Gladys Schmitt: The darling of Pittsburgh

Next week is the 35th anniversary of the death of Gladys Schmitt, the founder of the creative writing department at Carnegie Mellon.

Gladys (she always requested that people call her Gladys) was born in Pittsburgh in 1909. Even as a young child she wrote, producing plays, poems, and novels before turning 20. She began school on a scholarship to Chatham University, at the time called the Pennsylvania College for Women, and later transferred to the University of Pittsburgh.

When Gladys graduated from the University of Pittsburgh, she took a job as an editor for Scholastic magazines and moved to New York City with her husband Simon Goldfield. Early in 1942, they returned to Pittsburgh, where she began teaching at Carnegie Mellon (then called the Carnegie Institute of Technology) for a full salary of $1800 a year. Also in 1942, Dial Press published Gladys’s first novel, The Gates of Aulis, which won the Dial Press Award for new fiction. Following Aulis, Gladys went on to publish several short stories and eight additional novels, many of which became Literary Guild selections and bestsellers.

In her last novel — and best, as some would argue — The Godforgotten, published in 1972, an island’s inhabitants are cut off from the rest of humankind just before the year 1000 CE, when an earthquake destroys their connection to the mainland. They believe God has left them behind and continue to live this way for multiple generations; thus the novel deals with the loss of Christanity, the loss of morals, and the loss of a foundation to judge.

But Gladys cannot simply be understood by the narratives of her novels. In an essay about her, lifelong friend Sarah Strauss wrote, “Gladys worked very hard, and she was an extraordinary teacher. The course she designed ... ‘Thought and Expression’ she called it — became famous at the school.”

Thought and Expression was just the beginning of her work reforming classes and curriculum at Carnegie Mellon. She started the creative writing department in 1968, when there were only a few creative writing programs in the country and the field was just coming into its own. Gladys hired much of the department’s faculty, including Gerald Costanzo, who is still a professor at Carnegie Mellon, where he teaches poetry and directs the university press.

Costanzo described the early days in the department, which Gladys had established entirely around her vision of the way students should be taught creative writing. He joked that “the prospectus was the size of a small town phone book, ... but to this day very little has changed from that original guide.” The very heart of the creative writing department, including the main classes and the way the workshops function, has not strayed from Gladys’s views on the writing process.

In 2001, the department dedicated the Gladys Schmitt Creative Writing Center — the Glad, as students faithfully call it. The center is a place for them to work, socialize, and experience an education that would have made her proud.

Still, it is impossible to capture a person just by his or her work. Costanzo described how Gladys frequently held Paris-style literary salons in her house on Wilkins Avenue. According to Costanzo, Gladys’s salon became a central hub for the literary discussions in Pittsburgh; she would sit, listening and patiently working on her needlepoint, as the discussion moved around her. She was easily the most accomplished writer in Pittsburgh and was a local celebrity, described as the literary darling of Pittsburgh.

And this was her routine: Gladys would wake in the mornings and write for two hours before coming in to Carnegie Mellon. There she would spend her day with the students and other professors; Gladys taught her fellow faculty as much as the students, Costanzo said. In the evening she would return home to her husband, frequently having people over to her house — a house she purchased with the money from her second novel, David the King.

When Gladys died in early October 1972 from heart failure, it was a shock to the community. Earlier that year she had won the Ryan Award for Meritorious Teaching, and she had been, as always, actively involved in writing and working with students. The Tartan published a short retrospective on her life in its next issue, saying she would be deeply missed.

Sonnets to an Analyst was published after Gladys’s death. This book is a collection of 69 sonnets written for her therapist, whom she had been seeing after an emotional breakdown in the early ’60s. Gladys had held off on publishing them because she was afraid they would not fit in with literature at the time, which centered around free verse, but her husband published them shortly after her death. The book remains in print, having been reissued by the Carnegie Mellon University Press in 2004.

Gladys was popular while she was alive; she won numerous awards, had her books and stories published, made a living off of her work, and frequently had her novels reviewed positively by the critics. By most measures she was a successful author. But over the last 35 years much of that has disappeared. Outside of the creative writing department, even here on campus where she was once a much-loved professor, it is hard to find students who recognize her name outside the room in Baker. Nearly all of her books are out of print, though they can be relatively easily tracked down in secondhand Pittsburgh area bookstores.

Of Gladys’s lack of staying power, some say she did not establish a large enough canon as a writer, others that she did not have enough drama in her life while she was alive to become as nationally popular as she could have been. Costanzo attributes it to a trend of writers from her era who believed they, in his words, “gained a universal meaning by not mentioning anything local.” Neither Pittsburgh nor Carnegie Mellon are mentioned by name in Gladys’s work, though they are both used as settings and had a strong influence on what she wrote.

Hunt Library hosts the Gladys Schmitt Collection, an assortment of resources just waiting to be rediscovered. The collection includes typescripts and manuscripts of many of her novels, correspondence, photographs, and unpublished works. There is also a box of student work and early themes, along with copies of all nine of her published novels with contemporary critic reviews, many first editions, and other fragments donated by her friends and family members to the library.

Those who remember Gladys’s novels remember them for their eloquent prose, their compelling stories, and most of all their detailed and profoundly human characters. Barbara Beyer, a former student, recounted in an essay on Gladys, “Character, [she] said, was the base strength of all good fiction. People like to read about people. She quoted a fan letter she had received after publication of Rembrandt. ‘I am an old woman who scrubs floors with my grandbaby beside me, but I read your book. I cry for you. I cry for me. I cry for my baby grand-daughter.’ That is what a book must do, she said.”

Gladys was a cornerstone of the Carnegie Mellon community, a dedicated teacher, and an accomplished novelist. Next week, as we begin our 36th year without her on campus, we should remember where we can find her: in the creative writing center that bears her name, in her novels and papers in the library, and in the principles of the creative writing department.