James Schevill, 1920-2009

By Dorothy Bryant Special to the Planet
Wednesday February 11, 2009 - 07:03:00 PM
James Schevill and his golden retriever Emily Dickinson, circa 1980.
James Schevill and his golden retriever Emily Dickinson, circa 1980.

Jim Schevill—poet, playwright (stage and radio), biographer, novelist, critic, editor, teacher, producer, administrator, and loyal friend to many—was born in Berkeley.  

His father Rudolph created and chaired the department of romance languages at UC; his mother Margaret was an artist and a scholar of Navaho culture and mythology. Jim married music teacher Helen Shaner, in 1942. That marriage produced two daughters, Deborah and Susanna, before it ended in 1965. In 1966 Jim married singer/anthropologist Margot Blum, who survives him. 

Jim often said he found his vocation at age 17, in Freiburg, Germany, where he happened to be on “Kristallnacht,” the infamous riots against Jews, which ushered in the Holocaust. The following morning, sick with horror and disgust, he wrote his first poem. He always called it a “bad poem,” but it set the direction of his concerns, the lifelong inspiration for his work—addressing the cruelties of power, the suffering of victims, and the necessity to resist evil. 

Throughout the following seven decades, Jim wrote hundreds of poems, 30-odd plays, biographies of author Sherwood Anderson and publisher Bern Porter, one novel, and numerous critical essays. He edited an anthology of essays on experimental theater performed in unusual venues; a collection of Navajo myths collected by his mother; essays and translations written by his father. 

His 37-year teaching career took him from CCAC in Oakland (1951-1957), to SF State (1958-1968), to Brown University (1968-1985). He was a central pillar of the Actors Workshop, (1955-1967) the first giant step in establishing the Bay Area as a serious center for theater. (The Actors Workshop produced the world premiere of Jim’s play, The Bloody Tenet, as well as that of Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, and Pinter’s The Birthday Party.) 

Actors Workshop actors also did the first reading (1965) of Jim’s Stalingrad Elegies, on KPFA fm radio. This series of poems was based on actual letters written by dying German soldiers stuck in the winter snow outside Stalingrad after Hitler’s insane orders not to retreat, not to surrender, but to die for Germany’s honor. The letters were never delivered to addressees, but someone, somehow, had taken them back to Germany where they lay in a file for over a decade.  

As head of the SF State Poetry Center, Jim played a central role in what is now called the San Francisco Renaissance, producing and arranging public readings by poets from all the contending “schools” of poetry at the time. While at Brown (1968-1985), in addition to having his own plays produced, he helped to found and administer Wastepaper Theatre—dedicated to presenting shorter plays usually neglected as “minor.”  

He extended his friendship to hundreds whose lives touched his—including former students of his, like me, and was not only kindly but practical. He steered writers toward jobs and put in a word for them; opened his house as temporary quarters for some of the post-war influx of writers to California; in my case, even during his years at Brown, he wrote encouraging letters and offered useful critiques on my manuscripts. 

After World War II, Jim earned a B.S. at Harvard, then returned to Berkeley. At UC Extension, where he first applied for a teaching job, he was handed the loyalty oath then required for employment in all public educational institutions. Jim refused to sign it, instead sending a blistering letter to Robert Sproul. The experience inspired his first play The Bloody Tenet, based on the persecution of Roger Williams for holding to his beliefs. 

That was how Jim landed at (private) California College of Arts and Crafts, where he taught humanities for six years (“Best thing that ever happened. I met great artists there.”) When cold-war blacklisting eased he went to SF State, where a new campus was rising and creative writing classes were attracting distinguished teachers. Colleagues there had started the Poetry Center and opened the Actors Workshop in downtown SF.  

Jim and Margot’s move eastward to Brown University in 1968 set off another outpouring of poems and plays. A high point was the 1970 production by Trinity Repertory Company of Lovecraft’s Follies, “a hilarious extravaganza (that) attempts to come to grips with the guilts and terrors of the Age of Technology.” (New York Times)  

While at Brown he also wrote his one novel The Arena of Ants (1976) inspired by a horrifically surreal period during his WWII army service. At age 24, Jim was one of several officers assigned to “re-education and de-nazification” at a German POW camp in Colorado. Shown films of Nazi atrocities, some German prisoners vomited, yet remained beyond reach. What gradually emerged was that the fanatic and well-organized Nazi prisoners terrorized and dominated the ordinary German prisoners, wielding more power over the camp than their ignorant captors. This fact of the persistence of evil, Jim believed, called for documentation in cool, detailed prose: a novel. 

In 1991 Jim and Margot returned to Berkeley, where Jim continued to write poetry and plays. The Last Romantics (about his mother and step-father) was produced as part of Berkeley Arts Festival (1995). He edited Black Swallow Press’ editions of his collected poems and collected plays (1993), and reissued editions of other books like his biography of Bern Porter, which he read at local bookstores. 

In 1999 Jim suffered a massive stroke that left him permanently confined to a wheelchair. He continued to write, to read, and, when energy and accessibility allowed, to attend some plays and concerts. In 2003 he did a well-attended solo reading at the Berkeley Art Center, and he was part of a group reading, at Moe’s Books in 2008. He died of pneumonia on Jan. 30. 

A poem from his most recently published book Winter Channels (1994) seems a fitting farewell from Jim 


On his stand, the conductor leans  


Into the music, as a tree bends to the wind. 

His hands command, his gestures implore: 

Subdue your proud sound to our com-munal sound, 

The cry for community condemns conceit. 

You cannot be alone to be holy. 

You are not alone when you are born. 


Contributions in memory of James Schevill may be made to: 

Poetry Flash, 1450 Fourth St., #4,  

Berkeley, CA 94710