Clark’s parents were Nancy Douglas Tapscott and William Meade Clark, an Episcopal minister and editor of Southern Churchmen. Though born in Raleigh, North Carolina, Clark’s date of birth is a subject of some debate; depending upon the source, it could be anywhere from September 8, 1890, to sometime in 1892. Her gravestone, for instance, lists September 8, 1892; her baptismal record lists September 8, 1890; and a variety of census reports suggest 1891. Clark’s mother, Nancy, died in 1894, and in 1896 William Clark moved his family from Fredericksburg to Richmond, where he became rector of St. James’s Episcopal Church. In 1899, Reverend Clark married Mary Alice Peirce, with whom Clark remained close, particularly after her father’s death in 1914.
Clark graduated from Richmond’s Virginia Randolph Ellett School for Girls (now St. Catherine’s School) in 1909, but skipped college despite passing the Bryn Mawr College entrance exam. She wrote book reviews for the Richmond Evening-Journal (1919–1920), but when the Evening-Journal‘s book page was discontinued in 1920, she and three other contributors—Margaret Waller Freeman (who later became the second wife of), Hunter Taylor Stagg, and Mary Dallas Street—helped to found The Reviewer, an experimental literary magazine to help fill the void of literary production in the South.
The adventuresome writers’ new magazine, The Reviewer, debuted in February 1921 and sold for fifteen cents an issue, one dollar for an annual subscription. For the first few years, Clark was the journal’s volunteer editor and lived on her earnings as a staff writer for the Richmond News Leader from 1920 to 1923. The very existence of The Reviewer was significant because not much else of literary consequence was being published in the South at this time—a fact noted by H. L. Mencken in his essay “The Sahara of the Bozart,” which described the South as a desert of literary production. The Reviewer became important as a forum for cultural negotiation between the traditions of the Old South and the experimentation and liberation of the 1920s (Clark herself straddled two worlds, as a descendant of one of Virginia’s “first families” and a member of the Daughters of the American Revolution, yet immersed in the rebellious and fun-loving “flapper” culture of the so-called “Roaring Twenties”).
Clark’s deliberate lack of editorial policy created an eclectic mix of new and experienced writers with both southern and northern perspectives who produced both ordinary and extraordinary writing. Her commentary in The Reviewer reinforced her editorial perspective: “We did not especially care what our writers said, if they made it worth listening to” (October 1921) and “We are here to discover something—that is our sole excuse for being here at all” (March 1922). Clark’s charisma and social connections landed submissions from such well-known writers as Ellen Glasgow, Allen Tate, Gertrude Stein, and DuBose Heyward. With Mencken’s assistance, she also helped such new writers as Julia Peterkin, who became the first southern novelist to win a Pulitzer Prize for Scarlet Sister Mary (1928) in 1929.
While traveling in the summer of 1923, Clark met Edwin Balch in Baltimore, Maryland. In letters to her mentor and confidant Joseph Hergesheimer, Clark described Balch as “rather nauseating at times,” or as “old Mr. Balch” who sent “fearfully erudite” books to her. Only a few months later, however, in her letter of December 7, 1923, Clark described Balch as “amazingly philanthropic” for doing something “exceedingly nice”—he had financed several issues of The Reviewer and had put $3,000 worth of the magazine’s stock in his name.
On November 1, 1924, Clark, then in her thirties, married the sixty-eight-year-old Balch and moved to Philadelphia. She left The Reviewer optimistically and with humor, as she wrote in a letter to Hergesheimer on August 23, 1924:
I’m so glad too that I’ve worked with a magazine, because I learned more about people than I could ever have learned in that length of time without it. And my writing will probably be more horrid, and therefore more chic, for having been an editor … I’d rather do some quite different things now, and I’m sure I’ll be able to think of plenty of amusing things.
Edwin Balch died in 1927. That same year, with encouragement from Mencken, Clark finished Stuffed Peacocks. Her 270-page account of The Reviewer and its well-known associates, Innocence Abroad, was published in 1931.
Clark remained a patron of the literary and the visual arts, and from time to time her reviews and other writings appeared in several magazines, including the Virginia Quarterly Review, published by the University of Virginia. She died at her Philadelphia home on July 2, 1953, leaving two-thirds of her estate and some of her letters and manuscripts to the university. Two years later, the Virginia Quarterly Review used Clark’s bequest to establish the Emily Clark Balch Prize for short stories and poetry, an annual award that continues today. Clark is buried in Richmond’s Hollywood Cemetery.
List of Works
- Stuffed Peacocks (1927)
- Innocence Abroad (1931)