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Karl Shapiro papers


Karl Shapiro papers
Shapiro, Karl
Collection number:
1.00 linear feet
Inclusive dates:
ca. 1917-1968
Collection Area:
Literature and Rare Books
Special Collections, University of Maryland Libraries, Hornbake Library, College Park, MD 20742. Tel: 301-405-9212, Fax: 301-314-2709, Email:

Karl Shapiro (1913-2000) was an American poet and literary critic who was born in Baltimore, Maryland. He was strongly influenced by the works of W. H. Auden, Walt Whitman, and William Carlos Williams. His work has been recognized with a number of major awards, including the Pulitzer prize for V-Letter and Other Poems in 1945; he later became consultant in poetry at the Library of Congress. He also published a novel, an autobiography, and poetry anthologies. Shapiro taught at many universities, including Johns Hopkins University, University of Nebraska, University of Illinois at Chicago Circle, and University of California, Davis. His papers consist of correspondence, manuscripts of poems, and photographs and are mostly from 1941 to 1944.

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This collection is open for research.

Preferred citation:

Karl Shapiro papers, Special Collections, University of Maryland Libraries.

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Publication rights:

Photocopies of original materials may be provided for a fee and at the discretion of the curator. Please see our Duplication of Materials policy for more information. Queries regarding publication rights and copyright status of materials within this collection should be directed to the appropriate curator.


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Historical Note

Karl Shapiro (1913-2000), Pulitzer Prize-winning American poet, is the author of more than forty volumes of poetry and criticism. Poems, his first volume, was privately published in 1935. While serving in Australia and New Guinea from 1942 to 1945, Shapiro wrote his V-Letter and Other Poems, for which he won the Pulitzer Prize, as well as The Place of Love, which was published in Australia. His introduction to a wider audience came with the inclusion of his poems in Five Young American Poets in 1941. Influenced by W. H. Auden and William Carlos Williams, Shapiro produced poetry satirical of modern life, which was often experimental and never predictable.

Karl Shapiro was born Carl Shapiro in Baltimore, Maryland, on November 10, 1913, the son of Sara Omansky and businessman Joseph Shapiro. The Shapiro family moved from Baltimore to near Norfolk, Virginia, when Karl was in elementary school, then returned to Baltimore when Karl was in high school. His elder brother, Irvin, was an excellent student and earned a scholarship to the University of Virginia, where he wrote poetry. Karl Shapiro admired his older brother greatly and, following in his brother's footsteps, attended the University of Virginia in 1932. However, he stayed only a year before returning to Baltimore. In 1937, he resumed his studies at the Johns Hopkins University, where he remained until 1939. In 1940, a year after leaving Johns Hopkins, Shapiro attended the Enoch Pratt Free Library School, before being drafted into military service in 1941.

Throughout his years in the military, Shapiro continually wrote poetry. As company clerk, Shapiro had access to a typewriter, which he used to type letters and poems. Although Shapiro continued to write his poetry during this period, he was unable to contact publishers and editors and relied upon his fiancée, Evalyn Katz, to act as his literary agent.

Evalyn Katz and Karl Shapiro met shortly before Shapiro was drafted, and they eventually became engaged to be married. They began corresponding almost daily after his departure for Camp Lee, Virginia. From the outset, Evalyn was interested in Shapiro's poetry, and much of their correspondence concerns his poetry and her attempts to market it. In 1942, she moved to New York to act as Shapiro's literary agent. Her efforts resulted in the publication of Person, Place and Thing in 1942, V-Letter and Other Poems in 1944, and Essay on Rime in 1945.

A large portion of Shapiro's correspondence with Evalyn was through United States V-mail. V-mail was a method by which mail was sent to overseas military outposts during World War II. It was developed to reduce the weight and volume of armed forces correspondence to and from the United States. However, V-mail, like other wartime correspondence, was subject to censorship. V-letter forms, 8.5-by-11-inch sheets that were folded to form envelopes, were available at no cost in post offices in the United States and widely distributed to soldiers stationed abroad. After being censored, V-letters were microfilmed onto sixteen millimeter film. These films were shipped to central processing facilities in the United States and abroad where 4.25-by-5-inch facsimiles were printed. The V-letters exchanged between Shapiro and Evalyn consist of such facsimiles.

Aside from V-letters, Shapiro's nearly daily correspondence with Evalyn during the war also included letters sent by regular mail and telegrams. All of their correspondence was read by the army and subject to censorship, as Shapiro explains in Poet: An Autobiography in Three Parts, Volume I: The Younger Son:

His letters contained poems which he was sending to his girlfriend in Baltimore, later in New York, where she moved to try to get them published in magazines and even in book form, both of which she succeeded in doing. His letters were read quite carefully, not for their literary value but because poems are by nature ambiguous and mysterious to say the least. So eventually as the war went on his letters were not only read by the officer-doctor assigned to censor but by departments higher up, and in the poet's case all the way up to MacArthur's headquarters.

He discovered this after the war when he looked at his girlfriend's letters from him, now that she was his wife, and they were sometimes cut to ribbons with deletions, and carried the big stamp of the Southwest Pacific Area, for as the war matured he was read more carefully. (136)

These letters, largely about his poetry and about their relationship, form the bulk of this collection.

A fourth World-War-II book, The Place of Love, was published in Australia by Cecily Crozier, with whom Shapiro had an affair, in 1942. Shapiro explained the book's genesis in Lee Bartlett's Karl Shapiro: A Descriptive Bibliography 1933-1977:

I was in the army stationed in Australia, which is where I saw Cecily Crozier's magazineA Comment in a bookstore. I though it was interesting, so I got in touch with her and we became good friends. Later, we decided to put the book together. Some of it came from the letters I wrote her. We lost touch during the later war years, and I never was able to find out what happened to her or the books. (8)

Although Shapiro explored the idea of publishing this body of work, Evalyn did not support it. Only a few of the poems from that book have ever been published in the United States.

During the course of the war, Shapiro and Evalyn investigated being married by proxy so that Shapiro could send money to her. However, the state of New York did not acknowledge marriages by proxy, and Shapiro discovered he could legally send his money to her without marriage. The couple married on March 16, 1945, after Shapiro returned from the Pacific. They had three children, Katharine, John "Jake" Jacob, and Elizabeth.

Following the war, Shapiro served as the Poetry Consultant at the Library of Congress until 1948, when he was appointed a professor of writing at the Johns Hopkins University, where he taught until 1950. For the next six years, he edited the journal Poetry in Chicago. Shapiro returned to academic life in 1956, teaching at the University of Nebraska, the University of Illinois at Chicago Circle, and the University of California at Davis. In 1967, while teaching at the University of Illinois, he and Evalyn divorced, and he married Teri Kovach Baldwin. The following year, he began teaching at the University of California at Davis, where he remained until his retirement in the mid-1980s. His second wife died in 1982; he married the translator Sophie Wilkins in 1985. Granted the rank of professor emeritus by the University of California at Davis, Shapiro resided in that city where he continued to write poetry and criticism in retirement. He returned to the eastern United States in 1994 and lived on New York City's Upper West Side until his death on May 14, 2000.

Scope and Contents of the Collection

The papers of Karl Shapiro, which cover the period 1941 to 1967, consist mainly of correspondence and poetry sent by Shapiro to Evalyn Katz Shapiro before and after their marriage. The collection also contains letters and telegrams to Shapiro's children, Evalyn's mother, Bessie, Philip Delnegro of Baltimore, Allen Tate, and Shapiro's brother, Irvin. Major topics of Shapiro's correspondence include discussions of his writing and family and personal affairs. The poems are composed primarily of manuscripts sent to Evalyn during Shapiro's military service in Australia and New Guinea. The collection also contains photographs of the Shapiro family, Karl Shapiro, and his siblings, mother, wife, and children.

Custodial History and Acquisition Information

The papers of Karl Shapiro were purchased by the University of Maryland at College Park Libraries in March 1988.

Processing Information

Processed by:

Processed by: Jordan E. Landes August 1995 Revised by Ruth M. Alvarez September 2003

Processing note:

Before processing, the collection had been arranged by format and genre. This organization has been roughly maintained. All of the correspondence: telegrams, V-letters, letters, and postcards, has been interfiled and arranged chronologically. Poems have been arranged alphabetically by title. Metal paper clips and staples have been replaced with plastic clips. Telegrams were interleaved with acid-free paper, and photographs were placed in protective Mylar sleeves. The correspondence and poetry have been placed in acid-free folders and acid-free boxes.

Encoded by:

EAD markup created using EAD database in Microsoft Access. Markup completed by Lara D'Agaro, September 2007.

Arrangement of Collection

This collection has been organized into three series.

Detailed Description of the Collection

Series 1: Correspondence, 1941-1967 (0.75 linear feet)

This series contains 892 items, most of them sent by Karl Shapiro to Evalyn Katz Shapiro; the earliest, to Evalyn from Shapiro, is dated March 26, 1941, and the last, from Shapiro to his daughter Elizabeth, October 15, 1967. The majority of the correspondence was written between 1941 and 1945, the period during which Karl Shapiro served in the United States Army. As a clerk for the Army Medical Corps, Shapiro had easy access to a typewriter, and, therefore, much of the correspondence is typed. The correspondence is composed of V-letters, postcards, letters, and telegrams. The main focus of the correspondence is the poems Shapiro enclosed in his letters to Evalyn. Shapiro wrote in detail about inspirations for his poems, how and when he wrote, his opinions on the writing of poetry, and his own published poems. Other topics discussed in the letters are his failure to marry Evalyn by proxy, worries about her health, and the couple's post-war plans. The post-1945 letters written by Shapiro are also mostly to Evalyn and concern his daily activities. However, these letters do not mention writing. Other post-war letters were written to his children, apprising them of his activities during his travels.

Karl Shapiro, despite being far the New York literary scene, managed to stay in touch with many of the key figures in publishing and frequently mentions them in his letters to Evalyn. Among those whom he knew personally are Eleanor Dark, Cecily Crozier, Richard Hart, Archibald MacLeish, Oscar Williams, Babette Deutsch, and Allen Tate. Later letters mention John Ciardi and Ralph Ellison, both of whom were acquaintances of Shapiro. He also read and expressed strong opinions to Evalyn about writers, whom he did not know personally including T. S. Eliot, Katherine Anne Porter, Robert Penn Warren, and William Saroyan.

The collection also contains correspondence to various individuals outside Shapiro's immediate family. Shapiro sent occasional messages to Evalyn's mother, Bessie Katz, in 1943 and 1944, inquiring after her health and wishing her well. The collection also holds two letters, dated May 14 and May 29, 1943, from Shapiro to Allen Tate about literary reviews. Also included in the collection is a V-letter Shapiro sent to his brother, Irvin, and his wife, Hillary, on July 12, 1943, describing camp conditions in New Guinea. Finally, there is a letter dated January 23, 1944, addressed to "Jerry" from Shapiro about Shapiro's return to the United States following the war.

Four items in the collection were not written by Karl Shapiro. A V-letter from Allen Tate to Shapiro dated April 29, 1943, discusses a review by Tate of Shapiro's work. A telegram, sent by Bobby Kaal from Australia to Philip Delnegro in Baltimore on April 3, 1942, directs Delnegro to notify the Shapiro family and Evalyn Katz that he and Karl Shapiro are safe in Australia. In a telegram to Evalyn Katz dated July 29, 1944, Selden Rodman notified her that he had news of Shapiro's transfer. Finally, a letter, dated January 1, 1945, from "J + S" to Evalyn Katz contains an excerpt of a letter from Shapiro with a note in it to her.

This series is arranged chronologically.

DescriptionSeriesBox / ReelFolder / Frame
Correspondence, January-August 1941 series 1box 1folder 1
Correspondence, September-December 1941 series 1box 1folder 2
Correspondence, 1942 series 1box 1folder 3
Correspondence, January-May 1943 series 1box 1folder 4
Correspondence, June-August 1943 series 1box 1folder 5
Correspondence, September-December 1943 series 1box 1folder 6
Correspondence, January-May 1944 series 1box 2folder 1
Correspondence, June-October 1944 series 1box 2folder 2
Correspondence, November-December 1944 series 1box 2folder 3
Correspondence, 1945 series 1box 2folder 4
Correspondence, 1948-1967 series 1box 2folder 5

Series 2: Poetry, 1941-1968 (1.5 linear inch)

This series contains fifty-nine poems which have been divided into two groups. The first group, composed of fifty-five poems, was sent by Karl Shapiro from Australia and New Guinea to Evalyn Katz in Baltimore and New York between 1941 and 1945. Many of the earliest poems contain handwritten corrections and changes, probably made by either Shapiro or Evalyn. These are the poems that Evalyn marketed in the United States. The second group is composed of four signed manuscripts, three of which are dated. They include poems written during Shapiro's service in the South Pacific. "V-Letter" and "Elegy for a Dead Soldier" appeared in V-Letter and Other Poems (1941); "V-Letter" is signed and dated September 1968. "Adam and Eve" was first published in Shapiro's Poems 1940-1953 (1953) and is signed and dated February 16, 1967. The "Progress of Faust" consists of "Homecoming," "Demobilization," and "The Conscientious Objector," all of which were published in Shapiro's Trial of a Poet (1947); the manuscript is dated April 13, 1968.

The poems have been arranged into the two groups described above. The group written between 1941 and 1945 has been arranged alphabetically by title or first line, and the second group of manuscripts has been arranged alphabetically by title.

DescriptionSeriesBox / ReelFolder / Frame
Poetry, 1941-1945 series 2box 2folder 6
Poetry, 1967-1968 and undated series 2box 2folder 7

Series 3: Photographs, c. 1917-1964 (13 items)

This series consists of thirteen photographs of Karl Shapiro and members of his family. The earliest of the series appears to be a set of photographs of Karl, Irvin, Margery, and Sara Shapiro, circa 1917. The last photograph in the series is of Liz Shapiro from her ninth-grade graduation in 1965.

DescriptionSeriesBox / ReelFolder / FrameItem
Photographs, circa 1917-1964 series 3box 2folder 8
Karl and Irvin Shapiro, circa 1917 series 3box 2folder 8item 1
Sarah Omansky Shapiro and Margery Shapiro, circa 1917 series 3box 2folder 8item 2
Irvin, Karl and Margery Shapiro, circa 1917 series 3box 2folder 8item 3
Unidentified woman [Grandmother?], undated series 3box 2folder 8item 4
Irvin, Karl, Margery and Sarah Omansky Shapiro, circa 1918 series 3box 2folder 8item 5
Karl, Margery and Irvin Shapiro,, circa 1918 series 3box 2folder 8item 6
Irvin and Karl Shapiro, Emporia, Virginia, 1919 series 3box 2folder 8item 7
Karl Shapiro, circa 1919 series 3box 2folder 8item 8
Karl Shapiro, circa 1943 series 3box 2folder 8item 9
Karl and Evalyn Katz Shapiro, Redlands, California, April 16, 1956 series 3box 2folder 8item 10
Katharine, John Jacob, and Elizabeth Shapiro, Italy, 1953 series 3box 2folder 8item 11
Karl Shapiro, 1964 series 3box 2folder 8item 12
Elizabeth Shapiro, 1965 series 3box 2folder 8item 13

Related Material

The Library of Congress holds significant related Shapiro correspondence, teaching materials, and papers. The Karl Jay Shapiro Papers, 1939-1968, are composed of correspondence, drafts of poems, books, and articles. The Charles E. Feinberg Collection contains two separate groups with Shapiro correspondence: the John Ciardi manuscripts and Karl Jay Shapiro collection. The Melvin Beaunorus Tolson Collection contains Shapiro correspondence as well.

Additional Shapiro correspondence is included among the Isabella Garder Papers and the Howard Nemerov Papers, Washington University at St. Louis Libraries; the Louis Decimus Rubin Papers, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill; the William Price Albrecht Collection, University of Kansas Libraries' Special Collections; the George Dillon Papers, Syracuse University's University Library; the Robert Lowell Papers, Houghton Library, Harvard University; and the Edmund Skellings Papers, Florida International University Library.

For other related archival and manuscript collections, please see the following subject guides.

Selected Search Terms

This collection is indexed under the following headings in the University of Maryland Libraries' Catalog. Researchers desiring related materials about these topics, names, or places may search the Catalog using these headings.


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