Keith Preston — Chicago professor, poet and newspaperman

Kim Coventry


I

 first purchased one of Keith Preston’s five books of verse in 1998, while looking for the better-known satirical works of Dorothy Parker and Christopher Morley. The bookseller directed me to Splinters, a book of poems published by Preston in 1921. Upon opening it and reading “Gods and Machines,” I discovered that Preston was not only witty and ironic, he was a native of Chicago:

I looked at the gas tank, so paunchy and squat -
Ah, has he a poem inside him or not?
I looked and I looked at this comical card
And wondered what copy he held for a bard.

I sniffed at the rich odoriferous air.
I groped for the poem I scented was there;
I sighed for our Sandburg to show me the key,
When, whew! The afflatus descended on me.
Prosaic? Carl? Yon tank, set so firm on the ground?
Or earthy and I O ye rabble myopic,
The heart This Titan, full bellied and round?
We see, of this hulk, how it throbs philanthropic.

Though blatant his look, what a beautiful soul!
How free with the gains that he squeezes from coal.
How lavish of sweetness and light from his gains,
Still serving the people with might and with mains.

Ah yes, he illumines some millions of heaters,
While brass buttoned thousands are reading his meter;

So generous he, with his brightness sidereal,
For me and for Carl he makes bully materials.
For Carl and myself, if you know what I mean,
Can vision that god where you see the machine.
But in justice to Carl I would have you divine
His gods are not nearly so gaseous as mine.

This, I thought, was Preston commenting on the wealth of John D. Rockefeller, and I was immediately curious about the author. In this article, I will share some of the poems and what I’ve been able to uncover about the short life of the long-forgotten Keith Preston.

When he died in 1927 at the age of 42, Preston was described by Harry Hansen, literary editor of the New York World, as “probably the most brilliant of the long succession of witty columnists that Chicago has produced in the last thirty years....He was a scholar turned newspaper man, and his excessive good nature made his shafts easy to take.” Born in Chicago on September 29, 1884, to William D. and Jessie Roberts Preston, Keith graduated in 1901 from South Division High School in Chicago. He entered the University of Chicago on October 1, 1901, and graduated with a PhB (bachelor of philosophy) in March 1905.

That month, he was admitted to the university’s graduate school. In 1907, he began to teach at Indiana University in Bloomington, where he earned a Master’s degree. He taught at Indiana University and Princeton until in 1913, when he became an instructor in Latin in the College of Liberal Arts at Northwestern University. During this time, Preston continued his studies at the University of Chicago, taking the full complement of courses in Latin, Greek, and history. In August 1914, he completed his final exam for Latin and Greek and was awarded a PhD in Classics and graduated magna cum laude. The title of his dissertation was “Studies in the Diction of the Sermo Amatorius in Roman Comedy.” In 1915, Preston married Etta Shield of Westfield, NJ, whom he met at the University of Chicago. At the time of his death, the Prestons lived at 729 Emerson Street in Evanston, Illinois.

In reading his poetry, it is clear that the classics became a rich source of material to which he repeatedly returned for inspiration, as is evident in the poem “The Classics in a Nutshell,” which was published in his book Splinters in 1921:

Aeneas, with his little boy,
Slid down the fire escape from Troy.
He took the household bric-a-brac
He took his father pick-a-back.
His wife Creusa he forgot
(Although he loved her quite a lot).
She perished in the fire, poor dame!
He often thought of his old flame.
From Troy he sailed the raging tide, O!
To Carthage where he fell for Dido;
The left her cold and went to hell
Came through and married very well.
No one had ever thought him bad. --
He was so sweet to his old dad.

Before leaving academe, Preston had a short but promising career; in 1915 he was promoted from instructor to assistant professor of Latin at Northwestern; in 1919 he was promoted to associate professor. But in 1923 he left the classroom for journalism — to become a columnist for the Chicago Daily News. This change could not have come as a surprise to those who knew him, as he had been published under the well-guarded pseudonym “Pan,” in “A Line O’ Type or Two,” a popular column in the Chicago Tribune. The column was located at the center of the editorial page and edited by the intellectually powerful Bert Leston Taylor until his death in 1921, followed by Richard Henry Little. During his short career at the Daily News, Preston wrote a daily column called “Hit or Miss” and a Wednesday column called “The Periscope.” He also was the editor (starting in 1926) of the paper’s Wednesday book page. In a four-line poem, he says what he feels about Sinclair Lewis’ recent book, Elmer Gantry:

A red-headed woodpecker tries to tackle
The tin roof of the tabernacle,
The din is great but the damage small;
That’s “Red” Lewis, after all.

Christopher Morley, writing for the Saturday Review of Literature, remembered Preston’s debut as a newspaperman. “It was an excellent day for literary journalism when he gave up a Latin professorship at Northwestern University to become a columnist, and soothsayer....He entered with charming grace into the apostolic succession of witty versifiers whose stanzas have scoured that city not less keenly than her winds from off the lake.” Preston was, perhaps, at his best when writing about books and literature and of the poets, authors, and headlines of both the past and present as in “The Poetry of Publishing (After Herrick),” published in 1921:

A sweet disorder in the press
Kindles in books a wantonness:
A jacket in some gaudy tone;
A binding rather loosely sewn;
A blurb or two that here and there
Bedeck the crimson stomacher;
An arch abandon boldly telling
In grammar, punctuation, spelling,
Do more bewitch me than when art
Is too precise in every part.

Or in this poem entitled “The Casualty List,” also published in 1921:

Burns, R., loose, showing signs of wear;
Kreymborg, Alfred, unopened, rare;
Pope, Alexander, broken backed;
Morley, Christopher, gilt, joints cracked;
Wordsworth, William, in boards, needs tacking;
Swinburne, Algernon, flyleaf lacking;
Whitman, Walt, loose, and leather rotted;
Dell, Floyd, mottled calf, somewhat spotted;
Coverley, Roger de, cover strained;
Tennyson, banged a bit, mended with glue;
Lowell, Amy, uncut, as new.

Upon his death, Harriet Monroe, editor of Poetry magazine, wrote, “I think of Keith Preston first as a splendid man and as a loyal friend. After that one may think of him as one of the best column conductors and wittiest humorous poets in the country.” In 1925, Preston had remarked on the fate of Monroe’s own genre of work in this four-line quip entitled “The Liberators”:

Among our literary scenes,
Saddest this sight to me,
The graves of the little magazines

Preston died on July 7, 1927, and is buried at Graceland Cemetery in a large family plot that includes his uncle, Elbridge G. Keith (1840–1905), who was president of the Chicago Title and Trust Company and a resident of Prairie Avenue. Keith Preston published four titles in his lifetime, and one was published posthumously by his wife. He was a member of the Cliff Dwellers, the Society of Midland Authors, and Kappa Sigma fraternity.

To read Preston’s prose and poetry today, is to look back on the rich Chicago literary and political scene of the 1920s through the words of someone at its heart, who, with a rare sense of humor and sharp wit captured the essence of the events of a bountiful decade.
































A chronology of books
by Keith Preston

1894–1927

Types of Pan, Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1919.

Splinters, New York: George H. Durand Company, 1921.

Column Poets, edited with and introduction by Keith Preston, Chicago: Pascal Covici, 1924. Poems compiled from those published in Preston’s newspaper columns, including four by Vincent Starrett writing under the pseudonym “Vinpenny.”

The Top O’ the Column, Chicago: Pascal Covici, 1925.

Pot Shots from Pegasus, introduction by Christopher Morley, New York: Friede Covici, 1929. Poems selected by Preston’s widow, Etta Shield Preston, and published after her husband’s death.

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