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Cover Story: Rebel With a Cause ... and a Past

Before Mapplethorpe, there was Skyblue the Badass. Before Larry Flynt and Hustler, there was a novel.

By Jeffrey Hillard · September 23rd, 1999 · Cover Story
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  Dallas Wiebe from the dust jacket of Skyblue the Badass, published in 1969.
Dallas Wiebe from the dust jacket of Skyblue the Badass, published in 1969.



Enter the novelist, Dallas Wiebe, professor emeritus at the University of Cincinnati. A faculty member in the Department of English from 1963 to 1995, his two novels, three books of short stories, essays and poems have attracted accolades from the best writers in the country. Although retired, he still writes each day and each week prepares a piece of writing for submission to a magazine or publisher.

Enter his first novel, Skyblue the Badass. Published in 1969, the novel went out of print quickly, in 1972. Unlike Catcher in the Rye or Naked Lunch -- literary novels of similar risk that gain popularity yearly -- Skyblue the Badass rose provocatively and crashed silently.

Yet a published excerpt of Wiebe's novel in 1967 fueled a legendary ruckus in Long Island, N.Y. Less than two years later, when the whole novel was published in New York, a groundswell of public response in Cincinnati to Skyblue the Badass culminated in a move to censor it and threatened Wiebe's career as a writer and academic.

Strangely, Wiebe never knew how upset some Cincinnatians were with his novel until the very end of an unexpected scenario that nearly cost him his teaching job. A former UC president even responded to written complaints about the novel in a letter acknowledging that the university was aware of it. Wiebe was unaware of the backlash, he says, because he was "always writing and teaching, intensely doing my jobs."

Never has this intensity wavered, he adds. In fact, the state of Ohio recognized his oeuvre and community leadership in the literary arts by awarding him the 1998 Governor's Award for Individual Artist. In the years before the award, Wiebe had cultivated a large, if cult-size, readership of his postmodern, brutally satiric short stories and novels.

It's just that his readership is mostly outside of Cincinnati, he says.

New York state of mind
Enter an airplane crash that soon affects a Wiebe short story. Enter the crash victim, Carl E. Gorton.

In March 1967, Gorton is the pilot of a small-engine airplane and lives in the town of Farmingdale on Long Island. This is the month when he suffers severe injuries in an airplane crash in upstate New York. After the wreck, Gorton claims that his priorities in life have changed, and he virtually declares a personal war on the Farmingdale library board of trustees.

"He crash-landed and his brother, a passenger, was killed," recalls Wiebe, who had been hired by UC in 1963 to teach modern British and American poetry. "I found this out only after the New York papers reported on the stink he made over my short story in The Paris Review. Because he survived this plane wreck, Gorton said that he told God he would do whatever God wanted him to do."

So Gorton assembles an election campaign in early 1967 to run for a seat on the Farmingdale library board. His reason for running, according to a 1967 Library Journal article, is his strong, John Birch-influenced opposition to the Farmingdale library budget. The article indicates that Gorton's anti-budget stance is provoked by what he sees as morally questionable books and films being purchased by the town's library system.

In fact Gorton, a Birch Society member who fears that Communist propaganda is woven into America's art forms in the 1960s, tirelessly rallies public support to show the library board there are residents who oppose its budget. He plasters an ironic bumper sticker on his Lincoln Continental: "Support Your Local Degenerate. Vote Yes -- Library Budget, August 29."

In May he defeats a popular, incumbent board member by a vote of 1,915 to 1,703, receiving a five-year term. But in August the library, after two previous Gorton-rallying defeats, finally passes a budget.

Three weeks before his board election, however, Gorton walks into the library branch in South Farmingdale, where he lives, and happens on a magazine rack. He pulls out The Paris Review #39 (Fall 1966) and thumbs through the pages, reading short stories and poems, until he comes to a story, "Skyblue on the Dump," by a 36-year old writer, Dallas Wiebe.

Gorton grows disturbed over a profane yet surreal two-page scene in the story. He abruptly walks out of the library with the magazine, ignoring library policy prohibiting The Paris Review from circulating outside of the library.

In a May 8, 1967 New York Times article, Gorton claims he acted as "a private citizen" when he removed the magazine. He's quoted as believing that his winning a position on the Farmingdale library board is "an act of God in which the liberals did not have sufficient insurance to protect against."

In the Times article, Gorton justifies his removing the magazine by describing Wiebe's excerpt as invoking "sodomy" and by claiming that "the (Paris Review) issue should not be available to minors" or made available "at the expenditure of taxpayers' dollars."

At first, library officials consider calling the magazine removal a book loan. They consider simply issuing Gorton an overdue notice and request that he immediately return the magazine.

He refuses. And on June 6, 1967, Gorton is charged with petit larceny. On June 17, he enters a plea of not guilty.

But in the weeks preceding his plea, Gorton stokes up his library anti-budget campaign. He types parts of the two-page excerpt of "Skyblue on the Dump" onto a brochure that he places on doors and cars.

"He was so outraged that he made up a cheap brochure showing just two pages he objected to," Wiebe says. "He wanted to derail the library budget by using a few hundred words from 'Skyblue on the Dump.' He never got permission to reprint anything. I thought about suing, but I didn't have the money."

The two-page passage can be pinpointed. Where the full story reveals the meditations of a restless 10-year old boy named Skyblue on a Kansas farm who is sitting and reading Ovid, roughly two pages depict the boy as smitten with mythology. Skyblue dreams a bull and a woman having sex. (See excerpt on page 28.)

As Skyblue's dream deepens, the story's poetic language and word play heighten the scene between the bull and woman. It really is Skyblue's young mind "wandering in a wildly elaborate way, the way all our minds tend to wander," Wiebe says. "Isn't it typical of us to dream about strange things we can't believe we're dreaming?"

Not to mention, he adds, that Gorton could not possibly know the essence of satire and lampooning.

"First, the story satirizes, by its title, the famous Wallace Stevens poem, 'The Man on the Dump,' " Wiebe says. "Secondly, the story satirizes parts of Ovid's Metamorphoses. With Ovid, animals factor into intercourse. I'm thinking, 'This Gorton has no clue about literature.' "

More strange events in the summer of 1967 unravel around Carl E. Gorton. He's accused by South Farmingdale library officials of going through the library's garbage to find evidence of budgetary documents, according to a Library Journal profile of the library. The New York Times reports that Long Island detectives received a call on July 12 that a hand grenade had been placed in Gorton's car. No grenade was found. And, on Aug. 14, The Times reports that Gorton has been charged with assault of a South Farmingdale librarian who claims Gorton "twisted her arm and pushed her against a table."

Students from the State University of New York-Farmingdale take action, according to a June 1967 piece in New York Newsday headlined "Literary Lion Roars Back." Outside the South Farmingdale branch, students protest Gorton's censorship of The Paris Review. The "lion" in the article is George Plimpton, editor of The Paris Review and a beacon of New York literati, who upholds magazine's publication of "Skyblue on the Dump." Plimpton states that he opposes Gorton's censoring one of America's oldest and most respected literary journals.

In the Newsday article, Wiebe objects to the way in which Gorton has interpreted "Skyblue on the Dump," which has been taken totally out of context. Wiebe also adds that his novel, Skyblue the Badass, has found no publisher as yet.

The afternoon the article appears, Wiebe receives a phone call from Plimpton. "He tells me, 'Of course we're going to publish the novel! Send it up!' " Wiebe says.

Plimpton accepts the novel for publication under the Doubleday/Paris Review Editions imprint; he and Wiebe agree to revisions.

On Oct. 9, 1967, 31-year old Carl Gorton is found guilty of petit larceny for his confiscating The Paris Review #39. He is released in his own custody. On Nov. 2, Gorton receives a suspended jail sentence for which he could have received one year in jail and a $500 fine.

During the summer of 1968, though, a mystery unfolds. Wiebe and his family vacation in Newton, Kan. Plimpton promises to mail his edited version of Skyblue the Badass to Wiebe there. Wiebe waits; no manuscript arrives.

He checks the mail every day, anxious to make final revisions. Still no word from Plimpton.

"I never heard from him all that summer," Wiebe says. "But I learned it wasn't his fault. When I got back to Cincinnati, it came in the mail, postmarked Kansas. My parents said it was at the Newton post office all along, which was not true.

"I learned from my sister that Plimpton had sent it to the house and my parents hid it from me all summer. My dad was sneaking reads of it. He despised it."

The novel's publication is expedited, so that it appears in bookstores just six months after Wiebe finalizes the work on it.

A youth in the prairies
In the short story "Billy Jack," published in Wiebe's 1984 book, The Transparent Eyeball, Skyblue sees a violent link between a deranged ram destroying property on the family farm and the devastation wrought by World War II. Even Skyblue's harmless farm life is disrupted.

Skyblue was born on Jan. 20, 1930, in Newton, Kan., the same year as Wiebe, and graduated from Newton High School and Bethel College, like Wiebe. Skyblue becomes a faculty member at UC. He never publishes one piece of writing his entire career, unlike Wiebe.

"We're not the same people," Wiebe says. "The big differences are that he's a failed academic and writer, and I'm at least successful. Skyblue gets tenure at UC by clerical error. He lives in a one-room apartment. I earned tenure and live in a nice house. But he and I do have similar philosophies."

Wiebe's father worked on the railroad and was gone much of the time. His mother was preoccupied with cooking and chores. The boy, Dallas, infatuated with books, read incessantly to beat the monotony of living in a sleepy Kansas town. He spent the summers with his sister on a farm outside of Newton, where he read adult literature in junior high and high school.

"I read everything," he says. "I went through Frank Yerby, Thomas B. Costain, Edna Ferber and A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, all popular adult stuff."

Wiebe read the Bible cover to cover in seventh and eighth grades. At summer Bible school, he was the champion in memorizing scriptures. He was awarded a zipper Bible.

And he wrote -- in high school (poetry and stories) and for the newspaper at Bethel College where he majored in English and graduated in 1952. Always a practical joker and attracted to humorous literature and writing, it was when he enrolled in graduate school at the University of Michigan that his thirst for studying and for literary tomfoolery reached new heights.

"There were no writing courses in those days, no writing workshops, so several of us made our way through our graduate studies in inventive, hilarious ways," Wiebe says. He cites his co-founding of the "John Barton Wolgamot Society" -- named after an obscure American poet who published only one book -- as an answer to "some of the real stuffiness" found in Michigan's graduate program at the time.

Wiebe partook in literary shenanigans that he and his poet-friends concocted. One event was the production of a French surrealist play, Ubu Roi, which the Wolgamot Society translated from its original "Father Turd" into "Go Potty Rex." A four-piece orchestra, which Wiebe conducted by holding a green candle, accompanied the actors.

Wiebe recalls a practical joke that nearly backfired. The Wolgamot Society sponsored a "fake" beatnik poetry reading that featured ordinary people dressed up like beatniks. Wiebe and his cohorts gave them poems to read and put them on stage.

"The problem," he says, "was that biker groups showed up in leather jackets and green hair. Rough-looking. A couple hundred people were there. We wound up turning off the lights when it was over and sneaking out of the auditorium, before anyone found out it was a put-on."

Skyblue comes to Cincinnati
During those graduate school days in Ann Arbor, Wiebe's two children, Garth and Erika, were born. After teaching at the University of Wisconsin from 1960 to 1963, Wiebe came to UC as an assistant professor of English.

Along with teaching and writing, Wiebe continued to play the violin, which he'd first embraced as a farm boy. His love of the violin, he says, became an early impetus for what has become his lifelong study of Mozart.

He owns a library of Mozart recordings. He also credits Mozart's productivity with helping define for him what it means to be "a disciplined artist."

"Even as a student, I always produced something," Wiebe says. "I imagine how much Mozart worked. He kept at it. That's the call of an artist -- to persevere, keep the work going."

Wiebe wrote Skyblue the Badass between 1963 and 1967. He'd already written and published a non-Skyblue short story, "Sonnet," in The Paris Review three years before "Skyblue on the Dump" appeared.

The novel thrives on his trademark ribald satire, only it's fleshed out for 300 pages. When Skyblue the Badass was published in 1969, reviews appeared in newspapers throughout the country, including The New York Times, which hailed it as a novel by an author with "gutsy talent with his own ground rules."

Wiebe's literary forebearers include such darkly comic visionaries as Laurence Sterne, Franz Kafka, William S. Burroughs and Flannery O'Connor.

In Badass, the exploits of Skyblue (whose birth name is Peter Solomon Seiltanzer) take him from the naíve reality of teaching in a university to the consequences of embracing academic freedom. Skyblue suffers the scorn of his peers and a conservative community -- much like Cincinnati -- as he attempts to do what his conscience tells him to do. In the novel, the tie between life and art is rattled and twisted, provoking Skyblue to reinvent his way through life.

The novel had a haunting aftermath. The shadow of Carl Gorton's rabble-rousing swept into Cincinnati. Skyblue's fictional condition as a suffering artist began to mirror circumstances in Wiebe's real life.

In 1969, the novel was stocked at the few bookstores present then in Cincinnati: The James Bookstore on Garfield Place, Kidd's Books downtown and Mahogany Bookstore in Mount Adams, for instance. The novel sold extremely well, Wiebe says.

"News of the flare-up in New York had reached Cincinnati," he says, "so I'm sure that helped the book, along with some big reviews it was getting."

What Wiebe did not know, strangely, was that behind the positive reviews trickling into Cincinnati flowed a level of public sentiment that disapproved of the novel.

At that time, Citizens for Decent Literature (CDL), which had a prevalent local organization, was active in promoting anti-obscenity causes. Although, to this day, Wiebe has never found evidence linking some negative reaction over Skyblue the Badass to a campaign by CDL to censor it.

Before Citizens for Community Values maneuvered prominently into the media spotlight during the Robert Mapplethorpe exhibit at the Contemporary Arts Center in 1990, its roots were connected to anti-obscenity battles waged by CDL as early as the 1950s. By 1969, CDL had established national offices both here and in California.

"I often wondered if people writing letters opposing the novel were coached by CDL, and that was always a possibility," Wiebe says. "But I never heard a word from CDL directly."

Wiebe, on the contrary, heard from his ultimate superior -- then-UC President Walter Langsam, at a reception for a guest lecturer in February 1971.

Langsam and Wiebe had a cordial relationship. He even consulted Wiebe as to whether the university should publish a poetry manuscript he'd obtained.

"I was shocked when Dr. Langsam told me at the party that he had to write and distribute a 'form letter' in response to complaints about the novel," he says. "His tone was sort of joking, too."

Another shock surfaced at a party later in 1971, when a colleague informed Wiebe that the Academic Dean of Arts and Sciences attempted to fire Wiebe without his being consulted. The attempt reached as far as the late James Robinson, former chair of the Department of English, who wrote a support letter for Wiebe and the novel.

"After that, the move to fire me must've stopped," Wiebe says. "I'd gotten tenure in 1970, so that probably complicated things for the dean."

By 1972, most of the original 2,000 copies of Skyblue the Badass had been sold. The Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County bought one copy; for a while, it did not circulate. When it did, it disappeared. Wiebe has since supplied two copies to the library. They've also disappeared.

In 1969, when the university put its one copy on "restricted circulation," students needed a letter of permission from a faculty member to check out the book.

Doubleday/Paris Review Editions never opted to reprint the novel.

"It's puzzling," Wiebe says. "It did very well for a non-commercial book."

Now the novel can only be obtained from rare book dealers for around $50.

A man for the times
Wiebe devised his own private way of answering his critics. He wrote another Skyblue novel -- quickly.

In 1971, he finished Skyblue's Memoirs, which he hoped Doubleday would accept on the heels of Badass' success. Doubleday rejected the novel, and it still remains unpublished, tucked in a file cabinet in Wiebe's upstairs office in his Clifton home.

The 350-page novel takes place in 1969 when Richard Nixon is inaugurated. The book fluctuates between Skyblue's hallucinations and the reality of the Vietnam War and social protests.

"All the crappy conditions that plagued our country when Nixon was in charge," Wiebe says. "Skyblue wrestles with the demons of this one year."

During the finale of Skyblue's Memoirs, an apocalyptic battle erupts between the forces of good and evil. The angel Michael, pitted against Satan, loses the battle as a result of Nixon's move to escalate the Vietnam War. War speeches are made by Michael and Satan.

Wiebe was intensely involved in student-faculty protests of the war. In 1965, The New York Times featured an advertisement displaying names of protesters who paid $20 to include their names. Wiebe was the only UC faculty member to list his name.

A photo in the March 6, 1968 Post & Times Star shows Wiebe reading poetry at a UC "Peace Through Action" rally. And, with a painted face and ink-drawn tattoos, he poses with students at a May Day rally on the university's Tangeman bridge in a front-page photo of a 1968 issue of UC's News Record.

Protests aside, in 1968 Wiebe initiated creative writing courses in the Department of English, a move that in 1976 brought forth a Creative Writing program that's produced a number of students who have published widely in the genres of fiction, poetry and journalism.

It seemed a natural progression of the times, according to Wiebe's former colleague of 30 years, novelist Austin Wright, to implement writing courses in a department that was holding strongly onto single-minded philosophy that only literature should be taught.

"There grew a big demand from students for writing," Wright says. "We knew how to write fiction, so why couldn't we provide that knowledge to students?"

Wiebe taught in the Creative Writing Program from 1976 to 1993 and directed it for eight years. Many of his students have since acquired careers in writing and publishing.

"He taught me many things about writing fiction and reading it," says Barbara Kuroff, editor of the popular anthology, Novel and Short Story Writer's Market, published in Cincinnati at F&W Publications. "The important thing was to disregard what people might think and open the door to any devil we must to write fiction that engages readers."

Cincinnati's literary scene in the 1960s was happening in Mount Adams. Wiebe and other writers led fiction and poetry readings at coffeehouses and Mahogany Bookstore.

The literary work was non-stop, he says, and during those years he began channeling as much energy into community events as he did his own writing. In 1965, he published In the Late Gnat Night, featuring poems by UC faculty members. Always publishing -- "of pushing writing to the outside world," he says -- he co-founded Cincinnati Poetry Review in 1975, which soon became a launching pad for new poets, some of whom went on to garner major literary awards such as the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Critics Circle Award.

All this time, Wiebe kept in touch with Plimpton and The Paris Review. It was a magazine that respected his fiction. His most famous story, he says -- "Night Flight to Stockholm" -- landed in The Paris Review in 1978 and received the magazine's most prestigious award, The Agha Khan Fiction Award.

Trying to avoid becoming a 'useless nut'
Enter the Sunflower Coffeehouse on McMicken Street in Clifton.

It's a humid July night in 1999, and Wiebe stands in the center of the place reciting W.B. Yeats' poem, "Sailing from Byzantium." Local writers are gathered for a reading sponsored by a literary group.

Behind him, percussionist Marcia Gallas thumps her conga drum to the rhythm of the poem.

Thirty years removed from readings at the Mahogany Bookstore in Mount Adams, Wiebe is still a tireless supporter of local literary events, and he rarely misses an invitation to participate.

In 1987, he was so concerned with the few "networking outlets" for writers in Cincinnati that he co-founded Cincinnati Writers' Project (CWP) with a journalist, a magazine editor and another poet. Wiebe's first mission for CWP was to sponsor a small press book fair in 1988, which not only offered selling space for 30 publishers but held a Greater Cincinnati high school writing contest.

"It was hugely successful," he says. "That launched CWP and inspired us to help keep it going."

The organization is now comprised of 90 members of all genres. It offers a newsletter, a directory of local writers, meetings with editors, workshops and a Web site.

Wiebe believes in keeping in close touch with writers living throughout the Ohio River valley. To give these writers more publicity, eight years ago he edited a seminal anthology, Down the River: A Collection of Ohio Valley Fiction and Poetry. With work by regional writers, the book coincided with an Ohio River museum barge that set up port at cities along the river in 1991. When it docked in Cincinnati, Wiebe hawked copies of the book right alongside the museum entrance.

His networking attitude is infectious, says Covington science fiction writer Ryck Neube.

"He makes a writer realize that he or she is not alone, and that with a writing community, we can find ways of improving our work," Neube says. "He's made the networking thing palpable."

And, at 69, Wiebe still manages to produce and publish his own work at a brisk pace. After he published 1982's The Transparent Eyeball: Stories, he completed his most ambitious work to date, the novel Our Asian Journey, finally published in 1997. Unlike his second novel, Skyblue's Memoirs, this novel took so long to write -- nearly 12 years -- Wiebe says, because of "heavy research" into Mennonite history and a real event that occurred in Russia.

While writing Our Asian Journey, he also finished and published a second collection of stories, Going to the Mountain, and a book of "minimalist poems," The Kansas Poems. He continued to teach as well as edit and publish Cincinnati Poetry Review until 1995.

On his home office desk sits a new computer which, two years ago, he thought he'd never use. "But I know now that it's an advantage to a writer," he says.

On the computer he's filed and edited two, new unpublished books of stories: Slapsticks and The Vox Populi Stories, which features a marijuana-smoking, comic variation of Sherlock Holmes named Dallasandro Vibini and his eccentric housemate, Dr. Gottlieb Liebgott. Wiebe is also arranging his "collected poems" for a publisher and revising articles he's written on aging for his satirical book, Degeneration, Degradation, Humiliation, or Life Is Fading Fast Away.

This year his pace has even increased, he says. A portion of Slapsticks was awarded a 1999 Individual Artists Grant from the Ohio Arts Council. Just last month he lectured at an international Mennonite conference, and in October he will be a guest writer at a writer's conference in Madison, Ind.

Wiebe's main battle today, he says, is not with critics, publishers, politicians or his muse, but with aging.

"I resent growing older," he says. "I don't want to be the butt of that golden buckeye joke. You know, 'What's a buckeye? A useless nut.' " ©

 
 
 
 

 

 
 
 
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