Vanished Act: The Life and Art of Weldon Keesby James Reidel, Adams Bob
Acritic, novelist, filmmaker, jazz musician, painter, and, above all, poet, Weldon Kees (1914-55) performed, practiced, and published with the best of his generation of artists-the Middle Generation of twentieth-century American letters, which included Robert Lowell, Elizabeth Bishop, Delmore Schwartz, John Berryman, and a select number of others. His disappearance at the age of forty-one, which still places a question mark on his suicide, along with his movie-star good looks, role in the culture of his day, and shifting relationships with key figures have made him one of the more intriguing and elusive artists of the 1940s and pre-Beat '50s. Going beyond the cult status that has grown up around Kees over the years, James Reidel presents the first full account of Kees's troubled yet remarkably accomplished life.
"With Vanished Act [Reidel] has produced a major biographical work that will rectify critical neglect of Kees and bring the artist long-deserved public attention. Comprehensive and extensively researched, the book traces Kees' life and artisitc development while being careful to place him in the context of the cultural figures and currents that swirled about him."—Caroline Langston, Books and Culture
“Reidel’s research is heroically exhaustive and scrupulous. . . . [He] opens windows on things previously only half-known, not only on the haunted life of his enigmatic protagonist, but on a particularly interesting cycle of our literary history.”—Raymond Nelson, Great Plains Quarterly
“Vanished Act is a fascinating study in how the notable achievements of a talented artist in poetry, fiction, playwriting, painting, photography, film-making, criticism, and music could have been so thoroughly ignored over the past half century.”—James Ballowe, North Dakota Quarterly
“A thoughtful and heartbreaking biography of a mid-twentieth century American Renaissance man who, in a perfect world, would have earned more than a mere cult figure status.”—Jeffry Jensen, Magill’s Literary Journal
“Long overdue biography of an important American poet. . . . Reidel's two decades of scholarship fleshes out the details in the life of this enigmatic 20th-century writer and artist.”—Kirkus
“The story of Weldon Kees is not so much one of an achievement as it is the story of an aspiration and its afterglow. The man has a dusky, flickering allure. . . . James Reidel does not attempt to make the story any happier than it is. He frames his biography with images of ones who were left behind. . . . Reidel is right to give the book a novelist’s mood-setting touches, and he is right to have shaped the account in terms of the places where Kees lived, with long sections on Nebraska, New York, Provincetown, and San Francisco. Yet, in the end this remains a conventional biography, an attempt to step back and let the life tell itself.”—Jed Perl, Harper’s Magazine
"The biography of an American writer who is not nearly as famous as he ought to be. . . . Weldon Kees (1914–55?) is the 'nearly' man of 20th-century American poetry—and . . . fiction, art and music and poetry criticism, Abstract Expressionist painting, traditional jazz (both pianism and composition), avant-garde theatricals and documentary filmmaking. Until I read the poet James Reidel's biography, Vanished Act, I had not realized how 'nearly' Kees was, and how far he came, in so many fields of artistic endeavor. . . . [A] really good, well-written and thoughtful biography."—Michael Hofmann, The New York Times Book Review
"[We are] privy to the life, art, and anxieties of a man . . . poignantly representative of the artist's struggle to survive in wartime and post-war America. . . . Reidel has meticulously catalogued a complicated and engaging life. This book (to be followed this winter by a volume of poems and a collection of critical essays on Kees, also from University of Nebraska Press) will be of great interest to Kees's admirers and should also broaden their ranks."—Jennifer Liese, Bookforum
“Vanished Act lucidly examines Kees’s heartbreaking life.”—David Caplan, The Weekly Standard
“Reidel has done a great deal with Kees’ 41 years, producing a 400 page book dedicated to the man’s known life and work. . . . His prose is clean, compelling, and reads with the ease of a novel. In doing so, it gives us another valuable history—social, aesthetic, and political—of the thirties, forties, and start of the fifties.”—Stephen Motika, Another Chicago Magazine
“Mr. Reidel uses biography as a poetic form. His mission is to re-create the experience that drew people to Kees, who enchanted women and men alike because he completely immersed himself in art and made his life into art.”—Carl Rollyson, The New York Sun
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Read an Excerpt
Vanished ActThe Life and Art of Weldon Kees
By James Reidel, Adams Bob
University of NebraskaCopyright © 2003 Board of Regents of the University of Nebraska All right reserved.
Chapter OneBeatrice 1914-1931
The porchlight coming on again,
Early November, the dead leaves
Raked in piles, the wicker swing
Creaking. Across the lots
A phonograph is playing Ja-Da.
And I am back from seeing Milton Sills
And Doris Kenyon. Twelve years old.
-Weldon Kees, "1926"
In her last year, in the months after the assassination of President
Kennedy, Sarah Kees lived in a retirement manor that resembled a motel, that may
have been a motel. She kept a number of family photographs in her small room.
Among them were images of her missing child. They show a smiling, small-town boy
a lifetime and several cities removed from all that remained of him: three
slender volumes collected into an already fading paperback edition of his poems.
The many private and individual acts that it would take for Kees's work to be
rediscovered and for the story of his life to be reclaimed had yet to happen.
The smiling boy in the photographs does not resemble the child in the damaged world of the poems. There is a picture of an infant Kees sitting on the floor splay-legged in little hard-soled, high-topped button shoes.He is dressed in a white baby gown. It is his first Christmas, and by him there is a Scotch pine. The tree is not very full or overly decorated. A few glass balls hang in the boughs, along with paper Santas, bells, English setters, and what could be an angel at the tree top. A thin tinsel rope forms a crazed pattern. The gifts around the child are simple
and plain, too. A cast-iron terrier, slightly out of focus, and a stuffed
Pomeranian have been placed near Kees for him to play with-or they have been
posed, for it is a kind of Americanism to have dogs in photographs. They
lend an air of contentment and normalcy to an image that people alone cannot. The
contentment and normalcy in this Christmas photograph look incongruous if one
knows that the adult Kees had more affection for cats named Flowerface,
Daughter, and Lonesome; that such animals are esteemed in his poetry; and that
pet dogs are pariahs and emblems of dystopia, of the "gray world / not without
violence" that is described in his signature poem, "Robinson."
After looking harder at this picture, one sees more than just the dogs. There is a jack-in-the-box. There are two tin drums and balls that have been
rolled across the floor to the delighted child. There is even a string of lights
in the Christmas tree emitting colorless white specks of light, certainly a
novelty in and indicative of the Kees family's feelings of comfort and
prosperity in the new century.
In contrast is the portrait of Kees at one year. Here the studio photographer has used lighting and a pose unchanged since the daguerreotype.
Weldon's white, lace-trimmed frock and the locket that hangs from his neck
reveal how he started life in one century and lived in another. Placing this
same antiquelike baby portrait beside a snapshot taken of him in 1955, in
which he holds a Budweiser and sits in a modern Sonoma County kitchen, makes for
another impression of Kees's chronology-that his life seems to have covered
more time than the forty-one years it actually did.
Living in the heartland did not inhibit Kees's parents from
posing him in a sailor suit for another studio photograph, taken in 1921. In
this image, one that would seem to have been his mother's favorite, he looks
like a Nebraskan tsarevitch or a Prince of Wales wearing the yachting togs of
some imperial navy. The iconography speaks for its time and for the heightened
middle-class aspirations that Sarah and John Kees had for their family and their
only son, whose sly faint smile suggests that he enjoyed pretending to
be a landlocked nautical dandy.
This photograph and the others from boyhood show Kees's distinctive features. The full lips and the soft, intelligent gaze of his dark eyes would
change little, save to be hardened by the thin mustachehe wore after 1940 in the
style of Clark Gable and other Hollywood debonairs. The meticulous dress and
grooming, which friends of the adult Kees noticed as much as they did the craft
in his poems, are very much present in the old photographs, too. Kees in
knickers, in a tartan-patterned necktie, in a double-breasted
summer suit and two-tone wing tips, even when wearing an open-collar shirt,
always looked like he had jumped out of the department-store advertisements in
the Beatrice Daily Sun. This was how his mother liked to remember him
until she had saved enough of the sleeping pills her nurse gave her, until some
visitor who would sign her out came to ask about her son who was almost so
famous and successful.
Harry Weldon Kees was born on February 24, 1914, into an "existence of subnormal calm." This is how he described Beatrice, Nebraska, thinly disguised in one of the many short stories he wrote before he moved to New York and became almost exclusively a poet. Yet on the same day the newspaper reported the birth of John and Sarah Kees's son, it ran stories about the worst winter storm of the year, trains trapped in snow, and a farmer freezing to death in his farmhouse.
These were not ominous signs but normal weather-and life-in Nebraska. To accept such weather is a kind of freemasonry, Willa Cather wrote, and for a new baby on the plains it simply provides a reason to wrap him up well and make him a portent for good and wholesome things to
come. So that he might "rise in the world," the infant Kees was carried
up the staircase of the Mennonite Deaconess Hospital by Sister Agatha Haarus and
taken back down and returned to his mother. After this folk rite, he was given
his first bath.
The new baby represented such promise because he was the first of a new generation of the Kees family, prominent in what people would have modestly called "society" in Beatrice. Their wealth came from the F. D. Kees Manufacturing Company, a manufacturer of hardware and various kinds of farm implements, machines, and other metal objects that ranged from corn-husking hooks to skates for frozen ponds and town
sidewalks. The company, the oldest of its kind in Nebraska, had been founded by
the family's patriarch, Frederick Daniel Kees, forty years before the birth of
his first grandson.
A German gun- and locksmith, Weldon's grandfather-known as Fred or F.D. to
the townspeople and as Daniel at home-had come to America aboard the
Weser on a combination one-way ship's passage and railroad ticket, which
was offered by the German steamship lines. Other members of the branch of German
Keeses to which Daniel belonged had immigrated to America before him. Some
had settled in Gage County, Nebraska, and Daniel, seeing that they had prospered,
followed them there in the early 1870s. He soon bought a lock- and gun-repair
shop and hardware store for a twenty-dollar gold piece, from which he began his
manufacturing enterprise in November 1874, producing husking hooks and pegs
from his store and workshop on Court Street and converting army cap-and-ball
muskets into needle guns.
The business diversified and expanded the range of its products as the railroads brought more homesteaders and more business than one man could handle. During the 1870s, Daniel met and married Emma Zimmermann, a smallish woman who had also emigrated from Germany. Her petite form is still evident in the exhibit made of her silvery blue silk wedding dress, displayed on a headless dressmaker's form in the former Burlington Railroad station, which became the county historical society's small museum.
As Emma's husband's business grew, he turned his store over to his brother Fritz in 1910 and moved to a redbrick building at 24 High Street. The resulting factory became the town's major employer, bringing Daniel the wealth and the social prominence that came with success in America. From the turn of the century on, members of the Kees family were officers in the German Baptist Church and, later, in the First Presbyterian Church. Ice cream socials, bridge parties, dances, and other events held in their homes were recounted in the newspaper.
Daniel and Emma Kees had three children. Weldon's father, John, was the eldest, followed by Weldon's uncle Dan and his aunt Clara. Both sons attended college. John graduated from the University of Nebraska at Lincoln in 1899, and his brother attended school in Wisconsin. Their free-spirited sister, who never married, camped and fished
in Minnesota during the summers with her brothers, as well as taking part
in all the other healthful and manly outdoor activities that were popular during
Theodore Roosevelt's presidency. She considered herself a fine singer, and she
often was heard singing hymns from her front porch well into her eighties. From
the time she was a teenager, she favored the progressive ideas of her day. In
this way, she was like her brother John, whom she physically resembled-one of
the rare Democrats in largely Republican Gage County. Since she was a woman, her
politics made her even more of an oddity in the small Midwestern town. There is
a photograph of Clara in the costume of the suragettes, the leader of a handful
of women who marched through the town in 1910. The spinster aunt would have influenced
her nephew as a model of nonconformity and through the constant mystery she
posed, with her eccentricities and her unmarried state. (He would later manifest
this continued influence in finding lesbians both attractive and repulsive.)
There is a suggestion, too, of a closer, nurturing bond between Aunt Clara and
Weldon: the French dictionary she gave him for his high school graduation. He
kept it close at hand all his life and used it for reading Proust and staying
limber for the dialogue in the Renoir films he loved.
Like that of the other wealthy families of Beatrice, the Keeses' importance and
prosperity rose as the town became the junction for three great railroads that
ran along the Big Blue River and the economic center of the farmland around it.
Beatrice was where the farmers came for their loans and to sell their crops and
Even with its vital connection to the farmland, visible in the
flatness all around it, the townspeople of Beatrice had the amenities of a
larger city and even the illusion of living in one. A small trolley car ran from
one end of town to the other. Touring plays, operettas, and musicales staged
their shows in the town's theaters and auditoriums. There were modest buildings
that had just enough scale to impress the farmers and the town's children, such
as the courthouse, the fine hotel where large parties were often held, and the
Carnegie Library, a stone Beaux-Arts structure intentionally designed to be
the working miniature of a much larger public building. There was even a copy of
the Statue of Liberty, life-size in that it was proportionate to a real human.
Another large building, the hardware store that the Kees family opened on Court
Street, was the most prominent structure in the hand-colored postcards one could
buy in the town's two railroad stations.
Weldon Kees considered Beatrice to have been at its height during his early
childhood and in a fallen state by the time he grew up, a kind of capitalist's
mistake. In the entry for Beatrice in Nebraska: A Guide to the Cornhusker
State, the Federal Writers' Project guide that he edited during his
communist phase in the mid-1930s, Kees's disparagement is like that evident in
descriptions of the Nebraska towns of his stories. Beatrice is not named for the
muse of Dante and the Pre-Raphaelites. It is, however, named for a poet-the
daughter of the town's founder, Judge John Kinney, who read some of her own
verses at its groundbreaking ceremony in 1857 and saw the town only once or twice.
Its river is muddy and slow-moving. Its manufacturing plants are grimy. The
landscape is one of severe droughts, dying trees, and gaps in the industrial
scene. One of the only points of interest is the Institution for Feeble-Minded
Youth. Even before the Depression, Beatrice's prosperous age-a golden time when
the silent-film comedian Harold Lloyd sold popcorn on its streets as a boy and
when screen idol Robert Taylor was known as Spangler Arlington Brugh and Weldon
Kees's playmate-had run its course.
The brief profile of the F. D. Kees Manufacturing Company in the guidebook is
colored in the dark sepia tones of Kees's memories of his first visits to his
grandfather's factory. The building's length and width are described as larger
than they actually were, as they would seem to a child. The lathes and their
belts, the tool templates hanging on the walls, the metal shavings, the wooden
boxes of scrap are listed in a way that is almost romantic compared to the other
prosaic descriptions of Beatrice. So are the finished things the workmen
piled on tables and every other spare surface: the hooks, housings, blades, and
other pressed-metal specialties that the Kees family made-along with the
contract work they did for others. The odd shapes of machines lined together in
the factory suggest the mysterious and wonderful processes that went on-from
the shaping of curtain rods to the counting of ball bearings for roller-skate wheels-and their deafening clatter, which made it possible to
hear only one's thoughts.
The F.D. Kees Manufacturing Company, along with the other
industrial institutions of the town, prepared splendid exhibits for the
state fair in Lincoln in 1908, about the time that John Kees became the youngest
man to ever serve as the president of the Nebraska Manufacturers Association.
Each year, the company expanded its line of goods that came after the original
cornhuskers. Window hinges, eave-trough hangers, woven-wire window guards,
trellises, desk railings, and other articles of hardware followed, including
more sophisticated devices, such as furnace regulators.
In January 1930, two months after Black Monday, the Daily Sun
reported that the "Kees Company is Prospering." Its sales in 1929 had increased
50 percent over the previous year, and the company kept adding new articles,
like the Kees Frost Kleerer, a windshield defroster that attached to the
dashboard with suction cups. The eclectic imagination behind the many different
products would seem to have manifested itself in Kees's many talents and in the
concatenations of objects and trivia he turned into poems and abstract
John Kees's seat on the library board reveals that he preferred his prominence
and participation in town life to be exercised in quiet, understated roles. He
was a small, reserved man, with a wide, thoughtful forehead where a shock of
dark hair held its own against a receding hairline. He sometimes wore a
pince-nez like the new president, Woodrow Wilson, which may have corrected
farsightedness and aided reading.
Excerpted from Vanished Act by James Reidel, Adams Bob
Copyright © 2003
by Board of Regents of the University of Nebraska
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Meet the Author
James Reidel is a poet and an independent scholar. He is the editor of Fall Quarter, an unpublished novel by Kees and the editor of a website on Kees.
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