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1750 words
SHJ Issue 3
Spring 2011

Knowing Vance Bourjaily

Walter Cummins

When I turned to the New York Times obituary page on September 3, 2010 and saw Vance Bourjaily’s name spread across the top, I surprised myself with a sudden clutch of sadness. Perhaps it was the accompanying photo, Vance in 1960, the year I first met him in Iowa City when I started in the Writers’ Workshop, a man only in his late thirties. Or perhaps I was mourning my own long-past youth as much as Vance’s death, the sudden reminiscence of his role in it.

The last time I had seen him was 1965, though I had read several of his novels after that—The Man Who Knew Kennedy, The Fake Book, etc.—and had received a brief letter from him in 1988 when I was editing The Literary Review and published an interview with him by William A. Francis. He thanked me and said something nice about the magazine. I was a bit surprised that he remembered me. All those years and all those students. But Vance was a kind man and no doubt as generous in his memories as he was in his actions.

The Times obituary was a long one. One has to be important to receive so much space. Though the high points of his literary career had come decades ago, and even though he never became the major novelist many had expected, the Times authenticated his legacy, noting that “he figured prominently when critics made lists of writers who were underappreciated or whose promise had gone unfulfilled. But he had a long and substantial career in letters of the sort that was far more prevalent a half-century ago than it is today.” By implication his role in American writing was more significant than his now forgotten works.

It wasn’t until recently when I read a reissue of Dan Wakefield’s New York in the Fifties that I learned of Vance’s role in the post-war New York literary scene. Already praised for his 1947 postwar novel, The End of My Life, published when he was 25, Vance functioned as a sort of social chairman, organizing Sunday gatherings of writers like Norman Mailer, James Jones, William Styron, Calder Willingham, John W. Aldrich, John Clellon Holmes (who later taught at Iowa), and others at the White Horse Tavern, according to Mailer “twenty times or more.” He also edited the magazine Discovery that published the work of those writers early in their careers.

His many books are available on Amazon, but none in new editions, all used. It’s an unhappy reality for all but a miniscule fraction of writers that most books and author names are forgotten despite good reviews and the attention of critics. A small period of fame is the most any writer can hope for, and few achieve even that. Vance had his. How do the novels hold up? I have several on a bookshelf and should reread them.

It’s likely one incident bonded us, made him remember who I was, the result of my listening to the radio one afternoon in the summer of 1961. At the time I was in New York back from Iowa City and living in a sublet roach-ridden fifth-floor walkup on St. Marks Place. Hemingway had days before put a shotgun in his mouth and blown his brains out, some said because he was obsessed about becoming one of those who fade into obscurity. Leslie Fiedler was talking about Hemingway on WBAI as I puttered around the apartment, but I focused my attention when he noted Hemingway had considered Vance the best American writer under 40. Back in Iowa City in late August, assuming Vance had heard all about it, I congratulated him and discovered the Hemingway acclaim was news to him. Immediately, he hurried off to call his agent. Apparently, it was a big deal, and I the bearer of good tidings.

I couldn’t consider Vance a personal friend, not in the sense of his relationship with other MFA students who were his hunting, fishing, card playing, and drinking buddies. But he was open and accessible. While certain other faculty members were Mister until you developed a first-name connection equivalent to the French shift from vous to tu, he was immediately, “Call me Vance.”

He played softball with us on Saturday mornings, hosted occasional parties on Saturday nights. My greatest moment in sports—especially because I’m uncoordinated and spent a boyhood of ineptitude in right field—came when Vance was pitching and I drove a deep triple, putting good wood to the underhand toss of an almost-major American novelist.

It may have been that he threw only a few parties for the entire writers’ workshop, students and faculty, at least that I attended, but they were memorable, taking place in his house a few miles from Iowa City in the tiny town of West Branch, birthplace of Herbert Hoover, Vance repeating his hosting of the White Horse days. Was there live jazz? Certainly music of some source, and food and drink, and eager conversation, the rooms packed, Gemütlichkeit abounding. I’ve been told that in later years MFA students and faculty rarely mix, off in distinct social realms. I hope that’s not accurate. So much of the workshop experience came from the informal interaction, which may have been more valuable than the actual instruction.

Vance, like some other faculty, used his connections to connect students with editors. For a year or so he had a first-reading contract with The New Yorker, which meant that the magazine paid him a fixed sum for the right of first refusal of whatever he wrote. That may have been about the time The Violated was published. I recall him sending his editor a story by one of the best student writers, a man who went on to publish a number of novels. The story wasn’t taken but did elicit a note of praise. At that stage of a student’s career a good word from The New Yorker was equivalent to a Hemingway encomium.

I don’t recall a Bourjaily party after the death of his daughter, Anna, at age twelve, the appealing young girl who mingled with the festive crowd. It was an accident, Vance driving a yellow roofless Volkswagen vehicle on a country road before the days of seatbelts, Anna and a friend, the daughter of a psychology professor, in the back seat. For some reason the car had to swerve, and both girls were thrown out and killed. That was 1964 when I was the father of two daughters, one a toddler and one an infant, unable to fathom how I would cope with such a loss. The memorial service in the university chapel was just chamber music, deep and mournful. No one spoke. I shook Vance’s hand outside on the lawn and felt helpless. He thanked me for coming.

His marriage to Tina lasted until the mid-eighties, after he left Iowa to teach at the University of Arizona for 1980 to 1985. Then he moved on to Louisiana State as director of the creative writing program until he retired in the late nineties. Vance was 87 and living in California with his second wife, Yasmin Mogul, when he died from a brain hemorrhage after a fall.

The image of Vance I carry with me most is the man, not very tall, stocky, dressed in a wool plaid shirt and heavy outdoors trousers at the front of the room in a metal war-surplus classroom along the Iowa River, leaning back on a chair, his thick hunting books propped on a wooden table.

What he actually said in the classroom is lost on me. But he was the source of the one piece of distinct writing instruction I still retain after all these years. In the fifties while living in New York he wrote many half-hour television scripts and was told by the old hands that when bringing a new character into a story be sure to have an existing character express an opinion about him or her to prepare the audience with an expectation. I’ve shared that wisdom with several generations of students, always crediting Vance.

As much as he was a writer, Vance was an outdoorsman, collaborating with his son Philip, himself an outdoors writer, on many books and articles for magazines like Field and Stream. One day I was checking out readings at the university library, when Vance came in with a request for the one book that no library should be without. I lingered, eager for the advice of a master. It turned out to be a work about fly-fishing.

Certainly hunting was more important to Vance than the faculty committee session on my Ph.D. dissertation. In those days, you could follow up the MFA at Iowa with a Ph.D., fulfilling the same course, examination, and orals requirements as the scholars but substituting a creative work for the dissertation. I suppose that once he approved my novel Vance didn’t see the necessity of showing up with the rest of the committee for a pro forma hour. The group had to have a representative of another discipline, an economist on mine who asked me what the novel has to say about the economic side of human existence. I made up an answer and forget what anyone else asked, but when it was over Robert Scholes, later famous for his role in structuralism and semiotics, called me aside and said, “You don’t want to publish that novel,” implying that it would harm whatever career I might have. Fortunately, agents and publishers complied and saved me that embarrassment. By the way, a number of Scholes’ books are still available on Amazon, both new and in Kindle versions.

I never blamed Vance for not showing up. Even at the time I found it amusing. After all, I was past that novel and on to another. I didn’t want to be bothered with the session either. Besides, I felt a debt to Vance. He did give me some advice about the dissertation novel, enough to make it acceptable. That work, deficient as it was, got me a Ph.D., a teaching job, eventually tenure and publication of stories and some books, though nothing to excite a Hemingway or a Fiedler. Maybe Vance saw beyond that first novel; maybe he just took a flyer on me. But primarily I owe him for being an affirmative presence, a good guy, a writer who cared about other writers, including uncoordinated fledglings with a long way to go.

—Previously published in Contemporary World Literature (16 March 2011); reprinted here by author’s permission

“...we have been born here to witness and celebrate. We wonder at our purpose for living. Our purpose
is to perceive the fantastic. Why have a universe if there is no audience?” — Ray Bradbury