In Lee Smith, Annie Dillard, and the Hollins Group: A Genesis of Writers, Nancy Parrish has tapped into a source of ubiquitous academic hunger: the educational process as it really works. Let us hear about the great teachers and the institutions that will support them in their humane idiosyncrasy; let us witness their ability to reach—and move—their most gifted students; let us hear the testimonials from those students; and let us see them operating—as adults, as accomplished professionals themselves—in their chosen spheres of life activities. In short, let us validate what we are trying to do.
Lee Smith, Annie Dillard, and the Hollins Group: A Genesis of Writers provides all these satisfactions. Parrish opens the study by describing Hollins College as a relative—albeit a stepsister—of the New England Seven Sisters nexus of Smith, Wellesley, Bryn Mawr, Barnard, etc. She does an excellent job of capturing the distinctions that southern families cultivated as they shaped cultural ambitions for their women. Not only was the South much slower to demand quality education for women, but even at the height of that demand, it applied conservative, and clearly paternalistic, measures to hold women’s abilities in check.
After her historical approach to the college, Parrish focuses on the way Hollins was changing in the 1960s, and the role of Louis D. Rubin Jr. in its changes. In a substantive [End Page 272] and interesting history of the English Department and of Rubin’s influence—both at Hollins and from his next academic position, at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill—Parrish traces patterns that would hold for many universities and colleges: increasing liberalization, increasing emphasis on student-centered classes, and the creation of new avenues of publication, such as the Hollins Critic.
In chapter 3, “The Hollins Group,” Parrish moves into the lives of the women who are the foci of her book. While some of the anecdotal information may be less tied to writings by Lee Smith, Annie Dillard, Nancy Head Beckman, Anne Bradford, Jo Berson, Cindy Hardwick (MacKethan), or Anne Goodwyn Jones than might be useful, the atmosphere of ease and joy that was possible at Hollins is charming to retell. Even in the subsequent chapters, which focus on Dillard (chapter 4) and Smith (chapter 5), a strand of commonality, of the power of the group, continues. We see Lee Smith as she writes her humorous columns in collaboration with Karen Long and Jo Berson, follows Howard Nemerov around campus, and goes down the Mississippi on a homemade raft. With relatively little attention to the professional writing of Dillard and Smith, Parrish is content to probe the aura of nostalgia that colors most of our memories of undergraduate classes, no matter where we were educated.
Yet there are some obvious weaknesses regarding the conception of the book. The provincialism that permeates the work could have been alleviated by some reference to the hundreds of other colleges (and even universities) in which the same kind of chemistry between writers has taken (and is taking) place. One thinks immediately of John Crowe Ransom’s sojourn at Kenyon College, or Ford Madox Ford’s at Olivet, or Elizabeth Drew’s at Smith. One thinks of the writers’ groups at various other locations—the compendium from Iowa; the generations of Hopwood winners at the University of Michigan; the nexus of Jim Harrison, Tom McGuane, Dan Gerber, Richard Ford, and Jim Cash at Michigan State. One thinks, too, of the groups that have catalyzed around Joyce Carol Oates, whether she taught at the University of Windsor or Princeton; around Richard Wilbur; around Doris Betts; around Lee Smith herself. Yet in Parrish’s presentation, there is a definite sense of the unique—the implication that there has never before been such a combustion of talent.
There is also a sense of struggle to provide a group of women for the reader’s assessment. Even though the title emphasizes the two best-known writers—Dillard, since the time of...