The University of Iowa

Hypertext History

The Hypertext History of Writing at Iowa chronicles the myriad ways in which The University of Iowa has established itself as a place of visionary writing programs. Robin Hemley, director of the Nonfiction Writing Program manages the project; Michael Potter, a graduate student in the Nonfiction Writing Program, is its primary author.

The Program in Creative Writing (The Iowa Writers' Workshop)

The Iowa Writers' Workshop is located in the Dey House [built in 1857], one of several historic homes adapted for reuse as academic or administrative space by the University. The University purchased the house in 1923, but the Writers’ Workshop has only been in the house since 1997. Prior to that, the Workshop occupied many settings, finding its first home in a barracks on the banks of the Iowa River in 1936.

Peter A. Dey, who brought the railroad to Iowa City in 1855, commissioned the house. He was trying to persuade his fiancée to move west from New York City and hoped that a sophisticated design would help convince her that Iowa City was suitably cosmopolitan. The building is predominantly Italianate in style; it has a hipped roof, cast iron fretwork, and a widow’s walk. On the front porch, four colonettes splinter the light and create a lively pattern of shade on the building’s eastern face. The Dey House has been expanded since its original construction, most notably with the addition of an ornate hall and staircase in the 1870s.

A recent major addition nearly doubled the square footage of the Dey House. The new Glenn Schaeffer Library is set above the Iowa River valley; inside, the public reading room holds more than four thousand books written by Workshop graduates and faculty. The room is named in memoriam to Frank Conroy, the Workshops’ director from 1987 to 2005 (p. 70, The University of Iowa Guide to Campus Architecture, John Beldon Scott & Rodney P. Lehnertz).

Paul Engle is sometimes mistakenly cited as the founder of the Writers’ Workshop, rather than Wilbur Schramm, and this may be due in part to the fact that, under Engle's leadership from 1941 to 1966, the Writers’ Workshop flourished and became a significant force in American letters. Robert Dana describes Engle's character in the preface to A Community of Writers: Paul Engle and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, published by the University of Iowa Press in 1999:

Paul Engle was very complex, needless to say. He was sometimes the shrewd and hardheaded horsetrader he claimed his forebears had been. But he was also the scholar of literature who had won a Rhodes and crewed for Oxford, and who, at twenty-six, had been a poet of promise and of some achievement. And he was, above all, the genius behind the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, a role that required all the qualities of the horsetrader, the scholar, and the poet.

Engle actively recruited students from around the country and the world. Application and acceptance were much less formal processes than they are today. As the author Kiyohiro Miura remembers,

Paul wrote me back, admitting me to the program. He also told me to get in touch with Mr. Maner, the adviser to foreign students, about a tuition scholarship, which, he said, he had already arranged for me. He said nothing about my twenty-page-long poem. It was also amazing, as I sometimes reflected upon it later, that a professor’s permission to attend his class was tantamount to an admission to his school. No Japanese college professor had that kind of power. I mention this because I fail to remember if I was officially admitted to UI or not. It may sound silly, but when I returned in 1991 as an Ida Beam Scholar to teach Japanese and Japanese literature, I was told by a faculty member in Oriental Studies that he could find no record of me in the school register. Was I just a private student of Paul Engle? (p.58, Dana)

Similar arrangements were made through midnight phonecalls and over martinis; housing and funding for admitted students would often materialize in similarly unbureaucratic fashions. Poets and fiction writers were also welcomed to Engle's homes on Friendly Avenue and in Stone City (roughly 30 miles outside of Iowa City) where he and his wife, Mary, would arrange picnics and barbecues.

The Workshop has produced some of the most recognizable names in contemporary literature including Flannery O’Connor, John Irving, T.C. Boyle, and Raymond Carver. In 1996, Writers’ Workshop faculty member Jorie Graham received the Pulitzer Prize for poetry. All three finalists from that same year, Donald Justice, Charles Wright, and Graham, were University graduates and all had been members of the Workshop faculty. Accomplished authors such as Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. and Marvin Bell have also taught at the Workshop. Bell received his MFA from The Writers’ Workshop in 1963 and retired in 2005 after forty years as a Workshop faculty member. Iowa’s first Poet Laureate, he is the author of eighteen books of poetry and essays. View Marvin Bell’s panel on Iowa City’s Literary Walk, read a transcript of his Poet Laureate acceptance speech, or listen to him read from a selection of poems published in These-Green-Going-To-Yellow: Poems and Iris of Creation.

A former Briggs-Copeland lecturer in creative writing at Harvard University, Lan Samantha Chang is the current director of the Writers’ Workshop. A graduate of the Worskhop herself, and the author of Inheritance and Hunger, Chang reflected on her return to Iowa after her appointment:

It is a great privilege to follow Frank Conroy as director. He was my teacher and an inspiration to me, and I think of him every time I walk into a classroom. As a child of immigrants, I first heard of the University of Iowa as a host to writers from all over the world. This vision of Iowa as a haven for writers, given to me by my parents, has only been enhanced by my experiences as a workshop student and teacher. I am thrilled to have the opportunity to sustain and renew this extraordinary program that exists at the heart of our literary culture.

The International Writing Program

In 1967, Paul Engle and Hualing Nieh Engle founded the International Writing Program (IWP), an international writing residency program. In its first year, the program brought 27 writers from 18 different countries to Iowa City, and, in the years since its founding, the IWP has hosted almost 1,100 writers from more than 120 countries. On the 20th anniversary of the founding of the IWP, Paul Engle and Hualing Nieh stepped down as directors of the program. In 1990, Clark Blaise (a 1962 graduate of the Writers' Workshop) was named director of the International Writing Program. In 1995, Iowa Governor Terry E. Branstad honored the International Writing Program with an Award for Distinguished Service to State Government.

The offices of the IWP are located in Shambaugh House, which was originally built in 1900. The Shambaugh House was named for Benjamin F. Shambaugh, professor of political science from 1896 until his death in 1940. Shambaugh's dedication to the arts and humanities was well known. He chaired the University Lecture Series, and hosted invited lecturers like Amelia Earhart and Roald Amundson in his home. His widow, Bertha, bequeathed the house to the University in 1953. After becoming University property, the building housed the Honors Program. In planning for the new Blank Honors Center in 2001, it was determined the home should be moved to its current location, three blocks to the north of its original location at 219 North Clinton Street.

The International Writing Program's mission is threefold: to introduce talented individuals to American life; to enable these individuals to take part in American university life; and to provide writers with time, in a setting congenial to their efforts, for the production of literary work. The project is designed for established and emerging poets, fiction writers, dramatists, and writers of nonfiction. Participants of the IWP do not take classes, and no degree is awarded for participation in the program. All of the activities offered by the program are optional, and the writers are free to use their time as they wish, to write or to conduct research. The IWP is home to the online journal of international writing, 91st Meridian. Notable participants have included Irish fiction writer Martin Roper, Chinese Poet Bei Dao, and Russian fiction writer Edward Radzinskiy.

The former William H. Jenks Chair in Contemporary Letters at the College of the Holy Cross, Christopher Merrill is the current director of the International Writing Program. He is the author of Things of the Hidden God, Only the Nails Remain: Scenes from the Balkan Wars, and Brilliant Water.

The Nonfiction Writing Program

In 1976, the English Department approved the “M.A. in English With Emphasis on Expository Writing.” An excerpt from the proposal presented by the Committee on Advanced Composition follows:

We propose an M.A. in English which will emphasize the theory, analysis, practice, and teaching of expository writing. Like other English departments, ours has always recognized the function of a particular kind of exposition – the essay in literary criticism. And at Iowa as at a few other schools, what we call creative writing has been fostered. Historically and in practice, however, this department has also recognized the large are of written discourse which lies outside, though it may sometimes overlap, the conventional areas of literary criticism in the study and teaching of expository writing, and they have achieved national recognition for their publication and professional service in the area of writing.

This committee was chaired by Carl Klaus, founder and former director of Iowa's Nonfiction Writing Program. A widely published essayist on style, voice, and the personal essay, Klaus is the author or editor of several textbooks on writing and books about the teaching of writing. His most recent books include multiple works of literary non-fiction, including: My Vegetable Love: A Journal of a Growing Season (University of Iowa Press, 2000), Weathering Winter: A Gardener's Daybook (University of Iowa Press, 1997), and Taking Retirement: A Beginner's Diary (Beacon Press, 1999). His 2006 memoir, Letters to Kate, was also published by the Univerisity of Iowa Press.

In 1990, the progam name was changed to “M.A. in Nonfiction Writing,” and later, under the leadership of Paul Diehl, the program was promoted from an M.A. to an M.F.A. in 1994. The NWP is housed within the the English-Philosophy Building:

[K]nown on campus as EPB, [this structure] has been home to these two humanities departments and the Department of Linguistics since its construction [in 1966, to the nation’s first Writing Center since 1968], and to the Department of Rhetoric since 1970. Begun under President Virgil M. Hancher (1940-1964) and completed under President Howard R. Bowen (1964-1969), EPB was one of many building projects on campus that exhibit a new desire to pursue architecture of current note and merit. Nationally renowned architects took part in a campus building boom, particularly during the Bowen years, and EPB has the distinction of being the first fruit of the University’s look beyond the state for high-quality design. (p. 95, Scott & Lehnertz

After Professor Klaus retired, David Hamilton assumed the role of director of the NWP from 2002 until 2004. Professor Hamilton is now the Editor of The Iowa Review. The current director of the NWP is Robin Hemley, a graduate of the Writers’ Workshop and the author of several works of both fiction and nonfiction, including The Big Ear, Invented Eden, Turning Life into Fiction, and Nola: A Memoir or Art, Faith, and Madness.Notable alumni of the Nonfiction Writing Program include Hope Edelman, Faith Adiele, Marilyn Abildskov, Jon Anderson, Jo Ann Beard, author of Boys of My Youth, YiYun Li, who wrote the widely celebrated A Thousand Years of Good Prayer, and John D’Agata (now a faculty member in the NWP). Li, D'Agata, and Adiele are also graduates of the Iowa Writers' Workshop.

The Playwrights Workshop

After a long tradition of the study of playwriting in the UI Theatre Department, the Iowa Playwrights Workshop was formally established in 1971.

The Theatre Building [shown in aerial photographs from 1955 and 1968], part of the UI’s mid-Depression construction boom, is a testament to intra-University collaboration. George Horner’s design benefited from the input of Arnold S. Gillette, who taught set design and construction at the University for more than forty years and championed a thirty-six foot revolving stage within a stage, one of the first of its kind. This theatre, later named after E.C. Mabie (the guiding force in the department’s earliest days), is articulated on the river façade and fly loft by a series of verticle fins typical of the streamlined mode of the Moderne style. A 1985 renovation added to the old building the David L. Thayer Theatre (named for another emeritus faculty member) and Theatre B (p. 118, Scott & Lehnertz).

The University of Iowa’s reputation as a home for creative faculty and students is supported by the Department of Theatre Arts. By 1937, the “Iowa idea” had made its way to Tom Williams, an aspiring playwright and transfer student a year short of a degree. He enrolled at the University, earning his B.A. in 1938, and soon thereafter picked up the moniker “Tennessee.” Ten years after graduating from Iowa, Tennessee Williams won the Pulitzer Prize for his play, A Streetcar Named Desire. 60 years after it was written, a mainstage production of The Glass Menagerie was mounted by the Department of Theatre Arts.

From 1979 to 1981 original scripts by students in the Playwrights Workshop were selected for performance at the American College Theatre Festival at Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. In 1987, The Association for Theatre in Higher Education recognized the Department of Theatre Arts with a new award for "outstanding support of student playwrights." In 1993, Playwrights Workshop alumnus Robert Olen Butler won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction. Other distinguished alumni include Lee Blessing and John O’Keefe.

Art Borreca is the current Head of the Playwrights Workshop. Professor Borreca is a graduate of the Yale School of Drama and a contributing author to journals such as The Drama Review and the Norton Anthology of Drama.

The Translation Workshop

In 1962, The Writers’ Workshop offered the first translation workshop in the country. Paul Engle and his second wife, Hualing Nieh Engle, pioneered a “tandem method” where the author and translator co-author the translated work. In 1974, scholar and translator Gayatri Spivak founded the MFA in Translation in the Department of Comparative Literature, situated on the U of I campus in the Adler Building.

The Philip D. Adler Journalism and Mass Communications Building [built in 2005] is home to the School of Journalism and Mass Communications, the Department of Cinema and Comparative Literature, and the Daily Iowan [the first daily campus newspaper west of the Mississippi]. The building is named after Philip David Adler of Davenport, Iowa. While at the University of Iowa in the 1920s, Adler was editor of the Daily Iowan. He became the publisher of the Kewanee Star Courier after graduation. Taking over as the publisher of the Davenport Daily Times in 1949, Adler went on to build a regional newspaper conglomerate. (p.88, Scott & Lehnertz).

Professor Russell Valentino, who teaches in both the Russian Department as well as in the Department of Cinema and Comparative Literature founded Autumn Hill Books in Iowa City in 2004. Daniel Weissbort, director emeritus of the UI Translation Program is the co-editor of Twentieth-Century Russian Poetry, published by the University of Iowa Press in 1992.


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