Written by Kevin LaTorre
Nestled into the southern edge of Carnegie Mellon, Baker Hall resembles an airport terminal with its long concrete hallway. The comparison to an airport came to my mind readily, since I had only passed through Pittsburgh’s few hours earlier. The famed campus outside prizes scientific prestige, with even the humanities building bearing that impression of stripped practicality. But when I took the curling staircase up to the second floor of the Thomas S. Baker building, I found a little nook of an office waiting off to one side. It overlooked the front entrance, and its windows gazed out across the pathway to the Roy A. Hunt Library. A glass case on the wall showcased a tidy array of novels and poetry. Through the door, arm chairs and desks were scattered here and there. This office is the Gladys Schmitt—the “Glad” to the initiated—Creative Writing Center, named for the writer who made a name for her craft at the university known mostly for its scientific focus.
Not many readers have heard of Gladys Schmitt outside of Pittsburgh. For that matter, not many readers have heard of Gladys Schmitt inside Pittsburgh. And yet, she wrote twelve books of prose and poetry, and founded one of the nation’s oldest creative writing programs. She lived, wrote, and taught in Pittsburgh until her death in 1972, but—despite a few renewed looks at her work in the last few years—the city has mostly kept her to itself. Nevertheless, Schmitt is a writer worth reading and a teacher worth honoring. A dip into her compiled stories, a glance at her educational pursuits—that’s all it might take.
To begin at the beginning, Schmitt started writing far sooner than you might expect: four of her verse plays were staged when she was only in elementary school. This immediate output, from a young girl born in 1909, was only a prelude to the rich writing she would produce. A college-age Schmitt published “Progeny” in Poetry Magazine in 1929. 1942 received her first novel, The Gates of Aulis, followed closely by King David in 1944. The Literary Guild honored this novel with an award, doing the same for Confessors of the Name in 1952. No life events seemed to slow the stream of her writing. Not when she took an her assistant editor position with Scholastic Magazine and spent ten years in New York City, her longest stint away from Pittsburgh. Not when she began teaching at Carnegie Tech (later Carnegie Mellon). Not even when her mental health deteriorated in the 1960s; her poetry collection, Sonnets to an Analyst, was created during this time and published posthumously. Her writing survived every hurdle as she herself did, and grew alongside her.
We had never heard of her, never thought of hearing of her before, even as we considered the graduate program which Gladys Schmitt first made possible when she fostered a creative haven at a technological school. We should have.
It’s in Sonnets to an Analyst that Schmitt reflects on herself, and so I’d say there’s nowhere better to begin understanding her than in its sixty-nine sonnets. Wendeline Wright in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette wrote in 2015 that “Schmitt is at her best when she dives into the heads of her characters”; Sonnets finds Schmitt diving into herself. The first line of Sonnet 1 declares, “I do not buy your terminology.” Later lines add, “Twenty-odd years I’ve lain in the bed I made: / ‘Love suffereth long, complaineth not, is kind.’ / Charity? No: a masochistic bind. / Chastity? No: turned off, withdrawn, afraid.” Schmitt rejects the words which are foisted on her. She rejects them because she prefers an identity of her own, even if the words are framed in the famed idea of love in Corinthians 13:4 , which her upbringing would require her to adopt. Her own choices outweigh “the bed [she] made,” no matter what it may be. Again in Sonnet 11, the speaker resists words that would define her. This time they are her grandmother’s promise that “my unseemly rage / and puny lies could plague my dying Lord,” which the speaker disbelieves. She responds that “[p]ity burst out of the torn womb with me. / Pity was in my playthings, in my bread. / Pity embraced His lacerated head.” Through her pity, Schmitt refuses her expected relationship to religion. To be sure, God appears in her novels (David the King is a clear biblical adaptation and The Godforgotten tells the story of how he disappeared). But in her sonnets, Schmitt steps inward and away from her expected place as a religious woman. It’s a step disguised by the neatly-trimmed sonnet form, but it is a personal departure—a personal redefinition—all the same.
Gladys Schmitt was not the only entity that Gladys Schmitt redefined. I’ve already mentioned that she founded Carnegie Mellon’s Creative Writing department. But it’s key to consider how Schmitt championed this degree as part of the university’s overall redefinition in the 1960s. The university organized the Carnegie Education center to develop new curricula for both high school and university English courses; through 1968–69, Carnegie Tech became Carnegie University and then Carnegie Mellon University. In 1969 Schmitt capitalized on this change by introducing the Bachelor of Arts in Creative Writing. English had only been an area of study at the school since 1919, when it was a women-only major in the Margaret Morrison Carnegie School for Women. Only fifty years after the university created—and trivialized—English, Schmitt expanded its practice in a decidedly un-scientific direction. By fighting for her craft and its teaching, she managed to legitimize it.
I had the chance to visit Baker Hall as a prospective graduate student with the Professional Writing Program. CMU added the Master of Arts in Professional Writing in 1980; just like the Creative Writing Degree, it’s one of the first of its kind. Our reception during that open house in March happened across the hallway from the Gladys Schmitt Creative Writing Center, in the more administrative English office space. We enjoyed our tidy donuts and Keurig-made coffee with no thought of the little spot across the hall. We were unaware of why it was important, why its armchairs, typewriters, and desks welcomed students to sit, read, or write inside. After all, the room’s namesake died in 1972, long before she could see her lasting effects on the university. Schmitt’s last publication was the compilation of her stories back in 2014. We had never heard of her, never thought of hearing of her before, even as we considered the graduate program which Gladys Schmitt first made possible when she fostered a creative haven at a technological school. We should have. Gladys Schmitt chose her own definitions of who she was and of what her school could become. As a writer and an educator, she deserves more than the passing curiosity I gave her in March, and more than the unthinking ignorance everyone gives her currently.
Image courtesy of Carnegie Mellon Undergraduate Admission