Iowa City, February 2, 2022–Carl Klaus is on my mind today, as he is for many. He died early yesterday morning in Iowa City where he was an emeritus professor of English at the University of Iowa. And it occurred to me just now that he’s the only friend I have had, since I was eight or nine, at whose home I might just show up unannounced, or he at mine. That began with garden visits (inspections) in the late 1970s and continued through Jimmy and my dropping in on him on morning walks. Carl loved a visit from Jimmy and was quick to make much of him and offer water. Then we’d sit and chat, sometimes over a glass of wine.
It is very odd to discover the mentor in your life when you are well into your thirties. I never found one in college, or in grad school either more than superficially. But Carl chaired the search committee that brought me here, in 1975, and he has been on, and at my side ever since. We didn’t share our writing all that much. He made his available to me, in progress, as book after book came about. But I avoided his close editing and tended to sit on my work until more or less finished.
Carl’s instruction came mostly through gardening. Once upon a time, the Iowa City question was, not where are you from, or what’s your field, but how’s your garden. It was strange for the city boy from Cleveland to show the midwestern small town boy how to garden. But starting tomatoes and peppers from seed in his basement. Setting his seedlings out by day in early May but bringing them in at night until they “hardened off.” Shading them with shingle shakes for the first few days when newly transplanted into his garden. Waiting until late-May for that, after the days of the Frost King and Queen, since until the ground warmed up, they’d just “sit and sulk.” Tying the main stems up on stakes and pinching off the green starts between branches. Mulching, of course. Having a spring garden of greens and another in the fall. Keeping close records of the varieties he had planted and how they performed. . . .
His hiring me had a lot to do with the National Endowment for the Humanities Institute on Writing that he and Richard (Jix) Lloyd-Jones were planning. The Institute was for directors of first year writing programs in colleges and community colleges across the country. The idea was to plan better programs. We had two sessions, for six months each, in 1979 and 1980. Through both years, I led its seminar on Writing in the Arts and Sciences. But about that time, in 1978 actually, I was also approached to edit the Iowa Review, which I did, for the next three decades and a bit more. Carl might have been a little miffed at that, my sliding away from the course he was setting. Instead, as the best of mentors, Carl cheered on what I found for myself.
All along we shared an interest in the essay. For both of us, as brand new professors, through the 1960s and early 1970s, a first teaching assignment was first year writing courses. Most of our colleagues couldn’t wait to be quit of that and move on to advanced work. A few of us, scattered all around the country, found we liked it. I can’t speak for everyone, but I suspect that many of us liked encouraging the “I” in the student writer when most expository writing texts of the time, and AP courses in English, warned against such subjectivity. We felt as if we were on slightly dangerous ground, suddenly, as we allowed for personal, narrative reports. All this prepared for adding memoir and essay to MFA programs a long generation later. Carl, as much anyone, was the weathervane for that. He was more enthusiastic and determined than most, and the program he started at Iowa in the mid-1970s grew, became noticed, and its influence spread.
One summer, in the mid-1990s, while working in the Review office, I’d pass a seminar room where Carl, Ned Stuckey-French, John Price, Dan Roche, Maura Brady, Michele Payne, and Cassie Kircher huddled over the History of the Essay as they were finding it. I kind of wanted to barge in on and join them, but I continued for coffee, or a bathroom break, then returned to my own desk where we were, among other things, trying to encourage the essay as a literary form. We weren’t there yet, finding essays on a par with stories and poems, but something was in the air and I knew we were on to it, in part because Carl and his prize students were working on it too, from another angle.
David Hamilton is a professor emeritus at the University of Iowa where he taught, edited the Iowa Review, and helped found the Nonfiction Writing Program. His two essay collections are Deep River: A Memoir of a Missouri Farm (University of Missouri Press, 2001) and A Certain Arc (Ice Cube Press, 2019).
Sometimes we are lucky enough to encounter brilliance and kindness in the same person. When that person becomes our mentor we are doubly blessed.
I arrived at the University of Iowa 1989 with a desire to write nonfiction and only the vaguest idea of how that might happen. Carl Klaus was the director of the Nonfiction Writing Program back then — he was one of the founders –and saw potential in me where others may not have. I had so few clips to submit with my application that I included a magazine article I’d recently edited, with my suggestions included in the margins. It was more an act of desperation than a strategy, but Carl said it gave him insight into how I thought as a writer. He admitted me into the program and awarded me a teaching fellowship, two decisions that would both change and determine the course of my professional life.
My first semester at Iowa I enrolled in Carl’s class Forms of the Essay. He’d just published the anthology In Depth with Rebecca Faery, which was our text for the semester. On the first or second day of class he arrived with a bulging envelope of dollar bills and handed two to every student around the seminar table to reimburse us for the royalties he would receive from our purchases. He didn’t want to make a profit off his students. That was Carl.
The Nonfiction Writing Program was in its early iteration at that time. We received an odd degree called an MA/W, a wordy Master of Arts in English with a Concentration in Expository Writing. Creative nonfiction was just emerging as a legitimate form of literature. Carl called what we were writing “literary nonfiction” back then. Honestly, we didn’t know what the hell we were writing. (Mostly) true stories from our lives. Memories shaped into narratives. Personal messages in a bottle to anyone who’d be willing to read them.
The next semester I took Carl’s nonfiction writing workshop, an intimidating affair that met once a week for three hours, with six students positioned around a square conference table inside a seminar room at the top of the stairs on the third floor of the English-Philosophy Building. We’d hand out copies of our essays a week in advance, and Carl would return them to us in pristine condition, without any margin comments or handwritten notes, but with two to three single-spaced typewritten pages clipped to the papers. These notes discussed what he believed the essay was (or was trying to be, or wanted to be) about. Probing, challenging, focused. He was the closest and most insightful reader I’ve ever had, and I know I’m far from the only student to say that about him.
“What is this essay about?” That was the question – the only question — Carl posed at the beginning of every workshop. Boomed it across the seminar room, to be more accurate, in his deep baritone. What is this essay about? For the hour that followed he would push each of us to drill down deep, extract, and examine the origin kernels of each essay, to articulate what we thought the author was hoping to convey. According to the protocol of the time, writers would remain quiet until class discussion started to wind down. Many of us don’t rely on this format any more; enough silencing already occurs in the culture at large. But when I teach about the story beneath the story, I still ask writers to hold back before participating in the conversation. And then I explain why: Because Carl taught us the value of listening without directing the conversations, to discover if our intents had been sufficiently conveyed. I begin every student workshop with the same singular question: What is this essay about? Uncovering thematic resonance remains the best way I know to discuss works of nonfiction.
He taught, and he also advised. Without Carl’s encouragement, I doubt I would have had the courage or the determination to write a book about losing my mother at seventeen. Also per the protocol of the time, I rarely spoke of it, and my family suffered behind a curtain of silence. Carl, who grew up in Cleveland, had lost both of his parents at an early age and understood the lifelong effects of such a cataclysmic event. He also understood the corrosive nature of silence. At the same time, he regretfully informed me that he had no idea how to write a book proposal for a commercial publisher. He hadn’t published a work of creative nonfiction yet. So I walked over to Prairie Lights bookstore in early December, bought a book called How to Write a Book Proposal, and dutifully followed the instructions. About a month later I showed up at Carl’s office in the English-Philosophy Building with my first draft and watched his pen move across the page as he line edited the prose to within an inch of its life.
We came up with the title — Motherless Daughters — together. He offered a subtitle: The Enduring Legacy of Early Maternal Loss. I told him it was too academic and too long for a trade publication. He told me it explicitly described the content and intent of the book. We went back and forth for a while. In the end we settled on a compromise: The Legacy of Loss. On April Fool’s Day the book proposal went to auction. I’ve thanked Carl in the Acknowledgments of every book I’ve written since.
I left Iowa for New York City in the summer of 1992, and five years later moved to Los Angeles. Every summer when I returned to Iowa City to teach, and Carl and I would meet downtown or at my place for coffee, and for dinner in his dining room or on his back patio. His beloved wife Kate, and later his beloved partner Jackie, watched my two daughters grow up in his backyard every summer. The girls would run around in his vegetable garden while Carl and I talked about writing, and publishing, and parenting, and all of the people we knew and had known. It was a friendship forged in words. We never ran out of them.
He was one of the most erudite, most generous, and most prolific human beings I have ever known. His most recent book, The Ninth Decade: An Octogenarian’s Chronicle, came out this past September and chronicled the myriad challenges, frustrations, and wonders he encountered from ages eighty to eighty-eight. Who retires after a long and illustrious career as a professor and then continues writing in his third-floor office and publishing until age eighty-nine? Carl Klaus did. He was teaching us how to write, how to persevere, and how to live until the very end.
The influence he had on a generation of nonfiction writers can’t be minimized. If I were to write a book about all he meant to me, I’d need him to help me choose a title. But the subtitle, that one I can imagine. The Enduring Legacy of 33-Years of Mentorship, Friendship, and Affection, he would say. Then I’d tell him to keep it simple. What is this essay about? “The Legacy of Love,” I would say.
Hope Edelman is the Los Angeles-based author of eight nonfiction books, including Motherless Daughters, Motherless Mothers, and The AfterGrief. She is the recipient of a New York Times Notable Book of the Year designation and a Pushcart Prize, and is a distinguished alumna at Northwestern University and The University of Iowa. Her writing has appeared in numerous newspapers and magazines, including the New York Times, the Washington Post, Parade, Real Simple, and CNN.com. Her work as a bereavement expert is world renowned. In 2016 she began leading retreats and online support groups for women whose mothers have died. Since then, thousands of women have participated from more than twenty countries.
John T. Price
If you are fortunate enough to live to a certain age, you have an opportunity to look back and appreciate how so much of your life hinges on just a few moments. You are even more fortunate if, during those moments, you were guided by a good teacher.
Carl Klaus was that teacher for me.
I first took a class with him in 1989, called Form of the Essay, during my second year of graduate school at the University of Iowa. I was twenty-two, a recent refugee from the sciences who had joined the English graduate program based on a vague interest in nonfiction writing and literature—a late discovery during my undergraduate years. It was pure luck that those undergraduate years were at Iowa, where a classmate told me about the nonfiction program and its founder, Carl Klaus. Carl had a pretty tough reputation, which may be one of the reasons I delayed taking a class with him until my second year. And during that class Carl was indeed tough, in the sense that he demonstrated (and demanded), through close, rigorous readings of published essays, respect for a literary form that many still considered a lesser art. When it came time to workshop our own essays, I was terrified, especially when Carl asked to see me in his office ahead of class. Would he confirm what I already believed, that I didn’t have talent, that I didn’t belong there? He invited me to sit down.
“There’s more work to do on this essay,” he said, his distinctive eyebrows raised high, “but I want you to know that it moved me to tears. Promise me you’ll keep writing.”
This was one of those hinge moments, but of course, I wasn’t quite ready to accept it—to believe in your talent, as a young person, can sometimes be even more difficult than dismissing it. Which is why we need good teachers to be the stewards of that talent and, when the moment is right, bring us back home to it.
A second, even more essential moment with Carl occurred in 1993, just after the proposal meeting for my dissertation. Since that initial class with Carl, I had continued taking nonfiction writing courses, even completing the newly formed MFA. When it came time to start the doctoral dissertation, however, I decided on a scholarly exegesis of contemporary environmental literature–in part because I thought it would increase my chances of landing a job. The committee enthusiastically approved the proposal, but Carl stayed relatively quiet. Afterwards, he once again invited me to his office. There he told me he liked my idea for the dissertation, with one major caveat: “It’s not really who you are.” My reply was a little snarky: “And who exactly do you think I am, Carl?”
“You’re a goddammed writer, that’s what!”
The volume of his response certainly startled, but really it was the force of his conviction—a conviction I had done my best not just to deny, but to flee. Carl then invited me to sit down and the conversation that followed not only changed the trajectory of my dissertation, but the trajectory of my life. Together, we mapped out what would now be called a “hybrid” work of literary nonfiction, blending scholarly and creative modes, one that (more importantly) was true to “who I was.” I remember leaving his office with a great sense of relief, as if the shy recesses of my writerly heart had finally (and shockingly) been coaxed into the light. This is what I had wanted all along. Now, maybe, I could move forward with a little more honesty and courage. And it worked. The dissertation I wrote would eventually become my first book, Not Just Any Land: A Personal and Literary Journey into the American Grasslands, and I would go on to embrace a career as a writer and teacher of creative nonfiction.
What makes this moment even more significant, in retrospect, is that I now realize Carl was confronting the same questions in himself. After many decades as a respected scholar, and just a few years from retirement, he was about to begin a remarkable journey as a creative writer. The nonfiction books that followed were born out of the deepest recesses of his own heart, among them his passion for teaching and gardening, his grief over the death of his wife Kate, and the rediscovery of love with Jackie Blank. Over the years, he continued to mentor me and many others, and I came to think of him not only as a friend, but as family. When I last visited him at his Iowa City home in October, he had just given a public reading from his new book, The Ninth Decade: An Octogenarian’s Chronicle. Although in the midst of fighting cancer, he was full of joy about the writing life—about life. He was completely himself.
It was his final lesson to me. Another moment that, I suspect, will make all the difference.
John T. Price is the author four nonfiction books, including All is Leaf: Essays and Transformations (forthcoming from University of Iowa Press), and editor of the Tallgrass Prairie Reader. A recipient of a NEA fellowship, his work has recently appeared in Orion, Terrain.org, and Fourth Genre. He is the Regents’/Foundation Distinguished Professor at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, where he directs the English Department’s Creative Nonfiction Writing Program.
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