A Delicate Aggression: Kurt Vonnegut at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop – An Interview with David O. Dowling

In A Delicate Aggression: Savagery and Survival in the Iowa Writers’ Workshop (2019 – Yale University Press), David O. Dowling explores the history of America’ preeminent creative writing program.  When Kurt Vonnegut joined the Workshop faculty during the mid-1960’s he stood out for his lack of distinction.  What was an obscure science fiction writer doing teaching the most promising writing students in the country?  In his chapter on Vonnegut’s time at the Workshop, Dowling traces Vonnegut’s metamorphosis from relative anonymity to literary superstardom.


Dowling shared his thoughts with The Daily Vonnegut.


The Daily Vonnegut: When Kurt Vonnegut arrives at Iowa Writers Workshop in the mid 1960’s, he’s an obscure writer known mainly for science fiction.  By the time he leaves, he’s on the cusp of world fame.  Did his time at Iowa make a difference or was it just coincidental?

David Dowling: It’s not coincidental at all.  Iowa was totally instrumental to his success.  At the time he was unknown, a sci-fi paperback writer, just like in the Beatles song.  He was hustling for a buck and had to work at a Saab dealership in West Barnstable on Cape Cod. He couldn’t have been further away or further removed from a literary culture.

By 1965, though, he actually heard word from the writer Vance Bourjaily at the Iowa Writers Workshop, at the behest of the director, who had reached out to him to see if Vonnegut wanted to fill a vacancy for a faculty position at the workshop.  This was not what the Workshop was doing at that time, reaching out to broken sci-fi writers.  They were going for literary prestige, people like John Berryman, Robert Lowell, highbrow poets, and a definite high art/low art distinction was there.  So why was Vance Bourjaily reaching out to Vonnegut? He was desperate. He happened to know him through some people and knew that he (Kurt) was trying to make a go at a career and decided to see if he would come out to Iowa.

Once Vonnegut arrives, he feels like a fish out of water.  Two years before, Esquire had published a list of what they called a Who’s Who of the entire literary world in 1963 and Kurt, being very self-conscious about trying to build his career, looked at it and couldn’t find himself.  He said, “I felt subhuman.”  His career was absolutely drying up at this point.

He also had no degree whatsoever, so he was hyper self-conscious about coming onto a college campus.  He’s been forever irreverent toward all things like credentialing and degrees and the institutions of higher ed, skewering them mercilessly wherever possible.  He had a run-in with the University of Chicago later about trying to get his master’s degree finished while he was at the Workshop.  He wanted any kind of credential because he never got a bachelor’s degree. He had gone to war instead. As he said, “I was delighted to go to war,” when he had the opportunity in World War II, precisely because he was flunking out of his classes. He had also been censored for writing satirical stuff in the newspaper at Cornell. So he didn’t even have a bachelor’s degree, and he’s coming to the most powerful, at this point, totally ascendant program in creative writing on the face of the earth, totally intimidated.

So it begs the question: how did he scratch his way out of such a hole? He had a couple of people who really supported him, John Irving being one, Suzanne McConnell who has a beautiful new book out, is another one. (For me, see interview with Suzanne McConnell here.)  These people were called the Vonnegut people.  They were the folks who followed him.  Did they propel his career?  Well, no, not exactly, but they were important. He needed a local constituency to support him. If he had worked totally on an island and people had rejected him locally, that would have been trouble.

But I think more important was a Harper’s review in 1965 that really sprung him into the literary world and made people take him seriously as a literary writer. It also catapulted him forward from earning $8,500 a year as his salary. He was boosted from $8,500 to $11,000 in just one year based on one review that broke open everything for him and got people to take him seriously.

It was a review of Player Piano. This was a novel that was in paperback and was literally on the swivel racks of grocery stores and dime stores. It had gone out of print. No one cared about it, and suddenly it got reviewed in Harper’s with a review so glowing Vonnegut becomes a literary writer with a capital L instead of an unknown sci-fi writer.


The Daily Vonnegut: The Harper’s piece is not often cited as an influence in his ascendance.  How did you come upon that as a key turning point?

David DowlingA Delicate Aggression is a portrait gallery of the greatest writers who have come through the workshop, from Flannery O’Connor to Marilynne Robinson and Ayana Mathis. My goal was to scour everything already published, the secondary sources, and then dive into the Workshop archive, which is literally across the quad from the Adler Journalism Building, where I’m a professor. I had a Research Assistant (RA) and my RA and I, along with a wonderful archivist, David McCartney, scoured the archives.  It was an embarrassment of riches.

The archive has chronicled the salary structures of the Workshop staff.  We found correspondence between Paul Engle, the Workshop director, and the department chair of English, John Gerber. Gerber held the cards in terms of who was getting a salary increase and who wasn’t. He also was not a little bit angry that the workshop had taken such power and autonomy to itself to basically make its own decisions, to run like an autonomous unit. It was getting that kind of money from sponsors like General Electric, et cetera, and this was because Engle was a hustler. He was a businessman. I think Vonnegut has a beautiful description of him as looking like a lean, gray-haired, slightly crooked Supreme Court justice dressed like Harry Belafonte. So, I mean, that’s Paul Engle. I don’t think anybody ever described him as accurately as that. So that’s the world Vonnegut was living in.

In the archive I found correspondence between Engle and Gerber and the bureaucratic back and forth about who was going to get these salary increases. I could see Bourjaily lobbying for Vonnegut in the correspondence to Gerber and Gerber playing this card like, “We’d prefer that faculty have PhDs here.” It was a turf war.  Bourjaily lobbied hard for Kurt and the Harper’s review made it into the correspondence.  The review itself, by Richard Schickel, a well-respected writer, attested to Vonnegut’s transcendence from the science fiction genre.

Schickel articulated perhaps better than Vonnegut ever did himself precisely the dynamic by which to understand him as not just a paperback writer, not just a sci-fi genre hack, but a serious writer with a complex relation towards science fiction and humor. So Schickel argued, much to Vonnegut’s delight and to Gerber’s admiration, that Vonnegut was not, quote, “simply a writer of science fiction, a distinctly déclassé, popular genre which no important literary person takes seriously. The science was only incidental to his fiction and that” … Here’s the key … “a new category of black comedy now applies to him.”

So, really, Vonnegut’s being fingered in this review as being responsible for nothing less than generating an entirely new type of fiction.  And he’s talking about Player Piano of all things and not Slaughterhouse-Five. Because when we read a review like that, all of us who know Vonnegut are thinking, oh, that’s Slaughterhouse-Five.  But Slaughterhouse-Five was published four years later.


The Daily Vonnegut: What inspired you to write not just about Vonnegut but about the workshop as a whole?

David Dowling: What piqued my interest was something that I’m continually working on, which is basically cultural production: author networks, media systems, and the way new genres get produced. That’s typically a factor of markets, of economy. We can even see Vonnegut being a creature of economy, really. In the way he taught, he was very much dialed into literary markets and cultural production.

I had written a book on Emerson and his followers in the 19th century.  The Emerson circle was an informal university for creative writers. So from that kind of focus, I came forward and wanted to work with the 21st century.  Once I got into the Workshop archives, I realized that I’d just scratched the surface and no one had really dug into it.

I went to Prairie Lights (a famed bookstore in Iowa City) and asked, “What do you have on the workshop in the way of the history? Do you have a comprehensive history?”  One of the managers told me that everything that’s been done had been done by an insider. It’s been commemorative, and it’s usually polishing the image of Paul Engle, who was the source of the cash.  So it dawned on me that there was no comprehensive history of this institution done by an outsider. Yes, I’m a faculty member at Iowa, but I’ve never been a tenure track faculty in English or in the creative writing program.  Paul at Prairie Lights said, “Somebody needs to do this,” and he felt a sense of urgency in that. There were a lot of truths that hadn’t been told.  One of which was this throughline that I didn’t realize, and it surprised me that there was so much institutional sexism that was deeply ingrained in the Workshop. That really jumped out at me, and I had to follow that as a responsible researcher telling the story of this institution.


The Daily Vonnegut:  Suzanne McConnell speaks to that quite well in some of her pieces. A Delicate Aggression is a great title and really sums up the atmosphere. How would you describe the way Vonnegut dealt with the politics of the workshop?

David Dowling: He negotiated it very well. I think he had his Vonnegut people fighting for him. He supported them in every way he could, but mainly not through spectacular teaching. There wasn’t any pedagogical brilliance going on at the workshop. People look at the workshop and they go, “Wow, it’s a fame factory. They must have taught something just amazing and spectacular. What was it?” Well, a lot of the instructors just stayed out of the way and to some extent that worked to create more internal pressure on students and between each other. But then to focus so much on publishing, so much on getting contacts with, as Vonnegut says, real publishers and real editors in New York and in Boston.  The bar was high to professionalize quickly, to get in print quickly, and to not just get into any of the magazines, but to get into Esquire and to get into Harper’s.

Paul Engle was notorious for coming into class waving around a check. He’d say, “I have a check in my hand. This came from Esquire, and it’s for you,” and he’d put it down in front of a student. The students would be like, “What happened?”  Engle told them, “I sent your story off, and it just won this money.” But that’s the push that these students had. Vonnegut was with that. His parties, which were infamous for some debauchery, no doubt … The Grateful Dead showed up at some of these parties, and he was literally hanging out with rock stars. But people forget that those parties were handpicked parties where he would select the best of the best of his students, Suzanne McConnell, definitely John Irving. You would see them come to these parties, and of course they would have big editors cherry picked from Boston, from New York, and they would pair them together. That’s where their success came in.

Now as far as the teaching goes, Vonnegut did some interviews with NPR before he passed where he’s saying very candidly, “Look, I didn’t know what the hell I was doing as a teacher.” Sometimes you look at Vonnegut and you’ll say, “He’s too self-effacing. He’s actually better than that.” I take him at his word here. He didn’t know what he was doing as a teacher, and he would use things like golf metaphors to try to tell his students, “You know, look, if I tell you to change your technique just a little bit, then that ball is going to go straight down the fairway, so trust me on this.”

So on that level, we have a guy who was out of his element. On another level though … he really was a terrific teacher in the sense of getting students to think about themselves, as he says, not just a barbarian of the marketplace, not just someone drunk on art, and not just an academic critic who’s way too abstract and dry and stuffy. He wanted them to be equal parts all three. That was the subtext.

His point was for students to throw out all those things and just be themselves. He knew very well that the things that we think of as “self” were fabricated. They’re artificially assembled. The famous line is, of course, “We are who we pretend to be, so be careful who you pretend to be.”  That’s the one that’s embossed on Iowa Avenue. So I would credit him for things like that, that introduction to students, where he would give them an anthology and say, “Go through it. Parse what’s the best here in this series of short stories from those three perspectives.” That sort of feedback was great.


The Daily Vonnegut: Before you started this book, were you a Vonnegut reader? Were you familiar with his work?

David Dowling:  Yes. I had taught Slaughterhouse-Five when I was off the tenure track in English. There was obviously a lot of interest in Vonnegut in those days. I’m not going to pretend to have read all of his works, but all of our knowledge bases are different, and mine happens to be historically situated in terms of the literary history of the time, in terms of the archive that surrounded Vonnegut and what he did and what he developed.

But the reality is I have not read his whole oeuvre. But I definitely look at Vonnegut as a singular, completely important figure in literary history. I want to even say intellectual history, and one that has really forced us to look at ourselves in the mirror in terms of our institutions and in terms of who we think we are as institutions. I think John Irving said it beautifully. “He’s cruel to institutions, but he’s kind to the individuals.” I think that’s him, and there’s a special soul here behind these words. There’s no question.


The Daily Vonnegut: A Delicate Aggression is a wonderful book, even beyond the Vonnegut chapter.  Some of my favorites were about writers that I really wasn’t familiar with, like R.V. Cassill.  Was there anything that surprised you in your research on the Workshop?

David Dowling: I had known that women had been marginalized, but I hadn’t really seen it quite the way that I expected to. So especially telling for me was the testimony of Joy Harjo, Sandra Cisneros, as women of color, and then that being corroborated by people like Jane Smiley. There was very much a cult of boxing. A lot of people pick up the book and ask, “Why are you writing about fighting and people boxing? How is boxing so central?” Because it was central to the Workshop. The 1960s was Muhammad Ali’s ascent, and the idea was that boxing was no longer this peripheral fringe thing. It became central in the culture because of Muhammad Ali. To be sure, people were boxing in the Workshop constantly, and calling each other out to boxing matches. I mean, of course this didn’t involve women, and it contributed to the feudalistic kind of masculinism that went on. Suzanne McConnell writes really well about that. So that was a shocker.

That throughline was picked up in a review of the book by The New Republic. The woman who wrote it is a gender studies scholar from Harvard, and so I was flattered that she saw that throughline.  Truly, the workshop itself has evolved. I give credit to Lan Samantha Chang, who’s the director now, credit where credit is due, for moving it forward to a better place. But it was horrendous, and it was the dark underside I just didn’t expect to see.

The other surprise was just the level of financial savvy.  Paul Engle built this institution out of thin air. He really had nothing at the start.  Most people around him either intensely hated him or intensely loved him because he was so financially savvy.  He was able to be a businessperson but also construct a literary empire out of it, and that legacy continues. The workshop is still truly powerful. The University of Iowa has branded itself The Writing University because of the workshop. That’s a way of taking that fame and borrowing from it and saying, okay, we’re part of that show too, so we can reflect well on ourselves here. But that definitely was a surprise to see Engle in his hog shack, out in the back of his house, writing letters to Manna Refrigeration for funding and then getting it.  My RA and I found the actual typewritten document in a file that comes out of a big tin with 65 boxes. You really are swimming back through time, and it’s a stunning experience.

But those were surprises, some of them unpleasant, some of them definitely changing one’s perspective on the relationship between money and literature and money and ideas and the history of ideas.


The Daily Vonnegut:  In the production of anything, there’s a cost behind it.

David Dowling:  Exactly. Vonnegut was dialed into that.  He knew he had to make money. He knew he had to please audiences.  In the chapter on Vonnegut I mentioned that a lot of what he said to people, like, “Okay, who made more money out of Dresden than anyone you know?” He would say, “It was me.” He rehearsed that line over and over to throw off anyone trying to associate him with what was called Holocaust pulp at the time, which was the taking of World War II atrocities and turning them into garish, over-the-top pulp fiction. He didn’t want to be associated with that at all, obviously. He wanted to be a writer of distinction, not the paperback writer. So he would practice that line, and it was a self-effacing line to say, yeah, I’ve made money on this, but I’m aware of it. If anything, I’m confessing it as my sin.

It’s a fascinating case of an author really coming to grips with the intersection of who he is as a writer and who he is as a human being. It’s really an astonishing moment, I think, in our own literary history. But he knew that money was behind it, and he grappled with that his whole life.  He’s always been the guy who’s selling Saabs in West Barnstable. He never stopped doing that. I mean, even to John Irving, he says, “Hey, capitalism will smile on you one day.”  He himself was this guy who was not quite the shameless salesman Engle was, to be sure, but he was aware that he had to be aggressive. That’s where the delicate aggression comes in. He had to be delicate about it enough to time that self-effacing comment about making all the money off of the dead bodies at Dresden, but still doing it anyway. It’s a fascinating paradox and something that makes him infinitely interesting and complex as a writer to me.


The Daily Vonnegut: While Vonnegut is known as a fiction writer, he also wrote a significant amount of non-fiction.  I’m curious about your thoughts on Vonnegut as a journalist.  The pieces in Wampeters, Foma and Granfalloons are quite strong, and one could argue that during the 1970’s his journalism is better than his fiction.

David Dowling: Thank you for mentioning that because I think that’s where people miss the strength of Slaughterhouse-Five in that journalistic feel that it has.  You can see that in the preface where he’s saying, “What I’m doing here is trying to capture a moment historically.” He picked one that he was at, presently, physically there, as opposed to writing about the Great Depression or something, which he had said he was going to do in a letter to Gerber, I believe. He never followed through on that and thank goodness that he did something where he was actually present.

But Slaughterhouse-Five is really an amalgamation of his old days writing journalism for the Chicago newspapers. He was a beat journalist. If you look at the style there, it has this clipped staccato feel of a journalistic beat writer, very short paragraphs, and he’s also trying to capture his participant, observer, ethnographic experience of being there in Dresden. That’s the journalist on the ground.

Slaughterhouse-Five is an amalgamation of journalism on the one hand, anthropology on the other hand, and then just straight up time travel, science fiction genre writing. Between the three elements, he elevates the form of what we conceive of as a novel. He’s literally breaking molds of genres, three ways at least that I can count, and it’s worthy of all its praise.



David O. Dowling is associate professor at the University of Iowa’s School of Journalism and Mass Communication.  His previous books include Literary Partnerships and the Marketplace and Emerson’s Proteges.