The remarkable number of notable writers who have studied or taught at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop includes Flannery O’Connor, Robert Lowell, Dylan Thomas, Rita Dove, Sandra Cisneros, Kurt Vonnegut, John Irving and Marilynne Robinson. In “A Delicate Aggression,” David O. Dowling, an associate professor at Iowa’s journalism school, tells the “cultural and industrial history” of the workshop through a series of biographical portraits. He captures writers “in their formative years taking their first tentative steps toward professional careers, forming alliances and rivalries among intimidating world-renowned faculty and high-powered peers.” He writes about the program’s blend of mentoring and marketing, its rigor and its wiles. Below, he discusses the workshop’s founder, Irving defending Vonnegut’s honor in a fight, how Ralph Waldo Emerson helped to inspire this book and more.
When did you first get the idea to write this book?
I had written a book called “Emerson’s Protégés,” published in 2014. It was about how the promotion of young literary talent took place in Concord, Mass., and how the growth of creative writing happened within this enclave, this literary circle. Then I thought: How does that promotion move into the 20th and 21st centuries? I wanted to follow how the growth of young talent becomes institutionalized.
I didn’t have to look too far. Doing some preliminary research, I strolled into Prairie Lights bookshop and asked the bookseller Paul Ingram what they had in the way of histories of the workshop. He took me over to a big shelf of books, and said: “Everything here is either a memoir or retrospective collection of commemorative pieces. These are all inside jobs.” There wasn’t one book there by someone who wasn’t an alumnus or a former faculty member. “So,” Paul looked at me, “someone’s got to write this book.”
What’s the most surprising thing you learned while writing it?
Too many to tell you. One was the business savvy of many of the authors — their ability to move themselves into favorable positions in the marketplace. For example, Flannery O’Connor advocated for herself in a way that demonstrated her business acumen by essentially pulling out of a deal that she had originally arranged with a publisher — standing up for herself and having the wherewithal to know when she was working with an editor who was blind to her talents.
Kurt Vonnegut hosted wild parties at his house. And John Irving got into a barroom brawl with someone who insulted Vonnegut, his adviser, by calling him a “science fiction hack.”
I thought this was going to be a Darwinian shark tank, with writers suffering in isolation as they struggled to survive the workshop method. Paul Engle was the first and most noteworthy director of the workshop. His father was a horse trainer. Engle saw the workshop as breaking the writer, the way you would break a horse. If you can survive, as he said, without losing too much blood, then you’d be able to handle the critics and editors who were going to be so tough on your work. So I was expecting more individualism, but I saw lots of collaboration, lots of humor, lots of mutual support and unlikely alliances of support forming.
In what way is the book you wrote different from the book you set out to write?
I first thought of doing a biography of Engle. But then I realized that no comprehensive history of the workshop had been done. There were important questions about intellectual history that hadn’t been answered. Publishers were showing up at Vonnegut’s parties, which turned into handpicked parties, where the best of the students would be matched with the publishers and put on a fast track. I learned that this book was going to be about the writer and mass culture, about media industries and the intellectual history they shape.
Engle solicited the attention of mass culture — for instance, trying to get Esquire magazine to sponsor a conference. And it got all the way to the point where the workshop wasn’t reaching out; others were reaching out to the workshop.
Who is a creative person (not a writer) who has influenced you and your work?
I’ll go back to the foundation of a lot of my thinking, research and writing, which is the Hudson River School of painters; specifically, Asher B. Durand and his painting “Kindred Spirits.” It depicts Thomas Cole and William Cullen Bryant standing on a rock discussing something. What that signifies to me — that moment and the Hudson School as a whole — is a collection, a constellation of creative artists. The link to Emerson and the Transcendentalists is there, of course. There’s a reciprocal enrichment. Indeed, one of Emerson’s protégés was a painter, Christopher Cranch, who made the “transparent eyeball” illustration of Emerson as an eye on long legs walking through nature. That’s where I go for my source of inspiration: that very fertile ground for creativity that happens in circles.
Persuade someone to read “A Delicate Aggression” in 50 words or less.
It brings you inside the mechanism of fame that has produced America’s most important writers since World War II. It tells of their struggles and triumphs, the lasting impression the Iowa Writers’ Workshop forever left on them, and the influence they had on the world’s most powerful creative writing program.
This interview has been condensed and edited.
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