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Larry Levis papers

Identifier: M 426

Scope and Contents

The Larry Levis papers consist of materials created and accumulated by Levis, his colleagues, and members of his family. Materials date from 1974 to 2006 and document Levis’s literary career and legacy, his career in academia, and aspects of his personal life.

The great majority of Series 1: Correspondence is made up of letters, cards, notes, and postcards received by Levis as well as a lesser number of letters written by Levis. Correspondents include friends, colleagues, family members, and editors. These letters provide insight into Levis’s personal and professional relationships. The folder of unidentified correspondence holds materials lacking an identifiable correspondent as these letters, cards, and postcards are marked with only a first name, illegible signatures, or no name at all. Miscellaneous envelopes are those that do not correspond with a letter or card in the series. Also found in this series are sets of correspondence in which Levis was neither the sender nor the recipient. These include the correspondence of James Marshall, Mary Flinn, and a set of other correspondence that includes single instances of exchanges between unique pairs of individuals. Most folders in this series hold only a few pieces of correspondence, with the exception of correspondence with Philip Levine which is substantial, but consists largely of photocopies.

Series 2: Writings, the largest series in this collection, is broken into three subseries: Subseries 2.1: Collected works, Subseries 2.2: Other works, and Subseries 2.3: Writings of others. These materials illuminate aspects of Levis’s creative process, his professional and artistic relationships with peers, and the evolution of his literary career and legacy.

Subseries 2.1: Collected works makes up the bulk of this series and consists of drafts of Levis’s writing, including drafts of individual poetry and prose pieces, manuscript drafts of collected works, journals, and unarranged or unidentified poem and prose drafts, many of which are handwritten. Some drafts include comments of Levis’s colleagues, including Philip Levine. Content related to Levis’s early works and limited edition publications is largely absent. Best represented are the works The Dollmaker’s Ghost, Winter Stars, The Widening Spell of the Leaves, Black Freckles, Elegy, and The Gazer Within.

Evidence of posthumous arrangement activities is most prominent in this subseries, and all efforts have been made to preserve it as it may hold clues to the creator's intent. Preservation photocopies of sticky notes and notes written on envelopes are included in their corresponding folders. Descriptive information added by those other than Levis has been included in folder titles placed within brackets. The retained notations give location information, description of content, and, for some collected works, numerical or potentially sequential identification of drafts.

Drafts of poems and prose not identified and grouped with a specific collected volume have been placed in Subseries 2.2: Other works. Though the majority of these folders lacked distinct titles indicating why certain materials were placed in a folder together at the time of processing, there may be unknown meaning to their arrangement. Therefore, these items have been kept in their original folder groupings. Drafts marked at "unidentified" could not be identified in terms of genre.

Materials in Subseries 2.3: Writings of others include drafts or otherwise unpublished versions of poetry and prose pieces by other individuals. Some pieces are about Levis, while others were, presumably, acquired by Levis or his associates at some point.

In this series, many copies of poem drafts, including a number of the drafts for the collected work Elegy as well as unidentified drafts are photocopies. Dates given on folders holding these materials reflect the dates of the original content, when provided.

Series 3: Printed materials contains published poems, articles, and interviews by Levis and others as well as advertisements, flyers, and other printed ephemera. Items in this series provide examples of Levis’s public presence, analysis and interpretation of his work in the press, and works by others that Levis or his associates acquired and retained. Published works by Levis are identified first by genre, then by title, whereas works by others are identified by the name of the author, then by title. Materials grouped by type include advertisements mentioning Levis, articles and press releases about Levis, articles about Philip Levine, postcards, and reviews.

Materials in Series 4: Academic files include academic administrative materials, course materials, student correspondence, and student work that document aspects of Levis’s life in academia, his roles as a professor, and his approach to teaching. The bulk of materials in this series pertain to Levis’s work with Virginia Commonwealth University and Warren Wilson College. Academic materials that do not indicate an institution have been labeled as unidentified. Administrative materials include department correspondence and policy documents, employment forms, and similar materials. Course materials encompass syllabi, photocopied readings, and other materials related to the preparation and delivery of instruction. Correspondence with students, attendance and grade sheets, and submitted student work may be protected under the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA). Access to these materials must be requested in advance to allow for review by the archivist.

Series 5: Business and personal files holds appointment books, personal effects, photographs, audiovisual materials, awards, and other materials of a personal or professional nature that are not primarily made up of correspondence or writings. These items provide insight into Levis’s personal life and also document his memorial services. Personal materials, such as photographs, lacking contextual information have been labeled as unidentified.

The disks in Series 6: Born-digital materials hold content created by Levis or his associates on a variety of topics. It is likely that some portion of the born-digital materials currently housed on these 3.5 and 4.25 inch floppy disks is duplicated in the paper records, although the extent of this duplication is unknown at this time. Access to these materials must be requested in advance to allow for generation of access copies.

Series 7: Sheila Brady papers consists of materials donated by Brady, Levis’s sister, in 2011. During the 2013 processing of the collection, these materials were interfiled into the materials previously purchased from Nicholas Levis. Notation made by the processor at the time enabled the separation of these files during the 2016 reprocessing effort into their own series. In terms of subject and content, materials in this series run the gamut of the collection as a whole. Materials include academic files from Virginia Commonwealth University and Warren Wilson College; correspondence with colleagues of Levis, publishers, academic institutions, family, and friends; personal effects; obituaries; various printed materials and reviews; drafts and manuscripts of Levis collected works; and writings by others. Access to materials that may be protected by FERPA must be requested in advance to allow for review by the archivist.

Series 8: Collected materials holds items which have a provenance distinct from the 2009 purchase from Nicholas Levis and the 2011 donation of Sheila Brady. Currently, this includes a set of posters. This series will also encompass any future accruals to the collection.


  • Creation: 1974-2006

Access Restrictions

Collection is open to research except for certain materials due to FERPA and/or the presence of personally identifiable information.

Special guidelines: Researchers must contact the archivist at least one week in advance for access to Series 4: Academic files, Series 6: Born digital materials, and Series 7: Sheila Brady materials.

Use Restrictions

There are no restrictions.

Biographical / Historical

Larry Patrick Levis was a poet and a professor of poetry. He was born on September 30, 1946 to parents William Kent Levis and Carol Mayo Levis in Fresno, California, the youngest of four children. Levis grew up on his family's ranch, a large farm of vineyards and orchards in Selma, California. During his childhood, he helped his father and the farm workers employed by the family with the daily operations of the ranch.

Levis earned a bachelor's degree in English in 1968, from Fresno State College, later renamed California State University, Fresno, where he formed what would become a lifelong friendship with Philip Levine. Two years later, he earned a master's degree in Creative Writing from Syracuse University. Following his graduation, Levis became a lecturer at the University of California Los Angeles, where he taught from 1970 to 1972. In 1972, the University of Pittsburgh Press published his first book of poems, Wrecking Crew, which won the United States Award from the International Poetry Forum. That same year he joined the Iowa Writers' Workshop at the University of Iowa where he taught and was a writing fellow from 1972 to 1974. From 1972 to 1973, Levis served as West Coast Editor of the literary magazine Crazyhorse, and in 1973, he received his first National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship.

In 1974, Levis earned a doctorate in English from the University of Iowa and took a job as an assistant professor at the University of Missouri, Columbia, where he taught from 1974 to 1983. He was promoted to the rank of associate professor and was tenured in 1980, and he also served as co-editor and founding editor of the Missouri Review from 1978 to 1981. His second book of poems, The Afterlife, was published in 1977 by the Windhover Press of the University of Iowa and the University of Iowa Press and was awarded the Lamont Poetry Selection of the American Academy of Poets. Levis returned to the Iowa Writers' Workshop at the University of Iowa as a visiting poet from 1980 to 1982, and again in 1991. His third book of poems, The Dollmaker's Ghost, which was the winner of the Open Competition of the National Poetry Series, was published by E.P. Dutton in 1981. In 1983, Levis was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship and traveled through Mexico and several countries in Europe.

Levis took a position as an associate professor at the University of Utah in 1984. That same year, he received his second National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship. The University of Pittsburg Press released his fourth book of poems, Winter Stars, in 1985. Levis was promoted to the position of full professor in 1988, and he served as director of Utah's Program of Creative Writing from 1988 to 1992. Levis also served as associate editor of the Western Humanities Review from 1987 to 1992. In 1988, he received a Senior Fulbright Fellowship and traveled to Yugoslavia, and he was awarded a third National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship in 1989. In 1991, the University of Pittsburgh Press published Levis's fifth book of poems, The Widening Spell of the Leaves.

Levis moved to Richmond, Virginia, in 1992, having taken a job as a professor and senior poet at Virginia Commonwealth University. That same year, Peregrine Smith published Black Freckles, a book of Levis's short prose pieces. In 1993, Levis became director of the master's of fine arts program in Creative Writing at Virginia Commonwealth University. At this time, Levis was also a faculty member of the Warren Wilson College's master's of fine arts Creative Writing Program. He continued teaching and mentoring students in the low-residency program into 1996. On May 9, 1996, Levis was found dead from cardiac arrest at the age of 49 in his home in the Church Hill neighborhood of Richmond.

Over the course of his career, Levis's poems were published in a number of magazines and journals including American Poetry Review, The New Yorker, Field, Southern Review, and Antioch Review, among others. In addition to the publications noted above, Levis also had several other limited edition chapbooks published including The Rain's Witness in 1975, The Leopard's Mouth Is Dry and Cold Inside with Marcia Southwick in 1976, and Sensationalism in 1983, as well as a limited edition broadside, The Two Trees, in 1994.

Levis has one child, Nicholas Levis, born in 1978, the son of Marcia Southwick, to whom Levis was married from 1975 to the early 1980s. He had also been married to Barbara Campbell from 1969 to 1973 and Mary Jane Hale from 1989 to 1990.


17.3 Linear Feet (38 doc cases, 2 print boxes, 1 map case folder)

Language of Materials



The collection is organized into eight series. Series 1: Correspondence, 1974-2006; Series 2: Writings, circa 1977-1999; Series 3: Printed materials, 1980-2005; Series 4: Academic files, 1980-1996; Series 5: Business and personal files, 1980-2000; Series 6: Born-digital materials, undated; Series 7: Sheila Brady materials, 1975-2005; Series 8: Collected materials, 1996.

Physical Characteristics and Technical Requirements

Born digital materials are housed on 3.5 and 4.25 inch floppy disks.

Custodial History

Extant documentation of the state in which Levis's materials were initially found following his death indicates that Levis likely maintain only a very rudimentary organizational system. John Venable, the graduate student tasked with the organization of Levis's office papers by Levis's sister, Sheila Brady, noted in a letter to Brady that "Larry's method of filing drafts and revisions of poems is, simply, unlike anything I've ever seen: drafts are not dated, some drafts switch from handwriting to typescript and back again, further drafts are found in other, unmarked folders." Venable stated that he consolidated groupings of Levis's academic files and his literary materials, the latter of which he subdivided into three subgroups: drafts of poems and prose both from published collections and unpublished works, personal and professional correspondence, and "indecipherable" handwritten pages. Following this organizational effort, it is likely that the salvaged materials were transferred to the custody of the New Virginia Review.

Following their transfer, the exact date of which is unknown, the materials were stored, handled, added to, and mailed among multiple parties, including several of Levis's friends, colleagues, and family members, who actively used the materials as they compiled, edited, and published several posthumous collections of Levis's work: Elegy (1997), The Selected Levis (2000), The Gazer Within (2001), and The Darkening Trapeze (2016), as well as Condition of the Spirit (2004), a compilation of Levis's essays and writings about Levis by others.

Details of this collaborative process are described by David St. John in his afterword to The Darkening Trapeze. He notes that content was pulled from Levis's computers and his home office in addition to his university office, and that the endeavor to collect and organize Levis's drafts was led by Mary Flinn, Gregory Donovan, and Amy Tudor, the three of whom also collaboratively determined which were the most recent drafts of given poems among those found. Editing of the resulting posthumous volumes was variously completed by Philip Levine, David St. John, James Marshall, Andrew Miller, John Venable, Mary Flinn, and Christopher Buckley. All posthumous publications were created either at the request or with the permission of Levis estate administrator Sheila Brady.

Materials pertaining to the compilation of these works seems to have been added to the collection during this time. It is clear, judging from David St. John's account as well as notations on folders, envelopes, and sticky notes found during the reappraisal process, that the collection's intermediary custodians sorted the materials in order to facilitate their use, though it is unknown how many separate attempts at arrangement were made before the 2016 reappraisal and reprocessing.

Immediate Source of Acquisition

The bulk of the collection was purchased from Nicholas Levis in 2009. Additional materials were gifted by Sheila Brady in 2011.


In 2016, the collection was reappraised and reprocessed.

Processing Information

When the collection was originally processed by VCU Special Collections and Archives in 2013, staff found virtually no evidence of original order, and so an order was imposed at that time. Writings by Levis were organized chronologically and correspondence was arranged alphabetically. Materials documenting Levis's academic career were organized by institution, and his personal effects and posthumous materials were arranged by material type.

During the 2013 processing of the collection, materials acquired through a separate donation by Sheila Brady in 2011 were interfiled into the materials purchased in 2009. As provenance information was retained by that processor at the folder level, it was possible during the 2016 reprocessing effort to separate and arrange the materials donated by Brady into a single series, Series 7: Sheila Brady materials.

Materials which seems to have a provenance distinct from the 2009 purchase from Nicholas Levis and the 2011 donation of Sheila Brady have been grouped into Series 8: Collected materials during the 2016 reprocessing. This series will also encompass any future accruals to the collection, should they occur.

During the 2016 reappraisal and reprocessing, where order was discernable, whether it may be the result of Levis's design or that of the collection's custodians following his death, all efforts have been made to preserve it. This was done because any such order may hold clues to the creator's intent, whether that order had been established by Levis himself or by those who knew him well and therefore may have possessed unique insights into his creative process. Where order was found to be lacking, an arrangement was imposed on the collection in order to facilitate intellectual control and access. This imposition of order consisted of grouping materials either by record type or provenance, where possible.

Evidence of arrangement attempts made by Levis's colleagues and family after his death has been retained as much as possible through preservation photocopying of notes and the inclusion of relevant descriptive information added by those other than Levis in folder titles placed within brackets. These retained notes include location information, description of content, and, for some collected works, numerical or potentially sequential identification of drafts.

A Guide to the Larry Levis papers, 1974-2006
A Collection in Special Collections and Archives, James Branch Cabell Library, M 426
Laura Muskavitch
2017 By Virginia Commonwealth University. All rights reserved.
Description rules
Describing Archives: A Content Standard
Language of description
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Repository Details

Part of the VCU James Branch Cabell Library Repository

Special Collections and Archives 901 Park Avenue
Richmond Virginia 23284 USA US
(804) 828-1108