Her energy seemed boundless. She was inventive, brimming with ideas, and she derived joy from those ideas—especially when they furthered the careers of emerging writers. It seems impossible, then, that a woman of such incredible creative and intellectual vitality should die so suddenly this week, on April 19, in a car accident near her home in Baton Rouge. It is a loss that defies measurement, not just to those of us who knew her and worked with her, but to everyone who loves good writing.
As editor of The Florida Review from 2004 to 2007—our first woman editor—Jeanne breathed new life into the journal. It was Jeanne who brought comics to TFR, initiated the journal’s first web site, published the special 30th anniversary issue, brought together a smart team of graduate students and taught them to be editors.
She left us in 2007 to become editor of The Southern Review, that journal’s first woman editor. And yet she didn’t leave us, not exactly. She returned to Orlando often to catch up with old friends and colleagues, because she was the kind of person who held on to friends, whose mentoring and support didn’t end just because it was no longer a part of her job. The work she did—writing, teaching writing, editing—was never about a job. It was her life and love.
Not too many months ago she was here in Orlando, and when she arrived she was surrounded. Former students who’d become friends. Former colleagues. Neighbors from the homes and neighborhoods where she had lived. Jeanne loved College Park, Bijou’s Boutique (where we welcomed her back to town twice with spectacular evening parties), cats, her Saturn sports car, her friends and family; she loved contemporary fiction, the open road, the open waters (she grew up on a boat), politics (her Facebook page was the place to keep up on the oil spill, national politics, and Rachel Maddow show); she loved The Florida Review, The Southern Review, readings, parties.
In short, Jeanne loved the art of living.
She was a fabulous cook, and her chocolate truffles were irresistible. She was ambitious, but not just for herself. This year when she got a sneak peak at the Best American Essay “notable essay” list and saw three listings for TFR writers, she sent me a message with the subject heading “Jocelyn rocks” followed by multiple exclamation points. When a prominent poet and critic queried both The Southern Review and The Florida Review for a retrospective essay, and I jumped on the submission first, she wrote, simply: “You scooped me!”
We had a quiet dinner together at AWP in February, and she talked about her plans for a women editors group, her new writing, new writers she’d discovered, her former students. It is inconceivable that we won’t see her in College Park this year for a third annual Bijou’s bash, or at AWP next year in Chicago at The Southern Review booth where she liked to scatter tiny bottles of hot sauce and always drew a crowd of writers hoping for a snippet of conversation, a dose of her energy and good cheer.
And yet, she hasn’t left us, not exactly. Here in Orlando, a former student has organized an “Unofficial Memorial” and every day the list of attendees grows. Friends, colleagues, protégés, local writers and others will gather on a Friday night to tell stories and propose toasts to her memory. Her Facebook page has become a stream of memories and tributes and pictures. Elegies for Jeanne are all over the internet. Stories of Jeanne are being told, and will continue to be told. My email inbox is flooded with messages and stories from students and writers who loved her and her work.
In time, these short and poignant remembrances will combine to tell us the greater narrative of Jeanne’s time with us—a sum much greater than all its shimmering parts. Jeanne as story. She would have loved the thought—though she would have been (and was) her most demanding editor.
For Jeanne, and in her memory, some lines from Anna Akhmatova’s “March Elegy”:
I used to think that after we are gone
there's nothing, simply nothing at all.
Then who's that wandering by the porch
again and calling us by name?
Whose face is pressed against the frosted pane?
What hand out there is waving like a branch?
By way of reply, in that cobwebbed corner
a sunstruck tatter dances in the mirror.
—Jocelyn Bartkevicius, Editor