On one long wall of my office in New York, arranged in two rows, are the portraits of of my predecessors, 13 in all since 1909. Among them are some of the most accomplished churchmen in U.S. history, a daily reminder that I stand on the shoulders of giants. The third portrait from the right, on the bottom row, is that of George W. Hunt, S.J., the 11th editor in chief. A native of Yonkers, N.Y., Father Hunt entered the Society of Jesus in 1954 and was ordained a priest in 1967. He earned a theology degree from Yale Divinity School in 1970, later remarking that his decision to study Kierkegaard with Professor Paul Holmer was “the best and most fruitful decision in my entire academic life,” for it set the stage for a lifelong study of the literary arts.
After completing a Ph.D. at Syracuse University, Father Hunt joined the staff of America in 1981 as the review’s literary editor, a position, he said, that provided “the ideal situation to read more widely and deeply.” Father Hunt’s voracious appetite for the written word afforded him a deeply sophisticated knowledge of a broad range of literary and cultural topics. “Over the years,” his longtime friend and former commissioner of Major League Baseball Fay Vincent wrote in 2011, “George demonstrated to me that he knew more than just about anyone alive about football and baseball, jazz, the movies, modern fiction—especially Cheever and Updike—the Civil War, political history, Winston Churchill, Irish history, Tammany Hall and “Boss”Tweed, military history—especially World War II—and the list could go on and on.”
In 1983 Father Hunt took a leave of absence to be a visiting lecturer at Georgetown University. During his time there, he came to appreciate “the work of America all the more, in that a writer had contact with 50,000 people per week, a number impossible to duplicate after a lifetime in the classroom.” Accordingly, Father Hunt soon returned to his duties as literary editor. In 1984 he was named editor in chief. In 1987 he was among 16 Catholic journalists invited to attend Pope John Paul II’s meeting in September 1987 with leaders of the entertainment and communication industry in Los Angeles.
George Hunt, S.J., retired from America in 1998, at the conclusion of the magazine’s most prosperous year to date. He remains the longest serving editor in chief. Later that year, he was named director of the Archbishop Hughes Institute for Religion and Culture at Fordham University. Father Hunt died in 2011 at the age of 74.
His legacy, however, is still growing. America and the Saint Thomas More Center and Chapel at Yale University announced last month that we will award an annual prize in Father Hunt’s name. Through the generosity of Mr. Vincent, The George W. Hunt Prize will recognize a writer under the age of 45 whose work embodies the qualities that Father Hunt valued most: rigor, order and discipline of thought, as well as honesty, sympathy and optimism. The selection committee will consider writers and works in a variety of genres, including journalism, fiction, poetry, drama, music, memoir, biography, history and art criticism. The recipient will receive a $25,000 award. Details can be found at americamagazine.org/huntprize.
In addition to his columns and reviews in America, Father Hunt was the author of book-length works of biography and literary criticism, including: John Cheever: The Hobgoblin Company of Love and John Updike and the Three Great Secret Things: Sex, Religion, and Art. Father Hunt’s editorial style was, in his own words, both “welcoming and honest; its sensibility sympathetic; its viewpoint optimistic.” These are the same exacting standards for future recipients of the prize that now bears his name.