When Glenn Stout says he lives far up there in Vermont he means it. The roads seem to go on forever and the mountains never end. Eventually, I make it to Lake Champlain and realize I’m getting close. I continue driving north on Highway US-2 across islands surrounded by ice. After nearly five hours of driving from Central Massachusetts to northern Vermont I arrive at Stout’s driveway, but pass it because it’s a dirt path that leads into what appears to be woodlands. I turn around, check my directions and drive down the long dirt pathway.Stout and his family moved to upstate Vermont from central Massachusetts in 2003. No longer do they deal with the hustle and bustle of the suburbs of Boston. It may take an hour to get to the grocery store, but that’s fine, it took almost that long—or felt that long—to get to one when they lived in Massachusetts with traffic.
Stout warned me about how far this drive was. I didn’t listen. I took a Friday off from work, booked a hotel in Burlington and left my house before sunrise. Now, I arrive at a dirt path and take the chance.
Stout found his way into being the editor of The Best American Sports Writing series published by Houghton Mifflin when the series started in 1991. At the time, he was still working at the Boston Public Library and writing articles for the Boston Magazine. Through luck and a bit of networking, Stout was approached to be the editor.
“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,” recalls Stout in his introduction to the 2010 edition of The Best American Sports Writing. “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 immediately he was interested in the project, even if the editor wasn’t completely sold on him yet. Stout was still a little known writer. He had his stories published about sports, but he was still new to the field. He had little clout and his name didn’t mean too much at the time. The editor asked him to collect a sample of stories from the previous five years that Stout would imagine filling the book with every year. It was a test. Luckily for Stout, he worked in a library—a really big and important library with plenty of resources—and had easy access to everything he wanted and needed. It was now about just finding the right kind of material. The kind of material that stands the test of time and shows the wide range of sports writing out there.
“I mined pre-existing anthologies and the Reader’s Guide 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,” continues Stout in his introduction.
The sampler sold the editor. On top of that, Stout told them that he thought David Halberstram would be the perfect first guest editor for the series, the kind of well-respected and admired writer who had the clout to put the book on the forefront of people’s brains. Stout met Halberstram while the author was working on a book and needed assistance researching. Halberstram asked Stout for his help at the library and Stout used that as a way to get his foot in the door and incline that he “knew” the great American journalist.
Luckily for Stout, Halberstram remembered him and said yes to being named the series’ first editor. Stout’s importance in the writing world grew from a man trying to break through to the man who now served as the editor to the book that all sports writers dream of being published in. He was going to receive a stable check too, which is always nice when you’re trying to make a living as a writer.
There was a snag, though: Halberstam almost backed out of the project. Stout needed Halberstam then. He needed his guidance and his name to make the book happen. Stout recounts the phone call he got from Halberstam about the project and how he was almost doomed in the introduction to the 2010 edition of the book:
“A few weeks later, just as I finished making my selections for the second batch and was, quite literally, packing them up to send them off, the phone rang. It was David Halberstam. I started to speak, to tell him that a second batch of material was about to be sent on its way, but he did not call to chat. He started speaking, not rudely, but in one long run-on hurried sentence that gave me no chance to interrupt and ended “so I really don’t think there’s enough to make a book it was a good idea and you’ve done a good job but I really don’t think this is a book goodbye.”
Stout told his editor his situation and to his surprise, the editor told him to send the second batch of stories and continue working on the series. Halberstam came calling a few weeks later and he and Stout worked their way through the selections and picked 24 stories to go into the first volume of the book. It came out in the fall and has continued to be published since with Stout as the series’ editor.
Stout plays the part of poet more than sports writer. He wears a black turtleneck, a gray goatee and a black beatnik style hat, which fits the Beat generation persona he gives off. His hair is long, gray and pulled back in a ponytail. He speaks in a rhythm of someone who knows words mean more than their definitions—deliberate but quick. He has a cadence and excitement that blends well with his almost overpowering voice, making it subtle instead of overbearing.
Stout’s house looks like a ski cabin with exposed wood and beams. The living space is open and the large windows make it perfect for watching wildlife. The furniture even has that escapist feel that ski lodges in New England have— clean wood, plenty of open space, few closets and high ceilings on the main floor.
According to Stout, this house was built with the money he earned after writing Red Sox Century, which he co-wrote with Richard A. Johnson. He and his family moved here after spending the majority of his adult life in Massachusetts.
First Stout lived in and around Boston and worked at the Boston Public Library in the Research Library Office and worked for the Head Librarian of the Research Library. He was surrounded by books. It’s also where he got his break into writing about sports.
While working at the library Stout made extra money writing papers for undergrads at Boston University and Harvard. Then he started writing about sports for Boston Magazine. His first story was published in May of 1987. He wrote about Chick Stahl, one of the best baseball player in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s who played for the Boston Beaneaters (now the Atlanta Braves) and the Boston Americans (now the Boston Red Sox) until he committed suicide in 1907 after spring training. He used his surroundings in the library to help him research and write. He had plenty of resources and the know-how to dig through archives because he had become a certified librarian thanks to the Boston Public Library’s willingness to pay for the necessary classes.
Stout didn’t see sports writing as a career path at first. He wanted to be a poet, but there isn’t a market for poetry. And, as Stout learned, there is a market for sports writing, especially in a city like Boston, which is obsessed by its professional sports teams. Stout grew up a fan of baseball because he was able to combine his creative talents as a poet and his love of baseball into a career, and if there is a market that lives and breathes for baseball writing it’s Boston.
“I thought it was funny when I started writing about sports because I can write anything about sports and somebody will buy it, but the stuff I’m really good at nobody was interested in,” said Stout. “Of course that’s the nature of words as a commodity, poetry is not a commodity. “
Poetry is overlooked, but it’s what got Stout interested in words. It happened when he was assigned to look for a poem to illustrate and to bring into class. His older brother suggested a poem by Langston Hughes.
“I remember the moment, and it didn’t just get me into poetry it got me into writing. 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,” said Stout. “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, I think I told him what I had to do and he 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 “Suicide Note” by Hughes and he never turned back.
“‘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.”
Eventually Jack Kerouac became everything to Stout, specifically On the Road, which he says is still the best American novel. While living in Boston he and his friends would meet up to discuss writing like Kerouac and the rest of the Beats did. This ritual of sitting around and talking writing is a ritual most writers cherish. It happens in bars and in newsrooms. I can’t count on my hands how many times I’ve discussed semicolons and word usage with colleagues and friends. Stout, like all aspiring writers, had his own group of friends who he trusted to discuss the world of language with. The group met regularly at his apartment, where there was only one rule: everyone had to read something out loud, whether it be original or by someone else.
“Then it would morph into other things,” said Stout. “It was on a weekday night because we’d all be out on a weekend nights—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.”
We got into our own discussion about writing—the process, the experience, the desire, the job, and how writing evolves. He explains how the the persona of the job changes over time. How writers, like me and him, start out as thinking of writing as this glorious thing that you sit down and down, but over time it becomes a job.
“When you’re younger 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,” said Stout. “It doesn’t seem like an abrupt shift. It feels more comfortable to me. 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 got to do. You got deadlines. It’s just what you do.”
Stout is one of the first modern collectors and curators of modern sports myths, stories, and knowledge. As the series editor for The Best American Sports Writing, Stout has been receiving the best writing on, about, or dealing with sports since the book’s inception in 1991. His basement is the holding place of a lot of the stories 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 book.
As the series’ editor of The Best American Sports Writing, Stout’s eyes are the first pair every sports writer wants to impress after the story is in print. He’s the guardian of all things sports writing. He doesn’t have final say on what goes into each book, but he has the first say on a story. If he likes a story, he sends it on to the editor for that particular year. The edition editor then picks through the smaller batch and picks what he or she likes the most and can justify as that year’s best sports writing. Over the years, Stout has heard his fare share of complaints from writers about their stuff not getting selected, but what a lot of those writers don’t know is that he has picked their stuff and sent it along to the guest editor as part of the final batch and that editor has the final say on what goes into each book.
With each publication of The Best American Sports Writing comes another year of reading new sports writing for Stout, good and bad. Over the years he’s noticed a change in how sports writing is being done, how it’s presented and where it’s published. No longer does Sports Illustrated rule to world when it comes to longform sports writing. There are hundreds of outlets that now send their best writers to profile athletes and write about sports in ways that were not the norm before. Now, there is more adventure in sports writing. Game wraps aren’t the only thing being published. Famous players aren’t the only subjects. There are more stories and a more general style for this kind of writing that has blossomed from the publication of The Best American Sports Writing.
Now, more than ever, the writer has entered the narrative when it comes to sports writing. Stout has seen the trend grow since he started editing the The Best American Sports Writing from a small circle of writers who could pull off the most difficult of writing tricks, inserting yourself into a story and finding a way to navigate the story as to not make yourself the subject, to a major trend where writers are now dependent on the “I” rather than the subject. And he doesn’t know how he feels about it.
“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 growing up reading this book,” said Stout. “And that’s something that could not have been foreseen when this book began. It’s kind of developed. I think that’s kind of interesting and 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, Stout and The Best American Sports Writing has changed the landscape of sports writing and how we digest it. That in turn has changed how we digest sports and culture, they’ve melded to become closer than anyone ever wanted to accept when celebrities and athletes were hanging out, dating and marrying in the past. Sports writing is no longer about the game recap or the boxscore, it’s about telling stories.
Lake Champlain is right 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 that the lake had become an afterthought.
Stout puts on his boots and I grab a pair from my car 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 with ice fisherman driving on the ice got closer and closer to running water as I drove on a highway made of asphalt. I was astonished 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 built a floating dock crossing the swampland to the lake. It stops at what appears to be a sandbar that separates the lake from the swamp. Next to the dock and on the swamp side of the sandbar there is a small one-room floating cabin. It’s a tranquil place, even in the frigid winter. Mountains surround the lake. It seems to go on endlessly. The sun isn’t out the day I visit, the rain clouds loom above us. The sky is gray, but a bright gray that feels like it’s emitting light, I can see why he moved all the way up here. This is the kind of place poets dream of.