Weldon Kees can to be considered one of the forgotten men of American letters. When his abandoned car was discovered by authorities on July 18, 1955, near the Golden Gate Bridge, a thorough investigation into Kees’s disappearance was begun. He had talked to friends about running off to Mexico and starting a new life. Kees also had talked about suicide and had done extensive research into the subject. Although his body was never found and no suicide note was discovered, authorities concluded that Kees had killed himself. After the police made their judgment in the matter, the case remained an unsolved mystery for others. Over the years, there have been whispers that Kees was sighted at various locations. These sightings could be no more than wishful thinking on the parts of friends and cult followers, but they do give one pause to think about what actually happened to this Renaissance man who was frustrated at almost every turn by bad luck or bad timing.
Since his disappearance, Kees has had a few stalwart supporters who believed in his talent and wished to set the record straight. James Reidel is one of these admirers and has made it his cause to put Kees back on the cultural radar screen. Born in Cincinnati, Ohio, Reidel was educated at Columbia and Rutgers Universities. He is a poet, a translator of such German authors as Thomas Bernhard, Franz Werfel, and Ingeborg Bachmann, and an editor. Vanished Act has been a labor of love for Reidel and is his first published book. Previously, except for journal articles written by his friends and associates, there had been very little written about Kees. In 1985 Weldon Kees: A Critical Introduction, a collection of essays edited by Jim Elledge, was published. This collection reprints essays and reviews that had first appeared during the 1940’s and 1950’s. Vanished Act is the first book-length biography of the poet.
Reidel has been interested in Kees, the literary figure and the man, for more than twenty years. He was first introduced to the poet’s work in the late 1970’s, after being given a copy of The Collected Poems of Weldon Kees (1960) as a graduation gift. Reidel was fascinated by Kees’s darkly ironic verse and felt compelled to find out who this strange and amazing poet was. He was surprised to find that very little had been written about Kees, whose work was not included in many poetry anthologies. Reidel took it upon himself to remedy the situation. He was determined to research the man and then write a biography. Reidel had previously edited two of Kees’s works. He is the editor of the collection Reviews and Essays, 1936-1955 (1988) and Kees’s posthumously published novel Fall Quarter (1990).
Reidel begins his literary biography with a prologue dated July 18, 1955. This opening section covers what is known about Kees’s ultimate vanishing act. In subsequent chapters the biography takes the reader from Kees’s early days into the 1950’s in an attempt to explain how Kees came to feel, by July 18, 1955, that “escaping” to Mexico or committing suicide were the only choices left to him. Born on February 24, 1914, Harry Weldon Kees grew up in Beatrice, Nebraska. In later years, Kees would describe having Beatrice as his hometown as like being born into an “existence of subnormal calm.”
The only child of John Kees and Sarah Green Kees, young Weldon was encouraged to appreciate the arts. It is believed that his parents did not have any more children because giving birth again would have been extremely dangerous for Sarah Kees. John Kees ran the F. D. Kees Manufacturing Company, founded in 1874 by Weldon’s grandfather Frederick Daniel Kees. Weldon’s mother created a secure environment for her only son to experiment with many different artistic outlets. Kees was a very precocious child. His father did have hopes that his son would one day take over the family business, but he did not want to stand in the way of Weldon’s other, more creative interests.
Weldon wrote stories and poems, learned to play the piano, and loved to draw. He also became fascinated with the films that came to the local movie theater. Young Weldon even went so far as to create his own fan magazines. His parents were devoted to him, and he learned to be a little adult at an early age. Although not a loner, Kees had a reputation for being rather bookish. One of his childhood friends was named Spangler Arlington Brugh. The two would remain friends for years and even go to the same college. Spangler Brugh would eventually go off to Hollywood to make a name for himself and would become the film star known to millions as Robert Taylor. During high school, Kees continued to follow his creative moods and to feel restless about where he was. Reidel makes it very clear that Kees had an insatiable appetite for learning and for believing that he was going to...
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