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UM scholar Hatlen, mentor to Stephen King, dies at 71

By Alicia Anstead


Burton Hatlen, a literary scholar whose subjects ranged from Shakespeare to Stephen King and whose teachings shaped the minds of four generations of students at the University of Maine, died Monday at Eastern Maine Medical Center in Bangor. He was 71.

The cause was pneumonia, said his family. Hatlen had undergone treatment for prostate cancer during the last decade.

Hatlen’s doctoral dissertation was on the 17th century English poet John Milton, but shortly after arriving in Orono in 1967 as an aspiring professor, he began working closely with Carroll Terrell, founder of the National Poetry Foundation and a noted Ezra Pound scholar. In close partnership with the UM English department, Terrell and Hatlen built the foundation into an internationally respected literary center for Pound studies as well as for modern and contemporary poetry. In 1991, Hatlen became director of the NPF.

Much of the organization’s reputation was built on the publication of two journals which Hatlen edited for many years: Paideuma, dedicated to Pound and later broadened to include British and American modernism, and Sagetrieb, which Hatlen founded in 1982 to explore the work of objectivist and contemporary poets such as William Carlos Williams, Louis Zukofsky and George Oppen.

The foundation’s summer poetry conferences on the Orono campus became renowned in literary circles for collecting erudite scholars and poets to discuss and disseminate their views on the rarefied industry. In addition to lectures and readings, the conferences provided attendees, many of them students, with informal and intimate contact with poets, an approach that mirrored Hatlen’s inclusive teaching style and advocacy for varied audiences.

"Poetry is the most intense, self-aware form of language available to us," Hatlen said in an interview for this newspaper in 2000. "In the language of poetry, we have a form that carries us outside commercial and manipulative uses of language and invites us to take pleasure in the sheer richness and joy of language itself, and we enrich our humanity in the process."

Marjorie Perloff, poetry critic and professor emerita of humanities at Stanford University and scholar-in-residence at the University of Southern California, met Hatlen at an NPF conference in the 1970s and quickly became a friend and colleague.

"Burt had something new to say about poetry," said Perloff. "He had an international reach and made a major contribution to our understanding of both modern and post-modern poetry — and did that work with a generosity of spirit."

At the time the conferences were taking flight in the late 1960s, Hatlen formed a writing workshop with his colleague Jim Bishop and a handful of writers including his students Stephen King and Tabitha Spruce, the poet Sylvester Pollet, who died last month, and another writer, Michael Alpert, now director of the University of Maine Press. The participants met on and off for 15 years. Hatlen’s only book of poetry "I Wanted to Tell You," published in 1987, was the culmination of his own writing in the workshop.

"Burt was more than a teacher to me. He was also a mentor and a father figure," said King on Tuesday. Not only did he hone his writing under Hatlen’s careful eye, but during the workshop he and Spruce fell in love and eventually married. "He made people — and not just me — feel welcome in the company of writers and scholars, and let us know there was a place for us at the table."

King, who has published more than 40 novels, often sent his unpublished manuscripts to Hatlen. "He saw so much more of what I was doing than I did," said King, who visited Hatlen a week ago in the hospital. Hatlen wrote several scholarly essays on King’s work, and a handful of King’s characters bear the name Hatlen, including Brooks Hatlen, the prison librarian in the novella "Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption." In 1997, when the Kings gave $4 million to their alma mater, they handed the first check — $1 million — to Hatlen to hire arts and humanities professors.

To the dismay of his co-workers and students, Hatlen never published a collection of his own scholarly works, which are considerable both in content and in number. Between 1977 and 2007, he delivered more than 100 papers in Rome, Paris, London, Finland, Canada and across the United States. His explications of poetry and poetics appeared regularly in scholarly journals, and, as a platform for his humanist views on education and politics, he occasionally contributed essays and letters to local newspapers.

He also worked exhaustively as an editor and at the English department carried a full load of classes, was chair of the department, wrote dozens of grant applications, oversaw tenure and promotion reviews nationally and was a member of many university committees.

Even as deadlines constantly loomed — and some sped past him — Hatlen continued to take on new projects, especially if they benefited students or improved the quality of life in Maine, whose landscapes and seascapes he loved. In 1996, Hatlen was given the UM Presidential Research and Creative Achievement Award. Three years later, he volunteered to reduce his teaching hours and salary so the department could afford to hire two new professors instead of only one. Officially, he was part-time, but his workload remained steady even during his illness.

In recent years he had turned his attention again to writing poetry and made several recordings.

Burton Norval Hatlen was born April 9, 1936, in Santa Barbara, Calif. His father, Julius Hatlen, emigrated from Norway and was a farm laborer who eventually ran his own apricot farm. Julius and his wife, Lily, Lutherans who sometimes spoke Norwegian at home, raised three sons. Burton was the youngest and showed early signs of questing for something beyond a rural setting.

As a boy, he turned to books to quench his intellectual thirst and, after high school, attended the University of California, Berkeley, where he received a free education. After Berkeley, he earned master’s degrees at both Harvard and Columbia and taught in small colleges in Ohio and Tennessee before earning a doctorate from UC-Davis in 1973.

By the time Hatlen and his first wife, Barbara Karlson, moved to Orrington in 1967, they had one small daughter and soon a second was born. When the girls were older, Hatlen would answer their complaints of boredom with: "Go read a book." They did.

Hatlen and Karlson later divorced.

Hatlen spent lengthy hours composing essays and lectures, but also used his large, graceful hands to grow vegetables and even tried raising a goat. During those years, he also established himself as a citizen activist, going door to door persuading neighbors to sign up for the Democratic caucus. He marched in Washington, D.C., during the war in Vietnam and, last fall, marched in Bangor against the war in Iraq.

Although his life was in academia, Hatlen performed in community theater, attended performing arts events, climbed Mount Katahdin and annually met with the same group of literati to watch the Super Bowl.

He was a towering figure — more than 6 feet tall and taller to his students. Because he was shy and utterly focused on his subject matter, he could — unintentionally — intimidate young students and even some colleagues. But he was better known for his modesty and gentle manner, nurturing intellectual exploration and at the same time insisting on high standards of critical thinking.

"He reached out from a conservative, religious farming town because he felt there was a wider world," said Virginia Nees-Hatlen, an English professor and Hatlen’s wife since 1983. "He fell in love with paperback books and a life of the mind. So many things mattered to him including the idea of a public university where kids who came from a background like his could participate in wider worlds and could contribute to the state but also find means to be happy. He wanted to share the wonder of the human record in all of its complexities."

In a postscript to his 2006 novel "Lisey’s Story," King writes a tribute to his mentor. While the words are King’s, they summarize an experience many students had in Hatlen’s classroom: "Burt was the greatest English teacher I ever had. It was he who first showed me the way to the pool, which he called ‘the language-pool, the myth-pool, where we all go down to drink.’ That was in 1968. I have trod the path that leads there often in the years since, and I can think of no better place to spend one's days; the water is still sweet, and the fish still swim."

Hatlen is survived by his wife, Virginia, two daughters, Julia Hatlen of Lowell, Mass., and Inger Hatlen of Philadelphia, Pa., as well as a granddaughter, Solveig Daniels, a stepdaughter, Hedda Steinhoff, and a brother, Philip Hatlen. A memorial service will take place in the spring.