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Dan Wakefield Biography

Dan Wakefield comments:

Nationality: American. Born: Indianapolis, Indiana, 1932. Education: Shortridge High School, Indianapolis, graduated 1950; Indiana University, Bloomington, 1950-51; Columbia University, New York, 1951-55, B.A. (honors) in English 1955. Career: News editor, Princeton Packet, New Jersey, 1955; research assistant to C. Wright Mills, Columbia University, 1955; staff writer, the Nation, New York, 1956-61; contributing editor, Atlantic Monthly, Boston, 1968-82; since 1992 contributing writer, GQ Magazine. Since 1983 co-chairperson of religious education, King's Chapel, Boston. Visiting lecturer, University of Massachusetts, Boston, 1965-67, 1981, Bread Loaf Writers Conference, Middlebury, Vermont, 1966, 1968, 1970, University of Illinois, Urbana, 1968, University of Iowa, Iowa City, 1972, and Emerson College, Boston, 1982-83. Distinguished visiting writer, Florida International University, 1995. Creator and story consultant, James at 15 series, NBC Television, 1977-78. Since 1994, Board of Directors, National Writers Union. Awards: Bread Loaf Writers Conference De Voto fellowship, 1957; Nieman Foundation fellowship, for journalism, Harvard University, 1963; Rockefeller grant, 1968; National Endowment for the Arts award, for "A Visit from Granny," 1966, for unknown, 1968; Golden Eagle award, for screenplay, 1983. Going All the Way was a selection at Sundance Film Festival, 1997.



Going All the Way. New York, Delacorte Press, 1970; London, Weidenfeld and Nicholson, 1971.

Starting Over. New York, Delacorte Press, 1973; London, Hart DavisMacGibbon, 1974.

Home Free. New York, Delacorte Press, and London, Hart DavisMacGibbon, 1977.

Under the Apple Tree. New York, Delacorte Press, 1982.

Selling Out. Boston, Little Brown, 1985.

Uncollected Short Stories

"The Rich Girl," in Playboy, September 1965.

"Autumn Full of Apples," in The Best American Short Stories 1966, edited by Martha Foley and David Burnett. Boston, Houghton Mifflin, 1966.

"A Visit from Granny," in American Literary Anthology #2, 1966.

"Full Moon in Sagittarius," in Atlantic, Boston, January 1973.


Television Films: James at 15, 1977; The Seduction of Miss Leona, 1980; The Innocents Abroad, from the novel by Mark Twain, 1983.


Going All the Way, 1997


Island in the City: The World of Spanish Harlem. Boston, HoughtonMifflin, 1959.

Revolt in the South. New York, Grove Press, 1961.

Between the Lines: A Reporter's Personal Journey Through Public Events. New York, New American Library, 1965.

Supernation at Peace and War. Boston, Little Brown, 1968.

All Her Children: The Making of a Soap Opera. New York, Doubleday, 1976.

Returning: A Spiritual Journey. New York, Doubleday, 1988.

The Story of Your Life: Writing a Spiritual Autobiography. Boston, Beacon Press, 1990.

New York in the Fifties. Boston, Houghton Mifflin, 1991.

Expect a Miracle. San Francisco, HarperSanFrancisco, 1995.

Creating from the Spirit: Living Each Day As a Creative Act. NewYork, Ballantine Books, 1996.

How Do We Know When It's God?: A Spiritual Memoir. Boston, Little, Brown, 1999.

Editor, The Addict: An Anthology. New York, Fawcett, 1963.


Manuscript Collection:

Mugar Memorial Library, Boston University.

Film Adaptation:

Going All the Way, 1997.

Critical Studies:

The New American Novel of Manners: The Fiction of Richard Yates, Dan Wakefield, and Thomas McGuane by Jerome Klinkowitz, Athens, University of Georgia Press, 1986; "Remembering the '50s": Three Spiritual Mentors" by James Wall, in The Christian Century, 109(19), 3-10 June 1992.

I believe in the novel as story, entertainment, and communication—as if those elements could be separated! One of my college English professors defined the novel as "how it was with a group of people." I believe it is that and more. I want my novels to convey interior as well as social truth. I want them to enable readers to appreciate how other people felt, to make connections among human beings in all their diversity and in their alikeness as well. I love it when readers recognize some aspect of themselves in one of my characters and thus feel "I am not the only one!" who experienced some particular type of pain or joy. I try to write the way my characters think, the way they would express themselves, and I fear this attempt to be "plain" and open is sometimes misconstrued as an inability to write in a more self-consciously "literary" style. So be it. My aim is to convey the perception of the people I write about. I write about people I love, and in so doing I wish to honor them and celebrate our common humanity.

* * *

Dan Wakefield had already established himself as a feature journalist a decade before writing his first novel, but the unique style of his journalistic writing would lay the groundwork for his fiction. Island in the City: The World of Spanish Harlem, Revolt in the South, Between the Lines, and Supernation at Peace and War, were pioneering efforts in a field which became known as "The New Journalism." Sacrificing the distance and objectivity of conventional journalism, Wakefield found the best way to write about an issue was to immerse himself within it and then write about himself. Thus he lived inside the poverty of New York City's Spanish Harlem, experienced first-hand the civil rights movements in the American south, and travelled from coast to coast talking with common citizens about the state of their nation. Moreover, the New Journalism used the techniques of realistic fiction, including characterization, narrative development, imagery, and symbolism to tell its story—conventions which had recently been discarded by the innovative novelists who wished their fiction to practice no such structuring illusions. As a result, by 1970 Wakefield was prepared to write a new American novel of manners, using the traditional form of fiction to express the new semiotics of culture he had experienced firsthand as a New Journalist.

A strong sense of how the signs of culture operate pervades Wakefield's fiction, and his novels provide an excellent cross-section of the development of American manners since World War II. Going All the Way shows two young men returning to their homes in Indianapolis after serving in the Korean War. Anxious for their own lives to begin, they face the obstacles of being fettered by their parent's obsolescent manners and by the confusions, sexual and otherwise, being wrought by their exuberant young manhood. The times are changing as well, and within this kaleidoscope of radically different values Sonny and Gunner attempt to sort out new trends in dress, music, and social conduct. That matters do not improve with age is shown in Starting Over, in which a recently divorced advertising executive refashions his life in a new city, with a new profession and friends. An entirely new system of manners takes over, with innovations such as the single-person's lonely Sunday and holidays providing difficult tests of adjustment. His protagonist's mind, however, proves to be a tabula rasa upon which any suggestion can be planted. Therefore, readers can find an index to the manners of the times (the late 1960s and early 1970s in America) simply by watching the hero's reactions. The novel closes with him drifting into another marriage, with everyone telling him how lucky he is, as he stares wistfully after a young woman on the beach.

In Wakefield's first two novels his characters are richly imprinted by their social environment. That the radically changing times may have exhausted themselves and become as blank as the tablets of his characters is suggested by Wakefield's third novel, Home Free. Change has its rhythms and dynamics, and in this case the author shows how he can employ periods of lull and regression just as effectively. The protagonist begins college but is swept away by the countercultural movement of the times. When this movement fizzles out to its entropic end, he is cast adrift on a sea of nothingness. His stimuli have been ethereal—often just the suggestive lyrics of popular music—and when faced with reality, he has little ability to respond. He crosses America, but in a parody of Jack Kerouac's On the Road, for instead of energy Wakefield's hero draws on ennui. He winds up at the extreme edge of America, on the beach outside Los Angeles, where he lives in a situation as blank as a movie screen:

His life.

He'd walked into it like walking up the aisle of a movie and melting into the screen and becoming part of the picture, the story, finding out what happened as you went along, knowing from the beginning how it would end but not when. Then he'd be standing on the stage feeling silly and strange with the screen dark and the houselights on. Bright. He'd be blinking, trying to find his way out. In the meantime this was his life.

Under the Apple Tree and Selling Out are much fuller works because Wakefield again builds his fiction from the materials of popular culture, rather than from their lack. The first, set in a small Illinois town during the years of World War II, traces the maturation of a young boy as his older brother goes off to fight and the home community responds with a semiotic riot of patriotic support. The novel's action is a study of reading habits, as the war's far-off action is translated to the "home front" by means of advertisements, promotional campaigns, and instructive attitudes. Their signal nature is perfectly matched to the boy's innocence, and as he grows up so do popular notions toward the conflict. His own understanding of sexuality and human relations parallels this cultural development as his own ability to read his brother's and future sister-in-law's emotions rises from the comic-book level to the sophisticated.

Selling Out shows Wakefield's semiotic method in high relief, because the novel constitutes a test of it. His central character is a short-story writer named Perry Moss, who experiments with a new medium (film writing) in a new environment (Hollywood). Wakefield is judicially precise in his contrast of the bi-coastal and intermedia realities, as Perry finds the jet ride from Boston to Los Angeles has taken him into an entirely different world. The contrasts are shown to good purpose, not simply for their own value but for what they contribute to an understanding of Perry's fatal attempt at change. Yet his true allegiances remain to the printed word and life in New England, and when he returns to them at the end it is with a heightened sense of appreciation which his west coast adventures have made so obvious.

Based as it is upon self-evidently autobiographical materials, Selling Out paves the way for Wakefield's subsequent work in what he calls "spiritual autobiography." Returning: A Spiritual Journey documents his commercial success in Hollywood and chronicles his physical breakdown from the stress it entailed. To this point the book parallels Selling Out. Yet where Selling Out ends, with the protagonist's return to New England, Returning begins its major work, that of detailing the restorative powers Wakefield found in a spiritual understanding of himself. It is the employment of theological and not just intellectual elements that makes such a "return" possible, and in The Story of Your Life Wakefield presents a workable program for combining narrative activity with spiritual understanding as a way of constructing one's life as a meaningful work. Such patterns appear in his own canon, as New York in the Fifties not only summarizes his own involvement with the writers and thinkers of that era but investigates his own artistic growth; as such, it serves as the legwork for a novel in progress, set in the same time and region.

Wakefield knows that man is the sign-making animal, and his appreciation of the semiosis by which human life is conducted makes him ably qualified to describe how life is lived in America today.

—Jerome Klinkowitz

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