early life in Whimsical Whimsies, More Whimsies, Leaves From My Life, and Memories of my son, Sergeant Joyce Kilmer.
By her accounts he was a model of infant piety and wit. It is certainly true that Kilmer had an intensely Christian upbringing and an early interest in religious things.
At the age of eight he entered the Rutgers Preparatory School at New Brunswick. Robert Holliday describes him at this age in his memoir:
As a small boy, Kilmer is described by those who knew him then as the ‘funniest’ small boy they ever saw, by which is meant, apparently, that he was an odd spectacle. And this, of course, is so altogether in line with literary tradition that it would have been odd if he had not been an oddity in the way of a spectacle. He wore queer clothes, it seems, ordinary stockings with bicycle breeches, and that sort of thing. He didn't altogether fit in somehow, couldn't find himself, was somewhat of an outsider among the juvenile clans; he was required to fight other boys a good deal; he evidenced a pronounced inability to comprehend anything at all of arithmetic; and somewhere between eight and twelve (so the report goes) he contracted a violent passion for a lady, of about thirty-five, who was his teacher at school; a passion which endured for a considerable time, and became a hilarious legend among the youth about him of jocose humour.2 At Rutgers Preparatory School he won the Lane prize in public speaking and was editor-in-chief of the Argo, the school paper. He loved the classics, although he had considerable difficulty with Greek. In his last year at Rutgers, he won the first Lane Classical Prize, a free scholarship for the academic course at Rutgers College, and one hundred dollars in money. Despite his difficulties with mathematics and Greek, he stood at the head of his class in preparatory school.
At Rutgers College, where he spent his freshman and sophomore years, he won the first Sloan entrance examination prize, was associate editor of the Targum “and was a member of the Delta Upsilon fraternity.” 3
He failed to distinguish himself, however, in higher mathematics, and was told he would have to repeat the sophomore year. He did not object because he liked his school, had friends there, and was fond of his fraternity, but his mother was so horrified by the idea of his repeating a year that he was persuaded to try for admission as a junior at Columbia University. It was found that he had two academic points more than was necessary, and he was admitted in September, 1908.4
At Columbia University, according to the account of his mother, he was vice-president of the Philolexian Society, associate editor of Spectator, won the Philolexian speaking contest, and received honorable mention in the Spingarn Belles Lettres contest. In his senior year at Columbia, he was associate editor of the Jester, and president of the Anthon Club (Latin). He qualified for the finals of the Curtis and the Philolexian medal contest, and was a member of King's Crown, Civic Club, Churchmen's Association, and the Debating Union.5
Kilmer later said that his strongest recollections of college days arose from his habit of spending his money at the first of every month on sumptuous meals and then being forced to exist on sandwiches until the next month put him in funds again.6
When he was eighteen he became a licensed lay reader at Christ Church, New Brunswick, and his mother wrote: "It made me very happy to hear him read the lessons from the old Oak Lectern, brought from England, in Christ Church on Sunday. It was his intention then to enter the ministry later."7
During his college days he seemed to forget this aspiration, and his mother did not press it because she did not think "sacred matters should be urged."8
He graduated from Columbia on May 23, 1908, and two weeks later he married Aline Murray, a young poet to whom he had been engaged since their sophomore year at Rutgers. She was the daughter of a poet, Ada Alden, and the stepdaughter of Henry Mills Alden, the editor of Harper’s Magazine.9
They spent their honeymoon at Lake View House, Gale, New York. Joyce Kilmer writes of it in a letter to his mother:
Aline is making raspberry jam. Pray for it, for it is in tribulation. It is being made on a wood fire, which occasionally blazes up, and occasionally goes out. We picked the berries this morning. She is going to put up some blackberries and some huckleberries, and has expressed insane desires to make mixtures after your manner. I curb her with difficulty and an axe.10
Kilmer spent the summer writing poetry and working on a play. It was to be “a sort of morality like Everyman, but laid in modern times -- modeled on Maeterlinck and Fiona MacLeod.”11
In August Kilmer and his wife left Gale for their house in Morristown, New Jersey, where he was to teach Latin in the local high school. There he had about one hundred students in his classes. Although he was twenty-one, he looked so youthful that one wonders how he managed to keep discipline with a group of boys who must have looked nearly as old as he. Evidently, however, the responsibilities of teaching were not too much for him. He found time, in addition to his regular duties, to write a series of articles for Red Cross Notes on "Psychology of Advertising” and to publish poems in Moods, Smart Set, The Sun, The Pathfinder, published by the University of the South, and The Bang. In addition to all this, he wrote book reviews for The Literary Digest and for Town and Country.12
After the birth of his son, Kenton, in March, 1909, he wrote to his mother about his future plans:
I’ve had two offers of principalship – one in Hamilton, Bermuda, and one in Pompton Lakes, N.J. … There is, of course, still a chance of my going to New Wilmington, Pennsylvania, to teach in the college there – Westminster College it is called.13
At the time of this letter, Kilmer, a man of large enthusiasms, was beginning to become interested in the Socialist Party. He listed for his mother, with some amusement, the members of the Morristown local of the Socialist Party: one doctor, one aristocrat, and the local Baptist minister.14 This interest in Socialism was to reappear later in his life.
By June of 1909 Kilmer had decided against accepting any of the teaching positions offered him. Packing up his wife and child, he set out for New York, the Mecca of the literary world, and a life of writing.15
He was first employed there as the editor of a journal for horsemen, in spite of his complete ignorance of equine matters. Naturally he did not last long at this job. His departure was hastened by his lavish blue-penciling of a thick manuscript which he found in his desk. When he showed the result of his labors to his employer, explaining that the manuscript had evidently been written by a man who knew horses but couldn't write, he found to his horror that the piece had been composed by the employer and written up by the employer's wife. His corrections were resented, and Kilmer's editorship came to an abrupt end.16
He next tried his hand as a salesman in Charles Scribner's book store, at the princely salary of eight dollars a week. His charm and intelligence made him popular with his fellow employees. However, his employers cannot have been as enthusiastic about their new salesman, since it was his habit to stand, day after day, with his back to the door, reading a rare edition of Madame Bovary. In addition to this flaw, he once distinguished himself by misreading the symbol on the flyleaf of a book, selling it to a delighted patron for a dollar and a half rather than for its proper price of one hundred and fifty dollars. Luckily the sale was to a charge, rather than a cash customer, and amid some excitement the transaction was straightened out.17
It was at Scribner's that Joyce Kilmer met Robert Cortes Holliday, another struggling writer, and formed a lasting friendship with him. For the rest of his life, Holliday was to be close to the Kilmer family, acting as honorary uncle to the children and, after Kilmer's death, taking on the responsibility of literary executor for his estate.
After working two weeks for Scribner's, young Kilmer parted from his employers, undoubtedly with mutual relief. His next employment was as an editorial assistant with Funk and Wagnalls of New York, who were then preparing a new edition of the Standard Dictionary. His job was to define ordinary words assigned to him at five cents for each word defined. This was a job at which one would ordinarily earn ten to twelve dollars a week, but Kilmer attacked the task with such vigor and speed that it was soon thought wisest to put him on a regular salary.18
He began in the department of botany working on "tables of various fruits, dyes, etc.” 19 Kilmer was rapidly promoted, soon receiving a salary of three or four times the original amount. 20
His work for the dictionary became more interesting after his promotion, and Kilmer became very proficient in doing research work. In running down information he corresponded with many living celebrities, studied the history of new inventions, and consulted with such authorities as the Wright Brothers concerning terms used in aviation.21
Although his occupation in these days was in the conservative field of lexicography, his political beliefs were anything but conservative. His earlier interest in Socialism now became intense - perhaps because in New York he was readily able to find others who shared his views. He frequented a club for radicals, wrote articles for the Socialist newspaper Call, and was available as a public speaker for the cause. In the course of all this Kilmer "rapidly acquired a wonderful string of acquaintances, in whose idiosyncrasies he took immense delight."22
Kilmer outgrew his youthful preoccupation with Socialism, but there is no reason for doubting his sincerity at the time. He was intellectually attracted to the idea of Socialism and enjoyed the championing of unpopular causes.
Even as a young boy Kilmer was interested in the plight of the downtrodden members of society. Many of his essays and poems were inspired by this concern. His mother tells us, for example, that:
the last three verses of 'Roofs' were inspired by the sight of some gypsies breaking camp, forced to move away on the complaint of some pharisaical person, while we were on one of our long walks. Joyce said, 'It seems too bad the gypsies should have to move around so,' and we both agreed that ‘some day’ we would buy a lot somewhere and put up a sign
to pitch their tents here
by order of
Gradually, as Kilmer learned more of Socialism and its adherents, he grew less impressed by it, realizing that for many it was only a fashionable pose. In "Some Mischief Still" (a one-act play) he portrays a young woman who is so overwhelmed by Feminism, Socialism, Anarchism, and all the other current "isms," that she becomes a ludicrous figure.24
Bit by bit, as Kilmer became disenchanted with Socialism, its place was taken by his growing interest in the "intellectual aristocracy." He made friends with such literary figures as Bliss Carman and Richard Le Gallienne, whose feats replaced Socialism in his conversation.25
Richard Le Gallienne describes him at this age in The Bookman:
Though the resemblance was perhaps only a spiritual expression, his then thin, austere young face, with those strangely strong and gentle eyes (eyes that seemed to have an independent, dominating existence), reminded me of Lionel Johnson, for whom he had already a great admiration, and whose religion he was afterwards to embrace.26
Le Gallienne, in retrospect, suggests that there was almost a fey quality about Kilmer, although:
Probably our feeling is nothing more mysterious than our realization that temperaments so vital and intense must inevitably tempt richer and swifter fates than those less wild winged.27
Since Kilmer admired with youthful enthusiasm such poets ac Swinburne, Ernest Dowson, Aubrey Beardsley, and W.B. Yeats, it was natural that he attempted to imitate them. He took up speaking familiarly of absinthe, the "little green god,"28 although his honest preference, as he admitted later, would have been beer.
Kilmer probably enjoyed the picture of himself as a decadent poet, but his sense of the ridiculous kept him from carrying on the masquerade for long.
His poem, "To Certain Poets," shows a more adult attitude toward the decadent school whose members he describes perhaps a little too caustically:
You little poets mincing there
With women's hearts and women's hair!
How sick Dan Chaucer's ghost must be
To hear you lisp of ‘Poesie’!
A heavy-handed blow, I think,
Would make your veins drip scented ink.
You strut and smirk your little while
So mildly, delicately vile! 29
Kilmer's first book, A Summer of Love,30 is made up of poems from these early years. He said of it, later, "some of the poems in it, those inspired by genuine love, are not things of which to be ashamed, and you, understanding, would not be offended by the others."31
The flaw in these early poems is not in their execution, but in their excessive sentimentality, their slight leaning toward whimsy, and their reflection of whatever poet Kilmer happened to be reading and admiring at the time. The remarkable thing about these poems is not their imitative and sentimental qualities - every young poet shares these faults - but their freshness of language and charm of expression. Most of the poems in this book had been published in magazines and newspapers.
In 1911, the year when Summer of Love was published, Kilmer appeared for the first time in Who’s Who.32
A letter Kilmer wrote at this time describes a poet who was to have a great influence on his life. He wrote of the poems of Coventry Patmore:
I have come to regard them with intense admiration. Patmore seems to me to be a greater poet than Francis Thompson. He has not the rich vocabulary, the decorative erudition, the Shelleyan enthusiasm, which distinguish the 'Sister Songs' and the 'Hound of Heaven,’ but he has a classical simplicity, a restraint and sincerity which make his poems satisfying.33 It was later through Patmore, Francis Thompson, and the Meynells, that he seems to have become interested in Catholicism.
In 1912 the Kilmer family moved from their up-town New York apartment to Mahwah, Hew Jersey. Kilmer described his new house with gusto in an earlier letter to his mother:
There are to be built-in bookcases, two open fireplaces, a dining porch and a sleeping porch. There is a spring on the grounds, and there are mountains all around. In fact, the house is to be built on the mountain side. Its name is to be Nine Bean Rows, after the poem by William Butler Yeats, called ‘The Lake Isle of Inisfree.’34 In September, 1912, after the dictionary was completed, Kilmer became literary editor of the Churchman, an Anglican weekly, and began a career of commuting from Mahwah to New York.35 For the Churchman, at this time, he was researching for a series of articles on the Anglican poets, and his fellow commuters reaped the benefit of his research. It was his custom to lecture his seat mate on the virtues of such poets as Robert Herrick, Bishop Coxe, and Robert Stephen Hawker, the Vicar of Morwenstow, "a coast life-guard in a cassock."36
For the Churchman he wrote a regular feature which he termed a meditation, corresponding to what would be an editorial in a less churchly magazine. He was also responsible for providing book reviews,37 a few of which he had already written for the Nation and the New York Times.
When, in 1912, Louis Wetmore took over the direction of the New York Times Review of Books, he gave Kilmer a position as book reviewer, with considerable latitude as to what he might say about the books he reviewed.38 Kilmer decided that, since he was now also working for the New York Times, he was entitled to an office there. (It was the custom, of course, for book reviewers to do their work at home.) Kilmer, with his usual straightforwardness, simply went into the Times office building, found an unoccupied office with desk and typewriter, and took possession.
At the same time that he was writing for the Churchman and the New York Times, he was contributing articles to the Digest, and submitting poetry to various magazines. Owing to his multiple labors, he was obliged to leave his home in time to catch the 7:55 train in the morning, and return on the 12:45 at night.39
In his spare time, Kilmer engaged in innumerable other activities. He was, for a number of years, Corresponding Secretary of the Poetry Society of America, and president of the American Dickens Fellowship (an interest which he shared with his mother). For about nine years, he was in charge of the Poetry department of the Literary Digest, and for a shorter time "he conducted a similar department in Current Literature, and also did a quarterly article on poetry for, I think, the Review of Reviews."40
The Society of Sanitary and Moral Prophylaxis, at a meeting held at the New York Academy of Medicine, in December, 1913, was privileged to hear an essay by Kilmer on "The Drama as an Instrument of Sex Education." This high-minded society was informed by Kilmer that though:
‘The Great Love’ is, in my opinion, one of the most skilfully constructed plays presented on the New York stage for many a year, I am quite serious in saying that as a factor in sex education, it is a thousand times inferior to ‘Bertha the Beautiful Cloak Model’.41 Kilmer was a facile and engaging speaker, and was therefore much in demand on the lecture circuits. According to Robert Holliday, he frequently neglected to make any preparation for his speeches, not even choosing a subject until the beginning of the dinner which was to culminate in a specimen of his oratory.42 His constant research for the dictionary, and, later on, for his New York Times articles, must have given him a store of knowledge at his fingertips to be produced at a moment's notice for these emergencies.
During this period he became a member of the Author's Club, the Vagabonds, the Columbia University Club, and the Alianza Puertoriguena.43
In 1913 Kilmer left his position with the Churchman to become a full fledged newspaperman; a special writer for the New York Times Sunday Magazine. Holliday says of him:
I am sure he saw himself in fancy as one of those weather-beaten characters bred in the old-time newspaper school of booze, profanity and hard knocks, his only text-book the police-court blotter and the moulder of his youth a particularly brutal night city-editor. He maintained, with humorous arrogance against opposing argument, the thesis that every great writer had got his 'training’ as a newspaper man … Hard pressed, he even stood ready to make some such hilariously sweeping assertion as that George Eliot, Shakespeare, Tennyson and Robert Browning were, properly perceived, newspaper men.44
Late in 1912, Rose, his first daughter, was born, and only nine months later, in July of 1913, she was stricken with infantile paralysis. His letters of this time, mainly written to Father James J. Daly, to whom he turned for help, reflect his distress at her danger and his appeal to religion for assistance.
In Kilmer's first letter to Father Daly after Rose had become ill, he asked for his prayers and wrote:
Rose cannot move her legs or arms - She was so active and happy only last week - she cannot even cry - her voice is just a little whimper - the danger is of its reaching her lungs and killing her. I cannot write any more. You know how I feel. Pray for her.45 Five weeks later, on August 30th, 1915, Kilmer wrote again, stating:
There is not, it seems, any danger of the death of Rose now. And she has regained her strength. Her arms and legs have been left paralysed but her hands and feet move … I am deeply grateful to you for your compliance with my request. I know that your prayers were of value in keeping her alive … you were the only man to whom I could appeal for the special help needed, and I was in bitter grief and anxiety … Now that the crisis is past, we have a strange tranquility. And we have acquired a humility that is, I think, good for us.46
Kilmer had been on the brink of Catholicism for some time and when illness struck his home he and his wife had instinctively turned to the Catholic Church. A third letter to Father Daly, dated October 6, 1913, thanked him again and ended simply with, "My wife and I are studying Catholic doctrine and we hope to be received this Autumn.”47 In November, 1913, Kilmer and his wife Aline were received into the Church.48
Though his conversion was a great surprise to all of his friends, little outward change could be noticed in his regular activities. Kilmer never made an ostentatious show of his religious faith. Nor was it such a great step for him to have become a complete Catholic. In another letter, some months after his conversion, he wrote:
You ask me if I know what a retreat is. I do, because long before I was a Catholic, before I was a wild-eyed Socialist revolutionary, I was a ritualistic Anglican, and I went twice up to Holy Cross Monastery at West Park. This is an Anglican institution, which observes a modification of the Benedictine rule. And there I learned about imitation retreats, anyway. I must go to a regular retreat sometime.49
The most explicit account of Kilmer's conversion was also written by Kilmer himself. On January 9, 1914, he wrote again to Father Daly:
Of course you understand my conversion. I am beginning to understand it. I believed in the Catholic position, the Catholic view of ethics and aesthetics, for a long time. But I wanted something not intellectual, some conviction not mental - in fact I wanted Faith.
Just off Broadway, on the way from the Hudson Tube Station to the Times Building, there is a Church, called the Church of the Holy Innocents. Since it is in the heart of the Tenderloin, this name is strangely appropriate - for there surely is need of youth and innocence. Well, every morning for months I stopped on my way to the office and prayed in this Church for faith. When faith did come, it came, I think, by way of my little paralysed daughter. Her lifeless hands led me; I think her tiny feet know beautiful paths. You understand this and it gives me a selfish pleasure to write it down.50
But what Kilmer would write to Father Daly he would not discuss with his friends; his conversion was his private affair. One finds no mention of it even in the published letters to his mother. In her book of Memories, Mrs. Kilmer says:
Joyce's change of conviction never brought a cloud between us, and neither did his father ever utter a word of disapproval. As for me, I bless the day when he became a Catholic.51
In the meantime, Joyce Kilmer was becoming a very successful journalist. He didn't know shorthand and he never learned to type properly, but Kilmer always managed very well without such knowledge. So far as shorthand was concerned, he simply invented a system of his own to aid him in his interviews.52
Kilmer remained a staff member of the New York Times Sunday Magazine and its Book Review section from 1913 until his entry in the Army in 1917. He wrote book reviews, literary criticism, essays on all subjects, and an occasional poem. His major task, however, was to write interviews, and in this field he was unquestionably a brilliant journalist. He interviewed all types of newsworthy individuals, but in his later years he particularly specialized in literary figures, coming to know almost every important artist of his time. Part of his success lay in his ability to so lead the interview that his subjects found themselves making flat, controversial statements which they might never have intended making at all. This made it possible for Kilmer to head his interviews with such titles as: "'American Literature is Going to the Dogs. It is Fault of Magazines,' Says Henry Holt."53
Returning to the city after one interview, Kilmer attempted to leap aboard a moving train and was struck and tossed by the engine. Taken to the Good Samaritan Hospital at Suffern, New York, Kilmer immediately wired to New York and dictated his interview, more concerned about his Sunday story than about his three broken ribs.54
If the year 1913 had brought near-tragedy into Kilmer's home, it was also a year of great literary success. This was the year of the publication of "Trees," the poem which made him famous. The popular fancy fell on "Trees,” but all his verse had much improved. According to Kilmer's statement, he "became a poet in November 1913."55
In 1914, Trees and Other Poems was published and Kilmer decided upon another sideline to an already extremely active career. He had only to announce his availability as a lecturer, and offers came pouring in from all over the United States.56 The Catholic audience was one audience that Kilmer particularly wanted to reach, and once again he was very successful. Robert Holliday writes that "It is not an unsupported assertion to say that he was in his time and place the laureate of the Catholic Church."57
Certainly his lectures and writings had a beneficial influence on the American Catholic journalism of his day. What Belloc and Chesterton were doing for England, Kilmer wished to do for the United States. He had long admired these men and had in fact become acquainted with them when he visited England in 1914 to escort his mother home to the United States. (Not one to miss an opportunity, Killer arranged at the time to write a series of articles for British newspapers.)58
If Kilmer did well as a lecturer before Catholic schools and societies, he was equally popular with secular audiences as a literary lecturer and a reader of his own verse. At one point he teamed up on a Lyceum tour with Ellis Parker Butler, the author of Pigs is Pigs, who later wrote:
He was a most charming traveling companion and an ideal team-mate for the purpose we had in mind. I would not have thought of going ‘on tour’ if I had not met Kilmer. My idea was never to ‘go on tour’ but, after I had met Kilmer, to ‘go on tour with Kilmer.’ He was altogether lovable and loved.59
Kilmer, in 1915, gave the following description of himself:
I live in the Ramapo Hills in Jersey and don't mind commuting. I have a wife and two children, am twenty-seven years old, am catholic in my tastes and Catholic in religion, am socially a democrat, and politically a Democrat. I am special writer on the staff of the 'New York Times Sunday Magazine,' the 'Times Review of Books' and the 'Literary Digest.' I am bored by Feminism, Futurism, Free Love. I like to go fishing. This is not a pose. I really catch the fish.60
The same article, based on an interview of Kilmer in his home, pointed out that while Kilmer might be widely known for his affection for trees, his affection was certainly not sentimental - the most distinguished feature of Kilmer's property was a colossal woodpile outside his home. The house stood in the middle of a forest and what lawn it possessed was obtained only after Kilmer had spent months of weekend toil in chopping down trees, pulling up stumps, and splitting logs. Kilmer's neighbors had difficulty in believing that a man who could do that could also be a poet.61
Of course, the better a poet Kilmer became, the less he did act like a poet. He had no inflated opinion of his own talent and, perhaps sensitive that some might make the charge against him, loathed the phrase about "prostituting" one's gifts. Kilmer's approach to his work, although sensitive, was eminently practical. His was a very hard trade in which many more fail than succeed. One reason he did not fail was because he had an excellent business sense.
As a lecturer he was prepared, to a certain extent, to give the public what it wanted. An associate of Kilmer's on the Times staff relates:
Our editor analysed him into three distinct manners: Kilmer the literary man; Kilmer the lecturer; and Kilmer, himself. His first appearance in the office would give you the cue to him for the day. If he came in grinning with his pipe drawing well, we would know that nothing was to be feared; he was himself … When he appeared in his cutaway coat and a particularly pastoral necktie, we knew that on that day the elderly ladies of This Literary Club or the young ladies of That Academy were to be treated to a discourse on certain aspects of Victorian verse.
One day he came in, obviously decked out for a lecture. Without his having said a word about it, the assistant Sunday editor spoke up: ‘Let’s cut out work this afternoon and hear Kilmer lecture.’ A look of horror overspread his face. 'For heaven's sake, don't,’ he said. ‘I couldn't go through with it.’ I don't believe any of us ever did hear him.62
In 1913 Kilmer's third book, The Circus and Other Essays, was published in New York. During that year he took on the additional duties of teaching classes on journalism at New York University. Despite all his other occupations, he also found time in 1915 to become poetry editor of Current Literature and contributing editor of Warner's Library of the World's Best Literature. His work for the Times and the Literary Digest, his lectures, and his free lance writing continued apace.
The next year was to see the publication of three more of his books: Literature in the Making, Main Street and Other Poems, and Dreams and Images, an Anthology of Catholic Poets. It was also to see Joyce Kilmer enter the war.
During the first years of World War I, Kilmer's sympathies, despite the fact that he knew and loved England, were inclined to favor Germany. It has been suggested that Kilmer felt as he did because he enjoyed controversy and his combative instinct was to side with the less popular cause.63 Whatever the reason, Kilmer was a neutralist until the world heard of the sinking of the Lusitania. Then he expressed his feelings in his powerful poem written for the Times, “The White Ships and the Red." The subject was assigned to him, but the conviction was his own, and from that time on his attitude toward the war was changed.64
The United States entered the war in April, 1917, and within three weeks Kilmer enlisted as a private in the Seventh Regiment, National Guard, New York.65 He did so because he sincerely believed that it was the duty of every man to offer his services to the cause of his country. He might easily have delayed; indeed he has been severely criticized for being too hasty in offering himself, but it was simply not in the nature of the man to swerve from what he conceived to be his duty.
Kilmer did not go from any desire for adventure. He was happiest in his own home and he was now the father of four small children. His friends were at first astonished at his decision but later came to understand - it was impossible to think of the United States at war and Kilmer not serving in that war.66
In August, 1917, Kilmer was transferred on request to the 69 Regiment, which became the 165thth Infantry as part of the 42nd Division - the famous Rainbow Division. In Father Duffy's Story, the Chaplain of the 69th has this to say about Kilmer's entry in the service:
Nothing of the long haired variety about him - a sturdy fellow, manly, humorous, interesting. If he had left the whole matter up to my decision, he would stay at home and look after his large family, and let men with fewer responsibilities undertake this task, at least until such time as the country would have need of every man. He is going about this thing in exactly the same spirit that led him to enter the Church. He sees what he considers a plain duty, and he is going ahead to perform it, calm and clear-eyed, without the slightest regard to what the consequences may be.67 In September, 1917, about six weeks before Kilmer was sent to Europe, his crippled daughter Rose died. The event was particularly tragic since the Kilmers were expecting another child at any moment. This left three children: Kenton Sinclair, Deborah Clanton and Michael Barry. The last child, Christopher, was born just twelve days after Rose's death.68
Kilmer had originally been assigned to Company H - where he was grateful for the numbing effect of days spent in rigorous physical training - but he was soon transferred to Headquarters Company where he was to do statistical work under the direction of the regimental Chaplain, Father Francis Patrick Duffy.69 Although a private in rank, he gained the rather imposing title of Senior Regimental Statistician.
Kilmer sailed with his regiment on October 31st, 1917, and arrived in France on November 11th.70 Before leaving the United States he had arranged with his publishers to write a book about the war. Even the title had been decided upon - Here and There With the Fighting Sixty-Ninth.71 In a letter dated November 24, 1917, Kilmer wrote, to his wife Aline: "I haven't written anything in prose or verse since I got here – except statistics - but I've stored up a lot of memories to turn into copy when I get a chance.72
Kilmer never was to produce any "copy" for his New York associates. It was not that he found nothing to write about - Kilmer could make a good story out of anything - but he had not entered the war in order to report it and quickly formed a very low opinion of war journalists. He wrote, "The only sort of book I care to write about the war is the sort people will read after the war is over - a century after it is over."73 He did still wish to write a book, eventually, but not a reporter's book, hurriedly hacked out. Above all, it would contain "nothing that has any news value."74 In one of Kilmer's last letters, to Father Edward F. Garesche, S.J., he wrote:
I have written very little - two prose sketches and two poems - since I left the States, but I have a rich store of memories. Not that what I write matters - I have discovered, since some unforgettable experiences, that writing is not the tremendously important thing I once considered it. You will find me less a bookman when you next see me, and more, I hope, a man.75 In the letters to his family, Kilmer was always cheerful, but in his "Historical Appendix" to Father Duffy's book he shows a darker side to the first winter the Americans spent in France. Kilmer compares the suffering of the troops on one occasion to the plight of Washington's men at Valley Forge. However, in spite of all, the men remained cheerful. Kilmer relates that the men were never too cold, too hungry, or too weary to sing during an exhausting four days march in France, .from December 26 to the 29th. On December 29th the regiment finally reached their destination, a village called Longeau.
"To judge them by their gait and their faces," Kilmer wrote, "the men had aged twenty years." Upon entering the village, however, "the weary bandsmen started a defiant air and the Regiment joined in with a roar. The song was ‘The Good Old Summertime.’"76
This march, incidentally, was the inspiration for Kilmer’s prose sketch "Holy Ireland," which he wrote in France shortly afterwards. One .of the best things Kilmer ever wrote, "Holy Ireland" tells of a night spent by a group of Irish American soldiers in a French farmhouse during that famous four-day's march.
Although Kilmer was first assigned to the Adjutant's Office, keeping regimental statistics, he was dissatisfied with his "bullet-proof job,” and “succeeded, after two months intriguing, in getting rid of it.”77
He "got rid of it" by first working with Intelligence on a part time basis and in April, 1918, by succeeding in making his transfer permanent. He became a sergeant at this time, and was delighted, but refused to consider going to Officer's School because that would mean going to another regiment. Kilmer said in a letter: "I don't want to leave this crowd. I'd rather be a sergeant in the 69th than a lieutenant in any other regiment in the world."78
The disastrous battle of Rouge Bouquet had occurred on March 12th. At this time Kilmer had been in a hospital recovering from a "strained muscle." But if he did not see it, he commemorated the battle in his celebrated poem “Rouge Bouquet.” It was Kilmer's "first attempt at versification in a dug-out."79 In a letter to Father Daly, Kilmer says that this poem indicates the scope of his work as a statistician. Kilmer wrote: "Handling statistics in Regimental Headquarters isn't the dry task you imagine it. The statistics aren't dry - they're wet - and red."80
Kilmer's letters to his family minimized the dangers he faced. In March, 1918, at the time he was striving to arrange for more hazardous duty, he wrote happily of the prospect of growing old:
It is with consummate pleasure that I contemplate my senility and, may I say, mediaevality … I picture myself at sixty, with a long white moustache, a pale gray tweed suit, a very large Panama hat. I can see my gnarled but beautifully groomed hands as they tremblingly pour out the glass of dry sherry which belongs to every old man's breakfast. I cannot think of myself at seventy or eighty - I grow hysterical with applause - I am lost in a delirium of massive ebony canes, golden snuff-boxes and daily silk hats.81
Of his transfer to the Regimental Intelligence Section, in April, he wrote, “finest job in the army,"82 and in a letter to Aline: "Now I'm doing work I love - and work you may be proud of. None of the drudgery of soldiering, but a double share of glory and thrills."83
After he had entered the Intelligence Section, he became almost indispensable to his company and his battalion. Kilmer's companion, Sergeant-Major Esler, said later in an interview that:
He would always be doing more than his orders called for - That is, getting much nearer to the enemy's position than any officer would ever be inclined to send him. Night after night he would lie out in No Man's Land, crawling through barbed wires, in an effort to locate enemy positions, and enemy guns, and tearing his clothes to shreds. On the following day he would come to me for a new uniform.84 If Kilmer loved and admired his fellow soldiers, that love and admiration was returned to an extraordinary degree. As a poet, coming into a rough, tough regiment, he was at first the object of some suspicion. Once he was known, that suspicion vanished and everyone came to know him - he was an institution.
Another of Kilmer’s companions wrote: "He was worshipped by the men about him. I have heard them speak with awe of his coolness and his nerve in scouting patrols in No Man's Land.”85 This coolness and his habit of choosing, with typical enthusiasm, the most dangerous and difficult missions, led to his death.
Toward the end of July, 1918, the Regiment was on the line in the valley of the Ourcq. There was bitter fighting on July 27th and 28th, and by the 30th Major Donovan and the 1st Battalion had been sent from Headquarters to take the lead in the day's attack. Kilmer volunteered to accompany the Major "because his own battalion would not be in the lead that day.”86 Donovan and Kilmer knew and respected one another, and in speaking of this day Father Duffy said:
The Major placed great reliance on his coolness and intelligence and kept him by his side. That suited Joyce, for to be at Major Donovan’s side in a battle is to be in the center of activity, and in the post of danger.87
This reliance was proved when Lieutenant Ames, the adjutant, was killed in the fighting and Kilmer was selected to act in his place. In the course of his duties he discovered that the woods to the front of the battalion contained enemy machine guns, and Kilmer led a scouting party to find their position. When his comrades found him, some time later, they thought at first that he was peering over the edge of a little hill, where he had crawled for a better view. When he did not answer their call, they ran to him and found him dead. Father Duffy wrote: “A bullet had pierced his brain. His body was carried in and buried by the side of Ames. God rest his dear and gallant soul.”88
Father Duffy also wrote this:
He was absolutely the coolest and most indifferent man in the face of danger I have ever seen. It was not from lack of love of life, for ho enjoyed his life as a soldier — his only cross was distance from home. It was partly from his inborn courage and devotion — he would not stint his sacrifice — partly his deep and real belief that what God wills is best.89 In “The Proud Poet,” written long before, Kilmer had painted his own portrait:
When you say of the making of ballads and songs that it is woman's work
You forget all the fighting poets that have been in every land.
There was Byron, who left all his lady-loves to fight against the Turk,
And David, the Singing King of the Jews, who was born with a sword in his hand.
It was yesterday that Rupert Brooke went out to the Wars and died,
And Sir Philip Sidney's lyric voice was as sweet as his arm was strong;
And Sir Walter Raleigh met the axe as a lover meets his bride,
Because he carried in his soul the courage of his song.90
A SUMMARY OF THE CRITICISM OF JOYCE KILMER
There is a great temptation with Joyce Kilmer, as with any artist killed before his prime, to think: “If he had only lived …” Such speculation is fruitless; one must judge a man only by what he actually has accomplished, yet it is still a safe assumption that Kilmer’s literary reputation would be much greater today if he had survived the war.
If Kilmer had been only a poet this might not be so, although his poetry was steadily improving until his death, but his talents were not so limited; he was also a journalist, literary critic, and lecturer of the very first order. Even though the intellectual climate of the twenties would have been inclement to his positive Catholicism, Kilmer would have known how to make his influence felt, most particularly, of course, in Catholic circles.
Yet because Kilmer allied himself so closely with Catholic causes and because as a man he was such an example of practical piety, it has become rather difficult to find an unbiased opinion of his literary worth among the Catholics who have known him best. Articles about Kilmer in the Catholic press - and there have been many - are apt to be uncritical as to his work and glowing as to his character.
To the public at large he has been remembered simply as a war hero and as the author of "Trees." Since the poem has been so popular, it has kept Kilmer's name famous, but this fame has not been without its drawbacks. Nearly every successful poet has been haunted by one poem which became admired beyond its worth and obscured his other works. Gelett Burgess, for example, expressed the feeling of most poets when he wrote:
0 yes I wrote the Purple Cow
I'm sorry now I wrote it.
But I can tell you anyhow
I'll kill you if you quote it.
It has been suggested that were Kilmer alive today he might complain that people couldn't see his poems for the "trees." Many of Kilmer's other poems are certainly equally worthy of being remembered and some, especially his last, are considered to be far better poems.
Although Kilmer is best known today for his poetry, he is likely to be of interest to a student of literary history because of his literary criticism and his published interviews with the literary lights of his day. As a "literary interviewer" Kilmer virtually created a new kind of journalistic career for himself and in this no other newspaper man has equaled his success. He could make his subjects talk, he could make them say interesting and revealing things - and if this skill on Kilmer's part was simply the skill of a brilliant journalist, the results make fascinating reading to this day.
Joyce Kilmer's first volume, Summer of Love, was published in 1911. It is an author's book and shows the influence of his early models, Oscar Wilde, Swinburne, and Yeats. In the main, the reviewers are kind. Dean Howells had this to say:
Looking through his book I have no question except as to which kind of poems I like best, and I find that they are the non-passionate kind, like, “And Forbid Them Not,” “The Grass in Madison Square,” and "Metamorphosis,” … These are the most clearly thought, the most freshly felt. If he can go on from here, he will go far.91
The Literary Digest said:
Two or three of the poems, in the style of 'Ballade of My Lady's Beauty,' are charming, the one we print below has to our minds a touch of real greatness, but in the main Mr. Kilmer seems to be fiddling harmonics instead of drawing full, deep tones.92
Critics in general felt, as Kilmer did later, that these early poems, while charming and well-written, were lacking in depth. This lack was due to youth and inexperience, and was remedied in his next book, Trees and Other Poems. The New York Times said of this book: “Trees and Other Poems contains much to show that its author's talent has matured and broadened since the publication of Summer of Love.”93
The Independent also praised this second book, saying: "The verses celebrate common things but the author's gift of words, robust sanity and reserved humor lift them clear of the commonplace.”94
Kilmer, in short, had progressed from writing commonplace verse about extraordinary objects, such as ghosts and fairies in flowers, to writing fresh and original poems about objects so ordinary that few people notice them except as a background. While he still wrote about usual objects, such as trees and stars, more of his poems were on such homely topics as “Delicatessen,” “Servant Girl and Grocer's Boy,” “The Twelve-Forty-Five,” and “The Apartment.” Yet he still succeeded in finding the romance that he had seen earlier in mad fiddlers and baby fairies. In a delicatessen he saw, "Rich spices from the Orient, /And fruit that knew Italian skies;" he saw a servant girl as “A princess forced to dwell within a lonely kitchen cell,” and a grocer's boy as “King of realms of endless joy” in her eyes.
Chesterton's influence, perhaps, may be seen in the way Kilmer took an everyday object and, by showing an unusual aspect of it, made it seem new and exciting. The Book News Monthly suggests that this interest in the lives of ordinary people may be a result of Kilmer's newspaper training - a regime likely to keep a man's feet firmly on the ground, no matter how far his fancy may wander.
Main Street continued the improvement that Trees showed, “in variety of theme and lyric treatment, in emotional depth and breadth and height."95 Those who already liked Kilmer's poetry were especially pleased with this last book - but others, such as Conrad Aiken, dissented. Aiken wrote:
The publisher tells us that Kr. Kilmer has had, for a man still young, an astonishing varied career. Nevertheless, one could not guess it from Mr. Kilmer's book. Ideas, emotions, language, rhythms, all oddly secondhand, as if they had been offered to him and blandly accepted.96
On the other hand, the Literary Digest said: “That delicacy and charm that have characterized Mr. Joyce Kilmer's work in the past are found, with an added note of strong religious fervor, in his new volume of verse.”97
In Scepticisms, while commenting on the poems of John Cowper Powys and Joyce Kilmer and a number of other poets, Aiken continued his attack:
They are both, they are all, blood brothers - sentimentalists, dabblers in the pretty and sweet, rhetoricians of the 'thou and thee' school, pale-mouthed clingers to the artificial and archaic.98 And again, in order to emphasize his statements:
But of Mr. Kilmer and Mr. Powys and Mrs. Garrison - particularly Mrs. Garrison — they (Aiken's remarks) are all too true. Here is nothing new, nothing distinctive, the trotting out of the same faint passions, the same old heartbreaks and love songs, ghostly distillations of fragrances all too familiar. Is it possible for individuals to be so little individual? Have they never experienced anything for themselves? Ideas, emotions, language, rhythms, all are oddly secondhand.99
It is true that Kilmer was a traditionalist in the matter of adhering to the established forms in poetry — he did not contribute anything “new” in that respect - but the rest of the charges, if they apply at all, can only apply to his earliest work. Kilmer was very much an individual and in many ways a tough-minded individual. To characterize him in his later verse as a “pale-mouthed clinger to the artificial and archaic” is ridiculous. Kilmer was not of that school.
The line between feeling and sentimentality is a faint one, and certainly few would deny that Kilmer occasionally strayed across it, but seldom can his poems be called offensively sentimental. Here again, those that might be so called were among his first poems and Kilmer himself called them worthless - with the unnecessary harshness of any young poet for his more juvenile efforts.
Kilmer lived at a time when great changes were beginning to take place in poetry. It is impossible to say how his own poetry would have developed. But in his own time Kilmer offered the reader an attractive middle ground between the new and the old.
One reason for Joyce Kilmer's appeal is given in a review of Main Street by the Catholic World:
Poetry lovers have for many years been pushed to a choice between the exotic poets who stood a little too far from normal life and the colloquial or dialect versifiers who were a little too near it. Perhaps one reason why our ‘own’ Joyce Kilmer so soon achieved his enviable recognition in contemporary literature is because he has steered a golden middle course between these two extremes. His verse seemed so human, so sane, so humorous and so winsome that readers did not at first suspect his far vision and real mysticism … Indeed … the volume Trees … suggested to many critics the coming of a newer James Whitcomb Riley, an essentially popular poet sworn to the service of domesticity and democracy. But those who fancied they knew Mr. Kilmer's genius believed that even these … inspirations would prove insufficient as time went on.100