May 1, 2019KR OnlineSpecial Collections

In Memoriam: Lee K. Abbott

In Memoriam: Lee K. AbbottLee K. Abbott was tall and effortlessly masculine. His impossibly thick hair must have been the envy of a lot of guys. Forget about unsurpassed brains and talent—with his rancher’s physicality and desert tan and his jeans and untucked white polo shirt, he could own a room as soon as he walked into it. Men flocked to him as if he were Tiger on the golf course. The way compound-complex sentences tripped off his tongue induced a type of sports-envy giddiness in them. (To this Lee would probably say, “Thank you for mentioning golf, Nancy” though in more inimitable phrasing).

Yet women flocked to him in equal measure. Everyone fell in thrall to him. Partly this was due to the very power of his prose that refuses to lie flat on the page. Everyone wanted to be a part of that storytelling aura, but woe to the aspiring scores who briefly chose imitation. The closest anyone could come to matching his word-smithing was nowhere near.

For me, the magic of this man lay also in something else: His very adulthood. His lack of neediness. His good manners. His expressions of tenderness. The way his observations authenticated the world with amusement sans amorality.

Let me go back to owning the room. He never bothered. This made him quite different from men superficially like him. He had the big name. He had the imposing looks. But he didn’t need to remake the room in his own image. Didn’t need to reprove himself as the smartest, the funniest, the quickest of wit and language.

Lee wrote macho although his beguiling curvaceous prose was veined with the female. He may have been a man’s man, but to me he was so much like a really smart woman, and that’s why I believe he made me and so many other women feel completely comfortable and respected in his presence. He found us funny when we wanted to be found funny. He found us insightful when we wanted to be insightful. So often, like us, he observed quietly. He was welcomed into our distaff tribe, as he might say, when we witnessed him getting mansplained. He didn’t protest. He watched the human race trip over itself, and he did it with good manners and love.

Read “How Love is Lived in Paradise” from the Autumn 1989 issue of the Kenyon Review.

Listen to the KR Podcast where Lee K. Abbott talks to Nick White about his experience leading fiction workshops, writing for the lady on the bus, and why Dolly Parton is the total package.


Nancy Zafris’s latest book, The Home Jar, a collection of short stories, was published in 2013. She has also written The People I Know, winner of the Flannery O’Connor award for short fiction and the Ohioana Library prize, as well as the novels The Metal Shredders and Lucky Strike. She has received two National Endowment for the Arts grants and has taught in the Czech Republic as a Fulbright fellow. She is the former fiction editor of the Kenyon Review and former series editor of the Flannery O’Connor award for short fiction.