Vanished Act: The Life and Art of Weldon Kees

Vanished Act: The Life and Art of Weldon Kees

Vanished Act: The Life and Art of Weldon Kees

Vanished Act: The Life and Art of Weldon Kees

Synopsis

Critic, novelist, filmmaker, jazz musician, painter, and, above all, poet, Weldon Kees performed, practiced, and published with the best of his generation of artists-the so-called middle generation, which included Robert Lowell, Elizabeth Bishop, and John Berryman. His dramatic disappearance (a probable suicide) at the age of forty-one, his movie-star good looks, his role in various movements of the day, and his shifting relationships with key figures in the arts have made him one of the more intriguing-and elusive-artists of the time. In this long-awaited biography, James Reidel presents the first full account of Kees's troubled yet remarkably accomplished life. Reidel traces Kees's career from his birth in 1914 and boyhood in Beatrice, Nebraska, to his stint as an award-winning short-story writer and novelist, his rise as a poet and critic in New York, his branching off into abstract expressionism, jazz music, and theater, and his experimental and scientific filmmaking and photography. Going beyond the cult status that has grown up around Kees over the years, this work fairly and judiciously places him as a cultural adventurer at a particularly rich and significant moment in postwar twentieth-century America.

Excerpt

There is an old water ring on my copy of Benhams Book of Quotations, left, perhaps, by its former owner resting a tumbler of whiskey and ice. “San Francisco” is written in ink under his name. Little else distinguishes the book as once having belonged to Weldon Kees other than the postcard of Magritte’s Le Thérapeute that sometimes falls out. the image I have of him from this worn, stained book is not of the man staring into the churning water of the bay under the Golden Gate Bridge. Instead, I see Kees sitting with his legs crossed, dressed in chinos and a white oxford with the sleeves rolled up, with that iced drink in hand. He has that “serenity” Donald Justice saw in the book that he edited, The Collected Poems of Weldon Kees.

Justice’s preface is where this book begins. There he hoped that more could be done for Kees by someone who “had known the poet.” Justice meant an expanded or critical edition of Kees’s poems. But I apprehended this more broadly, for it pointed toward a greater void left by Kees and the need to find someone to put something in its place. the suggestion stayed with me after I received the Collected Poems as a graduation gift in 1979. So did the dark beauty of Kees’s verse and the uncertainty surrounding his disappearance in 1955. At first, of course, I fully expected to find his biography written and his mystery solved in the library. It seemed his story would not have sat around long waiting for its author. But I found no book.

Now there is one, and it comes after a twenty-year wave of scholarship and interest in Kees that was started by individuals working unknown to each other at first but all inspired by Justice’s two editions of the Collected Poems and a few anthology appearances that kept Kees’s name alive after 1955. Their efforts, including some of my own, resulted in collections of his short stories, letters, and critical writings and the publication of his satirical novel, Fall Quarter. a fine bibliography now exists, and there have been symposiums, essays, a monograph, a festschrift, exhibitions of paintings, a television documentary, even a cd of his jazz. Many of these efforts became cooperative and collegial in . . .

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