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10th Oxford Book Conference celebrates Stark Young
(4 April 2003)

Home:  >Browse Listings   >Authors   >Young, Stark

Stark Young

Editor’s note: This article originally appeared in the book Lives of Mississippi Writers, 1817-1967, edited by James B. Lloyd (Jackson: UP of Mississippi, 1980). It is reprinted here by permission.

Stark Young, born in Como, Mississippi, 11 October 1881, is the most cosmopolitan and multi-talented of the state’s major literary figures. Widely traveled—especially in Italy, England, and France—thoroughly familiar with Greek, Latin, and English literature, a poet, novelist, essayist, dramatist, translator, painter, professor, letterwriter and brilliant conversationalist, Young achieved distinction in a number of artistic fields; but he is perhaps best remembered for his weekly essays on the drama which appeared in the New Republic for more than twenty years and for his best-selling novel of Mississippi during the Confederacy, So Red the Rose. Throughout his long career, Young retained the characteristically Southern attitudes which he acquired during his youth in Mississippi.

The origins of Stark Young’s art lie deeply rooted in the family traditions of his parents. His mother, Marv Clark Starks (1858-1890), was the daughter of Caroline Charlotte McGehee (1821-1861) and Stephen Gilbert Starks ( 1816-1859), a Methodist preacher. The McGehees had originally emigrated from Scotland to Virginia in the seventeenth century, pushed south to Georgia, and then moved westward first to Alabama, then Mississippi, and. eventually, even to Texas. The influence of this enormous, sprawling family upon Young cannot be overstated. From them he received a lasting admiration for family life, a

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sense of belonging, an awareness of his own identity, and a commitment to high personal standards of honor and integrity. Much of Young’s Southerness and his agrarian humanism derives from the McGehees to whom he always referred as “my people.”

In December, 1880, Mary Clark Starks married Alfred Alexander Young (1847-1925), a doctor then practicing in Como. Like the McGehees, the Youngs originated in England, emigrated to Virginia, moved south and then westward into Tennessee and Mississippi. At the age of sixteen, Stark Young’s father enlisted in the Confederate army. He fought in skirmishes near Memphis and Holly Springs and later in battles at Vicksburg, Jackson, and Atlanta. After the war, he studied for a year at the University of Mississippi and latter received a degree in medicine from the University of Pennsylvania Medical School. Stark Young was proud of his father’s understanding of humanity, his compassion for the sick and the poor, and the Southern principles which he instilled into Stark and his younger sister Julia.

In 1880, when Stark was approaching nine, his mother died. Unquestionably, her death was one of the most significant events in his life. Writing as an old man in The Pavilion, Young could still remember her face and the day of her death and funeral. His life and that of his sister Julia were permanently changed from that moment. They went to live with their uncle Hugh McGehee, although later Julia, and at times Stark, would live with their two aunts, who taught in a number of female seminaries in Tennessee, Mississippi, and Arkansas. Most of Young’s childhood was spent in Como. In 1895, however, Doctor Young remarried and moved to Oxford.

Stark Young finished his preparatory schooling in Oxford and entered the University of Mississippi. A strong student, he took courses in English literature, Latin, and history, along with the required work in science and mathematics. He joined a fraternity, wrote poetry, and edited the college annual. Young had no interest in athletics; and despite references in his poetry to romantic scenes with girls, he had few dates. His homosexual tendencies may have begun to trouble him during this period. In June 1901, at the age of nineteen, he was graduated.

In the fall of 1901, Young entered the graduate school of Columbia University as a student in English. At that time the Columbia English department was probably the finest in the country. Brander Matthews, under whom Young took considerable work, was widely held to be America’s leading theatre critic. He encouraged his students to attend Broadway plays which he used as practical examples for his drama criticism and literary theories. Young saw the leading actors and actresses of the period, including Elenora Duse, Maude Adams, Mrs. Patrick Campbell, Julia Marlowe, Mrs. Minnie Madern Fiske, Otis Skinner, E. H. Sothern, John Drew, and Lionel Barrymore. In June 1902, he was awarded the master of arts degree. Already he possessed much of the blend of scholarship and personal charm that later made him a popular teacher and a successful critic.

After a brief period as a newspaper reporter in New York, Young went to the mountains of North Carolina to “rusticate” himself during the winter of 1902. There he read Spenser, Keats, Ovid, Virgil, and the Greek tragedies, and wrote poetry, some of which later appeared in The Blind Man at the Window (1906). Eventually he decided not to return to New York but to accept an instructorship at a military academy in Water Valley, a few miles south of Oxford, in order to be near his father. In the following April, however, the school closed and in the fall he joined the University of Mississippi faculty as an assistant in English.

For slightly more than a decade and a half, Young enjoyed a brilliant career as a university professor, first at the University of Mississippi, then at the University of Texas, and finally at Amherst College. While at Mississippi, he published his volume of poems, The Blind Man at the Window, and a verse play entitled Guenevere (1906). At Texas, his classes were extremely popular with the students. In 1909, he founded the Curtain Club, a little theatre organization which soon received national recognition. For it he wrote a number of one-act plays, published as Addio, Madretto and Other Plays (1912). He also founded the Texas Review, a successful scholarly and critical journal. At Amherst, where his teaching was even more popular than it had been in Texas, Young began to contribute essays to the New Republic, the Nation, the North American Review, and the Yale Review. In 1919, Young took a year’s leave of absence to study and write in Spain and Italy. By this time, he was also contributing to the Bookman, the Dial, and Theatre Arts Magazine, where his full-length play, At the Shrine, was published. Eventually, his interest in the theatre led him to believe that he could leave teaching and become a free lance writer in New York. In 1921, at the age of forty, he resigned from Amherst and began a second professional career.

Shortly after Young moved to New York, Herbert Croly, founder and editor of the New Republic, invited Young to become drama critic for the magazine and to join its editorial board, positions he held until his retirement in 1947. He also became an editor of Theatre Arts Magazine. His second full-length play, “The Queen of Sheba,” appeared in Theatre Arts

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Magazine; and in 1923 Charles Scribner’s Sons published The Flower in Drama, the first of Young’s books about the theatre. It was followed in 1926 by Theatre Practice and in 1927 by The Theatre, works that have become standard textbooks in schools of acting. With them, Young’s reputation as an authority on the drama was firmly established in New York theatrical circles.

Young’s energy during the decade of the 1920’s was amazing. In addition to his weekly reviews for the New Republic and monthly contributions to Theatre Arts Magazine he wrote for several other periodicals, lectured on the history of drama at the New School for Social Research, wrote plays, and actually directed others. In 1923, he directed the Theatre Guild’s production of Henri Lenormand’s The Failures; in 1924 his play The Saint was produced at the Greenwich Village Theatre; and in the following year his play The Colonnade was staged in London by the London Stage Society. In 1924, Scribner’s brought out Young’s book of sketches, mostly set in Texas and Italy, The Three Fountains.

In 1924, Adolph Ochs, publisher of the New York Times, offered Young the position of drama critic for the paper. For the next year, his reviews of Broadway plays appeared several times a week, even daily, in the Times; then abruptly Young resigned and went back to the New Republic. Young’s resignation was prompted by the circumstances of newspaper reviewing. He disliked having to write plot summaries and advertising “plugs” for performances he had witnessed only a few moments earlier. Writing for the weekly New Republic or the monthly Theatre Arts Magazine gave him an opportunity to select the play he would review, to read it before attending the performance, to see it more than once if he wished, and to reflect upon every aspect of it. Drama criticism written in this fashion was simply not possible to a critic employed by a daily newspaper.

During the 1920s and 1930s, Stark Young wrote some of the best drama criticism since Coleridge and Hazlitt. His success was based upon his thorough knowledge of dramatic literature, his grasp of the technical problems of play production made possible by his experience as a director, his superb understanding of the nuances of the spoken word, and his great sensitivity to color, line, form, and tone. More than anyone else writing about the theatre at this time, Young saw a play production as an artistic whole, an entity that was far more than the sum of its individual parts. What he wrote should be called creative criticism, criticism that illuminated the production both for the audience and for the performers. Young was, of course, fortunate that he lived at a time when the American theatre was enjoying its finest moments both in terms of plays and in terms of performers, directors, and scene designers. Although the lapse of time has diminished the immediacy of some of his work, many of Young’s reviews, particularly those collected and reprinted in Glamour (1925) and in Immortal Shadows (1948), retain a compelling appeal for those concerned with drama.

Young’s creative engergy during these years extended beyond the drama to fiction. Between 1926 and 1934, he wrote four novels about Mississippi: Heaven Trees (1926), The Torches Flare (1928), River House (1929), and So Red the Rose (1934). In these volumes and in the long essay which he wrote for the conclusion to I’ll Take My Stand (1930), Young defined his Southern, agrarian philosophy of life. For the most part, his characters were members of the McGehee, Starks, and Young families. Heaven Trees takes its form from the recollections of the boyhood of the narrator Hugh Stark. What Young endeavors to define in these loosely connected stories are the values of family life, the virtues that come “always of the heart,” and the wisdom to be gained from contact with the land.

In The Torches Flare, Young advanced the time from 1850 to the 1920s and moved his locale from Como, Mississippi, to “Clearwater,” a thinly disguised fictional name for Oxford. Part of the novel, however, takes place in New York City. Young presented the contrast between life in the metropolitan city and that of a small Mississippi town, the opposition between the life of a creative artist in the city and the student in the academic ivory tower of the Southern university, and the clash of values represented by industrialism and agrarianism. The leading character faces the problem Young himself faced: life in Mississippi was more satisfying than life in New York, but only in New York could he find the theatre.

In River House, Young indicated his awareness of the erosion of Southern family life and the depressing effects of industrialization. Still, he defended the basic validity of the traditional Southern emphasis upon man’s responsibility to his fellowmen in society and the need of every man to relate to a code or standard outside himself. At the end of this novel, the hero abandons the old Southern mansion for a job in St. Louis, but he takes with him the conviction that the Southern ideal of the “life of the affections” and social responsibility will be valid guides to purposeful conduct wherever he lives.

In his brilliant essay “Not in Memoriam, but in Defense,” written for the agrarian manifesto I’ll Take My Stand, Young rephrased the principles he had stated in his fiction. His opening comment reflects his basic approach to Southern history: “If anything is clear, it is

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that we can never go back, and neither this essay nor any intelligent person that I know in the South desires a literal restoration of the old Southern life…. But out of any epoch in civilization there may arise things worthwhile.” Young endeavored to show in his fiction and in this essay the “worthwhile things” that should survive out of the Southern tradition. Among them were, in his words, “a certain fineness of feeling, an indefinable code for yourself and others, and a certain continuity of outlook.” He also insisted upon the individual’s self-control, fairness to others, obedience to law, and respect for the social order. The essay was both a summary of his philosophy and a premise paper for So Red the Rose.

By far his most successful novel, So Red the Rose deals with the fortunes of the McGehee family during the Civil War, though the war lies only in the background. Young’s real objective was to contrast Northern industrial society with Southern agrarianism. The former he criticized upon the grounds that it lacks a commitment to humanism and stresses material goods over moral values. Young sought to preserve out of the Southern tradition primarily its emphasis upon right living, what Young called “the life of the affections.”

Throughout the 1930’s, Young continued to write drama criticism for the New Republic. During the summers, when he was not expected to review plays, he wrote essays dealing with other subjects. In 1930, Scribner’s published The Street of the Island, a collection of his short stories; and in 1935 Feliciana, a group of sketches and essays relating to the McGehee family and Young’s travels in Italy. Near the end of the decade, Young began to sense a decline in the quality of Broadway production. One sign of the trend was the frequency of revivals of repertory pieces. They afforded Young, however, an opportunity to write excellent criticism of such established dramas as Shaw’s Candida; Shakespeare’s Richard II, Hamlet, Twelfth Night, Othello, and The Tempest; Chekhov’s The Sea Gull; Jean Anouilh’s Antigone, and Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex. Among new plays of value, he wrote splendid critical essays about Tennessee Williams’s The Glass Menagerie and O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh. In 1938, he translated Chekhov’s The Sea Gull for the production by Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne. Subsequently, he translated Chekhov’s The Three Sisters, The Cherry Orchard, and Uncle Vanya, which Random House collected and published in 1956.

Despite his successes, Young’s personal life during the 1930s and 1940s was not entirely happy. After Croly’s death in 1930, Young found the atmosphere at the New Republic considerably changed. The new editor, Bruce Bliven, was not nearly so enthusiastic about Young’s work as Croly had been; and Young’s views did not correspond with those of other members of the staff. In 1936, the sudden death of his nephew, Stark Young Robertson, at Yale, saddened the remainder of his life. In 1939, he wrote a musical comedy, first entitled “Belle Isle” but later “Artemise,” for his friends the Lunts. At first the Lunts professed great admiration for the work but delayed performing it. In 1942, Young was dismayed to learn that they would perform S. N. Behrman’s The Pirate, which Young thought contained much that originated in his own play. His bitterness over “Artemise,” his belief that the theatre was declining, and the difficulties at the New Republic combined to push Young into retirement, though he did not formally resign his position with the magazine until 1947.

Although retired, Young continued his life in the arts. For years he had occasionally painted landscapes and flowers. What had been an infrequent pastime now became an important part of his life. In 1943, his work received a “one man” show under the sponsorship of the Friends of Greece, and in 1945 the Rehn Galleries held another exhibit wholly devoted to his work. Both exhibits received enthusiastic reviews from New York art critics. In 1951, he published his autobiography, The Pavilion, an account of his life in Mississippi to age twenty-one. Retirement brought additional opportunities for travel. During the 1950s with William M. Bowman, Young’s friend for many years, he made several trips to Italy and Greece and often spent the summer months with his sister in Austin, Texas. In May 1959, Young suffered a stroke; and although he partially recovered, his activities were severely curtailed. He died 6 January 1963, two weeks after his sister died in Texas. Bowman brought Young’s body back to Como, where he was interred in Friendship Cemetery.

Young’s place in American cultural history and, particularly, in the Southern renascence of the 1920’s and 1930’s is assured. Perhaps more than anyone else in his generation, his life was wholly devoted to the arts. Highly gifted, admired, well liked though occasionally feared, witty, and superbly educated, Young, as Harold Clurman has said, “stood for something.” His kind of impressionistic drama criticism remains unique in its field. Few if any critics have had his exquisite sense of what is “right” in the theatre, and almost no one has been able to articulate his feelings about the drama to the degree that Young achieved. He wrote both criticism and fiction from the Southern position which he defined in his work and illustrated in his life. He was above all things else, a humanist dedicated to the art of living well. He will remain a significant per-

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sonage in the cultural history of the twentieth century.

—John Pilkington

(Article first posted April 2003)

From Lives of Mississippi Writers, ed. James B. Lloyd (Jackson: UP of Mississippi, 1980): pp. 484-88. Copyright © 1980. Reprinted by permission.

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