Donald Hall, Foremost God in the Harvard College Pantheon


In Memoriam

Donald Hall in Scytheville, New Hampshire. Photo: Henri Cole.


Don Hall is dead after a brief struggle with a horrid and untreatable cancer. It was impossible not to wish for his prompt release from this misery. All the same, I can’t really believe that he is gone, that the letters we exchanged once, sometimes twice a week will never again be written, that I will never again be astonished by his flashes of humor, his unending devotion to his writer’s craft, his delight in simple pleasures. Never again the outings with his wonderful companion Linda Kunhardt to the Italian restaurant where he especially liked the strong-flavored food and into which she could, in his telling, maneuver his wheelchair without difficulty. He liked to eat until the very end, not only whatever pasta that restaurant served but also onion sandwiches he fixed himself, a delicacy the mere mention of which made me cringe. A pâté de campagne that he ate at the Lipp, in Paris, about twenty years ago, with my wife and Linda and I, was present in his memory and in his letters. All of this is gone. But Gus (his dog), the blue chair, the Glenwood stove, the changing moods of Eagle Pond and Mount Kearsarge, and the rest of the Donald Hall iconography live on, in memory and in his verse. 

Gods are immortal. That is what I used to believe, and Don Hall was foremost in my Harvard College pantheon. Tall, handsome, already erudite, understood by all to be a gifted poet, he was an editor of The Harvard Advocate, the college literary magazine. He was a senior when I, a freshman and recent refugee from Eastern Europe with an odd accent and odd manners, competed (successfully as it turned out) for admission to the magazine’s literary board. The likes of me were perhaps entitled to be seen but certainly had no right to be heard. And yet from his perch on Olympus, Don did not merely deign to notice me; he engaged me in serious discussions about T. S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, and W. B. Yeats and listened benevolently to the jejune nonsense I spouted. The friendship that was born then never wavered. Other deities and demigods surrounded Don, chief among them Robert Bly, likewise recognized as a poet of great promise. He had graduated the year before and was living in New York City but turned up at the Advocate with some regularity. In an outer circle of poets stood Will Morgan, a returning veteran who remained on the Advocate another year or two. George Plimpton’s mythic presence was felt even when he was in Europe. Don spoke admiringly of other Harvard College divinities, John Ashbery and Frank O’Hara, but they had graduated before I arrived, and I was not to meet Ashbery until many years later. At the time, the Advocate did not have woman members. Yet we knew and admired Adrienne Rich, published her poems, and regretted that she had to remain on the outside.

Of that group, only Bob Bly is still alive. Like Bly, Ashbery and O’Hara and Rich have attained the renown they so amply deserved. Will Morgan, a Southerner and a fervent Catholic, wrote poems I still remember, but I can find no trace of him or his poetry, and none, I suppose, remains except in the memory of a vanishing handful of contemporaries.

As for Don Hall, the body of his work is a monument more lasting than bronze. It enshrines the best of him, his loves, joys, and sorrows.


Louis Begley is a former lawyer and novelist. Our Art of Fiction interview with him is available here