Well-versed

Mary Jo Salter and Brad Leithauser, a couple with individual success, will write the next chaper of Hopkins' Writing Seminars

August 21, 2007|By Jonathan Pitts | Jonathan Pitts,sun reporter

Four decades ago, an 11-year-old girl sat up front during a play at Center Stage.

It was an English-language production of Moliere's comedy Tartuffe, and Mary Jo Salter reacted to the proceedings the way other girls her age might to the latest Nancy Drew mystery.

"I was in the second row center, and people were speaking in rhyming couplets," says Salter, now 53. "I'd just never had so much fun in my life."

FOR THE RECORD - An article in the Today section Aug. 21 incorrectly reported the size of the award for the MacArthur Fellowship won in 1983 by Brad Leithauser, an incoming professor of fiction writing at the Johns Hopkins University. Leithauser's fellowship granted a total of $150,000 over five years.
The Sun regrets the errors.

She had no idea that night that the event was touching passions that would define her career, one of the more successful in modern American poetry - nor that her work would someday return her to her hometown.

Salter, the author of six volumes of verse and most recently a poetry instructor at Massachusetts' Mount Holyoke College, and her husband, Brad Leithauser, a celebrated novelist, poet and critic in his own right, are about to become the newest faculty members in the burgeoning Writing Seminars program at the Johns Hopkins University.

"It's a great hire," says Stephen Metcalfe, a senior literary critic for Slate magazine who has covered the pair. "Salter is a poet of such wonderful precision and calm, while Leithauser is a true literary polymath. This is the right direction not just for Hopkins, but for [academia] in general: In with the poets, novelists, essayists ... and out with the time-serving pedants."

Not that the man Leithauser is replacing put anyone to sleep. Stephen Dixon, the celebrated author who taught fiction in the program for 27 years, recently retired after a near-legendary career. Leithauser, the author of 14 critically acclaimed books, will be his heir apparent.

Hopkins created a new position for Salter, who will teach poetry starting next month.

"It's a pot of good luck for us," says Dave Smith, chairman of the Writing Seminars. "These two are program-makers, the kind of people who will extend Dixon's contributions and add much we cannot yet imagine" to the department's future.

Salter, who was packing up her study last week after the couple's 23 years in New England, seemed as excited as her 11-year-old self to be coming back, if in a different way.

"When I left Baltimore [for Harvard, in 1973], I was a kid," she says. "When you're 53, you pay attention to different things than you did as a child. I'm not sure what I'll be noticing this time around, but I'll have my antennae up."

Here and there

She's had plenty of experience adjusting those antennae. In their 26 years of marriage, Salter and Leithauser have often been strangers to rootedness. They lived in Iceland, Italy, England and Japan, among other places, often on one-year appointments that cropped up at the last minute, as they developed their reputations.

Salter won National Endowment for the Arts and Guggenheim fellowships in poetry, edited at The New Republic and was published frequently in The New York Times. Leithauser graduated from Harvard Law. His first book of poetry, Hundreds of Fireflies, helped land him a $500,000 MacArthur Foundation "genius grant" in 1983. In the time since, his fiction, verse and essays have consistently won critical acclaim.

In the 1980s, each took what they expected to be short-term teaching jobs in Massachusetts. Those evolved into a 23- year stint sharing a single full-time position teaching creative writing at Mount Holyoke.

The couple sank deep roots in Massachusetts, but that failed to dispel what has become a central Salter belief - that the best-laid plans often go awry, and that it may be only in hindsight that we can really make sense of things.

"A year contract here, a five-year contract there, and suddenly you realize you've been someplace for two decades," she says. "I think you stumble into what turns out to be your life."

That's true of Salter's relationship with Baltimore, a town her family moved to in 1963. She grew up in Towson, attending Dumbarton Middle School and Towson High, and recalls Towson as a "sleepy, slightly remote" outpost of Charm City, not the bustling suburb it is today.

She loved walking to the shops and the Towson movie theater (now the Recher Theatre), where she saw [the Beatles'] A Hard Day's Night four times. "I'm surprised how much [the town] has developed," she says, perhaps a bit regretfully.

Salter left for Harvard, where she met Leithauser when both were undergraduates. They married in 1980, and the two embarked on separate-but-parallel literary careers.

And Baltimore? "I basically never came back," she says. "There wasn't occasion to."

That changed last fall, when the Writing Seminars - a fixture in writing education since the 1940s - made her a visiting instructor. She enjoyed the hands-on Hopkins teaching approach and working with grad students. Then Dixon retired, an event that left a gap in a department of 150 majors whose classes are often wildly oversubscribed. Adam Falk, then the new arts and sciences dean, helped establish an additional tenured position.

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