Sunday, November 23, 2008

City of Literature!

It was announced this week that Iowa City has been named by the United Nations' Education Science and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) a "City of Literature." They are the third city so designated, joining Edinburgh, Scotland, and Melbourne, Australia, in receiving this title. Certainly Foxcroft seems to have had a small part to play in Iowa City's literary story, and if you believe the legends, it had a major role!


The major impetus behind Iowa City being such a writer's haven is the University of Iowa's Writer's Workshop. The initial director of the workshop was Wilbur Schramm, who built his home across the street from Foxcroft in 1934, which was 5 years before the the official beginning of the workshop. He was an English professor, with an emphasis in writing. (Read the link on his name above to see what else he is famous for)

Schramm's wife, Betty, had been a sorority sister of Helen's. Helen's mother, Bess, had a degree in English from Upper Iowa University in the early 1900's and did graduate work in English at the University of Iowa while her husband Walter completed medical school and taught anatomy at UI roughly from 1905-1909. She was a highly educated woman, especially for the times, and a voracious reader. Given their mutual interests and the fact that they were living on the edge of town with few other neighbors it is no surprise that the Schramm's and Fox's all became close friends. This is evidenced by journal entries and letters I have read. It is not too much to surmise that most of Schramm's visitors and houseguests (Carl Sandburg, Wallace Stegner, William Carlos Williams, etc)also visited Foxcroft.

I found a great deal of Schramm memorabelia in the house while emptying it. Items included a copy of his biography of Francis Parkman with the inscription "For Mother Fox with the sincere hope that she reads no further in this volume." I found a brochure that describes the "Arts at Iowa" including the first use of the phrase "Writer's Workshop" from the summer of 1939, and numerous poems that were sent as Christmas Cards, the latest being from 1979.

The best find, however was from a photo scrapbook. It is a portrait of Wilbur and Betty Schramm. The picture below was taken in 1938, eight years after "American Gothic" became an immediate sensation by placing third in an art contest sponsored by the Chicago Art Institute:

This picture was taken, presumably by either Helen or Bess, on the front yard of Foxcroft. Schramm was Grant Wood's best friend while Wood was on the faculty of UI!


I have heard from several sources that the idea of a writer's workshop was born in the library at Foxcroft over conversations between Schramm and Bess about how to create a place that would encourage the creation of great literature. I have absolutely no proof that corroborates this in the slightest. But there are still quite a few boxes of things to look through!

1 comment:

Jenni said...

How interesting.