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  • Understanding Iowa:Flannery O'Connor, B.A., M.F.A.
  • Mark McGurl (bio)

"It's a curious machine," said the officer to the explorer, and despite the fact that he was well acquainted with the apparatus, he nevertheless looked at it with a certain admiration, as it were. (Franz Kafka, "In the Penal Colony.")

A WARNING TO THE READER: Do not read this book if you believe that writing is fun, fun, fun. (Paul Engle, On Creative Writing.)

1. Paul Engle's Dream

The poet W. D. Snodgrass tells an interesting story about Paul Engle, who did not found the Iowa Writers' Workshop but who did more than anyone else to make it what it became and no doubt remains to this day: the most influential linking of an educational institution with literary production ever. Engle had grown up in Iowa, left for New York and then England on a Rhodes Scholarship, and returned home to become the golden boy poet of the early 1930s. Writing in a midwestern regionalist idiom, paying sentimental homage to the land, he won the Yale Younger Poets Prize in 1932 for a collection called Worn Earth, followed it up with one called Corn (1939), and seemed to have a bright future ahead of him. Which he did, but not in the way it first appeared. His later works failed to make the splash of the early ones, and slowly but surely his ambitions seemed, in a sense, to turn themselves inside out. Appointed as an instructor in the newly formed Workshop in 1937, he was made its director in 1941, a job he held for nearly 25 years. As head of the Workshop he may well have been, as Kurt Vonnegut claimed, the single most helpful writer to [End Page 527] other writers in human history—at least in the practical, material sense.1 Testimony abounds of his indefatigable search for exciting new students and teachers, of the tenacity with which he sought out the fellowship money to sustain them, of the enthusiasm with which he promoted their later careers and, even more so, the reputation of the Iowa Writers' Workshop as a whole. Stranded in the fields like a rusty farm implement, his own poetic project was increasingly ignored, and the modern institution became his true medium. Artist become administrator, he was the administrator as artist, and in this role became lastingly famous, a legend, much written about though all but entirely unread.

That there may have been a complex psychological dimension to this inside-out literary success story is suggested by Snodgrass's account of a party Engle threw for visiting luminary Robert Penn Warren sometime in the 1950s:

Paul shocked everyone by telling his recurrent nightmare. He was a prisoner, he said, in a concentration camp where he'd been singled out for a specially degrading punishment. Along the camp's outer rock wall, about six feet off the ground, was a series of holes or depressions. Brought out naked before the massed prisoners, he had to bend over and grasp his ankles, then hoisted by the guards, put his feet in two of those depressions. The guards and prisoners jeering at him, he must then draw out one foot at a time, moving it on to the next hole and so proceeding around the wall like a fly. But, he said, after a while he found he could do this surprisingly well—better, in fact, than anyone had ever done it. In time, he was simply whizzing around the wall while guards and prisoners, no longer jeering, looked on with amazement and admiration.

(qtd in Dana 124)

Of course any institution, including a university, can from a certain perspective seem like a "concentration camp," and Snodgrass encourages us to understand Engle's nightmare in this allegorical light. The many repetitive rituals of the educational institution, the cycles through which it daily, weekly, semesterly turns, can seem to its inhabitants a form of circular movement around prison walls, a laborious frenzy of going nowhere, like the proverbial gerbil on its wheel.

And for Engle this nightmare of repetition is, appropriately enough, a recurrent nightmare, repetitive in its own right. Seen favorably...


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pp. 527-545
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