Literary Tourism: The University of Iowa

What do you think of when you think of Iowa? If you’re like most non-Midwesterners, your answer likely falls into one of these three categories:

  1. The Iowa Writers’ Workshop
  2. Iowa caucuses.
  3. Potatoes.

Answers one and two are acceptable. Potatoes though? That’s Idaho, guys. Lovely state too, I’m sure (I was in a gas station there once – great gas!) but we’re more of a corn / hog / soybean state.

Even if you know quite a bit about the Writers’ Workshop at the University of Iowa, I’d be willing to bet you don’t know much about the university itself. Like, did you know that when it was founded in 1847, it was the first public university in the country that admitted men and women on an equal basis? And that it was the first university to accept creative work in writing, music, theater, and art on an equal basis with academic research? Or that it was one of the first to grant a law degree to a woman and to an African American, and that it was the first to put a black person on a varsity sport? Flyover country, what?

Bookishly, there’s nothing to sneeze at here either (unless you have allergies, in which case I imagine books make you sneeze a lot, what with the dust). In 2008 Iowa City was designated as the third City of Literature by UNESCO, the first city to be designated as such in the United States. Many of “the greats” have lined on these streets, drank in these bars, and written in rented rooms in glorious mansions on cobblestone streets.

If you’re a fan of that legendary weirdo Kurt Vonnegut, then your first stopKurt Vonneguts House in Iowa City should be the house he rented a room from while he was teaching at The Writers’ Workshop in 1966-’67, which incidentally just happened to be the time period during which he wrote a little gem you may have heard of called Slaughterhouse-Five.

Go next door to the Gaslight Village to check out a bizarro, meandering, mad man’s idea of a mansion split into a billion rooms for rent, in which many graduate students and instructors at the Workshop have lived throughout the years, including Philip Roth and John Cheever.

Flannery O'Connor Plaque on Literary Walk in Iowa City

Photo credit to Iowa City Press-Citizen

No one seems to know where Flannery O’Connor lived while she attended the Workshop, but a trip downtown to the Literary Walk on Iowa Avenue will lead you to her quite apropos bronze panel.

While you’re there, you can check out panels from almost 50 writers who spent time in Iowa, including Kurt Vonnegut, Donald Justice, Raymond Carver, and Tennessee Williams.

Kurt Vonnegut Plaque on Literary Walk in Iowa City

Photo credit to Ken Mohnern

And of course, you’ll want to stop by Dey House, where tomorrow’s prize-winners sit around workshop tables and slice up each other’s words, under thUe tutelage of our contemporary greats like Lan Samantha Chang and Marilynne Robinson. Speaking of Queen Robinson, I do know where she pastors and no I’m not going to tell you – that’s just creepy. Let the lady pastor in peace, for God’s sake.

If you’re really insistent on sitting in chairs that famous people may have once sat in, you should stop by the English-Philosophy English-Philosophy Building University of IowaBuilding. Once you get done marveling at the creativity that went into naming it, you can wander the brick corridors and sneak into a classroom. Before the Workshop folks needed their own Dey House to stay away from us plebeians, they once studied in these regular old classrooms like regular old people. You may be sitting on the chair once occupied by one of the 17 Pulitzer Prize-winning authors who’ve either studied or taught here including Robert Penn Warren, James Alan McPherson, Jane Smiley, Michael Cunningham, Paul Harding, and a host of other equally fantastic writer types like Karen Bender, Yaa Gyasi, Alexander Chee, Sandra Cisneros, John Irving, Denis Johnson, Elizabeth McCracken, Bharati Mukherjee, Chinelo Okparanta, ZZ Packer, Ann Patchett, Justin Torres, Joy Williams and have you fallen asleep yet because if not you’ll be glad you stuck around to hear about the dude with the best name on the list: W.D. Snodgrass.

Want to nurse a libation where workshop folks guzzle theirs? If you’re into fiction, you’ll be heading to Dave’s Foxhead while poetry nerds will make a trip over to George’s. Or you can pick up Mentor: A Memoir by Tom Grimes, a – wait for it – memoir of his time at the Workshop, and have a drink at The Mill, where former Workshop director Frank Conroy met his students after workshop.

There’s a lot to see on a trip to University of Iowa, but the best part of living here is being surrounded by people who believe that words matter. As Paul Engle, long-time director of the Workshop once wrote, “If it is proper to teach chicken-sexing, which calls for extreme acuteness of eye, and weaving, which can be a matter of the most gracious taste in design, then why not teach originality in writing? To say that the creative has no part in education is to argue that a university should not be universal.”