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A writer’s remembrance

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Writers Tennessee Williams, Flannery O’Connor, and Kurt Vonnegut all have ties to the University of Iowa.

By Joshua Balicki
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When the Iowa Writers’ Workshop began in 1936, it was unlikely anyone expected it would amount to much. A small college town in the heart of the Midwest? Yeah, right. But as of 2010, cumulatively the Workshop alumni have won 17 Pulitzer Prizes and produced six U.S. Poets Laureate. Tennessee Williams, Flannery O’Connor, and Kurt Vonnegut are just three of the many household names that the University of Iowa has helped nurture.

Tennessee Williams

With an alcoholic shoe salesman for a father, Tennessee Williams was predominately raised by his  “Southern Belle” mother. During his time at Soldan High School, Williams turned to writing because he simply “found life unsatisfactory.”

While finding success with essays and short stories in small-house publications and literary contests, Williams worked a slew of jobs, including operating an elevator, waiting tables, teletyping, and working under his father at International Shoe Co.  

The later-famous playwright went as Tom at the UI in 1938. After what he referred to as his lost year at the Washington University (St. Louis), Williams moved into his first apartment on 225 N. Linn St., which he paid for by tutoring freshmen and commissioning theater tickets.

A year later, Williams graduated from the UI with a Bachelor of Arts degree in English.  E.C. Mabie had founded the Department of Theater Arts in 1920 and was known to be a harsh critic of Williams and his wildly imaginative work.

A classmate of Williams, Norman Felton, said Mabie tore up one of Williams’ living newspaper scripts about socialized medicine. Felton described the incident as if “a volcano had erupted,” said the Writing University.

At the UI, Williams befriended a classmate, Thomas Pawley, who was seen as a real talent in the Theater Department. Pawley said Williams received poor grades because he rarely attended class. His shy and unkempt personality furthered his seclusion.

In a message to his grandfather, Williams said that the, “cultural opportunities here are remarkable for a Midwestern school.” However, his girlfriend at the time, Bette Reitz, could see that Williams was struggling immensely with self-inadequacy and sexual identity.

 From a soldier in Henry IV to an old man in Scapin, Williams acted in a few UI theater productions. During this time, he regarded Iowa City as a “renaissance” for writers.

When Williams read his script of Spring Storm, Mabie initially rejected it. The play took place on the Mississippi River and was seen as politically radical. Spring Storm ultimately made its début at the UI in 1938.

After graduation, Tom changed his name to Tennessee and moved to New Orleans. Shortly after his mentally ill sister received a prefrontal lobotomy, his play The Glass Menagerie premièred at the Lyric Theater in Chicago. The play was seen to be highly autobiographical and cemented Williams as a commercial success.

New Orleans became the backdrop for A Streetcar Named Desire — a play that awarded Williams his first Pulitzer Prize. Another one of his acclaimed works was Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, which awarded Williams his second Pulitzer Prize. Little Village magazine has named a literary prize after this production.

Williams’ career seemed to plummet when longtime partner Frank Merlo died. The press criticized Williams for discussing controversial issues in his plays. His dependence on alcohol and drugs increased. He later died in 1983 by allegedly choking on a bottle cap.     

Flannery O’Connor

Flannery O’Connor attended the Iowa Writers’ Workshop in 1946, then under the leadership of Paul Engle. Shortly after she finished the Workshop, O’Connor was awarded a postdoctoral fellowship to continue her work in Iowa City.

In a biography of Flannery O’Connor, Brad Gooch said she visited Engle in his office and wrote on a pad of paper, “My name is Flannery O’Connor. I am not a journalist. Can I come to the … Workshop?” The three-sentence note was a success.  

Her time in Iowa City was considered to be, “interesting [and] fruitful,” said Sally Fitzgerald in The Habit of Being: Letters of Flannery O’Connor. However, O’Connor was frequently homesick — writing to her mother daily and secluding herself from her roommates.   

O’Connor lived in Currier Hall, where she roomed with two other women, and later rented a house on East Bloomington Street. It stands as a landmark of her tradition. One of her roommates, Barbara Hamilton, said she was “serious about her mission in life.”

O’Connor became a regular at St. Mary’s Catholic Church on East Jefferson Street and rigorously regimented her own writing time even after her development of lupus.

Shortly after graduating, O’Connor won the Rinehart-Fiction Award for her début novel Wise Blood (1952).  The novel examined post-war sentiment and Roman Catholicism.

Her grotesque characters and specific settings forged a “Southern Gothic” style that was singular to her. This style was largely shaped by her devotion toward Catholicism and her upbringing in Georgia.

Her sophomore novel, The Violent Bear It Away (1960) further discussed the inseparability of faith and self-identity. Two of her short-story collections were released afterwards.

“She was really crossing these two wires of humor and almost this kind of dark theological writing that had never been put together before,” Gooch told CNN.

She was regarded as, “probably the greatest short-story writer of our time” by A.L Rowse, despite the limited quantity of work produced in
her lifetime.

Kurt Vonnegut

Prior to his appointment as a visiting professor in the Workshop in 1965, Kurt Vonnegut had success with his début novel, Piano Player, and other works, including The Sirens of Titan and Cat’s Cradle.

At the Workshop Vonnegut began working on Slaughterhouse-Five, which he referred to as his “Dresden Novel.” Some of the story was derived from his experiences in the European Theater during World War II.

Vonnegut was a part of a community of writers in which the experiences were “exhilarating yet intimidating,” said Thomas F. Marvin in Kurt Vonnegut: A Critical Companion. “For the first time in his life, he was expected to talk about writing, which forced him to think more deeply about his own creative process.”

After Engle resigned in 1966 as director of the Workshop, Vonnegut had interest in being “the boss of the joint,” Marvin said. Vonnegut later turned in his resignation when George Starbuck was appointed as the new director of the Workshop.

Shortly after his resignation, Vonnegut received the Guggenheim Fellowship from the UI to research Slaughterhouse-Five in Dresden, Germany. Known for its humor and antiwar statements, the novel received coveted reviews from The New York Times and The Sunday Review — both of which were written by colleagues from the Workshop.

A portion of Slaughterhouse-Five was written in a large brown house at the end of North Van Buren Street. It stands today as a landmark for his personal literary successes and the successes of those he influenced with his passionate and enthusiastic teaching.

“Kurt was a genius of the absurd,” Marvin Bell told the Writing University. “He saw that mankind was courting doom and was able to blend the spectacle with the horrific so that we laughed and squirmed. He was an original.”

Even through numerous personal troubles, Vonnegut persisted. Tom Wolf told the Writing University that “there was never a kinder and, at the same time, wittier writer to be with personally. He was just a gem in that respect.”



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