A Tribute to David Hamilton

TIR staff

David Hamilton, English professor, writer, and editor of TIR from 1977 to 2009, is retiring this spring from the University of Iowa. Lynne Nugent, managing editor of TIR, delivered this tribute at a celebration for David held on Wednesday at the Old Capitol Senate Chamber.

There’s a running joke in David’s memoir Deep River about the way the taciturn menfolk in his family would praise a fellow farmer’s skills and abilities: “He’s competent,” they’d say. It’s a level of understatement akin to something my friend Eric’s grandfather, an Iowa farmer, once said of the experience of getting thrown off your tractor: “That’ll cause a sensation.” By the scene in Deep River in which David’s father and uncle are stunned by a visiting archaeologist’s ability to tell where to dig by simply wading into the river and poking around a bit, and Uncle George says, “He’s competent,” we know exactly what he means.

David writes:

Once a New England friend complained that midwesterners fail to hunger for “peaks of excellence.” Our accomplishments tend toward the horizontal. Farmers bend to their work on both sides of the road, and river, and in the long run, health, weather, and perseverance level out much difference. I find it hard to imagine “He’s an eminence in his field” being said of a farmer. On my uncle’s tongue an “eminence” was a visible rise in the lay of the land, a bench or table. It might swell up waist high across a field. Your tractor would chug a little more crawling up on it. If my uncle were to use “eminence” to describe a neighbor farmer, he would have meant only that through sustained competence, over many years, a man had pulled himself to some small advantage (Deep River: A Memoir of a Missouri Farm, 30)

In other words, the tendency towards understatement is not only regional but occupational. A farmer does not say that someone is an eminence in his field, because an eminence in the field is more likely something upon which your tractor gets stuck, an annoyance. It makes sense that farmers do not seek to be known as eminences, which will throw you off your tractor and cause the wrong kind of sensation, but that competence is what they seek, a word that is another way of saying hard work towards excellence in a million seen and unseen ways. After all, a farmer does not plow his field in a flashy or self-serving manner. Rather, he serves the field, he coaxes and cajoles and channels the elements to make things grow.

In many ways David's memoir is about how he never stopped being a Missouri farm boy, and in this I would have to concur, based on being his student and then working for him at The Iowa Review. I’ve seen him nurture writers both in person and from afar: students who come to his office hours, where he can always be found, and are invited to sit down and have an unhurried conversation completely unaware of all the letters of recommendation he has to write and all the papers he has to grade. Submitters to The Iowa Review who got equally undivided attention. And they all had the example to look up to of his own wonderful essays and poems, which are often deeply attuned to landscape and the natural world.

I was reminded of David recently when I read an article from the Chronicle of Higher Education that people were linking to a lot on Facebook about mentorship. I've started wondering, ever since I became sort of a grownup, What is mentoring; what does it mean; am I doing it? Do you have to say great quotable things all the time, or be really really wise? And this article said simply: take an interest in your students as people! Get to know them not just inside but outside the classroom! I thought about David and how, without being intrusive, he has somehow known all about me, even things I haven't told him, even things that I didn't know myself.

Years ago, as an MFA student, I remember taking a quick turn in the halls of the English-Philosophy Building trying to avoid someone. He came upon me trying to act casual but actually hiding in the Iowa Review office and said only, “You're in a tough spot,” despite me never having said a word about the situation. I became convinced of his omniscience, but perhaps he simply had a farmer's eye for the emotional weather.

Another definition of a mentor is someone who sees more potential in you than you see in yourself. A previous time in EPB, I was trying to hide from him. (I don't know if hiding from people in EPB is one of those things everyone does in EPB, or if it's just me.) Anyway, I had skipped his class one day, and then of course ran into him two hours later in the hall. Instead of politely ignoring my absence, he asked point blank, "Oh, where were you today?" I was mortified, but think he was just genuinely curious. I told him I had put an offer in on a house, which single impoverished grad students can miraculously do in Iowa City, and the real estate agent had told me to wait by the phone that morning (all true). A few days later, David offered me a small job assisting his managing editor, saying, "A girl who has house payments to make will need to earn some extra money." That was the auspicious way I began working at The Iowa Review—by skipping class, by being an academic deadbeat. But maybe he was just sizing up what would grow best in what field.

He barely knew me and perhaps only had an instinct that I would enjoy the work. But these abilities of David’s that have come to seem supernatural to me may in fact be the magic of listening and paying attention. He taught me that in training me in editing as well. As one of my predecessors, Amber Withycombe, who went on to edit Witness, put it, “He taught me to be patient and slow as an editor, to let the work sit inside my head for a while. You hear the work better when you live with it for a time.”

I saw that for myself in the geography of the office where there was a shelf labeled “David’s shelf,” always piled high with submissions that he would read seriously, whether they were by a famous writer or someone who came through the slush pile. He wasn’t afraid to reject the famous writer or accept the unknown, and he gave both categories his trademark feedback in longhand. Sometimes even those rejected would write back, and here’s a typical note: “Dear Editor Hamilton, You just rejected my article on X. That rejection was literate and thought-provoking. I do not like rejections, but I certainly enjoy the panache with which you write them. Sincerely, Author Y.”

These personal stories are just a couple of stalks of corn in acres and acres of a farm that actually stretches to the horizon. It includes the students he has taught, the authors he published, the careers he has started with a word of encouragement, and his own writing in several genres. I could say he's an eminence, the good kind, or that he causes a sensation, the good kind. But instead I'll borrow the highest compliment of his Uncle George and say that your competence has not gone unnoticed. I’m not a Missouri farmer, but since all of us have learned something about the life from your example, I feel qualified to say: it’s obvious that your field here in Iowa has grown. Thanks, David.