The Mountain has been a place for writing and literary study from the very beginning. Sarah Barnwell Elliott, daughter of one of the founders of the college, moved to Sewanee in 1870, just a year after classes had begun, and shortly thereafter began publishing the stories that won her a place among the leading “local color” writers of the post-bellum United States. By the time she left Sewanee for New York City in 1895, her neighbor William Peterfield Trent had begun writing the next chapter in Sewanee’s literary history. The remarkably energetic Trent—an English professor, though he eventually taught almost every subject in the curriculum—wrote books on a dozen literary and historical topics and literally helped to invent the academic study of American literature. But his most lasting achievement was founding The Sewanee Review in 1892, the nation’s oldest continuously published literary quarterly and still one of its most distinguished.
Trent was just departing for Columbia University, where he spent the second half of his career, when young William Alexander Percy arrived from Greenville, Mississippi. English was his favorite course at Sewanee, he reported, thanks to a black-bearded, bespectacled, and passionate professor who would exhort his students, “My God, gentlemen, do something.” Percy did, publishing several volumes of poetry and a classic autobiography, Lanterns on the Levee. He died in 1942, but entered literary history again in 1960 when his cousin Walker Percy, whom he had raised from boyhood, won the National Book Award for The Moviegoer, a novel dedicated to the man he called “Uncle Will."
By that time the general-interest quarterly Trent had founded, The Sewanee Review, had been reborn as a literary journal. Under a series of distinguished editors, beginning with the poet, critic, and novelist Allen Tate in 1944, the Review became one of the most influential literary magazines in the country and indeed the English-speaking world. Tate's contributors included most of the prominent American writers and critics of his day, including T. S. Eliot, Malcolm Cowley, Cleanth Brooks, Katherine Anne Porter, Wallace Stevens, and Dylan Thomas. In 1952 Eliot wrote that “The Sewanee Review has now reached the status of an institution - by which I mean that if it came to an end, its loss would be something more than merely the loss of one good periodical: it would be a symptom of an alarming decline in the periodical world at its highest level."
The Review continues to prosper, now joined by another distinguished literary enterprise, the Sewanee Writers’ Conference. When the playwright Tennessee Williams named the University as the principal beneficiary of his estate, with the stipulation that it use these resources to encourage writers and writing, the most dramatic result was the creation of a two-week gathering of writers—including Pulitzer, Bollingen, and Nobel prize-winners—on the Sewanee campus every July.
Now in its 26th year, the Conference has become one of the most prestigious of the summer writers’ conferences, and Sewanee residents have grown accustomed to seeing the likes of Derek Walcott, Alice McDermott, Beth Henley, Randall Kenan and Mark Strand around town for two weeks every summer.
The tradition continues: the important young novelist Kevin Wilson (tunneling to the center of the earth, The Family Fang,) is Assistant Professor of English in the College and directs its Certificate Program in Creative Writing.
The Sewanee School of Letters will enter its 11th summer with around 80 students enrolled.