May 8, 2005

Up Front

May 8, 2005


Last month an era in American literary history came to an end when two important figures died just one day apart. The death, on April 5, of Saul Bellow, a giant of the modern novel, received a great deal of coverage; this newspaper printed, in addition to a long front-page obituary, appreciations by Michiko Kakutani, Ian McEwan, Edward Rothstein, A. O. Scott, Brent Staples and David Brooks. The second death, of Frank Conroy, on April 6, was recorded more quietly.

But Conroy, too, was a major presence in American literature -- less through his own writing, though his memoir ''Stop-Time'' is a classic of the genre, than through the contribution he made as the longtime director of the Writers' Workshop at the University of Iowa.
When a former teacher there, the novelist James Salter, asked the Book Review if he might write an appreciation of Conroy, we encouraged him to go ahead.

Salter's essay, ''The Writing Teacher,'' which appears on Page 31, evokes the spirit of Conroy (''tall, unflappable and urbane'') and also of the program he ran, rigorously and lovingly, for 18 years. It helped keep Iowa City, a small Midwestern river town, at the center of the literary universe -- a place where Nobel laureates came to read, and writers like John Cheever, Philip Roth, Kurt Vonnegut and Joy Williams evaluated student work and continued the conversation at local bars. How did Conroy prevent this most venerable of writing programs from becoming a processing plant? To begin with, he kept a close watch on who got in. He ''read every submission and made final decisions himself,'' Salter notes. ''It was the way great cities of Europe were built, not by committee but by royal decree.''