Images courtesy of Glenn Stout.
Images courtesy of Glenn Stout.
When Glenn Stout, the editor of The Best American Sports Writing series, says he lives far "up there" in Vermont he means it. Stout warned me about how long the drive would be from my home to his, but I didn't listen. I took a Friday off from work, booked a hotel in Burlington and left my house before sunrise. After that, it was a matter of driving on highways that seem to go on forever into an endless mountain range. When I make it to Lake Champlain, I realize I’m getting close. I continue driving north on Highway US-2, across bridge after bridge and surrounded by ice. After nearly five hours of driving from Central Massachusetts I arrive at Stout’s driveway, then pass it. The driveway is a dirt path that leads into what appears to be woodlands. It seems unlikely that anyone lives up that driveway, let alone the man whose name has been on every edition of Best American Sports Writing since the series’ inception in 1991.
Stout found his way into being the editor of The Best American Sports Writing series published by Houghton Mifflin at the series' inception. At the time, he was still working at the Boston Public Library and writing articles for Boston Magazine. “An editor at Houghton Mifflin asked an agent of cookbook authors whether or not she knew of an agent who might have an author who would be interested in serving as series editor of another Best American title, this one a collection of writing about sports,” Stout recalled in his introduction to the 2010 edition. “She did not, but she had just taken me on as a client, not because of my culinary skills, but, I think, as more or less of a favor to a mutual friend. I had published a couple dozen magazine stories about sports history and thought I had a few ideas for a book."
Stout met with the editor in charge of the title and was interested in the project immediately. The same was not true of the editor, who was unsure about putting a relatively unknown writer with a few sports stories to his name in charge of the series. The editor asked Stout to collect a sample of stories from the previous five years—a test. Luckily for Stout, he worked in a library— a really big and at the time a relatively well-financed library with plenty of resources—and had access to everything he wanted and needed. The question was finding it. Stout looked for stories "not just by sportswriters, but also for writing about sports by writers who seemed to expand that definition, people like Frank DeFord, Pat Jordan, Tom Boswell, Ira Berkow, George Plimpton and others,” he wrote in the 2010 introduction. His sample of selections worked, as did the long-shot gambit of approaching David Halberstam—whom Stout had met, briefly, while helping him research a book—as the series' first guest editor. Halberstam said yes, stuck with the project after backing out halfway through, and both Stout and the series he edited quickly took on the look of an institution. He also had something few freelance writers ever get: a steady paycheck.
Stout’s house looks like a ski cabin—plenty of open space, high ceilings, large windows and exposed wood and beams—and feels more like a retreat than a home. The house was built with the money Stout earned after co-writing Red Sox Century” with Richard A. Johnson. He and his family moved here in 2003, after spending the majority of his adult life in Massachusetts, as a librarian at the Boston Public Library's Research Library Office. Stout rose through the ranks, ultimately working directly under the Head Librarian of the Research Library. He managed this ascent while knocking out periodic freelance pieces on such sports-y subjects as Chick Stahl, the Boston Beaneaters and Boston Americans star who was one of the sport's best playera of the late 1800’s and early 1900’s, right up until he committed suicide in 1907.
As befits a man for whom sports writing was mostly a side gig for most of his career, Stout looks the part of poet more than sports-writer. He wears a black turtleneck, a gray goatee and a black beatnik style hat; hair is long, gray and pulled back in a ponytail, which is visible if you squint at his ubiquitous biographical headshot.
"I remember the moment, and it didn’t just get me into poetry, it got me into writing," Stout says. "I think I was in eighth grade and to that point the epitome of literature I had read was The Baseball Life of Mickey Mantle or something. I had an English class where we had to find some poems and illustrate them with pictures we cut out from magazines. My brother, who is four years older and [was] in high school at the time, said, ‘oh you should read this.’ And why he had it? He was kind of a child of the 60’s. It was a book of poetry by Langston Hughes.” That book of poetry brought Stout to the Hughes poem “Suicide Note."
“‘The calm/cool face/of the river/asked me for a kiss,’ and it was like being hit in the face by a two-by-four because I could see it. You know, I was like every other 14-year-old, a tortured adolescent, and wanted to kill myself every few minutes. But that just really hit me,” said Stout. “I started to read [Hughes] and then my kind of journey through literature went and you would read someone and you’d read about them and find out about other writers.” Specifically, to Jack Kerouac—Stout still claims On The Road as the best American novel—and the other Beat writers who kept Stout and his friends up, in fervent conversation, late into the night. A group of them met regularly at his Boston apartment. There was one rule to the gatherings: everyone had to read something out loud, whether it be original or by someone else. “Then it would morph into other things,” Stout said. “It was on a weekday night because we’d all be out on a weekend night—it would be on like a Wednesday night. That’s so important. I hope that’s still done a lot because so much stuff is done online now and you can’t have the same back and forth.”
Stout quickly learned there was better money in sports writing than poetry, especially in a sports-crazy city like Boston. “I thought it was funny when I started writing about sports," said Stout, "because I can write anything about sports and somebody will buy it, but the stuff I’m really good at nobody was interested in. Of course that’s the nature of words as a commodity. Poetry is not a commodity." Sports writing, for better or worse, is. Stout’s life proves it.
“When you’re younger," Stout told me, "the writing persona seems much more distinct from your other persona. I think as you get older it starts to meld together more, or at least you become more accustomed to it yourself. So it’s harder to see the differences—that’s probably what it is. When I was younger, there was this little drum roll, ‘and now I’m going to write.’ And it’s not like that anymore. It’s just what I've got to do. You got deadlines.”
For Stout, that means reading other writers' writing about sports on top of writing books. His basement is a repository for hundreds of stories that were submitted through the years. He has boxes stacked on shelves filled with the original copies of submissions, mostly the honorable mentions named at the end of each Best American Sports Writing.
As the series editor of The Best American Sports Writing, Stout’s eyes and opinion are important, and his up or down vote is one that can help advance a career, or not. He doesn’t have final say on what goes into each book, but he has the first say on a story. With each year, Stout's reading load grows—there are more outlets, more submissions, more worthy stories. He culls those thousands of submissions and passes them on to that year's guest editor. The edition editor then picks through the smaller batch and selects what he or she likes most; those final stories go into the book. Theirs is the last vote, but Stout's comes first.
“There’s a certain aspirational sports writing that is being done that is more 'I' oriented that I think, rightly or wrongly, has been impacted [by] growing up reading this book,” Stout told me. “And that’s something that could not have been foreseen when this book began. I'm not quite sure how I feel about it. I mean, I love it when the writing works. But when I see the aspirational that doesn’t work then I hope I’m not responsible.”
Responsible or not—and it seems a lot more correct to blame David Foster Wallace or Bill Simmons than Stout—Stout and The Best American Sports Writing has both mirrored broader trends in how people write non-fiction and changed the landscape of sports writing. Sports writing is as much about telling stories as it has ever been, but how those stories get told—in what voice and in what way and more broadly how—owes a strange but undeniable debt to a man who probably reads as much sports writing as any living human, but who never quite thought of himself as a sportswriter.
Lake Champlain is behind Stout’s house. It’s out of view from the kitchen windows, but he swears it’s there, just through the thick trees and on the other side of a small patch of swamp. I drove across, over, and along the lake for close to an hour on my way to his house, but I thought I had travelled far enough inland to have left it behind. That's not how it is in this part of Vermont. The lake looms. It's everywhere, even when you can't see it.
Stout puts on his boots and I grab a pair from my car and he invites his dog to take the hike back through the woods to the lake, which is frozen with ice thick enough that it becomes a state highway in the winter. I watched as large trucks full of ice fisherman drove on the ice, getting closer and closer to running water while I drove on a real highway made of asphalt. I was astonished that people put their giant trucks on the ice, but it’s what people do in upstate Vermont. It’s how you travel and how you fish.
Stout and some friends built a floating dock crossing the swampland to the lake. It stops at what appears to be a sandbar separating the lake from the swamp. At the edge of the sandbar, and next to the dock is a small, one-room floating cabin. It’s a tranquil place, even in the winter. Mountains surround, as they tend to in this part of the state. The lake looks endless. The sun isn’t out on the day I visit and the rain clouds still glower above us, but it's easy to see what brought Stout up here. It seems like a great place to read.