Robert Frost at Bread Loaf in 1921Robert Frost at Bread Loaf, 1921

The Legacy of Writing about the Natural World at the

Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference

Adapted from talks and narrative by David Haward Bain

The Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference has a rich tradition of encouraging writing about the natural world and the environment.  From its genesis during the years of Robert Frost’s presence at the conference to the more recent years featuring contemporary writers such as Terry Tempest Williams, Barry Lopez, Jane Brox, Camille Dungy, Alan Weisman, and Rick Bass, Bread Loaf has created a special space for writers who love and write about the outdoors.  What follows is an overview of some of these writers and their time spent on the Bread Loaf campus. 

Bread Loaf is a mountain, located southwest of Middlebury, Vermont, in the Green Mountains, standing some 3,835 feet high, it and its companions the product of that cataclysmic Devonian Age collision of continental shelves some 360 million years ago. Bread Loaf is also home, during two weeks of every August for more than eight decades, the Bread Loaf Writers' Conference.

The inn was the brainchild of the early conservationist Joseph Battell, born in Middlebury in 1839, a young man with literary pretensions who dropped out of Middlebury College after his sophomore year on account of his health. He published a travelogue of Europe and the Isles, and upon returning home bought a modest farmhouse up on the Ripton plateau of the Green Mountains, in 1865, and turned it into an inn which he named after the flat-topped massif standing just behind it. For the next fifty years the Bread Loaf Inn became a well-known summer resort. Thanks to a family inheritance, Joseph Battell enlarged it over the years, modernizing the look in the latest French Second Empire style, with mansard roofs and Victorian bric-a-brac. He constructed many outbuildings in similar styles, several with dramatic stacked steamboat-style porches. Guests could hunt, fish, hike, horseback ride, and play croquet or badminton, and on weekends he imported entertainment from Boston or New York. He prided himself on never making a profit on the inn, but luckily his inheritance and diverse businesses made it possible.

Joseph Battell was an avid environmentalist who had seen much of Vermont's original forests stripped by what he called "timber butchers." He was greatly influenced by a fellow Vermonter, his contemporary George Perkins Marsh, whose book Man and Nature, published in 1864, a copy of which is still in Battell’s glass-fronted bookcases in the Inn, was called, in Lewis Mumford’s words, “the fountainhead of the conservation movement.” As a several-term state representative in Montpelier, he sponsored legislation to ban cars from the state’s traveled roads – let them build their own blasted roads, he said. Joseph Battell began buying mountainous forest land first to preserve the vistas from the inn, and never stopped buying mountains until he was largest private landowner in the state. The Bread Loaf forest itself ran to some 35,000 acres. “Some folks go to Europe,” Battell would often say, “and pay $10,000 for a painting and hang it up in their home where none but their friends can see it. I buy a mountain for that money and it is hung up by nature where everybody can see it. And it is infinitely more handsome than any picture ever painted.”

Most of these Bread Loaf lands ultimately were transferred to the federal government, joining other huge Battell tracts named in his will and becoming the backbone of the Green Mountain National Forest. But as far as the Bread Loaf Inn was concerned, Middlebury College was disinclined to get into the resort business, and nearly put up all the property for sale, in 1919 and 1920. But fortunately minds were changed, and authorities decided to found the Bread Loaf Summer School of English there. The Writers' Conference followed, five years later, created to fill the last two weeks of the season.

That addition to the summer season was the happy result of many influences within the college and the summer school faculty, including Willa Cather, who visited, spoke, and read at the English School several times in the early 1920s. She told the dean that Bread Loaf would be a perfect writers' retreat. Another important voice was Robert Frost, who also lectured at the program and urged officials to expand curriculum into creative writing, invite professional writers to reside with students. "He would turn from correcting grammar in red ink to matching experience in blank ink," Frost said of the ideal teacher (meaning himself), "experience of life and experience of art."

John Farrar, born in Burlington, Vermont, and educated at Yale, was selected to run the writers' conference. Farrar had made quite a success in publishing, working for Doubleday, Doran, reviving the popular literary magazine, the Bookman. Poet Charles Norman recalled Farrar: "He had the old-fashioned notion that new writers could be, or should be, helped on the road to fame by older and more established ones." That became the credo of Bread Loaf. Farrar sought out writers, editors, and agents to smooth the newcomers' path. Many of the experienced were full-fledged stars, such as the poet Stephen Vincent Benet and the novelist Hervey Allen, and of course Robert Frost. John Farrar directed the conference for only three sessions until he resigned in favor of founding the publishing firm of Farrar and Rinehart (later Farrar, Straus & Giroux).  

In 1932, Theodore Morrisona Harvard instructor with ties to the magazine and book business, became the third conference director and pushed Bread Loaf into truly national prominence. He took advantage of Robert Frost’s interest in all things Bread Loaf by scheduling him yearly.

By the late 1930s, Frost had agreed to a permanent lectureship at Bread Loaf. His readings were always standing room only in Bread Loaf's Little Theatre, constructed to replace the burnt Music Hall in 1931. Frost bought a farm and farmhouse adjoining the Bread Loaf property, and there he happily spent the last 23 summers of his life. He preferred to live in a rustic cabin up a ways from the farmhouse, so he rented the house to Bread Loaf director Ted Morrison, wife Kathleen, and their two young children. Friends, acolytes, and patrons constantly streamed past the Morrison's house up to the poet's cabin.  At that time, in pamphlets and advertisements, Frost was being called "the godfather of Bread Loaf."

The presence of writers in the natural world, which you could say was begun at Bread Loaf by Joseph Battell, continued into the 1930s. Ted Morrison hired the brilliant, forceful Bernard DeVoto, editor of the Saturday Review and Harper's, who lectured at Bread Loaf, taught fiction throughout the 1930s and was a strong force in the facultyAt the lectern, DeVoto talked about whatever interested his restless mind – Mormonism in his native Utah; a supremely self-sufficient Vermont farm family (kings of what we would today call “localvores”); the depredations of the House Un-American Activities Committee or the F.B.I.; Mark Twain’s years as an unsuccessful silver miner and budding, brilliant Nevada newspaperman; the plundering of the West by modern-day extractive industries and water-hungry corporations and municipalities. Often these were subjects from his monthly columns in Harper’s. Many of his columns and editorials and lectures on the history and present-day crisis of the sturdy but delicate western ecosystems of North America, and the human lessons to be learned therein, are still having their effect today. 

At Bread Loaf, over nearly two decades, Bernard DeVoto served fairly regularly until his death in the 1950s.  But the thing to focus on is that DeVoto forged many literary ties with colleagues and students that extended across the off-mountain months of all those years – the young liberal history grad student Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. is one example. But probably none so much, and to such effect, as the young Iowa-born Wallace Stegner, 28 years old in 1938.

On Stegner’s first day as an undergraduate at the University of Utah, he was walking down the corridor in the English department. Suddenly a professor’s office door slammed open and a magazine soared out of it, smacking against the opposite wall and landing in a heap. The door crashed shut. Young Stegner picked it up and found the offending article: it was by Utah native Bernard DeVoto, and Stegner paid close attention to it and to everything subsequently under that name. Stegner and DeVoto finally met at Bread Loaf, became fast friends, and the elder writer was generous with his literary advice and commercial as well as academic contacts; it was a friendship that lasted well beyond DeVoto’s death – Stegner wrote one of the best literary biographies one can hope to find about his friend and mentor, and he edited his letters into a magnificent volume and arranged for their deposition at the university he migrated to, Stanford. And Stegner returned many times to Bread Loaf, usually from the northern Vermont summer place he bought with the prize money from his first novel. “Bread Loaf was, in a curious way, my Paris and my Rome,” Stegner wrote at the end of a long life. “It was there that I met Frost, DeVoto, and many other writers who later became important in my life, and that [first] summer visit…in 1938 led me directly to an appointment at Harvard and the chance to grow.”

He did grow – autobiographical and imaginative novels, memoirs, a definitive biography of Grand Canyon explorer John Wesley Powell and the second opening of the West.  Stegner taught fiction brilliantly at the writers’ conference, solidifying a teaching practice that would guide the peerless writing program he founded at Stanford.  His books kept appearing over the decades, winning prizes for the now-elder statesman of letters. And as an editorialist, a memoirist, lecturer, and commentator, Wallace Stegner continued the cause of the environment – Western, Eastern, Northern, Southern – carrying, in his own brilliant way, the baton passed to him initially at Bread Loaf by DeVoto.

And so, the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference carried on, inside and out, on the mountain as well as off. Back in the late 1930s, Director Ted Morrison had established a generous scholarship program, the first incarnation of which recognized first time published writers -- early fellows included Howard Fast, Catherine Drinker Bowen, Robert Francis, Josephine Johnson, James Still, and Scott O'Dell.  One first-timer in the 1940s, with a fellowship for his first book, was the Montana newspaperman Joseph Kinsey Howard, whose reportage, novels, and influential book, Montana: High, Wide, and Handsome, were encouraged and celebrated in print by DeVoto and Stegner. That last volume continues to influence, with subsequent editions introduced by two members of different Bread Loaf generations, A. B. Guthrie, Jr., and William Kittredge.

John Ciardi was named director in 1955. Ciardi, from his teaching posts at Harvard and Rutgers, in his monthly columns in the Saturday Review magazine, in the active lecture circuit, often extolled what he called “the green and gold summers” at Bread Loaf, words which, when published, swelled the ranks of the conference. In one national magazine column he called it a "land-locked cruise."

The year that Russell Banks first attended, 1963, could be considered a banner faculty year, although it was also the first conference in three decades not including Robert Frost, who died the previous January. Novelist Mark Harris, John Hawkes, John Frederick Nims, and Nelson Algren were among the faculty. Hawkes and Algren squabbled incessantly, and neither returned to the mountain.

In the 1970s, prominent poets writing about the natural world were among the perennial faculty at Bread Loaf.  Bread Loafers included the young, wonderful Whitmanesque poet Galway Kinnell, the poet and essayist Maxine Kumin, and  Donald Hall, all three of whom have done so much to memorialize the ancient White Mountains and the old farmsteads of New Hampshire.

The first ten years of the Robert Pack conference directorship ushered in a strong faculty. His roster included Mark Strand, Rosellen Brown, Marvin Bell, William Gass, William Meredith, Maxine Kumin, Toni Morrison,Geoffrey Wolff, John Irving, Tim O’Brien, John Gardner, Lore Segal, Donald Justice, Gail Godwin,Stanley Elkin, Howard Nemerov, Stanley Plumly, Harry Crews, and Nancy Willard. Many of the above were on the semi-permanent faculty by the 1980s.  In 1981, Rick Bass attended as didthe novelist Andrea Barrett, the poet and later war journalist Christopher Merrill, the nonfiction writer Ted Conover and the novelist Helen Schulman.

In the mid-1980s, Cape Cod nature essayist Robert Finch attended the conference and John Elder, a frequent nature hike organizer and lecturer at Bread Loaf and a sublime essayist about these Robert Frost-haunted mountains, our groves of sugar maples, and other high-valley ecosystems. Other early-in-their-career nonfiction writers have included the Rolling Stone investigative journalist Howard Kohn, author of The Killing of Karen Silkwood as well as the beautiful Midwestern farm-boy memoir, The Last Farmer.  Mark Hertsgaard  received a Bread Loaf fellowship for his book about the lapdog press during the Reagan years, and is now an eloquent environmental reporter. In the summer of 1986, Alan Weisman attended the conference, up from Arizona on a fellowship for his first book La Frontera, done with the photographer Jay Dusard. For more than two decades now, the country has listened for his radio dispatches and celebrated as each of Alan’s subsequent books have appeared – Gaviotas: A Village to Reinvent the World, about the self-sustaining Colombian community; An Echo in My Blood: The Search for a Family’s Hidden Past, which involved a grandfather’s violent death and digging for roots and answers in the Ukraine; and now, an extraordinary bestseller, The World Without Us. Ted Conover attended Bread Loaf in 1989 –a native of Okinawa, raised in Denver, graduate of Amherst and a Marshall scholar, and already the author of two adventurous first-person narratives, Rolling Nowhere: Riding the Rails with American Hobos, and Coyotes, his account of living and working with illegal Mexican emigrants, two books which continue to speak to us today. Thereafter, there was Whiteout: Lost in Aspen, about that mountain of wealth, and Newjack: Guarding Sing Sing, his account of being a newbie jail guard – a startling, amazing, risky enterprise for any writer, and for Conover, a great success -- a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award.

There has been an increased prominence of nonfiction, and in particular environmentally-related nonfiction, at Bread Loaf.  For example, Barry Lopez first came to Bread Loaf relatively late in his writing career, under the Bread Loaf directorship of Michael Collier.  Lopez recognized, named, and repeatedly celebrated the special, sacred qualities of this upland Green Mountain valley, its green and gold summers around the old Victorian inn, its durable community of truth-tellers whether poets, novelists, or nonfictionists, and the urgency of their calling and mission to give humanity what it desperately needs, a story, and the thread of a narrative with which we can begin to understand who, and why, we are, and how we fit into everything –  and of course how we can make ourselves relevant within that great gift of existence. And always, whenever possible, to speak truth to power.

A few of the Bread Loaf nature and environmental writers of recent years include the splendid Western memoirist William Kittredge, whose accounts of growing up on a ranch in southeastern Oregon, of many years of farming, and of the realities, corporeal and spiritual, of life in high-plains Montana, have won him many prizes and accolades.  In attendance at Bread Loaf a number of times was the Indiana essayist Scott Russell Sanders, born in Tennessee and raised in Ohio, whose nineteen books have explored, in his own concise words, “our place in nature, the work of social justice, the practice of community, and the search for a spiritual path.” He may be most eloquently at home “in the hardwood hill country of the White River Valley in southern Indiana,” as he says, but few except Barry Lopez have adapted so well, and celebrated so eloquently, to this Bread Loaf plateau and the spoken and written words nurtured here in our community.

Another who calls Bread Loaf a “second spiritual home”, pictured far away from these hem-locky green forests and meadows in her native Utah red-rock country is Terry Tempest Williams.  Williams’ poetical voice, her extraordinary writing, her resonant physical and spiritual presence, seems to elevate the old Bread Loaf bedrock and its postglacial dressing. The Massachusetts author and small family-farmer Jane Brox, who in several works has illuminated those life and land ties. So, too, has small-scale farmer Mas Masumoto of California’s imperial valley, whose book Epitaph for a Peach heralded a career that has continued brilliantly. The onetime beat reporter Bob Reiss began as a thriller novelist, but this prolific writer also, returning to his nonfiction roots, has written books on the crisis in the Brazilian rainforest as well as the effects of global warming on the world’s weather.

Christopher Shaw, whose years in the Adirondacks as canoe guide, naturalist, magazine editor, and writer were followed by his adventures on the Usamacinta River across the Mesoamerican boundary of Guatemala and Mexico, the Sacred Monkey River of his debut book, which received a Bread Loaf fellowship, followed by more forays into nonfiction as well as fiction, pervaded by the thin, cold air of the Adirondacks and the sound of its mountain water. At Bread Loaf, Shaw has read, taught, work-shopped, and endured many years on the admissions committee, reading nonfiction and fiction manuscripts and in these ways contributing to the new Bread Loaf.

This narrative has highlighted some of the ways a literary landmark, a physical place with people coming and going in it, figures in a larger cultural landscape; what’s more, it’s also how stewardship of a parcel of uphill land, however how imperfect it might have been, might figure into our own appraisal of the larger world, and our place in it. Many Bread Loafers have felt the presence of those who came here before to these “green and gold summers”, and who moved on, as one day we all must. They left something indelible upon our community of writers both on this hallowed mountain and in the “real world” they all return to after each Bread Loaf conference.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Adapted November 2013

CONTACT INFORMATION

Bread Loaf Conferences
204 College Street
Middlebury College
Middlebury, VT 05753

Phone: 802-443-5286
Fax: 802-443-2087
Email: blwc@middlebury.edu