Jarvis Thurston, 1914-2008

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Some of my earliest memories involve family visits to Jarvis and Mona Thurston’s house. As kids it was pretty much a given that we’d celebrate holidays there or at our house -- Thanksgiving, Christmas, whatever. I remember, in particular, the coffee table, which Jarvis made, whose right-hand drawer I would invariably open in search of a collection of small magnetic disks that as an eight-year-old I found endlessly entertaining.

My sisters and I would play with those magnets as our parents and Mona and Jarvis talked. (That’s what grownups do; they talk. And drink. Mona and Jarvis always drank bourbon. My father drank beer. My mother, who didn’t drink, drank at the Thurstons. A bourbon. But only one. And we drank Fresca. Mona always had Fresca. And she always had a cigarette. When I was little it was Pall Malls. Later, when she knew she needed to quit -- she never did -- it was Carltons.)

A small section of the wall-to-wall bookshelves in Jarvis' study.
A small section of the wall-to-wall bookshelves in Jarvis' study.

The house is still there, on Teasdale just off Hanley Road. Mona, better known to the world as Pulitzer Prize winner and U.S. Poet Laureate Mona Van Duyn, died in 2004. Jarvis died last night.

To those who know Jarvis, the news probably doesn’t come as a surprise -- the man, after all, was born in 1914.

I remember Jarvis as a big man. Tall, and given to wearing turtlenecks. I’ve never liked turtlenecks, but on Jarvis, they somehow seemed right. He had a big swept-back shock of silver-white hair and a dog named Barney, a big, black-and-brown droopy bloodhound; and a wood shop in the basement.

Jarvis made that coffee table (it’s still there), and he made other things too, including little keepsake boxes that he used to give my parents. (He’d also give my father hardwood scraps that were too small for boxes or furniture but perfect for hash pipes.)

My memory, I’m ashamed to admit, is for shit. Jarvis, on the other hand, had a phenomenal memory. (This was a trait he shared with my mother, who used to tell us stories about when she was a small child, including the one about the time my Uncle Larry got coal in his Christmas stocking, and the one about the time she misbehaved and wasn’t allowed to go to the Fourth of July Shakespeare performance. In Westport, I think. Though I’m probably not remembering that right.)

What I mostly remember about Jarvis is his voice. I’m not much for pitch, but I’d say Jarvis was either a deep baritone or a bass. He had a voice made for storytelling. Something about the register, but also the cadence and intonation: soft, scruffy, well-broken-in. To listen to Jarvis talk was to listen to a story you never wanted to end. I can almost hear it now.


When I was at Wash. U., I took Jarvis’s literature class, an introduction to the short story. Because of Jarvis, I read Maupassant, Turgenev, Chekhov. I don’t remember much about what Jarvis said about these writers (though I can hear him now, saying Turgenieff in that soft deep voice). That’s inconsequential, because what I do remember was that he talked about his own experience of reading their stories, and, just as often, about himself. Jarvis’s classes were like one long digression.

Were it not for Jarvis, it’s safe to say I wouldn’t be here now. Not so much because he awakened my interest in writing; that might well have happened anyway. But because he brought my father -- and by extension, me -- to St. Louis.

In 1959 my parents were living in Annandale, New York, and my father was teaching at Bard. Jarvis had been at Washington University since about 1950, and was setting out to build an English Department staffed not only by scholarly types but by actual writers.

Before coming to St. Louis, Jarvis and Mona had started a literary magazine -- that sort of thing was fashionable in those days, believe it or not -- called Perspective. They’d published some of my father’s poems (and probably some of my mother’s too). They must have mutually hit it off, because in the summer of 1960 my parents and my sister Liza and I (in utero) moved halfway across the country to St. Louis, a city my mother and father knew only because, owing to geographic convenience, they’d married here four years earlier while en route from Iowa City (where my mother had earned an MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and my father had taught -- and where, years earlier, Jarvis and Mona had met) to Mexico, where they spent a yearlong “honeymoon.”

Both my parents would go on to serve on the editorial staff at Perspective, a magazine that helped launch the careers of W.S. Merwin, Anthony Hecht, Raymond Carver, William H. Gass and Stanley Elkin (not to mention my mother and my father). Thanks to Jarvis, Gass and Elkin joined the faculty at Washington U. So did Howard Nemerov, John Morris and Wayne Fields. (Jarvis also recognized the talents of a greenhorn writer named John Gardner when Gardner was an undergrad at Washington U.)

Another member of the editorial staff at Perspective was Naomi Lebowitz (another Wash. U. professor whose literature classes were the stuff of legend). She and her husband Al -- an attorney who also wrote novels -- may have been the Thurstons’ closest friends.


One thing that always stuck with me about Jarvis: his nose. It is no exaggeration to say that Jarvis’s nose possessed more character than some people’s entire physical being. It wasn’t only the size -- and let’s not mince words; Jarvis had a nose that on the landscape of his face deserved its own area code. The nose itself was a marvel of anatomical topography. In this way it was comparable to W.C. Fields’s nose. Maybe not quite so bulbous, but full of nuance. And lumpy.

When I went to visit Jarvis yesterday, that nose was the only thing about him that I actually recognized.

I went mostly to tell Jarvis that I felt like a heel for not having come to see him at all during the five years since I’ve been back in town. The man was in total possession of his faculties, after all, until late last week. Now, of course, it was too late to do anything but apologize, and probably so late in fact that Jarvis didn’t even hear it spoken.

Then again, who knows what he heard? His breathing, which took pretty much everything he had, was irregular, but his hand was warm.

Coming up the stairs to his bedroom I heard voices. I thought it was Nicole, the young woman who has looked after Jarvis for the past five years and into whose care he demanded to be turned over when he was informed that he had only a few days left. But it wasn’t Nicole. The voice was coming from a CD Nicole had put into the player as a change of pace from the Mozart. It was Mona. Jarvis, Nicole said, had often listened to recordings of Mona’s readings after her death.

A small section of the wall-to-wall bookshelves in Jarvis' study.
A small section of the wall-to-wall bookshelves in Jarvis' study.

A small section of the wall-to-wall bookshelves in Jarvis' study.
While I was there, I couldn’t resist the urge to look around. The place has long gone shabby in the way old people’s houses do. Two of the upstairs rooms were studies; Mona’s was the small one in the back, Jarvis’s, almost entirely lined with books, overlooks Teasdale. I’m pretty sure I’d never been upstairs. I took a few books down from the shelves, opened them to see where Jarvis had written his name in tidy blue script.

Downstairs, I looked for the magnets in the coffee table drawer, sat on the couch and looked across the living room to where Mona always used to sit.

No magnets, and, of course, no Mona. But the place still bore her mark: wallpaper, ceilings, woodwork all stained yellow from her endless cigarettes. Jarvis’s presence remained too, evasive but ineluctable. And that of my mother, who died eleven years ago, and my father, whose memory was always even worse than mine -- and now is nonexistent, though his body soldiers on.

-Tom Finkel

P.S.: Please feel free to add your own thoughts about Jarvis Thurston in the comments thread below.

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