Saturday, June 25, 2005

Delbert E. Wylder, 1923-2004

My father died last December, but memorial services were not held until Memorial Day weekend. In a recent post, Rexroth's Daughter asks whether I reconciled with my father. The answer is, thankfully, yes. Below is my tribute to him, given at his burial service in Morrison, Illinois, May 26, 2005:

Near the end of a disappointing year, I received the news that my father, Delbert E. “Deb” Wylder had been diagnosed with leukemia and was hospitalized at the Lovelace Clinic in Albuquerque, New Mexico. When I talked to him at the hospital, he told me that instead of the four years he had four weeks. I arranged to get two weeks off work at the beginning of January to see him one more time. There were a lot of things we both wanted to talk about. Sadly, it was not to be. It turned out that he didn’t have four days. My brother, who made a heroic effort to drive from Iowa City to Albuquerque when he learned of the acute nature of our dad's leukemia, didn't make it there in time.

He died peacefully, and while he was looking forward to going home and spending his last days with his beloved wife, Edith Perry Wylder. And he made it to age 81--almost a decade longer than most Wylder males, who typically die at age 72.

He grew up in Morrison, Illinois, where his father worked for the Smith Trust and Savings Bank. After graduating from Morrison High School, he spent a year at Coe College, transferred to the University of Illinois, but interrupted his schooling to join the U.S. Army Air Forces. He saw action as a fighter pilot, flying P-47 Thunderbolts over Italy. He was featured in the 2001 History Channel documentary “The Color of War.”His war experiences also gave me my name--I was named for his wingman, Stephen Verm, who died when his P-47 crashed during a dive-bombing run.

After the war, he went to the University of Iowa, where he was in Paul Engle’s Writers’ Workshop. It was in Iowa City where he met my mother, Jean Williams Wylder, whom he married in 1949. I was born two years later, in Peoria, where my dad had taken a teaching post at Bradley University. The couple returned to Iowa City in 1952. My brother Bill was born there in 1956.

My parents’ marriage was not a successful one, and they divorced in 1965. The same year, my dad married Edith Perry Stamm. They would have been married forty years this June. Edith is a noted Emily Dickinson scholar. She has been a kind and loving stepmother.

Deb Wylder taught English at a number of universities, and mentored many of today’s writers and scholars, including Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Jorie Graham. He was the author of numerous scholarly articles and two books: Hemingway’s Heroes (1969) and Emerson Hough: Twayne’s United States Author’s Series 397 (1981). He was one of the founders of the Western Literature Association.

My dad introduced me to the world of writing and literature, and encouraged me in my freelance writing. When I was a small child and fascinated with trains, he often took me down to the Iowa City depot to watch the Rock Island trains go through.

One of his many friends said, “I can’t imagine a world without Deb.” I can’t either. So long as there are people who have been inspired by his teaching, mentoring, and writing, and touched by his love, Deb Wylder is with us.

Friday, June 17, 2005

American Gothic vs. Stone City

Steven Biel, in his new book about American Gothic, calls it "America's most famous painting." I haven't read the book, but as a former Iowan, I've always been a bit sensitive about Grant Wood's "masterpiece." People outside the Midwest see it as an indictment of or the straight-laced rural Iowa. Ironically, the models for his painting were his sister and his Cedar Rapids dentist--hardly rural rustics.

For me, Wood's masterpiece is Stone City, painted in 1930, the same year he produced his better-known picture. The hard, stern faces of American Gothic contrast with the undulating, sensual landscape of northeast Iowa. And where American Gothic reinforces a stereotype about Iowa, Stone City demolishes the biggest one--that Iowa is flat. The late Laurence Lafore, a Philadelphian who came to Iowa in the 1970s to teach history, wished he could carry "a pocket-sized reproduction of Grant Wood's Stone City, an Iowan version of View of Toledo" whenever anyone said Iowa was flat. ("In the Sticks," Harper's, Oct. 1971.)

Stone City was a quarry town, which lost its main industry after the introduction of Portland cement. Wood had an art colony there in 1931 and 1932. During the late 1940s and early '50s, Paul Engle, director of the Iowa Writers' Workshop, made it into a summer writers' colony. When his big house there burned down in the late '50s, Stone City's days as an art center were over.

I doubt whether anyone will write a book about Stone City, but for me it remains Wood's masterpiece. It is the truest statement of his love for the Iowa land, and an image which reminds exiles like me exaclty why we consider ourselves exiles.