Paul Engle, an oral anthology of stories about storytellers, remembers after class one day in 1946 when a graduate student stopped him. Flannery O'Connor brought Engle a manuscript, one of the early chapters in "Wise Blood." Engle told O'Connor, then 22 and away from her Milledgeville, Ga., home for the first time, that "this scene of the attempted seduction just is not correct. I want to explain. She said, 'Oh no, don't, not here!' So we went outside, across the street to the parking lot and into my car. There, I explained to her that a sexual seduction didn't take place quite the way she had written it--I suspect from a lovely lack of knowledge."
With or without sex ed courses, O'Connor would claim Engle as her mentor until her death 18 years later. It was one of dozens of literary relationships that has marked the 50-year-career of Engle as poet, essayist, teacher, spotter of talent, developer of genius, guardian of English, prairie philosopher and fund-raiser.
Wealthy angels as diverse as W. Averell Harriman and the Exxon Corp. have given Paul Engle money for his University of Iowa writing programs. Kurt Vonnegut and Philip Roth, who came here to teach under him in the 1960s, shower praise on him for his nurturing of writers. John Irving and Gail Godwin were among his students. And a Nigerian chief, Okogbule Wonodi, wrote to say, "I am personally convinced that you have done more in creating an atmosphere of peace and mutual respect between citizens of different parts of the world than most loud-talking politicians."
As the receiver of all this, Paul Engle says of himself: "I grew up in the world of the family farm, of the horse. You won't believe how much stuff I've shoveled in my life, and I go on doing so but on a different level."
The level is the high one of literature, which Engle has been serving most of his life. It isn't in New York or San Francisco where two one-of-a-kind writing programs flourish, but here in a slumberous heartland town where corn and books, two of life's necessities, are equally valued. In 1941, Engle took over the University of Iowa's creative writing workshop. He directed it for 25 years. In 1967 Engle and his future wife Nieh Hualing, a Chinese-born novelist and translator, cofounded the International Writing Program. Nieh directs the program now, with her husband as consultant, while he writes his next book, "Engle Country: Memoirs."
As Iowa's leading importer of talent--and a fair exporter of his own through a dozen books--Engle raises up to $400,000 annually for the international program. "Watch it when you're with Engle," warned a Des Moines editor. "If he thinks you have money, he'll talk it out of you for his programs."
Though he hasn't done as well as some of Iowa's farmers, whose bins overflow with surplus grains, Engle has reaped well over $3 million from foundations, corporations, the U.S. Information Agency and individuals for the International Writers Program. In 15 years more than 400 foreign writers--novelists, poets, playwrights, essayists--have settled in for annual three-month stretches of unhassled writing time and classwork. The idea, Engle wrote in the mid-'60s, was "to run the future of American literature, and a great deal of European and Asian, through Iowa City."
The running has been nonstop. Other "Iowa authors" brought here by Engle include Robert Penn Warren, Robert Lowell, William Stafford, James Dickey, Herbert Gold, Vance Bourjaily, W.D. Snodgrass, Donald Justice, Philip Levine, Paul Horgan, Karl Shapiro, Josephine Johnson, Mark Strand and Richard Kim. Every major American literary prize, and scores of minor ones, has been won by Iowa products.
In the early 1950s, Engle had poets Snodgrass, Stafford, Levine and Justice under his care. "I had them all in one class," he recalls. "It was exactly like being a lion in a den of Daniels. It scared the hell out of me. It's a frightening thing to be a teacher and walk into a classroom of absolute brilliance."
Once, while teaching briefly in the late 1930s in Chicago, Engle had Gwendolyn Brooks in his class. Brooks was to win the Pulitzer Prize in poetry in 1960. "The class," Engle remembers, "was mostly rather overweight upper-middle-class Evanston women. Every time they'd pick up a piece of paper, you could hear their expensive girdles going snaaaap. We had a poetry contest in the last class. I was the judge. All poems were anonymous. I read them and said the winner of the first prize is: And it was a pseudonym. So I said, would so-and-so please stand up. This extremely black girl rose, really rather scared. This was up in Evanston, the upper-middle-class area of Chicago, and she came from 63rd Street by the hill. Everybody gasped. And I said the second prize winner is--another black girl from 63rd Street stood up. At that time, it was obvious that it was a good idea for me to get the hell out of Evanston before nightfall! All these pudgy Dior types hated my guts."
That began a friendship with Brooks. The class, Engle believes, helped to "start her career. I don't take credit for her talent. Nobody does that. I just say I recognized it--quickly. That's why so many got here to Iowa City ."
A porchlight flicks on, breaking the evening shadows. The front door opens and, in a flurry of courteous words of greeting to a visitor, Paul Engle moves through the iced air to the end of the walkway. In front of his two-level home, on the upsweep of a headland that overlooks the Iowa River, Engle is not fully visible in the darkness. Even without a physical image, his voicefulness--undulate baritone vowels, heavy consonants--suggests size.
Bad news, he calls out. "Hualing isn't here. She's on the way to Singapore. Landing right this minute, as a matter of fact. Exactly now. She's there for a conference with writers."
It's a husband talking of his absent wife, putting her in the lead paragraph of his thoughts, which is her place in his emotions. Instead of some gab about the whip of the Iowa winter wind, about to become unignorable, Engle announces right off that tonight he is a cup with no spoon. Conversation will be a hard stir.
It doesn't turn out that way. Nieh Hualing, who succeeded her husband as director of the International Writing Program in 1976, is at Earth's end, spreading and bringing back the word. But Engle, inside now and coat hung, keeps her present the way he will keep fresh ties tonight to every love in his life: By descent into earthy stories as rich as Iowa loam and by soarings to high feelings of justified pride that have made him a literary figure like no other in America.
The Engle living room is a full browse of a place. On one wall 30 hand-carved tribal face masks are hung, a peering-out of craftsmanship that matches the writing talent Engle drew from his former African students, who gave the masks as gifts to their teacher. Bookshelves, house plants and knickknacks soften the other walls. Near the fireplace is a Chinese coffee table, its top set in mother-of-pearl and with oriental women in a garden.
With a poker, Engle upends two logs already kindling but which could be doing better, and then teases the upper licks of the fire to flame higher. In a minute, they do, and Engle, happy with his manual labor, draws back to the comfort of his chair.
Like his voice, he is large. Approaching 75, he retains the straight-up hulk of a 6-2 frame, built both for farming and towering over the classroom lectern. Blue and alert eyes are set in a long face with ample room at the top for high eyebrows that lift up like exclamation points when his sentences need one. His hair, not the mane it once was, still has body enough to be mussed when he runs his fingers through it while talking.
Engle exudes localness. "My job," he began, "is to be an old Iowa boy. I was born in Cedar Rapids, 25 miles north of here. When I became 50 years old, my first wife, who's now deceased, said to me one morning, 'Look, what in the hell have you done? In 50 years, you've gone 25 miles.' "How could I deny it -- I'd gone a half mile a year!"
Not really. Engle has made several around-the-world journeys in only the last two decades. He has bed and board guaranteed in scores of nations where his former students live. His first venture from Cedar Rapids was in 1932. He had graduated from the local Coe College the year before and did postgraduate work at Columbia University in New York. He won a Rhodes scholarship and enrolled in 1934 at Merton College in Oxford. "When I arrived at Oxford, I had horse manure on my shoes. From my father's barn. That was my life. That was my father's career--farmer and horse-trainer. The horses ate pure oats. We ate oats ground. I arrived over there and a servant was assigned to shine my shoes. Can you believe it?"
He turns over the rough-hewn back of his hands to show that anyone can get a callus or two on the palms but only the seasoned farmer has weathery skin on the other side. As a farm boy, of German stock, he cared for the horses that helped give the family its living. When he was to earn his own living at writing and teaching, he remembered: "It was invaluable in dealing with colleagues and deans to have learned how to handle horses. A blacksmith shop is better training than a university--it is fundamental and primitive. You learn that a horse usually twitches a little just before he is going to kick. Our blacksmith was Czech and could swear in both languages. He chewed Horseshoe Plug--what else?--and when he took a shoe out of the forge for the last time he would spit on it to 'cure it,' shouting, 'By God, she's a beauty.' "
In his childhood in the 1920s, Engle earned money for the books he was devouring by being a shabbas goy for local Jews who observed the Hebraic law of the Sabbath. "I was a Gentile who lit their fires on Saturday morning and put them out Saturday evening. This was in Cedar Rapids for the Jewish community. I got 15 cents a Saturday. Their religious regulations forbade them to light a fire from dawn Saturday to sunset Saturday. I would go down in the winter and shake their stoves, and put in corncobs, wood, coal, set the grate and then go back in the evening."
A school librarian in Cedar Rapids nudged young Engle into the world of literature by skipping the McGuffey Reader routine and giving him instead an anthology of English and American poetry. "It changed my life. It's amazing the power that a sympathetic, alert librarian or teacher can have over the young. They can speed up your life by 20 years."
The speeding-up came into public view on July 29, 1934, when the entire front page of the New York Times Book Review was given over to a review by J. Donald Adams of Engle's "American Song: a Book of Poems." The banner headline read, "A New Voice in American Poetry," with a subhead, "Paul Engle's 'American Song' May Prove a Literary Landmark." Engle was 26.
The review was effusive. Noting that first books of poetry were rarely placed "on the front page of this section, or for that matter any book of contemporary poetry," it celebrated in New York what Engle writing in Oxford was celebrating about heartland America. "He drinks deep," Adams wrote, "from that well from which every creative artist must--love of place, the sense of being somewhere rooted." Lines from a poem were quoted:
O wood thrush crying in Kentucky hills,
O gray gull poising over Puget Sound,
Sing down our hands from cursing at the sky,
Give them again the feel of friendly ground.
Under the Chippewayan woods, the wide
Iowa prairie, Illinois loam sheet--
O meadow lark in blue stem--we will watch
The birds of Francis gather at our feet.
Launched by the front-page review, Engle had every reason to forsake the boondocks to become the new literary darling of the New York or Parisian salons. He had been traveling throughout Europe during this period and could read Descartes in French and Kant in German. The manure was off his shoes. Instead, the cosmopolitan came back to the Corn Belt. In 1937, newly married to a local woman, he joined the university's English department as a teacher of writing and lecturer in poetry. The bonding was to be permanent. "I decided that the United States was the place where I wanted to live, but that I really wanted to settle here--in this small, agreeable and very adventurous university town . . . Unlike a great city, Iowa City is not dispersed. Here we have a real community. All the people know each other well. It's a reasonably safe town. You can walk around. Kids have a good life. Our people do got to New York, Washington and San Francisco. They visit. But basically they live here in the heart of the country. They meet businessmen. This is very important in the United States. We're a business country. They meet farmers. They go to John Deere in Moline, where tractors are being made. They go to art museums. So they have the kind of varied life they couldn't have if they lived in a big city. This is not putting down New York. It's a great city. But it doesn't have any farmers. And it doesn't make many tractors."
The number of writers forged by the big cities is also open to question, if compared with the products of Iowa City. Philip Roth believes that "Paul Engle's Iowa Writing Workshop is one of those places, like Elizabeth Ames' Yaddo, that made life easier and pleasanter for hundreds and hundreds of writers. Iowa City is what a whole generation had, instead of Paris. And it wasn't so bad, either."
One of the earliest signs that Engle was onto something special at the workshop was Flannery O'Connor. Like Engle, she was rural. Both had their doubts about the cities: Engle that they don't make tractors and O'Connor's nervousness at New York cocktail parties. She said of one Upper East Side event: The trouble with everyone there was that they didn't come from anyplace.
When O'Connor arrived in Iowa City, Engle knew definitely she was a child with origins. "She came out of the red dirt country of Georgia. She walked into my office one day and spoke to me. I understood nothing, not one syllable. As far as I knew, she was saying 'Aaaaraaaraaarah.' My God, I thought to myself, this is a retarded young girl. Then I looked at her eyes. They were crossed! Finally, I said, excuse me, my name is Paul Engle. I gave her a pad--believe me, this is true--and said would you please write down what you're telling me. And she wrote, 'My name is Flannery O'Connor. I'm from Milledgeville, Georgia. I'm a writer.' She didn't say 'I want to be a writer.' She said 'I am a writer.' I said do you have any writing with you. She had one of the most beat-up handbags I've ever seen. It must have been put in an old-fashioned water-powered washing machine and churned for a day. She handed me this paper. I read four lines. You don't need to eat all of an egg to know if it's good or bad. I looked at her and said to myself, 'Christ, this is it. This is pure talent. What can I do? I can't teach her anything!' I taught her a little. She had a few isolated problems--with her society, her illness."
O'Connor's first book, "The Geranium: A Collection of Short Stories," was submitted in June 1947 as a thesis for a master's degree in fine arts at the university. It was dedicated to Engle. In a letter in 1971 to Robert Giroux, the publisher, seven years after O'Connor died of lupus, Engle remembered that her "will to be a writer was adamant; nothing could resist it, not even her own sensibility about her own work. Cut, alter, try it again . . . Sitting at the back of the room, silent, Flannery was more of a presence than the exuberant talkers who serenade every writing-class with their loudness. The only communicating gesture she would make was an occasional amused and shy smile at something absurd. The dreary chair she sat in glowed."
In 1965, Engle invited Kurt Vonnegut to the workshop to teach. Vonnegut, living in semistruggle on Cape Cod at the time, arrived in Iowa City in an old Volkswagen, his enthusiasm for writing in about as poor shape as his car. He had written six novels, but the several passes at the book he wanted to write most--about the American firebombing of Dresden in World War II--went nowhere. He was in a creative airlock. His two years with Engle loosened him. He wrote "Slaughterhouse-Five" in Iowa City.
Vonnegut has been an Engle fan since. He recalled recently that he has twice proposed his former colleague for membership to the National Institute of Arts and Letters for his enduring service in assisting writers. "He's an extremely important man culturally. I can't think of any institution, except maybe the Guggenheim Foundation, that has encouraged as many writers as the Iowa workshops. In my time, a Chilean novelist was there. So was Nelson Algren. We all needed to get pumped up about the importance of writing. Of course, that was the magic of Iowa--getting a whole bunch of writers in one place and talking about nothing but writing. You decide pretty fast that writing is important after all. Paul was a raffish soldier-saint leading us into battle against the Philistines. I don't know why he's chosen this role, but it's been tremendously useful to all of us."
Vonnegut didn't offer specifics on the names and locations of the Philistines. But if he had in mind the businessmen who populate corporate America, then he may have placed Engle on the wrong battlefield. ITT, U.S. Steel, Rockwell International, Amana Refrigeration, Atlantic Richfield, Mobil, Reader's Digest, Time Inc., Northern Natural Gas and Bankers Life Insurance are among the companies that have been persuaded by Engle to give money to the International Writers Program. "Fund-raising is a major activity for me every year," Engle said, "going back to the times when I did the same for the Writers Workshop. Money-raising is a dog's life and sometimes I tire of barking at the golden moon." He tires more of academic intellectuals who look down their educated noses on the business world. "Ultimately," Engle said in an interview a few years ago, "all salaries come down to the productive enterprises of the country--people working, often harder and longer hours than professors work."
If Engle's closeness to businessmen is a twist, perhaps a twist with double English is his friendship with Averell Harriman. "Ave's an old friend. I lived in his house for two years in the early 1950s . At Harriman, N.Y., up the Hudson River. The Harriman estate is called Arden."
Engle met Harriman in 1954 in Hobe Sound, Fla. He had won a Guggenheim Foundation fellowship and through good fortune found an affordable house to rent for a few months. Engle was unprepared for the swank of Hobe Sound: "Beautiful houses with large lawns. Each blade of grass cost a dollar!" A neighbor was Philip Barry, the playwright. One evening at dinner at the Barrys, Harriman and his then-wife Marie were at the table. A close and enduring friendship began. "I admire Averell Harriman as really almost the greatest man this country has produced in this century--in world terms. Ave can take an objective view of people he hates: This is marvelous! Few of us can. Ave can, for the good of the country."
Engle told of the time his daughter Mary was staying in the New York apartment of the Harriman's. On the day she left, a car was called to drive her to the airport: "You know who went and got her bags and carried them out to the street? Seventy-nine-year-old Averell Harriman. He carried my daughter's bags. There is a thing called character, and Averell Harriman has it. It's going out of fashion. But he has it. And he treats a young girl from Iowa elitely."
It's no less for her father and stepmother. "Over many years," Harriman wrote in a 1976 letter supporting the Engles' nomination for the Nobel Peace Prize, "I have known the Engles and watched their dedicated efforts to bring peace and understanding to the world by bringing writers of every country, language and culture to their program in Iowa City . . . It is important to note that they were not asked to undertake this difficult program by a goverment. They invented the idea and gave their years to raising the funds to finance it from many sources, most of them private individuals and corporations. This is unprecedented in the history of international relations, which are almost always governments talking to governments."
Toward evening's end, Engle walks through a hallway off the living room to his office. In neatness, it's the opposite of the straight-lined Iowa cornfield, being instead a scatter seed of books, envelopes, papers, letters. Crops are rotated here. On a table, like a tractor ready to plow, is an Olympia manual typewriter. It is in this workroom that Engle spends much of his time writing "Engle Country: Memoirs." The dissoluteness of the room tells the unwritten story that this is a place where work is sweated out, where Engle takes the advice he has been giving to students since he took over his first writing class in 1936: "A work of art is work."
When he is reminded of the line, he talks of what is currently passing for education in the classrooms. "Did you read about this basketball player--6-foot-8 who's taking third and fourth grade after graduating from college. This is a travesty and a tragedy. He couldn't do that in the Soviet Union. Nor China. We're the country that's destroying itself. Our children aren't being taught simple facts, simple grammar and clear mathematics. What's going to happen in 20 years? We'll be an ignorant country. I think we're in desperate condition, and for survival it has to change. We must no longer indulge ignorant teachers and ignorant students . . . It absolutely scares me when I see how badly many students write.
"I think education has given itself far too much to abstract concepts, abstract testing. What's the point of having an extremely good test which proves that your students haven't learned anything? What's the point of that? Teach them, teach them, teach them in a way which motivates them. There's no day that goes by without stories in the newspaper about students who go and vandalize the school at night that they attend by day. This is not only vicious but is dangerous to the country. It's destructive of any respect to intelligence . . . If you get the young involved in what they are learning, they won't be destructive. They'll be fascinated. They're going to want to learn."
In the book he edited, "On Creative Writing," which is as much a classic on the art of language as Strunk and White's "Elements of Style," Engle wrote that "the simple, often grunt-like puffs of air which we call words must be used by the writer with such skill that they can bring to a reader, who cannot even hear whatever tone of voice the writer would give them, a form and sense which will move him. This is by no means as easy as lifting bricks all day or breaking stone."
It is a vintage Engle thought: joining the work of the mind with the labor of the body. For more than 40 years, he has been bringing people who write to a place where people farm, rejoicing in the talent of the Czech blacksmith and celebrating the kindness of the Hobe Sound millionaire--and pulling it off in a circle 25 miles wide, if necessary. In "Who's Who," Engle provided a few biographical details of his life and ended with a summing-up line: "A grindstone does its job by a perpetual turning in one place, wearing itself down slower than the steel."