Wednesday, July 29, 2009

'Perfectly beautiful trouble': What Vonnegut's time in Iowa City meant to American Literature

(Printed in the Iowa City Press-Citizen, July 11, 2009)

"I taught creative writing in the famous Writers Workshop at the University of Iowa for a couple of years after that. I got into some perfectly beautiful trouble, got out of it again. I taught in the afternoons. In the mornings I wrote. I was not to be disturbed. I was working on my famous book about Dresden." -- Kurt Vonnegut, "Slaughterhouse Five" (1968).

It's hard to say whether the relationship between then student Loree Wilson (now Rackstraw) and then Iowa Writers' Workshop instructor Kurt Vonnegut would have been allowed in today's academic environment. Indeed, in "Slaughterhouse Five," Vonnegut refers to the affair with Rackstraw as some "perfectly beautiful trouble."

But there is nothing conventional nor safe about the life-long friendship sparked in September 1965 when the 30-something, single mother of two began taking writing advice from the 40-something author of "Mother Night," "Cat's Cradle" and "God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater." Likewise, there is nothing conventional about "Love as Always, Kurt: Vonnegut as I Knew Him," the memoir Rackstraw has published to recount the twists and turns of a friendship first forged in the Quonset huts that used to house the workshop.

Although the action leaves Iowa City soon after the first chapters, Iowa's city of literature continues to loom large throughout the book. No matter where their lives take them -- Rackstraw to the faculty of the University of Northern Iowa, Vonnegut into the hearts and bookshelves of intelligent, cultural-critically aware, literary, sci-fi readers throughout the globe -- the couple comforts themselves often with the knowledge that they'll always have their time together in Iowa City.

It's like a localized version of "Casablanca," with Iowa City playing Paris to Rackstraw's Ilsa and Vonnegut's Rick.

But Rackstraw's Iowa City is more than just a nostalgic place where she and Vonnegut got into a bunch of "perfectly beautiful trouble." It's also slice of life for the workshop in the mid-1960s -- before the program had split from the English Department and while Paul Engle was leaving his role as workshop director and moving on to the new project he was beginning with his wife, Hualing Nieh Engle: The International Writing Program.

Rackstraw provides less of a sexploitation, tell-all account of a student-teacher affair, and more of a thoughtful rumination on Vonnegut as a literary and cultural phenomenon -- one she was privileged to appreciate from early on and to watch grow over four decades.

"Loree's reviews (of Vonnegut's novels for the North American Review) weren't really reviews," said Jerome Klinkowitz, Rackstraw's fellow UNI professor and longtime Vonnegut scholar. "She wasn't writing an advertisement or consumer reports. ... Her reviews were more like ethical meditations. They delved into the almost cosmic implications of ... what Vonnegut means to American literature."

"Love as Always, Kurt" will be a book of interest to local readers as much for what it says about Vonnegut as for what it says about Iowa City's literary reputation past, present and future.

Vonnegut and Paul Engle

Rackstraw's memoir provides some interesting behind-the-scenes perspective on how Vonnegut viewed the University of Iowa, the Iowa Writers' Workshop and the International Writing Program.

"Vonnegut always viewed the state of Iowa as being wonderfully altruistic to the arts," said Klinkowitz, author of the forthcoming "Kurt Vonnegut's America" and father of Press-Citizen sports reporter Jon Klinkowitz. "Some people will be willing to benefit a museum or symphony. But to have people put up tax dollars for writing ... well, that was something."

Vonnegut's view of how those tax dollars got spent, however, changed over time.

On Nov. 14, 1966, Vonnegut wrote Rackstraw that a conversation with an English professor had convinced him that Paul Engle was "switching to foreigners now ... because he enjoys being the bull seal in a small herd of people who feel damn lucky to get small amounts of money for anything."

Vonnegut wrote Rackstraw the following spring, "It is slowly seeping through the thick skulls around here that anybody who works in the Workshop is actually doing the University a favor. Paul has always led them to believe the Workshop was a branch of the Salvation Army rehabilitating drunks, giving them soup and clean, second-hand clothing."

But decades away from Iowa City led Vonnegut to start praising Engle nearly unconditionally. Not only does he nominate Engle for a medal from the American Academy in 1990, but after Engle's death in 1991, he faxes in this response for the memorial service:

"I was rescued by Paul Engle's Writers Workshop in the mid-1960s, and he didn't know me, and I don't think he had ever heard of me. He didn't read that kind of crap. But somebody else out here did, and assured him that I was indeed a writer, but dead broke with a lot of kids, and completely out of print and scared to death. So he threw me a life-preserver, which is to say a teaching job. ...

"Paul Engle should get a posthumous medal from the Coast Guard for all the lives he saved.

"No writer in all of history did as much to help other writers as Paul Engle. ...

"One last thought: To hundreds of writers all over the world now, Paul Engle wasn't merely an Iowan. He was Iowa!"

And Engle's thorough Iowanness was very important to a Midwesterner like the Indiana-born Vonnegut.

"He thought the Midwest brought to American culture a plain speaking that was colorful but honest," Klinkowitz said. "His work wasn't modernist obscurity. His models were Mark Twain ... Lincoln and Will Rogers. People who could speak plain and smile."

Vonnegut and Workshop lore

After his few years teaching at the workshop, Vonnegut returned to Iowa several times over the next four decades -- in events usually organized by Rackstraw, Klinkowitz and a growing number of Vonnegut scholars and fans.

"It's in Iowa City that Vonnegut was finally able to get control of his major artistic novel in 'Slaughterhouse Five,'" Klinkowitz said. "He walked into Iowa City, a hack writer for the magazines, and he leaves a master of high art."

But the nation's No. 1 graduate creative writing program has never been quite sure what to make of Vonnegut's success.

"Vonnegut was not hired because he was an literary genius," Klinkowitz said. "He had no critical reputation whatsoever. ... The Workshop leadership hired him because he was successful at commercial sales to the slick magazines, and they thought they could profit from it."

Having Vonnegut be so prominently associated with the workshop has led many readers, donors and would-be students over the years to assume mistakenly that the workshop is aesthetically inclusive -- open to practitioners of almost any genre or sub-genre. The students soon find that's not really true.

Although "Slaughterhouse Five" is often touted as a masterpiece that put sci-fi conventions to magnificent use, the workshop's more literary-minded teachers and students tend to dismiss Vonnegut's work as "entertaining" at best.

As Rackstraw writes about the critical response to Vonnegut's "Deadeye Dick," "I'm tempted to think overly outraged critics were so angered by Kurt's seeing life as a cosmic game of chance that they failed to recognize his insistence on human awareness as uniquely creative and perhaps even sacred, even if not to be taken too seriously."

Other workshop graduates

Hugh Ferrer, workshop graduate and associate director of the International Writing Program, suggests that Vonnegut's odd role in workshop history lends itself for a reconsideration of all the other workshop alumni who've done good work outside the field of high literary writing.

That impressive list includes:

• Robin Green, who was the writer and executive producer for the television series, "The Sopranos."

• David S. Milch, who created several television shows, including "NYPD Blue" and "Deadwood."

• Steven Erikson, who was trained as both an archaeologist and anthropologist and who, under the pen name Steve Rune Lundin, has earned the reputation as one of the best authors in the fantasy genre.

• Daniel Woodrell, the American crime fiction writer who coined the phrase "country noir."

• W.P. Kinsella, the Iowa-booster and baseball fan whose "Shoeless Joe" was adapted into the movie "Field of Dreams."

• Young adult authors such as Ellen Wittlinger, Bruce Brooks and Trenton Lee Steward.

• And Leonard Schrader, the Academy Award-nominated screenwriter and director who studied under Vonnegut.

"Vonnegut continues to symbolize the broad horizons for good writing," Ferrer said.

And the Vonnegut revealed in Rackstraw's memoir would appreciate that role.

"One wonders how many young artists in the world have been touched by Kurt's inspiration and will continue to pursue the creative visions he inspired," Rackstraw wrote. "I knew Kurt was warmed by affirmations of that possibility."

Opinion editor Jeff Charis-Carlson can be contacted at or 319-887-5435.

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