Alan Swallow (1915–66) founded the University of Denver’s creative writing program and established Swallow Press, a small publisher that focused in part on books about the American West. He also ran the University of Denver Press from 1947 to 1953. Known for his intense personality, his critical judgment, and his passion for publishing, he was a leading literary figure in Denver and throughout the West during the decades after World War II.
Edgar Alan Swallow was born on February 11, 1915, to Alta and Edgar Swallow in Powell, Wyoming. He grew up on a farm outside of town, where his family raised beets and sheep. He loved to work on old cars and tractors—he would later be known for racing motorcycles and sports cars around Denver—and thought he would become a mechanical engineer.
Swallow’s direction changed during the summer of 1931, when he read through a box of old paperbacks while working at a gas station in Gardiner, Montana. He felt drawn to books for both their content and the craft of making them, and he dreamed of starting a press that would print good books for low prices. While still in high school, he began writing poetry and working for the school newspaper. When he entered the University of Wyoming on a scholarship in 1932, he majored in English, edited a variety of campus publications, and started his own literary magazine.
After marrying Mae Elder, a friend of his sister’s in Powell, in 1936 and graduating a year later, Swallow moved to Baton Rouge to start graduate school at Louisiana State University. There he studied with Robert Penn Warren, Cleanth Brooks, and Allen Tate, leaders of New Criticism, a school of interpretation that focused on the close reading of texts. Swallow received his master’s in 1939 and his doctorate in 1941, writing his dissertation on poetic composition in the early English Renaissance, while Mae worked in the office of the journal Southern Review.
Teacher and Publisher
Swallow started publishing books while he was still in graduate school. In 1939 he bought a used Kelsey Excelsior Press, which he used to print an anthology of student poems and stories called Signets the following year. Soon he moved to Albuquerque, where he started teaching at the University of New Mexico in 1940 (while still finishing his dissertation). He continued to do some printing there with graduate student Horace Critchlow: small books of poetry under a variety of imprints, plus custom publishing for local churches and other groups. He also became editor of Modern Verse and poetry editor of New Mexico Quarterly Review. He spent 1942–43 teaching and printing at Western State College of Colorado (now Western Colorado University) in Gunnison, where his daughter, Karen, was born. Starting in 1943, he served stateside for the remainder of World War II as a technical sergeant in the Army Medical Corps.
After the war, the University of Denver (DU) hired Swallow in 1946 to teach English and run a university press. He promptly established the school’s creative writing program, one of the first to grant degrees in the country, while the press—just the seventh university press in the West—was up and running by 1947. Swallow made the University of Denver Press the first of its kind to publish new fiction. Teaming up with his former partner Critchlow, who was then in Denver, he also continued to publish books under his own imprints, Swallow Press and Sage Books, sometimes enlisting students (including John Williams) to help with production. Mae did the bookkeeping and proofreading. A contract to publish the United States Quarterly Book Review eventually allowed Swallow to build a garage in his backyard for printing. His house became one of the centers of literary Denver, a place where students, writers, and visitors mingled for drinks and discussion.
In 1953 DU shut down its press, which was losing money, and Swallow resigned from teaching a year later. There is evidence that he quit in the wake of an affair with the wife of a university trustee, but his stated reason was that he wanted to focus more on his own publishing, which was starting to turn a small profit. Swallow Press focused on fiction, poetry, and literary criticism, while subsidiary imprint Sage Books published writing about the American West. Known for his uncompromising critical judgment, Swallow published poems and criticism by Yvor Winters, stories by Anaïs Nin, novels by Frank Waters and Vardis Fisher, and local histories by Caroline Bancroft and Marshall Sprague.
Swallow continued to enjoy driving motorcycles and convertibles, but a 1957 motorcycle accident resulted in repeated leg surgeries for the rest of his life. “Sometimes this old body will just not do what it wishes,” he wrote in 1960. Despite relying heavily on painkillers and antibiotics, he still pushed himself hard. By the mid-1960s, he was editing and designing about fifty titles and printing some 70,000 copies per year out of his house and garage, while also speaking at literary events and judging writing competitions.
Swallow died of a heart attack on November 27, 1966, while sitting at his typewriter. He was remembered for championing Western writers and subjects as well as authors rejected by big New York publishers because their books wouldn’t sell. “He never published a book he didn’t like,” one obituary said, and he also never let commercial considerations prevent the publication of a book he thought was good. After his death, Swallow Press was sold in 1967 and eventually ended up as an imprint of Ohio University Press, where it continues to publish books today.