In Memoriam: Laurence Goldstein – Michigan Quarterly Review
A photo of Laurence Goldstein within a gold frame over a dark gradient background

In Memoriam: Laurence Goldstein

My first contact with Larry was in 1991, long before I joined the University of Michigan. I was in Cairo at the time, and as a poet starting out, I was simply overjoyed to receive a letter of acceptance from the Michigan Quarterly Review. Larry invited me a few years later to write a review essay for MQR, to which I was happy to oblige. As good as my impression of Larry had been before coming to U-M, my appreciation of him grew with every interaction, from a breakfast meeting during my initial visit, to a visit to his class, to his joining our celebration for our daughter’s “first week” ceremony in 2007, and many other occasions. He was a mentor and a friend who radiated goodwill and camaraderie. He was also a fantastic poet. Larry’s book A Room in California is simply superb, combining a scholar’s wide-ranging knowledge with a romantic poet’s acumen for image and song. In it, as in life, Larry is a wonderful storyteller, and a kind blesser of the world. 

In assembling the 60th anniversary issue of MQR during our Covid lockdown, I had the chance to read many of the wonderful essays and poems that Larry wrote and published in MQR. The journal’s archives also demonstrate Larry’s wide-ranging interests and his deep contacts in the literary world. We ended up assembling a 500-page special issue, a testament to all the good work that Larry has gifted MQR and its readers. I also remain indebted to Larry’s work on Robert Hayden and for keeping Hayden’s legacy vibrant at Michigan and elsewhere. 

Below, you will find a collection of tributes and reminiscences from Larry’s friends and colleagues. As we share this sorrow for the loss of a dear friend, I want to say that I’m deeply grateful to have had Larry as a friend, colleague, and mentor, an exemplary poet and scholar whose memory I will always cherish and celebrate.

– Khaled Mattawa, Editor-in-Chief

“In 1980 I was feeling stalemated. My work wasn’t going well, and I needed some encouragement but wasn’t getting any from the usual sources of such encouragement—agents, editors, people of that sort. That summer, I wrote a very dark story, ‘Harmony of the World,’ and I submitted it to MQR and its then-editor, Laurence Goldstein. After reading the story, Larry (we were friends for decades, but I didn’t know him then) called me to tell me that he was taking the story and that it would appear in the Spring, 1981, issue. To say that I was elated would be to understate the matter. That acceptance changed my life: after MQR printed the story, it was reprinted in The Pushcart Prize Anthology, The Best American Short Stories of 1981, and its publication earned me the attention of the agents and editors who hadn’t paid attention to me before. The story was the core-story of my first book, Harmony of the World, and it was reprinted in Lorrie Moore’s anthology, Best American Stories of the Century. I’ve contributed other stories and essays to MQR down through the years, but nothing comes close to my experience with that particular story, at that particular time.

There are many biographies like mine, from authors whose spirits were lifted by a publication at a crucial moment. To value and to support a quarterly like MQR is to value and to support the literary infrastructure of our country.

Larry Goldstein was a good soul and a good guy: generous, hard-working, a fine poet and scholar, and loyal to a fault. He must have read hundreds of thousands of pages of submissions to MQR, and he was a tireless advocate of good writing. He rarely complained, and his default mood, at least when he and I were together, was one of cheerfulness. You cannot have a thriving literary community—to say nothing of a thriving literary conversation—without quarterlies like MQR. Arthur Miller thought highly enough of MQR to appear at a tribute to it at the Ethical Culture Society in New York some years ago, also attended by Marge Piercy, Diane Ackerman, and Lawrence Joseph.

As a creative artist, a poet who was a child of Los Angeles and Culver City, Larry had a particular subject-matter: the commercialization of dreaming. His poetry’s style descended from Browning through more recent figures like Frank Bidart, which is to say that the voice is learned and discursive. He often wrote about the seductive poisons of fantasy, and as I once wrote about a book of his poetry published by TriQuarterly Books/Northwestern University Press, ‘The subject of A Room in California is imaginary kingdoms, from Hollywood to those in the Near East, and the drama of these poems grows out of the disparity between being merely human and, simultaneously, imagining oneself as a ruler or a god. The poems are about fantasy projections and fantastical declines and falls, and they speak to all of us who have kept scrapbooks, gone to movies, read voraciously, and watched fortune’s wheel lift up some and drop others. These are beautiful, intricate poems, and this is a book of wonders.’ Wonders: Larry was a wonderful writer, editor, and friend, and we all benefited from his presence in our lives.” – Charles Baxter

“In my life in Ann Arbor and elsewhere it would be difficult to find a human being of such integrity and generosity of spirit as our colleague Larry Goldstein.” – Enoch Brater

“[Larry] was a quietly inspiring model for how to live the literary life.” – Peter Ho Davies

“I think it would be hard for any of us to fully appreciate the true extent of Larry’s generosity (and superhuman work ethic) as editor of MQR. When we held a conference to honor Larry’s 25 years as editor, David Baker (also an editor, at Kenyon Review, for 25 years) brought with him a two-page single spaced letter Larry had written to him years earlier about a submission to the magazine. Two full pages of detailed, penetrating, and insightful commentary on David’s poems. And this about work he was rejecting for publication!

For all those years of selfless work, Larry never received so much as a course release or a token salary supplement, and he never breathed a word to suggest that what was being asked of him might be unreasonable. Pure goodness of heart. The earth has lost one of its rare spirits.” – Linda Gregerson

“Long before I had anything to do with the English Department, I was trying to publish in MQR. Larry always wrote me kind letters and encouraged me to keep at it. When he accepted something—maybe in the late ’80s or so—he suggested changes. I was working in bookshops on State Street and saw Larry almost everyday; he always kept up with new work. We exchanged three letters about those changes, even though we saw each other ten times in that space of days. No editor of a journal with the stature of MQR had ever given my work that kind of attention. It was essential for me.

When I did join the English Department in my small role, Larry was always there when I needed advice or encouragement in this environment that was strange to me.” – Keith Taylor

“Most members of the [English] department probably knew Larry as the extraordinary long-term editor of the Michigan Quarterly Review (1977-2009). At MQR he attracted and published diverse U of M faculty and student talent as well as renowned writers such as Arthur Miller, Toni Morrison, Joyce Carol Oates, Tom Wolfe, and others. Larry was especially pleased to have introduced many now-eminent authors to the reading public.

I always regarded Larry as the department’s ‘secret weapon’ because he played such a critical behind-the-scenes role in advising and mentoring so many of us in our careers and sometimes our lives. In my own case, Larry (who joined the faculty in 1970 and became Emeritus in 2016) was the first junior faculty I met upon arrival in Ann Arbor, at a reception at John Knott’s house in 1975. We immediately bonded and thereafter he read over every one of my book manuscripts as well as drafts of numerous essays, his jargon-radar sounding whenever I used too many Marxist political terms. He also advised me in regard to teaching and service, introduced me to the work and person of Robert Hayden (a great inspiration to us both), brought me onto MQR as an assistant editor, and helped me navigate various crises in my personal and academic life.

Although Larry invariably exhibited a reserved and professorial manner, speaking softly and with great precision, he wrote with clear, resonating prose. Modest and even self-deprecating, he was characterized by a complete lack of personal malice, and was always generous with his time, wisdom, and concern. Beyond his expertise in Romanticism, modern poetry, William Faulkner, and Hollywood film, he had mastered vast amounts of knowledge—about art, history, popular culture, science—and had wide horizons as well as a wonderful imagination. A friend to all, he was a poet and scholar of the highest intelligence and character. Without Larry the University of Michigan will be a duller place.” – Alan Wald

“I think of Larry’s compassion, of Larry’s diligence, of Larry’s generosity with students and colleagues. His letters to MQR hopefuls: legendary. (I heard about them in faraway Arkansas in the early 1990s.) I’ll quickly add that he and Nancy were favorites among my family: Larry patiently helped me gain a deeper understanding of Robert Hayden’s place in the poetry pantheon; Nancy brought exquisite dolls (she’s a collector) to our house for our girls to play with during the Covid-wrecked summer of 2020. I had the pleasure of conducting Larry’s ‘exit interview’ at Literati in 2017; preparing for the event reminded me of what a remarkable poet and prose writer he was… I’m going to miss him a lot.” – Cody Walker

“I couldn’t have admired Larry more. He sets many aspirational marks for me: for steady, serious devotion to language and film and place and human experience; for warmth and grace in fellowship and mentorship; and for keeping and cultivating one’s own garden of tastes and concerns. Larry was unlike any other poetry scholar and poet I know of out there… He had formality and elegance, and forthrightness of opinion and taste, without seeming aggressive or defensive. This solidness for me is bound up in the distinctive deep sound of his voice, the look of his hand gestures when making a point, and his looping, careful handwriting on the many articles or poems he shared in colleagues’ mailboxes.  

Larry chaired my tenure case, for which I am enduringly grateful, not least because he gave his inimitable clarity and grace of expression to my research in writing up the case. I can’t now remember what the occasion was for which Francine Harris and I (and others) read all of Larry’s poetry collections for one event. But I remember feeling so happy to learn she shared my utter pleasure in having done so, and my sense of his work’s freshness: I think she said something to the effect of ‘I’m ready to give it all up and devote myself to Goldstein studies.’ I’ve never forgotten it because I felt just the same. I hope you’ll pick up his work and read it, if you haven’t, or even if you have.  He wrote poems of great intellectual and emotional depth; they have much to teach us.” – Gillian White

“It was easy not to realize how accomplished [Larry] was until you talked with him for a little while or read his poetry or his criticism. I remember him at the 25th MQR celebration, taking such pleasure in the tangible evidence of the extraordinary community of artists he had done so much to nurture and assemble and doing so publicly: his modesty and his joy in celebrating others and their work was, even then, on full display, as we applauded him over and over again. And… I recall Nancy’s and Larry’s kindness with our children—demonstrating that capacity for genuine attention to another person (even a very young child) that is also essential to great editors and great teachers.” – John Whittier-Ferguson

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