The Ceremony and Other Stories
Weldon Kees, author of these fourteen stories published between 1936 and 1945, resembles Ezra Pound’s poet in the famous “E. P. Ode pour l’election de son sepulchre” (part of Hugh Selwyn Mauberley: Life and Contacts, 1920). Kees, like Pound’s poet, “strove to resuscitate the dead art/ Of poetry,” and judging from his poetry and fiction, Kees believed that “he had been born/ In a half savage country, out of date.” Pound obviously wrote from the post-World War I disillusionment, while Kees reflects the Great Depression. Nevertheless, Pound’s Mauberley and Kees’s Robinson (his typical man in his poems) and much of Kees’s fiction provide the sense of a tortured sensibility in an unfeeling age—one that Pound wrote “demanded an image/ Of its accelerated grimace/ chiefly a mould in plaster,/ Made with no loss of time.”
Kees’s life, no less than his work, supports the comparison. After early success in fiction and poetry, followed by less regional success as critic and journalist, filmmaker and painter, jazz pianist and composer, Kees published a farewell article in The New Republic (July 18, 1955), in which he wrote of “our present atmosphere of distrust, violence, and irrationality, with so many human beings murdering themselves—either literally or symbolically” That same day, Kees disappeared.
In the preface to The Collected Poems of Weldon Kees, revised edition (1975), Donald Justice writes, “If the whole of Kees’s poetry can be read as a denial of the values of the present civilization, as I believe it can, then the disappearance of Kees becomes as symbolic an act as Rimbaud’s flight or Crane’s suicide.” Kees doubtless intended the irony of abandoning his car on the approach to the Golden Gate Bridge.
Kees was born February 24, 1914, in Beatrice, Nebraska, and by the time he was graduated from the University of Nebraska was already publishing stories, the earliest of which appeared in the influential Nebraska journal, Prairie Schooner. That story, “Saturday Rain,” has not been collected here, but other stories from the 1930’s have. With Barbara C. Webber, the editor of the present collection has compiled a chronological checklist of Weldon Kees’s published short stories, an important service to American literature. The critical question remains whether the quality of these stories justifies their survival.
If mindless optimism and sentimental blather may condemn many writers of the 1930’s and 1940’s to obscurity, may not persistent, unmitigated bitterness—unredeemed by freshness or innovation—justify one’s forgetting the stories of a man exacerbated by his times and reduced to posturing and hectoring? Kees, says Justice, “is one of the bitterest poets in history,” and that same bitterness pervades his fiction. Is it enough merely to despair at what Pound had already called “a botched civilization”?
Between 1934 and 1945, Kees published forty-one short stories, several nominated for inclusion in Best Short Stories, the annual anthology edited by Edward J. O’Brien and later by Martha Foley. In 1941, O’Brien reprinted Kees’s “The Life of the Mind” and dedicated that year’s anthology to him. That same year, at age twenty-seven, Kees published his first book of poems, The Last Man, and by age thirty-one he had abandoned fiction. In 1943, he moved from his job as a research librarian in Denver to increasingly glamorous positions as a writer for Time and Paramount newsreel and as art editor of The Nation. Three of the stories in The Celebration and Other Stories reflect Kees’s unsympathetic view of librarians: “Public Library,” “The Library: Four Sketches,” and “The Sign.” Meantime, his poems were appearing in important magazines, and in 1947 he published a second volume of verse, The Fall of the Magicians. His Poems: 1947-1954 appeared the year before his disappearance.
In the introduction to The Ceremony and Other Stories, Dana Gioia suggests that Kees suffered “the indifference or condescension of critics who believed no one could do serious work in more than one form.” Gioia urges that one read all of Kees’s work, poetry and prose, in order to judge him. Gioia demands too much, for it is just possible that Kees did dissipate his innate gifts and failed to leave a body of work rewarding close scrutiny. Not all the stories collected bear close scrutiny, and many are simply undistinguished. Many of the poems hold up better, but they too seem mannered to reflect the fashions of their time or the editorial tastes of magazines such as The New Yorker.
Gioia’s claim that “The Ceremony” and “I Should Worry” show Kees’s fiction “at its finest” casts doubt upon the whole critical enterprise. The magnitude of difference in quality of these two stories makes one marvel that the same person could have written them within a year’s time. Gioia does not specify his criteria for selection, and one...
(The entire section is 2082 words.)