Helen Bevington, Professor Emerita, Dies

Helen Smith Bevington, a poet and longtime professor of English at Duke University, died March 16 in Chicago. She was 94. Bevington, a resident of Durham since she and her husband, the late Merle Bevington, joined the Duke faculty in 1943, had been living in Chicago with her son and daughter-in-law the past six months. She wrote 12 books of poetry, prose and essays, and was a contributor of light verse to The New Yorker, The Atlantic Monthly and The New York Times Book Review. The first of three books of an autobiographical nature, Charley Smith's Girl, published in 1965, was runner-up for the Pulitzer Prize. "She was one of the great teachers. Her course in 20th century poetry was one of the most distinguished ... the English department offered. It was a tremendously influential course in my own development," said Reynolds Price, James B. Duke professor of English, who was a student of Bevington's in the 1950s, and later a colleague and friend. What made Bevington compelling in the classroom, Price said "was her very clear ... love of her subject, her belief in the importance of what she was teaching, that poetry was the prime means by which the English language took to purify and communicate itself most eloquently." Bevington was born in Afton, N.Y. After receiving her bachelor's degree in philosophy from the University of Chicago, she went to Columbia University to earn a master's in English and continue post-graduate study. She taught at Bedford Academy in New York and was chairman of the English Institute of Adult Education in New York City before moving to Durham. At Duke, she taught creative writing, literary criticism and English literature. She was awarded a full professorship in 1970. While she retired from Duke in 1976, she continued to write and publish, with her last book coming out in 1996. Besides teaching and writing, Bevington had a "secondary career" as a lecturer and reader of poetry. She received numerous awards and recognition, including the North Carolina Award in Literature in 1973, two awards for producing the best volume of poetry by a resident of the state and the North Carolina Literary and Historical Association's highest award. In a 1993 interview, she showed her dry wit in an explanation of her publishing credits, saying it was a pity to publish a book "because that meant one must start another." Her most noted book, Charley Smith's Girl, was banned by the library in the small town of Worcester, N.Y., where she grew up, because the book tells of her minister father's having been divorced by her mother for affairs that he was carrying on with younger female parishioners. This censure was a distinction she enjoyed. "It's a place dear to me. It's an honor to be banned there. Nobody gets banned," she said in the interview. She told another reporter that writing was one way she coped with the loss of her husband, who died in 1964. It eased the "impossibly difficult, endlessly difficult" task of living alone to write, which she usually did from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. "When I'm writing, the hours pass," she said in 1979. "I write every day for as long as I can - I can rewrite for hours." Among her books were Dr. Johnson's Waterfall (1946); Nineteen Million Elephants (1950); A Change of Sky (1956, poetry); When Found, Make a Verse of (1961); Charley Smith's Girl (1965); A Book and A Love Affair (1968); Beautiful Lofty People (1974); Along Came the Witch (1976); The Journey Is Everything, A Journal of the 1970s (1983); The World and the Bo Tree (1991); and The Third and Only Way: Reflections on Staying Alive (1996). She is survived by her son, David Bevington, a professor of English at the University of Chicago, and daughter-in-law, Peggy Bevington, and five grandchildren. Her second son, Philip Bevington, died in the 1980s. The family plans to hold a celebration of Bevington's life in Durham this summer. Memorials can be made for the support of any books or materials related to modern poetry to Duke University Library, Box 90197, Durham, NC 27708-0197.