Prairie Home Companion

Prairie Home Companion

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


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.

On the morning of July 18, 1955, his car was found abandoned, keys still in the ignition, on the north approach to the Golden Gate Bridge. No body was ever found. Though he may have, like Bierce, disappeared into the jungles of Mexico, it seems more likely, in light of the state of Kees’s life at the time–his marriage of sixteen years was over, and a string of personal and financial failures had left him drained–that he threw himself off the bridge.

The tragedy of Kees’s vanishing is that one of the most distinctive and important voices in twentieth-century American literature all but vanished with him. This reissue of his short stories presents an invaluable chance to have it back again.

Though Kees is most remembered–when remembered at all–as a poet, his early literary output was mostly fiction. In 1941 Edward O’Brien selected Kees’s jaded sketch of an aging academic, “The Life of the Mind,” for that year’s collection of Best Short Stories, and even went so far as to dedicate the volume to Kees. More recently, when The Ceremony and Other Stories was released in 1984–most of the stories having been out of print for more than forty years–it was named a New York Times “notable book of the year.” Still, so few people paid attention that the vast majority of readers have essentially no idea that Weldon Kees ever existed.

The living American scholars and advocates of Kees’s work can be counted on one hand: the poet and critic Dana Gioia (who edited and wrote the introduction to both this and the previous collection), the biographer James Reidel, the poet Donald Justice and the archivist Robert Knoll. Of the forty-three stories Kees produced, all but two were written before his move to New York. As a result, they reflect his Midwestern background and Nebraskan sensibility. More important, they embody his distinctive voice. Like many young authors of the era, Kees was influenced by the Sherwood Anderson classic Winesburg, Ohio, as well as the similarly regional works of such writers as Edgar Lee Masters and Edwin Arlington Robinson. In fact, Kees set a significant portion of his stories in the fictionalized town of Weston, Nebraska–his own Winesburg, Spoon River or Tilbury Town–creating a sense of loose interconnectivity by occasionally allowing characters and specific sites to recur. One such site is the Ethel-Doris Tearoom, where, in “Mrs. Lutz,” the title character,

holding the menus in her puffy hands… stared out of the window…. The sun was bright on the nickel-plated finishings of the Cadillac parked at the curb, and she moved slightly to get out of the reflection. From behind her came the sounds of dishes rattling and waitresses’ steps in their flat-heeled shoes. Voices rose and fell in steady harsh waves. What a fine day it was, and what a good crowd there was this noon…. Every table filled but one. They were serving fresh strawberry shortcake, and the special was corn fritters with bacon strips.

In story after story, Kees sounds like no other author. Writing in a style remarkably different from that of his witty reviews and his complex, satiric poetry, Kees employed a deliberately flat, smooth language for his stories; this lends them intensity, and a precise focus on the tension accompanying even the most banal day-to-day existence. Grounded in the Middle American 1930s he knew so well, Kees’s stories remain relevant today for the bleakness they evoke, owing to the single-mindedness of his vision and to the almost claustrophobic but always achingly true detail with which he renders ordinary people. Decades after they were first published, these stories are still about us; they still surprise by showing us our own true, and frequently saddest, selves. And though the stories include the occasional outmoded reference to radio broadcasts, brand names or popular songs, these details work to enhance the sense of entrapment and despair his characters all seem barely able to keep at bay.

And while there’s not a single weak story in the collection, the two most accomplished pieces–“The Ceremony” and “The Evening of the Fourth of July”–stand out as almost prophetic. In the former, a crew of workmen digging a foundation for a barbecue joint unearth the skeletons of several Native Americans and refuse to continue the job until their boss, Hollenbeck, orders them to do so, cracking a terrible joke about “the vanishing American.”

Hollenbeck laughed. That was good, really good. It hadn’t sounded so funny until he said it. And it had come out, just like that, all of a sudden….
   Kinnaman laughed too. “Say, that’s good!” he said. “That’s all right…. That’s about the funniest thing I’ve heard in a long time.”

In “The Evening of the Fourth of July,” a borderline-Surrealist wartime allegory, the antihero McGoin wanders resignedly through a near-hysterical dystopia. Employed as a night watchman in a gas-mask factory, McGoin’s attempts at much-needed daytime sleep are thwarted by, among other things, a parade in which a troop of hundreds of teenage girls in khaki uniforms is passing. “They wore no makeup, and each carried a bayonet that glistened blindingly in the early sun. Their faces were intent and pleased with the knowledge that they were being watched. One girl…carried a large placard that read: BUTCHER OUR ENEMIES!” These are the stories that most resemble their author: extremely composed, but with a keen sense of the nightmare lurking just beneath the surface.

This new edition also picks up three previously uncollected pieces: “Three Young Priests,” about an unexpectedly humiliating trip to a department store, the aforementioned “The Life of the Mind” and “Every Year They Came Out,” about two slavishly prim, sexless sisters on an ill-fated vacation to Los Angeles. These stories are compelling for the same reasons the original fourteen collected in The Ceremony remain so: They show us stereotypically normal, ostensibly good people letting themselves go in small, bad ways. In “Mrs. Lutz,” the petty cafe owner steals her waitress’s hard-won tip. In “I Should Worry,” the proprietor of a slowly dying auto parts store makes a habit of selling his deaf-mute sister, Betty Lou, to interested patrons, just because, “He wanted a drink in the worst way…. He didn’t have a cent, and there hadn’t been any business all day.” A young librarian fights a losing, Kafkaesque battle over her single good idea in “The Sign,” ultimately giving up because “she didn’t want anyone to think she was not keeping her place…or just going out of her way to be critical. She certainly didn’t want them to feel that way.”

So, why has a man who should be among the most memorable figures in American letters essentially been forgotten? It’s tempting, but inadequate, to attribute this phenomenon to his ending his own career at a point when he seemed poised to achieve major success and recognition. Plenty of writers who either committed suicide or disappeared have experienced an increase of interest in their lives and work because of their untimely exits. In this light, the fact that Kees–who, in a sense, both jumped and vanished–continues to be so mired in obscurity seems counterintuitive.

Yet Kees was always doing more than one thing at once, refusing to commit himself exclusively to a single mode of artistic or intellectual expression. As Gioia observes in his introduction, “As a professional poet, short story writer, journalist, musician, painter, photographer, and filmmaker, [Kees] had often experienced the indifference or condescension of critics who believed no one could do serious work in more than one art form.” Moreover, throughout his career, Kees refused to ally himself with any one group, either politically (his leanings were leftist, but unlike many of his contemporaries, he never joined the Communist Party) or philosophically(although he ran in their circles, he could never be considered one of the New York Intellectuals). According to Robert Knoll, editor of Weldon Kees and the Midcentury Generation: Letters, 1935-1955, “From his earliest years, Kees had a critical temper in a world of automatic acceptance.” Suspicious of movements, he preferred to be a kind of free agent, aware of contemporary conventions of art and thought, but also decidedly separated from them. While he clearly desired both critical and popular acclaim, Kees sought approval exclusively on his own terms, refusing to shape his work to the tastes of his time.

As Knoll points out, Kees “sought to reconcile the high achievements of Joyce, Proust, and Eliot with the popular arts of film and jazz. His critical friends thought him a romantic because he believed it possible that Hollywood could produce art–he cited Citizen Kane and Sunset Boulevard as evidence–and he thought popular music could be reclaimed from the philistines. He was concerned with quality, not with kind; to him no ‘kind’ was of itself inferior.”

Indeed, the reasons Kees was never as successful as he had hoped to be are the ones for which he matters now more than ever. Virtually all of his creative endeavors were in some way motivated by his overarching attempt to resolve what he came to view as the chief conflict within American culture: how to maintain an ideal of democratic equality while at the same time preserving artistic and intellectual excellence. A kind of missing link between high Modernism and so-called low culture, Kees never privileged one type of reader over another, nor did he dilute his unsparing vision. Instead, he presented that vision with uncompromising equanimity to all members of his potential audience.

Years after meeting Kees in 1949, the novelist Anton Myrer wrote that “Weldon was one of the last great romantics: he genuinely believed that sensibility and talent would receive due recognition with time.” Now, with the publication of the Selected Short Stories, the time has come to give Weldon Kees the respect he’s long been due–to give him our compliments, wherever he is.

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