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Unfinished Work

How sexism and machismo shaped a prestigious writing program

The poet Paul Engle with a group of Iowa Writers’ Workshop students in the 1950s. (Frederick W. Kent Collection/University of Iowa Libraries)
The poet Paul Engle with a group of Iowa Writers’ Workshop students in the 1950s. (Frederick W. Kent Collection/University of Iowa Libraries)

In March 2016, the literary organization VIDA published a series of anonymous statements that accused the poet Thomas Sayers Ellis of predatory and abusive behavior. The collected accounts allege unwanted advances, mockery, physical violence, and threats to ruin women’s careers over several years. Fifty-two years old at the time and widely respected in the field, in January that year Ellis had been appointed a visiting professor at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Soon after VIDA published these voices, Ellis’s classes were canceled, and a university official confirmed they were “looking into the situation.” The case was a now-familiar mix of multiple accusations, whisper network support, and a critique of the ways that structures of power can enable abuse and prohibit clear expressions of consent. Call it a #MeToo coup avant la lettre.

Yale University Press, 440 pp., $35.00

Reporting on the Ellis accusations, Jia Tolentino called “troubling behavior from powerful men in creative fields” a “tradition.” This tradition goes back a long way at Iowa, perhaps the most prestigious MFA writing program in the United States. The first degree-granting creative writing program in the country, the Workshop accepts only a tiny portion of those who apply (around 3.7 percent in 2016) and promises high rewards. Agents come to Iowa City to scout talent; faculty members connect students with editors; famous visiting writers admit students into their coteries. Eighteen Iowa graduates have won the Pulitzer Prize, and thousands more have published books, often to critical acclaim. The faculty is similarly accomplished.

But some of these accomplished teachers are the very same people who harass, intimidate, and shun. Tolentino’s reporting suggested that Ellis’s alleged behavior was especially distressing to students at Iowa because it recalled stories about other poets and teachers at the Workshop over the years. A sample of incidents from the Workshop’s illustrious, 83-year history: In the 1960s, the writer Kurt Vonnegut, then a faculty member, suggested to a new hire that the latter avoid seducing undergrads, but he implied that grad students were fair game; he also admitted to having “interfer[ed] with a student’s clothing,” to use his words. The poet John Berryman groped a student in the back seat of a car, en route to a party, and then balked when she tried to brush him off. (“What? You mean you don’t fuck?”) There were sexual solicitations, quid pro quo exchanges, and drunken brawls, often over a woman. “The teachers were completely fucked up,” the writer Sandra Cisneros said of her time there in the late 1970s. “They seemed to think that free booty was part of their compensation package.”

Exposing sexism is not the stated purpose of David O. Dowling’s new book, A Delicate Aggression: Savagery and Survival in the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. That, according to the introduction, is to examine “the impact of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop on literary culture and the publishing industry” by narrating the careers of important contemporary authors who taught or studied there under a series of distinctive directors, from its founding to the present. The impact is certainly profound: In 15 brief biographies, Dowling demonstrates how many of the twentieth century’s most celebrated American authors shaped this institutional setting and were shaped by it. He shows too how deeply entwined the Workshop and the publishing industry have been since the 1940s—it is no accident that so many books reviewed in The New York Times bear the imprimatur of Iowa. The poet Paul Engle, who took over the directorship of the Workshop in 1941, emphasized professional development; over more than two decades at the helm, he worked tirelessly to secure prize money and corporate sponsorship for individual students and for the program as a whole. The goal for students in the Iowa Writers’ Workshop is and has always been to publish. Dowling is intrigued by the contradictions generated under Engle’s stewardship, which he traces through the Workshop’s later decades: How can writing be both pathbreaking and popular? Does institutional orthodoxy stifle innovation? How can one be a “man of letters” and a “man of business,” as Engle aimed to be?

These questions have been tackled ably elsewhere, by scholars such as D.G. Myers, Mark McGurl, and Eric Bennett. What Dowling offers that is new, and important, is a thoroughgoing record of the varying ways sexism has shaped the Workshop experience. He has been through the literature and archives, and he has found a number of letters, interviews, and memoirs describing incidents of sexual misconduct. The book is heavily footnoted. (Dowling, an associate professor at the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Iowa, follows academic practices of citation.) His book demonstrates how institutional sexism involves more than just discrete incidents of sexual harassment: It permeates a program’s culture and expectations. Dowling relates anecdotes about boxing matches, the rampages of Norman Mailer, and the challenges of attending seminars while mothering two small children. He also tells of the aid that women writers offered one another, of their defiance of male authority, and of alternative workshops they formed in contradistinction to Iowa. There seems to have been plenty of savagery in Iowa City, but that same place gave rise to creative forms of resistance and strategies for survival.

A book full of sad old literary men, A Delicate Aggression’s first chapter focuses on a woman: Flannery O’Connor, the Workshop’s most famous graduate. A college graduate from Milledgeville, Georgia, and a devout Catholic, O’Connor, who enrolled in the Workshop in 1945, was “the brilliant misfit” in a class full of ex-GIs, men whom a classmate remembered as “a pretty riotous bunch, very hard-living people.” She dreaded reading her work in class and often asked a male classmate to read for her. When she did read aloud from what would become her first novel, Wise Blood, Engle was shocked at her description of a sexual seduction. Aiming to correct what he saw as inaccuracies—stemming from what he supposed was “a lovely lack of knowledge”—he called her into his office, then suggested they adjourn to his car, where she might feel more comfortable speaking about her own sexual history. O’Connor went with him, but said nothing about her own sex life, nor did she revise her fiction. She went on to win the O. Henry Award three times and the National Book Award for fiction in 1972.

Paradoxically for an institution designed to stimulate creativity, Iowa in its early years was pervaded by a martial spirit. Classes took place in former army barracks, and Engle, who kept a whip next to his typewriter, played the drill sergeant. He encouraged his students to criticize one another harshly, in the hopes that they would become resilient, even hardened, as if the Workshop were basic training. “Engle’s approach to bonding through preparation for a common enemy—in this case the publishing industry’s legions of potentially hostile critics and editors—grew out of a Cold War mentality,” Dowling explains. Culture was a weapon in the Cold War, and Engle was preparing the troops. O’Connor, for one, didn’t object to her “ex-mentor’s” teaching methods. “Everywhere I go I’m asked if the universities stifle writers,” she once said. “My opinion is that they don’t stifle enough of them.”

Much changed between the 1950s and the 1970s. Along with the rest of the country, the Workshop entered what Dowling calls “the Age of Aquarius,” a time of sexual liberation, revolutionary social movements, and lots and lots of drugs. More writers of color came to Iowa City—Cisneros, Joy Harjo, and Rita Dove among them—and there were more women in the student body. A school that once forbade “long-hairs”—too romantic a look, according to the bureaucrat Engle, who forced students to “shave down to clean professionalism”—now found itself hosting students such as T.C. Boyle, a self-described “hippie’s hippie, and immoral to boot.” There were still veterans writing about their experience of combat (Vietnam, in this case), but their stories were now juxtaposed with other students’ tales of hitchhiking and heroin addiction.

What did not change was the culture of aggressive masculinity in Iowa’s classrooms, restaurants, and watering holes. The Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Jane Smiley recalled,

the teachers tended to be men of a certain age, with the idea that competition was somehow the key, the Norman Mailer period. The story was that if you disagreed with Norman, or gave him a bad review, he’d punch you in the nose. You were supposed to get in fights in restaurants.

Many did. Dowling opens his book with an anecdote about a drunken fight between Berryman and one of his students, the future Poet Laureate Philip Levine, in 1954. Apparently, “Levine’s punch in the eye established a lifelong friendship with his mentor.” He later recounts how the poet Dylan Thomas, on a visit to Iowa City, got into a fight with a woman and unleashed what one faculty member described as “the most elegantly strung together sequences of obscenities”; Dowling calls it “profane poetry at its best, liquor-ridden misogyny at its worst.” (Thomas’s opening line was “You bloody fuckin’ bitch!”) John Irving, who first came to Iowa as a student and later returned as faculty, once used a wrestling move to tackle a protégé of Nelson Algren’s in an Iowa City poolroom, thus settling the question that dominated the Workshop in the 1960s: Who would win in a fight, the boxer or the wrestler? For a time, boxing was so popular that one student believed weekly sparring should be required—“for the guys, anyway.” Another would-be writer later memorialized a classmate’s punch in a style that can only be described as Hemingway lite. (“It was a good, honest punch, a pure punch that tells you stories about yourself,” etc.) As Dowling puts it, “Mailer, boxing, and booze all were essential to the locker-room ethos at the Workshop behind its one-upmanship and ongoing challenges, taunts, and self-aggrandizement.”

This “masculinist logic” infected the classroom. Criticism had always been central to the Workshop experience, and it was harsh by design. Engle believed “that young writers overestimated their creative powers, a flaw that only astringent criticism could overcome.” Cisneros put it more simply: “There was no love.” The poet Robert Bly described how “the aggression went against each other,” as students tore apart works in progress. Praise was uneven, and favoritism was everywhere. While male students like Boyle bonded with their advisers over drinks off-campus, “female students were instead subjected to harsh scrutiny designed to test their will, a process rationalized as a pedagogical rite of passage.” They confronted a test familiar to many women: Prove that you’re tough enough, and you’ll be counted as one of the boys.

There was, of course, a second option: Attract a faculty member’s erotic interest. According to Dowling, some women curried favor consciously, using their beauty and youth for professional gain. Others naïvely entertained an older male writer’s attention, believing that it meant something it did not. Cisneros, who attracted such attention from a professor during her undergraduate days at Loyola, later realized that she was naïve to have thought “my teacher was interested in me because he thought I was a good writer.” She now warns young women to brush off any overtures from more powerful men.

The male writers, for their part, saw these liaisons as rejuvenating encounters or simply as just reward. In a letter, Vonnegut described how “women have the power to renew the ambition and wit of men adrift, and have done that twice for me…. Both times, after sleeping with these angels, I started writing and making pictures again.” In the same note, he pointed out that “Bellow and Mailer have renewed themselves in this fashion again and again, as though buying new cars.” (It is difficult to imagine how one might competently teach students whom one compares to consumer goods.) Rumor had it that female applicants were admitted on the basis of their photographs. A female student who attended the Workshop during the ’70s described women at the Workshop as “unnecessary: decorative, not functional.”

Cisneros and Harjo, dismayed by the Workshop culture, banded together. They supported each other emotionally, materially, and creatively. Cisneros babysat Harjo’s young children, providing her friend with time to write. She also encouraged her to write poems about the pressures facing her as an artist and a single mother. Together, they confronted an instructor about leaving them out of the weekly reading rotation. “When that person saw us,” Harjo recalled, “they started backing up, like we were going to pull out a switchblade or maybe scalp somebody.” The next week, their poems went up for critique.

There were other small acts of feminist resistance. Bored listening to yet another “older male,” Smiley passed a piece of work in progress to a female friend, who read it in the middle of workshop and gave Smiley the encouragement she needed to keep going. Cisneros defied the advice of Donald Justice, her adviser, and continued work on what would become The House on Mango Street. In the 1970s, women founded a women-only restaurant-cum-library-cum-gathering place called Grace and Rubies. (Boyle wrote a satirical story about it; the story was published in Penthouse, and when the women came under pressure to admit men to their space, it closed in 1978.) Slowly, effortfully, the Workshop became a more diverse and more welcoming space.

Years later, Cisneros reflected on her experience at the Workshop. “Iowa was an experience where I found out what I wasn’t,” she said, “where I discovered my otherness, and pulled myself away from who I was studying with and the kind of poetry I was reading to declare myself and what I was. It made me very uncomfortable.” Now a successful writer, she wanted to create a more collaborative workshop experience, something like the “kitchen-table community” her friend Harjo once described. In 1995, she founded the Macondo Writers Workshop. She held the first sessions around her dining room table. Later, the members drafted a “Compassionate Code of Conduct.” Cisneros believes that a teacher should be supportive, not sadistic, and that writers should think about how they’re contributing to the world. “Macondo is a workshop that gathers writers who are generous, compassionate, and believe their writing can make nonviolent social change,” she explained. “In other words, the opposite of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.”

To be sure, there are many writers who found themselves at Iowa who felt nurtured, and whose writing was transformed. Dowling describes the careers of plenty of Workshop writers who responded positively to Iowa, whether as students or teachers: W.D. Snodgrass, Marilynne Robinson, Ayana Mathis. He also suggests that the writer Lan Samantha Chang, who took over the Workshop’s directorship from the stern and uncompromising Frank Conroy 14 years ago, has impelled a “progressive cultural shift.” Her appointment, Dowling argues, signaled “a sea change in the gender and ethnic politics of the program,” and it showed how Conroy, who directed the Workshop from 1987 to 2005, simply extended “the patriarchal dominance of the Engle era.” Dowling characterizes Chang as a “compassionate” and “inclusive” leader, and he notes that under her directorship, the Workshop has recruited more students of color. In stark contrast with the program’s early years, Iowa today, like other American universities, has implemented sexual harassment policies, and teachers there undergo sexual harassment training.

The Workshop is not the only creative writing program, nor is it the only American literary institution that has been plagued by sexism—several recent #MeToo scandals have made that perfectly clear. The experiences compiled in A Delicate Aggression help us better understand not just the history of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, but more generally a literary history in which women’s voices have been discouraged, ignored, or suppressed. Stories like Cisneros’s are a too-little-known part of that history; so too are the stories of sexual predation, misogyny, and masculinity run amok. Dowling also points out that there are still many gaps in the official record, since Frank Conroy sealed his archives until 2024, and even though Dowling was given special access, the Workshop administration “determined to remove an undisclosed amount of material from the file” first. Dowling’s book makes you wonder about the infamous 90 percent of Workshop students who don’t make it as writers, about the causes of their discouragement, and about the books that might have been written.

The author and critic Tillie Olsen, writing in the mid-1960s about the many silences of literary history, once mourned “the mute inglorious Miltons: those whose waking hours are all struggle for existence; the barely educated; the illiterate; women.” She was thinking of those who never made it to a place like the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, let alone to college. But her elegy for “unfinished work” and untapped creativity came to mind as I read Dowling’s book. A Delicate Aggression is a history and on occasion a celebration, but it is also a testament to the ways that women’s creativity is often stifled and sacrificed in the name of men’s success.

* A previous version of this article quoted David O. Dowling’s account of Joy Harjo and Sandra Cisneros confronting an instructor. Dowling incorrectly described the instructor as male; Harjo did not state their gender. We have updated the text to reflect this. The article also stated that Joy Harjo and Sandra Cisneros “took to getting drinks” before class. They did not. We regret the error.