by Gary Miller and Eric White
The Highlands neighborhood has a proud history as State College’s first residential neighborhood. It is also, in its own way, a cultural center, our own version of Bloomsbury. In addition to being the home of Schlow Centre Region Library, the Highlands also has been home over the decades to writers whose work has achieved international fame. Here is a quick tour:
Thomas Rogers, who taught at Penn State from 1961 to 1992, lived in the Highlands until his death in 2007. He was the author of four novels. His first, The Pursuit of Happiness, published in 1968, was nominated for a National Book Award. His final work, Jerry Engels, is set in State College and has many scenes in and around the fraternities that dot the northern part of the Highlands. James Parker, writing in the New York Times Book Review, noted that “The light music of Rogers’s style, the wry modesty of his language and the pouncing accuracy of his observations are easily enjoyed.”
Philip Klass, better known to fans of science fiction as William Tenn, came to State College in the mid-1960s and taught at Penn State for 24 years. He and his wife Fruma lived in the Highlands during his tenure at the university. He was the author of two novels and more than 60 published short stories that combined science fiction with satire. Steven Levy, who had been his student at Penn State in the 1970s, noted in an article for Wired Magazine, that Tenn “stood with pioneers like Theodore Sturgeon in creating vivid scenarios of mind-blowing alien worlds in novels and stories that illuminated emotional, political and ethical issues of good old humanity.”
Fruma Klass was also a writer, whose first stories were published after the couple moved to Mount Lebanon in the 1980s.Her second published story, “After the Rainbow,” won a Writers of the Future prize.In 2014, she wrote a remembrance of Frederick Pohl for The New York Review of Science Fiction in which she recalled when her husband met a young fan at a science fiction fair:
The fan turned to Phil. “Are you really William Tenn?” he asked. “’Fraid so,” Phil said, and the fan keened in disappointment, “Gee, I thought you’d be a big guy!” Without a moment’s hesitation, Phil replied, “So did I, so did I.”
Poet Theodore Roethke lived in the Glennland Building—part of the Highlands Historic District—during his tenure as a faculty member at Penn State from 1936-1943.While on the faculty, he published poems in a wide range of journals, including Poetry, the New Republic, and the Saturday Review. He published his first book of poetry, Open House, in 1941; it was praised by W.H. Auden as “completely successful.” Roethke went on to teach at Bennington College and the University of Washington, becoming one of the most influential American poets of the twentieth century. James Dickey called him the greatest of all American poets, noting, “I don’t see anyone else that has the kind of deep, gut vitality that Roethke’s got. Whitman was a great poet, but he’s no competition for Roethke.”
British-born novelist, poet, and essayist Paul West moved into the in the Highlands in the 1970s, while teaching creative writing and modern literature at Penn State. During his career, West wrote more than 20 novels, six books of poetry, and numerous nonfiction books, including histories, memoirs, and literary criticism. He was widely known as a stylist who loved wordplay. Reviewer Daniel Cryer noted of his work, “His ability to give original expression to complicated ideas about culture and personality is gargantuan.” He once wrote, “I early on came to appreciate words as what I now realize are repositories of human history . . .They were magical things to me, a bit like supercritical helium held with your bare hands.”
In 1976, West married Diane Ackerman, a poet, naturalist, and memoirist, who had that year published her first book of poetry after receiving her baccalaureate in English from Penn State in 1970. Ackerman went on to write the national bestseller, A Natural History of the Senses, and other books on nature. In the 1990s, she documented West’s recovery from a stroke in One Hundred Names for Love. Today, she is perhaps best known as the author of The Zookeeper’s Wife, which recounts the true story of Jan and Antononia Zabinska, zookeepers who saved the lives of 300 Jews who had been imprisoned in the Warsaw ghetto during World War II.
Tom Rogers, Philip and Fruma Klass, Theodore Roethke, Paul West, and Diane Ackerman reflect the intellectual and creative quality that surrounds Penn State as a major university. But they also embody the life of the imagination that makes the Highlands a true college town community.
Are there other writers and artists who have lived in the Highlands and whose contributions should be celebrated in “Hearts in the Highlands”? Please share names and locations with us for a future update.