Monroe Kirklyndorf Spears was born in Darlington, South Carolina, and educated at the University of South Carolina, where he earned his B.A. and M.A. degrees, and Princeton University, where he earned his Ph.D.. He taught at the University of Wisconsin (1940– 1946), Vanderbilt University (1946–1952), University of the South (1952–1964), and Rice University (1964–1986). He is remembered for his “distinguished and humane career” at the latter. Like Robert Penn Warren and John Crowe Ransom before him, Spears was a leading proponent of and gatekeeper for southern literature.
Just like those hallowed literary figures, Spears wrote poetry and published several books of fiction and verse throughout his lifetime. Unlike the classic “Agrarians” before him, however, Spears expanded the range of his scholarly footprint by being an expert on British writers, especially Matthew Prior and W. H. Auden. Indeed, his work on the latter, The Disenchanted Island, is still regarded as one of the essential formalist critiques of Auden. This attention to Auden opened the door in his scholarship to other important modernists and their writings. In fact, Spears eventually argued that modern American literature reflects this country’s “ambition to break with the past and with the Europe that embodies it.” By concentrating on American writers like James Dickey and Hart Crane, Spears himself certainly was able to wedge this break from Europe as his career grew.
His biggest contribution to American letters, nevertheless, rests with his unprecedented legacy in southern literature. Not since H. L. Mencken, it can be argued, has one man been so influential in shaping this literary canon. In 1952 Spears became the editor of The Sewanee Review. Among southern scholars, poets, teachers, and students, this publication was the leading voice of intellectual and artistic expression during the second half of the twentieth century. Spears’s high profile position immediately lifted him to a preeminent place throughout the mid-twentieth century Southern Renaissance. Like a dapper Moses, Spears built a promised land for little-known poets, enabling some of them to become household names.
He remained associated with this journal from the time of his editorship, which officially ended in 1961, until he died. Remarking on the centennial of the Sewanee Review in 1992, Spears wrote: “I should argue that the maintenance of [the] relation between criticism and creative writing is especially important at present, when there are strong pressures in the universities to separate them. The model of a critical quarterly, the review achieved the proper balance between the two: criticism informed by an awareness of the problems of the contemporary poet or fiction writer, and poetry and fiction informed by an awareness of the perspectives and standards of the best criticism.”
To the general public, Spears is probably remembered most for his regular contributions to the New York Review of Books. Just as he did with his role at the Sewanee Review, Spears used these articles to define the American literary canon. Because of his many contributions to American letters, Monroe K. Spears was inducted into the South Carolina Academy of Authors in 1993. In addition, Rice University decided to fund an annual Monroe K. Spears Award in his honor. The award’s webpage provides a fine assessment of this man: “Because everything Professor Spears wrote is marked by clarity, economy, and felicity of expression and by elegant and discerning interpretation, the award recognizes the essay published in each volume of SEL: Studies of English Literature 1500–1900 that most nearly achieves these qualities and that has given the editors the greatest pleasure to read.”
Prunty, Wyatt. “In Memoriam Monroe K. Spears.” Sewanee Review 106.3 (1998): 533. Spears, Monroe K. American Ambitions: Selected Essays on Literary and Cultural Themes.
Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1987.
–––. Countries of the Mind: Literary Explorations. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1992.
–––. The Poetry of W. H. Auden: The Disenchanted Island. New York: Oxford University Press, 1963.
–––. “Reflections on the Centennial of the Sewanee Review.” Sewanee Review 100.4 (1992): 657–61.