Thomas H. Carter

(October 3, 1931 - November 21, 1963)

Photo of Tom Carter on steps at Washington and Lee

Thomas Henry Carter, known to family and friends as Tom or Tommy, was born in Martinsville, Virginia. His interests in publishing emerged while still a student at Martinsville High School where he edited a small magazine titled Spearhead. Unlike most high school magazines, Spearhead published major authors such as Ray Bradbury, e.e. cummings, and William Carlos Williams. These authors, among others, were attracted to this small publication through letters from the teenage Tom Carter. That talent and lack of shyness in appealing to literary figures to contribute to a new publication formed a dominant aspect of Carter's life. As a sophomore in college at Washington and Lee, Carter was granted the role of editor of the Shenandoah literary journal, which had just started the prior year.

Carter propelled Shenandoah into the top ranks of literary journals, which is even more amazing that he did so as a college student. But good publications are not produced single-handedly or in a vacuum. The literary network that Carter established directly led to the essays, poetry, and stories published in Shenandoah during his time as editor. A detailed article titled "Ezra Pound, Thomas Carter, and the Making of An American Literary Magazine" describes the period of Carter's editorship of Shenandoah.1 Carter somehow managed to edit the journal while also earning excellent grades. He was a member of Phi Beta Kappa, Omicron Delta Kappa, and graduated in 1954 magna cum laude. He continued his studies of literature at Vanderbilt University where he earned an M.A. in English in 1956. His master's thesis was on the poetry of William Carlos Williams. After a fellowship with the Kenyon Review, Carter continued graduate study for a doctoral degree at Duke University.

Carter never completed his Ph.D. from Duke. At this point certain mysteries of his life remain unknown. He returned to his home town of Martinsville, Virginia to teach high school and at the Patrick Henry Branch of the University Virginia. (The branch is now the Patrick Henry Community College.) Yet, his correspondence with the broad world of literature didn't cease. In the early 1960s he organized a literary seminar for students at the high school featuring visits from established authors.

Another unknown factor is the nature of the illnesses that plagued Carter during his life. His letters often describe migraines and intense pain. Tom Carter died on November 21, 1963 (the day before the Kennedy assasination).

In addition to striving for a career as a literary critic and editor, Carter pursued writing his own fiction and poetry. During the last year of his life he worked on revising one of his own short stories about a family struggling through a funeral. Capitalizing on his literary network he sought advice for the story from Andrew Lytle (editor of the Sewanee Review) and Robie Macauley (editor of the Kenyon Review), both of whom he had known for several years. In a letter from Lytle suggesting revisions and the need to keep working out the story, Lytle advises the younger writer, "There's no way to avoid going down and wrestling with the angel".2 Nine days before Carter died he received another letter from Lytle with advice for further revisions.

An extensive biography of Carter and his writings is planned as a phase of this project

   

1. Kappel, Andrew J. "Ezra Pound, Thomas Carter, and the Making of an American Literary Magazine." Shenandoah: The Washington & Lee University Review 31.3 (1980): 3-22.

2. Lytle, Andrew. Tom Carter. February 26, 1963. TS. Thomas H. Carter Collection. Vanderbilt Univesity, Nashville.

Literary Networks is a Digital Humanities project at Washington and Lee University. For more information about this project, contact Jeff Barry (barryj@wlu.edu, twitter:@jeffbarry), Associate Professor and Associate University Librarian, Washington and Lee University.