Joyce Kilmer’s Northern Berkshire rambles bring ghosts close to home

Joyce Kilmer has just introduced me to two of my own ghosts. Earlier this month, I stumbled on a story Kilmer wrote in the New York Times in 1916 — when free verse was a dangerous new invention.

Alfred Joyce Kilmer is the man who wrote the poem lovely as a tree. And he died in World War I, two months before the armistice. On Saturday at the Williamstown Library, I looked him up. They have an edition of his poems, essays and letters in two volumes with a memoir — edited by Robert Cortes Holliday.

My father and my sister are named for Robert Cortes Holliday.

Robert Holliday was a journalist in New York City, a writer and maybe an alchoholic, author of a ‘History of Unmentionables’ (a treatise on ladies’ underwear). We have a collection of his books.

So I read Holliday’s memoir of Joyce (’Joe’) Kilmer this week, and I wish I’d known both of them. They were friends. When Kilmer was writing for the New York Review of Books, he helped Robert to land a job in the city. Robert became a literary editor at the New York Tribune and then chief editor of The Bookman.

Robert and Joe used to have lunch together as young writers in the city. Robert knew Joe’s family and described his friend walking the floor with a tired child, dictating a story to his exhausted wife while he tried to soothe the crying baby to sleep. And at painful times in his life, as when his daughter came down wth ‘infant paralysis’ — polio — Joe seems to have gone looking for Robert in his office and asked to talk, touching on the unbearable with an almost Edith-Wharton-like indirectness, but finding maybe some kind of comfort in it.

But the story comes closer.

Joyce Kilmer has a collection of essays in this book, and the one that drew me irresistably is called ‘The Inefficient Library.’ It’s a rollicking defense of the sprawling, unconfined and scribbled-in library, the library that grows organically: “My library is … impractical, entertaining and unexacting. Its members have come to me by chance and by momentary inclination.”

And in a long passage describing what is in his library, Kilmer includes Colonel Thomas Blood, Crown Stealer by Wilbur Cortez Abbott.

Wilbur Cortez Abbott is my great grandfather. And I’ve read his book on Thomas Blood, the least successful thief ever to talk his way out of being hanged under King Charles I. Blood did apparently get the crown jewels out of the tower of London. He just didn’t get them very far.

So Joyce Kilmer knew my family. And thanks to him, I now know them better. Robert Holliday and Wilbur Abbott were cousins — a professor and a journalist — two Indiana boys who worked their way east. They are buried now in the same plot in an Indiana cemetery. And they died within months of each other, in the year my father was born.


This column first ran in the Berkshire eagle in my days as Berkshires Week editor, on Oct. 3, 2013. My thanks ot Kevin Moran.

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