Karl, of course, was into blood sports. I learned a lot from him about that world of anonymous sex and violence.” “Karl” is Karl Keller, for 20 years a professor in San Diego State’s English Department and author of a critically acclaimed study of the poet Emily Dickinson — The Only Kangaroo Among the Beauty. Speaking was one of Keller’s fellow professors.
Another person said, about Karl Keller, “He was seriously into S&M, so that would be one reason that he liked Emily Dickinson, because there’s an S&M quality to Dickinson. I would see Karl once in a while at parties. He could be very kind. He could also be verbally cruel when he got drunk.”
The person who told me this warned me that I was not to use his or her name. I said I wouldn’t, and then he or she asked, “I told you the story about Karl Keller and that dress, didn’t I?”
“Well, Karl gave a paper at a conference in Amherst for the Emily Dickinson Association. In the middle of delivering his paper, he said, ‘What I would really like to do is go up to her bedroom and put on her white dress and walk down the stairs, wearing that dress.’ Everyone in his audience was totally shocked. Karl has always been and remains to this day something of a legend in the Emily Dickinson world.”
When I began to ask about Karl Keller, I learned that versions of this white dress story exist. Someone who’d taught with Keller during the 20 or so years Keller was a professor in State’s English Department said, “This is one of those impossible stories that we at State all enjoy, all of us who knew Karl. It was, I believe, at a Modern Language Association conference; it could have been an American Association conference. But it was a big-ticket conference. So Karl had a paper to deliver and came in a white dress. I’m sure the dress was gorgeous, because he had wonderful taste. I’m sure it fit him perfectly. Probably the people who knew him thoroughly enjoyed all this. I suspect it was a surreal thing to anyone who didn’t know him. However, given that academics, for the most part, are such polite people, I wouldn’t be surprised if they just sat there and smiled.”
Less happy were stories about Karl’s long dying and eventual death. When Keller died in September 1985, the Union obituary was headlined: “Renowned literary scholar and activist Karl Keller, 52, dies.” The obituary noted that Keller, survived by a wife and five children, had “participated in the civil rights movement in the early 1960s and, by the end of the decade, was organizing political rallies, sit-ins and meetings in opposition to the Vietnam War.” Several paragraphs later, a reader could learn that Keller at one time had been “a bishop in the Mormon Church, [but] broke with it because of the church’s stand on several social and political issues.”
The obituary noted, about Keller’s death, only that he died “after a long illness.” Another person who asked that I not use her name said, about that “long illness,” “Karl was one of the early deaths from AIDS. Before anyone knew how it was transmitted. People were dropping his courses left and right when they found out what he had, because in those days, it was thought you could get it through the air. It was sad. He was a brilliant scholar. He loved Emily Dickinson, and he had a real gift for reading her poetry and seeing things in it that other people didn’t see. And he saw Dickinson less as a recluse than as someone with a secret life.”
“Like his life was secret for many years,” I said.
“Yes, in some ways it was. Yes. It was.”
This person went on to say, “He loved this poem,” and then, in a small voice and uninflected tone, she recited, flawlessly:
Wild nights! Wild nights!
Were I with thee,
Wild nights should be
Futile the winds
To a heart in port,
Done with the compass,
Done with the chart.
Rowing in Eden!
Ah! the sea!
Might I but moor
To-night in thee!
Karl Keller was born into a Mormon family in Manti, Utah, in 1932. He was the third child of Thomas and Lily Keller. It was a five-child family — two girls, three boys.
Manti, the county seat of Sanpete County, sits at an elevation of 5500 feet in central Utah. Settled in 1849 by Scandinavian and German/Swiss immigrants and incorporated in 1851, Manti is the site of one of the state’s oldest Mormon temples.
If you want to learn something about Manti, find Fresh Meat/Warm Weather, a novel by Joyce Eliason. Ms. Eliason grew up in Manti at the same time as did Karl Keller and is distantly related to him. “His grandfather,” she said, on the afternoon that we talked, “was either my grandmother’s brother or cousin. Because little towns like Manti are so isolated, people intermarried a lot. They were all pretty much from the same background.”
Manti’s early settlers, Eliason writes in Fresh Meat/Warm Weather, “forged ahead to build a town in this high valley even though the church surveyor himself said it was an improbable site for a town. He claimed the soil wasn’t good and there wasn’t enough water and he was excommunicated from the church. There is a divine reason said Brother Brigham and added that he would reveal this reason at another time and that one should never question the mysterious workings of Our Lord. And then one day Brigham himself came to town and stood on the little promontory of oolite splintering off the granite of the Wasatch and said that there was to be a Temple of God built on that very hill.”
I talked by telephone one weekend afternoon with Helen Higbee, the older of Karl’s sisters. I asked how Manti got its name.
“It originates back from Alma in the Book of Mormon. Strange name, isn’t it? We always know when strangers are talking to us about Manti because we call it Man-tie and they call it Man-tee.”