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Vanished Act Summary

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 20)

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 entire section is 1,996 words.)