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David (Russell) Wagoner Biography

David Wagoner comments:

Nationality: American. Born: Massillon, Ohio, 1926. Education: Pennsylvania State University, University Park, B.A. 1947; Indiana University, Bloomington, M.A. in English 1949. Military Service: Served in the United States Navy, 1944-46. Career: Instructor, DePauw University, Greencastle, Indiana, 1949-50, and Pennsylvania State University, 1950-53; assistant professor, 1954-57, associate professor, 1958-66, and since 1966 professor of English, University of Washington, Seattle. Elliston Professor of Poetry, University of Cincinnati, 1968; editor, Princeton University Press Contemporary Poetry Series, 1977-81. Since 1966 editor, Poetry Northwest, Seattle; since 1983 poetry editor, University of Missouri Press, Columbia. Awards: Guggenheim fellowship, 1956; Ford fellowship, for drama, 1964; American Academy grant, 1967; Morton Dauwen Zabel prize, 1967; National Endowment for the Arts grant, 1969; Oscar Blumenthal prize, 1974; Fels prize, 1975; Eunice Tietjens Memorial prize, 1977; Sherwood Anderson award, 1980; English-Speaking Union prize, 1980 (Poetry, Chicago); Union League prize, 1987; Ruth Lilly Poetry prize, 1991; Levinson prize, 1994. Chancellor, Academy of American Poets, 1978.



The Man in the Middle. New York, Harcourt Brace, 1954; London, Gollancz, 1955.

Money, Money, Money. New York, Harcourt Brace, 1955.

Rock. New York, Viking Press, 1958.

The Escape Artist. New York, Farrar Straus, and London, Gollancz, 1965.

Baby, Come On Inside. New York, Farrar Straus, 1968.

Where Is My Wandering Boy Tonight? New York, Farrar Straus, 1970.

The Road to Many a Wonder. New York, Farrar Straus, 1974.

Tracker. Boston, Little Brown, 1975. Whole Hog. Boston, Little Brown, 1976.

The Hanging Garden. Boston, Little Brown, 1980; London, Hale, 1982.

Uncollected Short Stories

"Afternoon on the Ground," in Prairie Schooner (Lincoln, Nebraska), Fall 1978.

"Mr. Wallender's Romance," in Hudson Review (New York), Spring1979.

"Cornet Solo," in Boston Globe Magazine, 20 May 1979.

"The Water Strider," in Boston Globe Magazine, 14 October 1979.

"Fly Boy," in Ohio Review 25 (Athens), 1980.

"The Bird Watcher," in Georgia Review (Athens), Spring 1980.

"Snake Hunt," in Western Humanities Review (Salt Lake City), Winter 1980.

"Magic Night at the Reformatory," in Shenandoah (Lexington, Virginia), vol. 34, no. 4, 1981.

"The Sparrow," in Epoch (Ithaca, New York), Spring 1981.

"Mermaid," in Western Humanities Review (Salt Lake City), Summer 1981.

"Wild Goose Chase," in Necessary Fictions, edited by Stanley W. Lindberg and Stephen Corey. Athens, University of Georgia Press, 1986.

"The Land of the Dead," in Georgia Review (Athens), Summer1987.

"The Riding Lesson," in Southwest Review (Dallas), Autumn 1987.


Any Eye for an Eye for an Eye (produced Seattle, 1973).


The Escape Artist, 1981.


Dry Sun, Dry Wind. Bloomington, Indiana University Press, 1953.

A Place to Stand. Bloomington, Indiana University Press, 1958.

Poems. Portland, Oregon, Portland Art Museum, 1959.

The Nesting Ground. Bloomington, Indiana University Press, 1963.

Five Poets of the Pacific Northwest, with others, edited by RobinSkelton. Seattle, University of Washington Press, 1964.

Staying Alive. Bloomington, Indiana University Press, 1966.

New and Selected Poems. Bloomington, Indiana University Press, 1969.

Working Against Time. London, Rapp and Whiting, 1970.

Riverbed. Bloomington, Indiana University Press, 1972.

Sleeping in the Woods. Bloomington, Indiana University Press, 1974.

A Guide to Dungeness Spit. Port Townsend, Washington, GraywolfPress, 1975.

Travelling Light. Port Townsend, Washington, Graywolf Press, 1976.

Collected Poems 1956-1976. Bloomington, Indiana University Press, 1976.

Who Shall Be the Sun? Poems Based on the Lore, Legends, and Myths of Northwest Coast and Plateau Indians. Bloomington, Indiana University Press, 1978.

In Broken Country. Boston, Little Brown, 1979.

Landfall. Boston, Little Brown, 1981.

First Light. Boston, Little Brown, 1983.

Through the Forest: New and Selected Poems 1977-1987. New York, Atlantic Monthly Press, 1987.

Walt Whitman Bathing. Champaign, University of Illinois Press, 1996.


Editor, Straw for the Fire: From the Notebooks of Theodore Roethke 1943-1963. New York, Doubleday, 1972.


Manuscript Collections:

Olin Library, Washington University, St. Louis; University of Washington, Seattle.

Critical Studies:

"David Wagoner's Fiction: In the Mills of Satan" by William J. Schafer in Critique (Minneapolis), vol. 9, no. 1, 1965; "It Dawns on Us That We Must Come Apart," in Alone with America by Richard Howard, New York, Atheneum, 1969, London, Thames and Hudson, 1970, revised edition, Atheneum, 1980; "An Interview with David Wagoner," in Crazy Horse 12 (Marshall, Minnesota), 1972; "A Conversation with David Wagoner," in Yes (Avoca, New York), vol. 4, no. 1, 1973; "On David Wagoner," in Salmagundi (Saratoga Springs, New York), Spring-Summer 1973, and "Pelting Dark Windows," in Parnassus (New York), Spring-Summer 1977, both by Sanford Pinsker; David Wagoner by Ron McFarland, Boise, Idaho, Boise State University, 1989; The World of David Wagoner by Ron McFarland, Moscow, Idaho, University of Idaho Press, 1997.

It is almost impossible for me to comment coherently on my own fiction, except to say that I began writing poetry first and received early encouragement as a writer of fiction from Edward J. Nicols at Penn State and Peter Taylor at Indiana University, and later from Malcolm Cowley at Viking Press and Catherine Carver who was then at Harcourt Brace. I seem to have a penchant for what might be called serious farce, but whether farce can stand the serious strains I put on it, I must leave to others to say. I also recognize my tendency to write what I believe critics call "initiation" novels. I tend to dramatize or write in scenes rather than to be discursive. One clear theme would seem to be the would-be innocent protagonist vs. the corrupt city, perhaps a result of my having grown up between Chicago and Gary, Indiana, where the most sophisticated and effective forms of pollution were first perfected.

* * *

In his novels, David Wagoner has pursued the themes of innocence and corruption, of the connections between past, present and future, of the individual trapped in a violent society. The novels depict individuals corrupted by modern urban life, protagonists essentially innocent and helpless damaged by the pressures of family and further maimed by society. Wagoner skillfully uses Dickensian comedy and drama to create a tragic myth of man stripped and abandoned by his parents and his fellows yet struggling to survive and to remain intact.

The Man in the Middle and Money, Money, Money describe helpless, childlike adults caught up in criminal machinations. The Escape Artist and Where Is My Wandering Boy Tonight? treat the same theme from the viewpoint of juvenile protagonists. Each novel involves criminals and corrupt politicians who pursue and persecute an innocent victim. There is a strong element of picaresque comedy in this drama of innocence adapting to a wicked world. The later novels also develop a complex sexual theme revolving around an Oedipal relationship—a child confronted and fascinated by a destructive mother figure. Each of the protagonists must overcome this infantile sexual bondage before he is free to live wholly, just as each must learn the depth of the world's wickedness before he can shed his infantile social innocence.

The Road to Many a Wonder continues Wagoner's comedy of nineteenth-century America (begun in Where Is My Wandering Boy Tonight?) and his parable of innocence and the frontier. In it a gold-seeker, Isaac Bender, succeeds by the most improbable means, his questing innocence overcoming the money-corruption of the gold rush and the Hobbesian savagery of the raw West. The novel is marked by a comic sweetness and light that offsets the bleak portraiture of venal American character-types.

Tracker and Whole Hog extend Wagoner's story of the frontier and the wild west by focusing on the uncertainties of the pioneer spirit, the fragility of familial and social relations and the ultimate triumph of intelligent virtue over mindless evil. Both tales revolve around juvenile protagonists (Wagoner's type of innocence) who learn by painful experience to outwit a lawless adult world.

In Rock and Baby, Come On Inside Wagoner deals with the destructiveness of family life and the crippling effects of the past. Both stories concentrate on the conflict between leaving home and returning home: "You can't go home again" vs. "You must go home again." In each novel, the protagonist tries to recapture his past, to find a home place, but ends in confusion and further exile.

A recurrent pattern in Wagoner's novels is that of pursuit and flight, a nightmarish sense of implacable evil, and a recurrent scene is a metaphorical return to the womb, to primordial shelter. Charlie Bell in The Man in the Middle spends a night in a railway coin locker. Willy Grier is left in a garbage can in Money, Money, Money. Danny Masters in The Escape Artist hides out in a Goodwill Industries collection box and a US mailbox. The pattern of flight and hiding, a fragile individual pursued by a terrifying nemesis, occurs in a comic context—cynical wit and slapstick farce—for the dreamlike or mythic dimension of Wagoner's novels derives from their mixed tone. The stories encompass suspense, adventure, comedy, pathos, and a strong sense of the social and political life of midwestern cities.

In The Hanging Garden Wagoner returns to a detective-story format of homicidal insanity defeated by a man who is basically good but worn from personal and political struggle. Returning to nature (a holiday cottage), the protagonist is confronted with "natural evil" in the form of a sadistic killer. The tale becomes a description of survival of the intelligent, cultured man faced with the most primitive forces of the human psyche.

Wagoner's tragicomedies of violence achieve effects somewhat like François Truffaut's Shoot the Piano Player. The mixture of naiveté, tough-guy dialogue, violence, thriller action, and insight into complex states of mind creates a fantasy world as an accurate analog for contemporary urban life. Danny Masters, in The Escape Artist, muses on violence and trickery and how to escape them:

Danny felt his own life shut inside him, keeping as quiet as it could, shying away. Nobody should be able to break anybody open like a nut and clean out the insides, but some people did it, and he would never let them come close. That was why getting away was important, getting out, getting loose, because they had to make you sit still long enough so they could crack you open, otherwise it spoiled their aim. They were no good with moving targets, no good if you weren't where they thought you were. They knew a lot of tricks, and that was why you had to keep ahead of them, and then if you got a big enough lead, you could afford to let them know who you were, taunting them from a distance yet always ready to change shape to fool them.

Wagoner's novels reflect society's torments and traps and also explore the paths to freedom—self-understanding, imagination, and the uses of experience. While they detail corruption and destruction, they also reflect innocence and virtue. The possibilities in this world are tragic and comic, and the inevitable price of survival is loss of innocence.

—William J. Schafer

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