When the University of Nebraska Press sent my review copy of the Selected Short Stories of Weldon Kees with a note asking that I please accept the book with the compliments of the author, I laughed out loud–not because I’d be ungrateful to receive his well-wishes, but rather because nobody has seen or heard from the man in almost fifty years.
Unfailingly well-mannered, -dressed and -disciplined, Kees strove to rise Gatsby-like from sturdy but obscure origins in the middle of the country to greater East Coast prominence. Born in Beatrice, Nebraska, in 1914, he attended university in Lincoln, published extensively in Prairie Schooner, served in the Federal Writers’ Project and worked as a librarian in Denver. After spending the summer of 1942 at Yaddo, the artists’ colony in Saratoga Springs, New York, in 1943 he migrated permanently to New York City, where his daily planner came to read like a veritable intellectual and artistic Who’s Who of the midcentury generation. He palled around with Edmund Wilson, Mary McCarthy and Howard Nemerov, attended cocktail parties with John Cheever and Randall Jarrell, and paid admiring and mutually gratifying visits to William Carlos Williams and Conrad Aiken. Allen Tate, Mari Sandoz, John Crowe Ransom, James Farrell and Horace Gregory all recommended him for a Guggenheim fellowship, which–perhaps not surprisingly, since he had not yet published a book–he did not receive.
An early dispatch from The Nebraska State Journal observed of its native son that “his talent is sound…dependable, real, and, moreover, brilliant…he refuses to compromise with art as he understands it. He’ll stick like a burr to his ideals of writing and consider their cold perfection more satisfying than a certified check.” Still, just after arriving in New York, he joined the editorial staff of Time, where he worked as a reviewer of books, films and music alongside the likes of Whittaker Chambers and Robert Cantwell. Throughout the 1940s, he published poetry and reviews in Partisan Review, The New Republic and the New York Times, and in 1949 he succeeded Clement Greenberg as art critic for The Nation. When he took up painting, he had his work featured in one-man shows as well as at the Whitney, and had his pieces hung among works by Judith Rothschild and Jackson Pollock. When he moved west to San Francisco in 1950, he began writing and recording original jazz compositions with clarinetist Bob Helm. He collaborated with psychologist Jurgen Ruesch on a book about nonverbal communication, tried his hand at experimental filmmaking and became involved in Bay Area avant-garde theater. In short, it seemed as though there was little that Weldon Kees couldn’t do. Nothing he couldn’t do, that is, except stave off what he came to refer to as “the old despair.”
Kees’s literary output had always been preoccupied with the darker, more desperate aspects of human existence. And so too, it seems, were his thoughts. Once on the West Coast, he spoke more and more of suicide, both as an act committed by the famous and literary such as Hart Crane, as well as one in which he might eventually engage. He also obsessed about famous literary disappearances, such as that of Ambrose Bierce in Mexico. As he did of suicide, Kees spoke of such a flight as a preferable alternative to the life he had come to lead in San Francisco.