A Brief History of SAMLA (1976-1983)

Donald Kay, University of South Carolina

The substantial foundation and classical edifice of SAMLA was, "as every schoolboy knows," firmly in place in November 1976 when I assumed the duties of Executive Secretary (to be first Executive Director in 1977) of the South Atlantic Modern Language Association following the successful and popular tenure of Edward W. Bratton of the Department of English at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. I had been selected from among a number of applicants in a very warm Board Room of the old Sheraton Biltmore Hotel in Atlanta--the scene of many of SAMLA’s greatest moments--during the previous spring. By the time I left the 1976 SAMLA Convention with all the necessary responsibilities of office everyone knew that SAMLA’s leadership would have to be creative and move ahead if SAMLA was to continue to have an important place in academic circles in the Southeastern United States. But I knew that I had the support of the leadership--old and new--of SAMLA, and from that time I always enjoyed a magnificent relationship with the members of the Executive Committee and all the Presidents. It turned out to be fun--and a great deal of work.

Nothing would have been possible without the support of The University of Alabama during 1976-83 when SAMLA was provided with an administrative assistant, office space, and other privileges, and it was Richard Thigpen, Interim President, Douglas E. Jones, Dean of Arts & Sciences, and Dwight L. Eddins, Professor of English and Chair of English, who first provided the encouragement and financial support.

The major accomplishments of SAMLA from 1976 to 1983 certainly include the following list of those things that were initiated and carried out for what I believe to be the first time:

The first issue of the South Atlantic Review, which was completely redesigned professionally;
The first issue of SAMLA News;
The first SAMLA seal was designed and used;
The first SAMLA Institutional Memberships were established;
The first SAMLA financial assets balance of over $100,000 was achieved;
The first African-American served as President of SAMLA (Charles A. Ray);
The first woman served as President of SAMLA (Nathalia Wright);
The first Friday-Sunday SAMLA Convention was held;
The first of the famous SAMLA Open Receptions with refreshment tickets were issued;
The first rotating Editorial Board of the South Atlantic Review was established;
The first book review editors for English/American and Foreign Languages were named;
The first SAMLA General Sessions for foreign languages were established;
The first SAMLA Convention was held in Kentucky;
The first time that the Executive Directorship and Editorship of the official scholarly journal was held by the same person.
The first SAMLA Luncheons in which spouses were not seated at the Head Table with officials.

A careful review of this list should provide food for thought for most readers, because it certainly indicates the range of activities that had to be dealt with during this time period for SAMLA. These things were accomplished because there was a large and supportive membership, and it was that membership from many institutions across the Southeastern United States that prevented SAMLA from undergoing many of the upheavals that plagued the MLA by approving certain changes in the bylaws that provided for membership mail votes on major changes that might otherwise have been passed by a small group of the membership that might have been the majority at a Business Meeting. 1976-83 was indeed a rather uneasy period of American history, but it was never without excitement and anticipation and adventure--even in such an organization as the South Atlantic Modern Language Association!

SAMLA conventions during this period were held in Atlanta (5) , Louisville (1), and Washington (2), and the attendance was always excellent--even quite good when SAMLA was held at the Galt House in Louisville, Kentucky. The Peachtree Plaza became the hotel-of-choice in Atlanta when the Biltmore stopped functioning as a hotel, and the Lake-in-the-Lobby of the Peachtree Plaza became the location for the first of the hugely successful SAMLA Open Receptions. This drew people together, and this made the book publishers happy and it made the hotel personnel happy--it helped make it possible for SAMLA to make better financial arrangements with the hotel properties and with book publishers for the benefit of our membership. In those days everyone in Departments of English and Departments of the various foreign languages in institutions across the South were accustomed to being "at SAMLA"--it was natural and expected as a matter of course. It was where the action was. We made sure that a SAMLA Convention attracted such people as James Dickey, Donald Davie, Cleanth Brooks, William Styron, Theodore Ziolkowski, and Ernest Boyer--all of whom were speakers at SAMLA General Sessions.

Working with the Executive Committees of SAMLA was indeed a pleasure for me--without exception--but of course each year brought a new President and that meant some adjustments in our working relationship. Every single one was a wonderful person, and I never had any problems or major disagreements with either a President or an Executive Committee. It was during this period that the Executive Committee first began to meet in full session the day before the official opening of SAMLA’ s Annual Convention in order to conduct essential business without distractions and allow members to better participate in the SAMLA Annual Convention events.

During my tenure in office I certainly didn’t have to consult with the Executive Committee on routine matters, and this freedom was welcome and helpful in carrying out the duties in a creative and efficient manner--but I knew where the ultimate authority lay. There were very few moments of great anxiety--except when awaiting the arrival of a speaker for a major event at the convention or learning that my three-year-old son David had descended the Peachtree Plaza elevator alone. The transition from the South Atlantic Bulletin to the new South Atlantic Review could not have gone as smoothly as it did--there were some rough seas--without the cooperation and support of the Executive Committee. Working with the Executive Committees and with other committees of SAMLA was, let us say, nothing at all like departmental faculty meetings!

It was the South Atlantic Review that brought some of the greatest feelings of accomplishment for all of us associated with SAMLA. The South Atlantic Bulletin, founded by Sturgis Leavitt in 1935 in a format not dissimilar to the current SAMLA News, had grown into a very respectable and widely-read scholarly and professional journal under the superb editorship of Frank Duffey at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Renaming the SAB and establishing the South Atlantic Review, however, offered an opportunity that is rare: to shape and form and be creative--one of my original goals. I was indeed happy when I became the first editor of the South Atlantic Review, newly redesigned and reorganized with a rotating Editorial Board of distinguished scholars and teachers. The South Atlantic Review was also to be a major place for the publication of scholarly reviews of books published by University and other academic presses located not only in the South Atlantic region (though this was a priority) but also across the country and the world. The South Atlantic Review has indeed become a major scholarly publication in America.

At the 1983 SAMLA convention, when I was turning over things to Siegfried Mews, a woman from Florida came up to me and said, "I grew up seeing your name on my SAMLA materials and seeing you at the annual meetings--what will I do?" I told her that she’d survive. Life went on, of course. But that comment still remains with me. Thanks, whoever and wherever you are! And thanks, too, to SAMLA for actually being a lot of fun and not being too uptight.

Donald Kay, former Professor of English at the University of Alabama, is the retired Director of Development Research at the University of South Carolina. Besides essays in scholarly journals such as Philological Quarterly, he is the author of Short Fiction in "The Spectator" published by the University of Alabama Press, the Editor of A Provision of Human Nature: Essays on Fielding and Othersin Honor of Miriam Austin Locke, published by the University of Alabama Press, and the Co-editor of The Unknown Samuel Johnson published by the University of Wisconsin Press. He was the Chairman of the successful national fundraising campaign of the American Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies (ASECS), and he is a former President of the Southeastern American Society of Eighteenth-century Studies (SEASECS). His son, David McGinnis Kay, mentioned in the essay, is a graduate of Emory University School of Law and lives in Atlanta after having graduated as a Presidential Scholar from the School of Cinema & Television at the University of Southern California. He has shown no permanent scars from the Thrilling Elevator Ride at the Peachtree Plaza, a joy ride he still recalls as if it were standard operating procedure!