Reading Weldon Kees’ “Fall Quarter,” and particularly the 49-page introduction by James Reidel, I had a very strong reaction. And not a good one. Weldon Kees, referred to here as “legendary,” was a sometime poet and painter and critic and musician. In 1955, at the age of 37, he parked his car by the Golden Gate Bridge and either killed himself or changed his identity.
Before the end of this life, Kees had written a number of novels he could never get published. This one, “Fall Quarter,” a satirical novel about a young assistant professor teaching remedial English at an obscure Midwestern college, was read by an editor at Alfred A. Knopf two days after Pearl Harbor. Knopf decided to pass on the book. Now, 50 years later, it’s in print.
Here, according to James Reidel, is what Weldon Kees did when the manuscript was rejected and his agent, Mavis McIntosh, told him to put the book away. Kees wrote a friend: “Are these people completely humorless and dense, or is the book really bad?” The friend, an Army lieutenant named Getty, had already said he liked the book: “I read the whole novel through at one sitting. Under pleasant conditions too: got up from a nap about 4, showered, got out the manuscript, and settled down by a west window, with a good view of peacefully autumnal mountains at my side. . . .” Are you paying attention, gentle reader? Lt. Getty hasn’t actually said one word about the novel. He’s talking about his shower in the mountains! Also, he’s a lieutenant in the Army. He’s not in the publishing business.
“Fall Quarter” ought to be required reading in every creative writing program in the land. As an exercise in humility, James Reidel’s introduction ought to be memorized and recited aloud by every writer who starts playing the Misunderstood Genius game. Here’s another favorite passage of mine from the introduction: “Kees planned to write novels. Yet not having sold a manuscript meant supporting himself in some way that would give him existential elbow room to be a writer. . . . Kees found this in his marriage to his small-town girlfriend, Ann Swan, whom he had known since senior year at the University of Nebraska.” So . . . Ann worked, and Kees wrote these novels. And complained a lot.
Reidel thinks that Kees didn’t have a “grasping side.” To prove this, he quotes Truman Capote, querying Kees: “Why don’t you want to be a success? I can tell from the way you act that you don’t want to be a success.”
Let me suggest an alternative interpretation here. People whose work is iffy play the Misunderstood Genius game hard.
“Fall Quarter” is a madly derivative work: The tone and events come from Nathanael West, the Graham Brothers, with a tad of Evelyn Waugh thrown in. But West in particular seems at times to be almost paraphrased. This novel concerns a young man named William Clay who journeys to an obscure college in the Middle West to teach English. (We never see him in class, though scholarship is mercilessly derided.) William falls in love with a woman who treats him badly. He meets many a disgusting person who says many a stupid thing. He goes to a brothel but doesn’t have sex, and to a succession of parties where he meets ever more disgusting people, drinks too much, gets mugged by a piano player, sees married people who hate each other, drinks too much, gets more depressed, and then gets more depressed.
You can’t blame World War II for this book not getting published. You can blame the fact that Nathanael West had been working for quite a while, and so had Carroll and Garrett Graham, and so had Mr. Waugh. You can also blame Mr. Kees for not revising his novel, and taking a good look at his plot, and for keeping his college sweetheart hard at work supporting a writer who couldn’t/wouldn’t publish. I now offer words of wisdom for writers everywhere: When they say you’re “distinguished,” that means you’re not paid very much. When they say you’re “legendary,” that probably means you’re a bum.
Next: Bettyann Kevles reviews “Asleep in the Fast Lane: The Impact of Sleep on Work” by Lydia Dotto (William Morrow & Co.) .