The Daily Themes of Peter Matthiessen

I’m a tutor in English 450: Daily Themes this semester. It’s a legendary class; famous alumni include Calvin Trillin, who wrote about it for The New Yorker (“No Telling, No Summing Up”), and Peter Matthiessen, who died last April.

When I describe the class, I usually repeat the story that Matthiessen’s first published piece began in Daily Themes. But I’ve been wondering: is this true? It looks like it is. But what was the published piece? And what was the theme? What follows is as close to discovering the answer to those questions as I’ve gotten. (Which bring up more questions: e.g., was the story published before he graduated, or after?)

The next step, it looks like, would be visiting an actual physical library.

Daily Themes (now English 450), is a Yale Classic. Its disciples write a 250-500 word “theme” five days a week for every week of the semester—a practice that encourages odes to childhood and puppy love, eavesdropping at street corners for inspiration, and, eventually, an addiction to writing. Daily Themes has been in existence since about 1901, and its list of famous graduates is long.

Beinecke Top Tens: Daily Themes

Born in New York City in 1927, Peter Matthiessen published his first short story, written in his Daily Themes class, in the Atlantic Monthly in 1951, the year after he graduated from Yale.

Bright Pages: Yale Writers, 1701 – 2001, J. D. McClatchy, Ed.

Yet another member of Fenton’s spring 1950 fiction writing class was Peter Matthiessen, author of such major works as The Snow Leopard (1979), At Play in the Fields of the Lord (1991) and Shadow Country (2008). Like many students in the class of 1950, Matthiessen served during World War II before enrolling at Yale. He showed tremendous early promise as a writer, publishing a story in the Atlantic Monthly while still an undergraduate. On the strength of that, Fenton arranged for him to return after graduation to teach in in Daily Themes and the Short Story writing class during 1950-51.

—Scott Donaldson, Death of a Rebel: The Charlie Fenton Story

Encouraged by winning the prestigious Atlantic Prize for a story he had written as an undergraduate, Mr. Matthiessen found a literary agent, the steely Bernice Baumgarten, and sent her the first chapters of a novel.

—Christopher Lehmann-Haupt “Peter Matthiessen, Lyrical Writer and Naturalist, Is Dead at 86,” The New York Times, 6 April 2014