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W.D. Snodgrass letters to Lila Jean Hank


Held at: University of Delaware Library Special Collections [Contact Us]181 South College Avenue, Newark, DE 19717-5267

This is a finding aid. It is a description of archival material held at the University of Delaware Library Special Collections. Unless otherwise noted, the materials described below are physically available in their reading room, and not digitally available through the web.

Overview and metadata sections

Pulitzer Prize-winning American poet W.D. (William De Witt) Snodgrass (1926-2009) published over 30 volumes of poetry, criticism, and translations. Snodgrass was one of the early practitioners of the confessional style in American poetry with his first volume

Heart's Needle (1959) written after the divorce from his wife Lila Jean Hank and inspired by the subsequent estrangement from their daughter Cynthia.

Before he was drafted into the United States Navy, Snodgrass attended Geneva College in Pennsylvania from 1943 to 1944. From 1944 to 1946, he was stationed in Saipan, where he served from the end of World War II through demobilization. Snodgrass transferred to the University of Iowa in 1946, where his literary interests shifted from theater to poetry. He enrolled in the Program in Creative Writing, also known as the Iowa Writers' Workshop, whose faculty included American poets John Berryman (1914-1972) and Robert Lowell (1917-1977).

Snodgrass and Lila Jean Hank married in 1946 and had one daughter. Their divorce in 1953 and Snodgrass's separation from his child led to his first volume of poetry,

Heart's Needle (1959). Snodgrass is credited as an early practitioner of the confessional style of poetry. Often autobiographical in nature, confessional poetry explores themes that had not been openly addressed in American poetry prior to the 1950s and 1960s, such as death, sex, trauma, and mental illness. Other poets associated with this style include Snodgrass's mentor Robert Lowell and American poets Anne Sexton (1928-1974) and Sylvia Plath (1932-1963).

Snodgrass, W. D. 1999. After-images: autobiographical sketches. Rochester, NY: BOA Editions."W(illiam) D(eWitt) Snodgrass." Contemporary Authors Online. Biography in Context (GALE|H1000092973)

Pulitzer Prize-winning American poet W.D. (William De Witt) Snodgrass (1926-2009) wrote 58 letters between 1944 and 1946 to his then-fiancée Lila Jean Hank after being drafted into the United States Navy and stationed in Saipan. The letters described life on the naval base at the end of World War II and a long, anxious period of demobilization in the Pacific. Snodgrass was one of the early practitioners of the confessional style in American poetry with his first volume

Heart's Needle (1959) written after his divorce from Hank in 1953 and inspired by the subsequent estrangement from their daughter.

These love letters document the couple's courtship during Snodgrass's time overseas and offer insight into the relationship whose dissolution inspired

Heart's Needle. The letters contain mementoes including photos, annotated newspaper and magazine clippings, drawings, and excerpts of love poems. As Snodgrass counted down the months until his return, the letters offered an outlet for the couple to plan their future, including the shipment of Hank's engagement ring, the date of their wedding, Snodgrass's views on Hank's academic career, and the possibility of children. Additional references to and absorption of popular culture and contemporary and classic works of literature and music while on the base provide insight into Snodgrass's early interests in writing and the formation of his personal style.

The Battle of Saipan in June-July 1944 secured the island for the United States and an important foothold for the Allies in the Pacific Theater. Snodgrass's descriptions of military life, however, primarily focused on leisure and provided a glimpse of everyday life in the South Pacific for his fiancée. Written in the period between the final days of the War and demobilization, the letters covered such topics as the food on the base, conversations with his fellow yeomen, entertainment, and his daily letter writing regimen. His letters contained numerous references to the impact of receiving letters, frequent requests for more letters, and analyses of mental strain and isolation resulting from too little communication. Recognizing his predicament as a common experience, Snodgrass documented the growing frustration of soldiers awaiting demobilization in this period.

In the letters, Snodgrass also shared with Hank his tastes in literature, music, and film—additional ways he found to pass the time and relieve his anxiety. He favorably reviewed the movies shown on the base and enjoyed the symphonies played on the radio. In his countless trips to the library, he acquired and appreciated books ranging from art history textbooks to classic literature and contemporary novels. While he seldom disliked what he read, he reserved special praise for his favorite authors such as Oscar Wilde (1854-1900) and recommended new discoveries including Kahlil Gibran's (1883-1931)

The Prophet (1923). During his time overseas, Snodgrass discovered and became an avid admirer of Thomas Wolfe (1900-1939), in particular his posthumously published semi-autobiographical novel The Web and the Rock (1939), which Snodgrass considered a potential model for his own writing.

  1. Boxes 1-2: Shelved in SPEC MSS manuscript boxes (3 inches)

Purchased, January 2015.

Processed and encoded by Sean Lovitt, February 2015.

University of Delaware Library Special Collections
Finding Aid Author
University of Delaware Library, Special Collections
Finding Aid Date
2015 February 18
Access Restrictions

The collection is open for research.

Use Restrictions

Use of materials from this collection beyond the exceptions provided for in the Fair Use and Educational Use clauses of the U.S. Copyright Law may violate federal law. Permission to publish or reproduce isrequired from the copyright holder. Please contact Special Collections Department, University of Delaware Library,

Collection Inventory

Letters, December 1944.
Box 1 Folder F1
Letters, January-August 1945.
Box 1 Folder F2
Letters, 2 September-5 September 1945.
Box 1 Folder F3
Letters, 6 September-24 September 1945.
Box 1 Folder F4
Letters, October 1945.
Box 1 Folder F5
Letters, November 1945.
Box 1 Folder F6
Letters, December 1945-January 1946.
Box 1 Folder F7
Letters, 1 February-16 February 1946.
Box 2 Folder F8
Letters, 18 February-23 February 1946.
Box 2 Folder F9
Letters, 3 March-17 March 1946.
Box 2 Folder F10
Letters, 20 March-31 March 1946.
Box 2 Folder F11
Letters, April 1946.
Box 2 Folder F12
Saipan Beacon, 18 and 24 August 1945.
Box 2 Folder F13
Wedding invitation, circa April-May 1946.
Box 2 Folder F14

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