Partner Richard David Cowan, buried together
Harvard University, Cambridge, MA 02138, Stati Uniti
University of Oxford, Oxford, Oxfordshire OX1 3PA
276 Marlborough St, Boston, MA 02116, USA
Mount Auburn Cemetery, 580 Mt Auburn St, Cambridge, MA 02138, Stati Uniti
Stewart Mitchell (November 25, 1892 – November 3, 1957) was an American poet, editor, and professor of English literature. Along with Gilbert Seldes, Mitchell’s editorship of The Dial magazine signaled a pivotal shift in content from political articles to aesthetics in art and literature. We can get a glimpse into middle-class gay worlds through the life of Richard Cowan, who graduated from Cornell University in 1933 and went to live in Boston at the invitation of Stewart Mitchell. Mitchell rented Cowan an apartment, and Cowan wrote in his diary that “I love S. very much,” but he added that he was “incapable of being true to anyone person.” He recorded his encounters with young men he met at the Symphony or the Copley Theatre or the Boston Public Garden: Met a Dartmouth boy on the Common one night after the Symphony. His name was Jack . . . . He was a bit obvious but I liked him. He claimed he loved me etc. Stayed at his home one Saturday night while visiting some friends of his I met George, a Dartmouth boy . . . . He called me the next day & I went to the movies, with him—and that started that. I think I really did love him at first and he—very passionately—said he loved me.
Mitchell was born November 25, 1892, in Cincinnati, Ohio. Mitchell was from an old Cincinnati family but there was no money left. Born in 1892, Mitchell, who entered Harvard in 1911, distinguished himself particularly in literary circles; he was the editor, for instance, of the prestigious Harvard Monthly. A good student, he graduated cum laude; an ardent supporter of the Allied cause, he soon enlisted in the army and saw active service in France as a field artilleryman. At war’s end he hooked up with some of his college literary chums in New York, somehow fumbled the editorship of The Dial, and, returning to Europe, took up graduate studies at the University of Montpellier, and then at Jesus College, Oxford.
At Harvard he was described as a “charming witty young man” by Robert S. Kennedy, the biographer of E. E. Cummings, who evoked when describing Mitchell in his undergraduate days. His debut had been rather brilliant: one of the Eight Harvard Poets (Cummings and John Dos Passos, Cuthbert Wright and John Wheelwright were four others; “it was the beginning of my style,” Cummings wrote later), Mitchell conceived the idea of publishing that book, to which he was a contributor, as well as a founder of the Harvard Poetry Club. Mitchell’s homosexuality stood out (according to Kennedy) even then: “consider[ing] the sexual coloration of the Harvard Monthly group and the friends they had gathered around them … [also, later, in New York, at] The Dial,” Kennedy concludes that “only one of them, Stewart Mitchell, was an overt homosexual. Nevertheless, an innocent homoeroticism marked their devotion to each other." Mitchell was both creator-editor and contributor to Eight Harvard Poets, his sexuality notwithstanding. It was after Harvard that things changed for Mitchell. He and Cummings, for instance, remained lifelong close friends. Early on Mitchell functioned virtually as Cummings’s agent, was a confidant of the poet in his divorce, and as late as 1949 gave the never-very-prosperous Cummings a thousand dollars, a large sum at the time.
After graduating from Harvard University in 1916 he taught English literature at the University of Wisconsin. He resigned his position for political reasons, frustrated that he was forced to give a “politician’s son who should have been flunked” passing grades. Mitchell enlisted in the army, serving in France until he was discharged as a private two years later.
Mitchell returned to the United States and was hired by Scofield Thayer and James Sibley Watson as managing editor of their joint project, The Dial. Mitchell, in association with Gilbert Seldes, was managing editor from 1919-1920. His appointment as editor marked a shift in the influential, modernist little magazine’s focus on politics to an artistic, literary theme.
Mitchell’s youth was compromised by his decision (the best solution in sight, he thought, to his family’s rapid impoverishment, but in retrospect seriously Faustian in the view of several friends) to indebt himself to a much older, wealthier woman—Georgine Holmes Thomas—whom John Dos Passos once (doubtless in passing anger, but perhaps insightfully) called “a vampire.” She agreed to pay for Mitchell’s postgraduate education if he would “forgo marriage” and live with her as her “companion”; in other words, to serve as what is sometimes called a “walker,” that sad (and humiliating) office into which gay men in those days were frequently tempted by forceful, thwarted (and in consequence often embittered, even man-hating) women made by society to live pretty much through the achievements of the men in their lives, men often absent from the marriage in any emotional sense, nearly always in any cultural or literary sense, never mind in a sexual sense.
Mitchell’s work for The Dial involved not only editing but, as was common with the majority of The Dial’s editors, active involvement with and submissions to the creative or literary content.
Stewart Mitchell and his friend, the poet Robert Hillyer, struggled with their homosexuality in the early 1920s. In an exchange of letters, they discussed the ability of will to overcome desire. Hillyer believed it was a necessity but Mitchell thought that desire always won and that the "safety valves of those who are used to getting what they want are too fastidious, furtive, or feeble to satisfy themselves in their sexual lives." Finally resolving to move forward, Mitchell told Hillyer he won't restrain himself, but neither will he "be lurking around urinals and water closets."
Mitchell’s associating with The Dial proved advantageous and profitable to his own literary career. He completed and sold a volume of poetry that was published in 1921. Several of the poems in his collection were first printed in The Dial. These were reprinted with permission from Scofield Thayer. Following Mitchell’s resignation as editor Mitchell continued to submit book reviews as well as poetry.
His desire to travel led Mitchell to give up editorship of The Dial and pursue further education abroad. In 1922, following two years’ study at the University of Montpellier and Jesus College, Cambridge, he returned to the States and lived with his elderly aunt in New York. Mitchell privately studied foreign language and literature, focusing on French and Greek, before returning to Harvard and graduating with a Ph.D. in Literature in 1933.
In 1925 he transferred his studies back to Harvard and became a tutor; that he so immersed himself in this so highly demanding form of teaching probably explains why it was not until 1933, at age forty-one, that he achieved his doctoral degree. One not very inspiring book later he was an editor again, this time of the New England Quarterly, then of the publication program of the prestigious but very staid Massachusetts Historical Society, of which he later became the director.
While completing his degree he also worked as editor for the New England Quarterly in 1928. The following year he gave up his position to become editor for the Massachusetts Historical Society. It was as a historical editor that Mitchell, according to his associates, truly excelled. His "naturally keen memory and sharp eye, coupled with a sure ear for words and an occasionally brilliant wit, permitted him to excel."
Mitchell's long-time partner was Richard David Cowan, a student of Cornell University in the 1920s who met Mitchell in the 1930s and they lived together since then.
Mitchell was forced out in 1939 as head of MHS after he had an emotional breakdown following the suicide of his longtime partner Richard Cowan. Ostensibly he was let go because of his extensive drinking but privately the directors complained he was aggressively homosexual. “There is no running away from a broken heart,” a usually acerbic Mitchell wrote to Spence Burton, his confessor.
After eleven years' service he resigned but was recalled in 1947 as Director and editor.
Mitchell died in Brookline, Massachusetts on November 3, 1957 and was buried at Mount Auburn Cemetery, Cambridge, Massachusetts, alongside Richard Cowan, who preceded him in death.
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Improper Bostonians Lesbian and Gay History from the Puritans to Playland By History Project Staff · 1998