Happy reunions are all alike, and the Golden Jubilee Celebration of the University of Iowa's Writers' Workshop, which took place here over the Memorial Day weekend, was no exception.
On Friday night dozens of award winners -- of Pulitzers, American Book Awards, National Endowment grants, MacArthur Fellowships -- adjourned to the university's art museum for cocktails and dinner; on Saturday came the symposia, the Jubilee dinner, and a Workshop Ball; and on Sunday came one last panel, brunch and the tennis and softball tournaments.
Around the Iowa Memorial Union, where most of the weekend's activities took place, the air was rich with "How have you been?," "Where have you been?" and "Remember when?" People embraced old friends, lovers, and teachers, and there was much squinting at name tags -- the print, as always, too small.
At night, after the ritual dinners and speeches of tribute, came the parties, lengthy and in some cases visibly debilitating, the long talks about the days when writers served their Workshop apprenticeships, learning by force of example and from each other. And there was a respectable amount of self-congratulation, most of which seemed deserved.
And why not? Among those who graduated from the Writers' Workshop are journalist Tracy Kidder, novelists John Irving and Gail Godwin, short story-writer Raymond Carver, MacArthur Fellow James Alan McPherson.
It's best to think of the Writers' Workshop's 50th birthday party as a family reunion, and no event supports this notion more strongly than the reconstitution of John Berryman's poetry workshop class of 1954. Each member of the class read a short poem at the Jubilee Dinner.
The reunion of Berryman's class was organized by Henri Coulette and Robert Dana, who located its 12 living members and then ran up phone bills of near endowment proportion persuading them to attend the reunion.
The class had started in 1954 with an enrollment of 25 to 30 students, but because of Berryman's withering classroom manner, "it boiled down to the 13 of us in two weeks," said Dana. One member, Fred Bock, has since died; those who survived Berryman and time and who read short poems were: Jane Cooper, Coulette, Dana, William Dickey, Ronald DiLorenzo, Shirley Eliason, Donald Justice, Melvin Walker LaFollette, Philip Levine, Donald Petersen and Paul Petrie.
W.D. Snodgrass, also a member of the Berryman class and the first Iowa poetry graduate to win a Pulitzer, would have come but for visa trouble in Mexico -- trouble that not even lawyers and calls to the State Department by Workshop director John Leggett, himself a novelist (most recently of Making Believe), could untangle. Snodgrass dictated a poem over the telephone. The Golden Jubilee Celebration had its share of symposia. There was one on the "Care and Nurture of Young Writers" and one on "Grants and Art Colonies," at which Frank Conroy, head of the literature division of the National Endowment for the Arts, said "No country does a poorer job of supporting writers" and at which a number of people wondered aloud why they hadn't gotten certain grants.
Another session addressed the topic of the university as patron. The panel consisted of Paul Engle, director of the Writers' Workshop from 1942 to 1966 and the man who brought it to national prominence; Leggett; poet Michael Harper; James O. Freedman, president of the University of Iowa; and novelist Doris Grumbach.
The most heavily attended sessions were "Beyond Minimalism, Beyond Modernism, Beyond Realism: The Writing of the '80s," which featured Russell Banks, Tess Gallagher, Charles Simic, Mark Strand and Hilma Wolitzer, and "Renaissance of the Short Story," at which Raymond Carver, T. Coraghessan Boyle, James Alan McPherson, Bob Shacochis and Stephanie Vaughn spoke.
In the case of the former panel, most speakers professed not to understand the topic, and they spent a good deal of time shredding the title -- "These words are packager's words," said Banks. In the case of the latter, some panelists claimed there was a renaissance, while others said there wasn't. SURPRISINGLY little conversation at the celebration concerned the mechanics of writing. There was talk about children and grandchildren, about divorces and marriages, about who wasn't in Iowa City and why -- all the usual reunion sorts of things. What suffused many conversations was a deep and abiding affection for Iowa City. Hilma Wolitzer (In the Palomar Arms) said, simply, "I love the place."
Because so many former students and teachers agree with her, the atmosphere was saturated with nostalgia, and stories of the past were told with relish. The Workshop even produced "Seems Like Old Times," a collection of remembrances of Workshop days from such writers as Joy Williams, James McConkey, Rosalyn Drexler, Ron Hansen, Jonathan Penner and many others.
Those who attended the Jubilee could also obtain copies of The Iowa Writers' Workshop Cookbook, which includes recipes by 120 writers associated with the Workshop. Though most of the recipes are serious, others are like T. C. Boyle's comic "Baked Camel (Stuffed)."
Allan Gurganus provided the public highlight of the weekend when, speaking at the Jubilee dinner on behalf of the classes of the 1970s (others spoke for the 1940s, '50s, '60s and '80s), he described his class with John Cheever. "Cheever was a very important teacher for me. He sent my first story to The New Yorker without my knowing about it. And they accepted it." Such generosity is not unusual at Iowa, Gurganus said; "I was really taken care of here and encouraged in the very best way." Next year Knopf will be bringing out his first novel, Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All.