Dubious Derleth

Though he is gone now more than four decades, raising the subject of August Derleth, the dean of Wisconsin writing, to members of Allied Authors elicits mixed and cautious reactions.

Though few present-day Allied Authors were around when “Aug” (as he was affectionately called) was in his heyday, even those who have not read his many books think they know one thing about the famous Sauk City author and publisher because of an anecdote recounting an event in 1968, when the relatively young Council for Wisconsin Writers, an organization of volunteers promoting Wisconsin writing through awards, education and media recognition, announced the 1967 awards.

Recalled once more, for the Sept. 2007 issue of The Quill Driver by the editor, we have the story this time “according to Jerry (Jerry Apps, the 2007 winner) and told to him by Robert Gard” (U.W. writing instructor):

In the early years CWW gave only one award per year—best book by a Wisconsin author.  As the story goes, Run, Rainey, Run by Mel Ellis and a book of poetry by August Derleth, were among the finalists.  As Mel Ellis was announced the winner, August Derleth, who had written well over 100 books by that time, jumped to his feet.  Red in the face and jumping to his feet and storming out, Derleth yelled, “No damned dog book should ever win over a book of poetry.”

Only this time, either because the unnamed editor or Jerry himself had gained insight into Aug’s display, the article goes on to say, “And so it was that CWW thought that perhaps they should give out more than one award per year,” with Jerry adding, “Maybe it was a stretch to judge a dog book and a poetry book in the same class—sort of like judging a Holstein cow and an apple pie in the same class at a country fair!”

But was this enough to help Aug’s reputation?  Derleth had been a long-time friend of Allied Authors, but in 1967 Mel Ellis was active member.  Derleth helped found CWW in 1963, but so did Allied Authors members Donald Emerson, Larry Lawrence, Larry Keating, Al P. Nelson and Larry Sternig.

To this day loyalty trumps empathy.  But what should interest Allied Authors and others is what influential Wisconsin writer Edna Meudt had to say for Wisconsin Academy Review (19.2, 1972) in the article she titled, “August Derleth: ‘A Simple, Honorable Man.’”  She wrote:

Much has been written of this incident, of [Derleth’s] resignation from the Council for Wisconsin Writers, and of his walking out on their awards celebration.  His actions were misinterpreted as “juvenile,” “a feud with the Council,” and a “lack of respect for the book that won.”  His decision was, in fact, a long-considered one.  As for the “feud” he dismissed that with a quotation from Eliot’s Four Quartets: “Human kind cannot bear very much reality.”  He had reviewed favorably the book that was to win.  And he had been suggesting that the award be changed from “For a Best Literary Work (by a resident Wisconsin Writer)” to “For a Book of Outstanding Merit…” for two reasons: (1) This new designation would eliminate much criticism of the choices.  (2) The award could then be limited (the $1,000 top prize sponsored by the Johnson Wax Foundation) to a one-time only reception.  “As it stands,” he wrote me, “such a designation will always be open to question, and it cannot be limited.  The ‘best’ is ‘best’ and it can’t be done otherwise.”  […]

Derleth’s entry had been The Collected Poems, the cream of thirty years work, restructured to make a unity to stand behind the Apologia—illuminating a philosophy and a way of life; poems that had been praised by major poets from Edgar Lee Masters to last year’s Poetry Consultant to the Library of Congress, William Stafford.  By its author’s published statement the award-winning book was his first, turned out in three weeks at the urging of his agent to meet a nature-book contest deadline.  [And here Edna emphasizes] Again: Had it been for “Outstanding merit,” August would not have withdrawn from the Council; it was the “Best Literary Work” decision he protested.

Elsewhere in the article Meudt reflects: “August had an objectivity that must have been difficult for him to live with, and there was in him that which would not ever permit his taking the easy course.  About the CWW awards she adds, “Never was this illustrated more clearly.”

Knowing this, will it change how the Allied Authors feel about Aug’s behavior that day?  Perhaps not, but it does help explain it.  The “best” award went away—today CWW issues “achievement” awards in eight categories: Short Fiction, Poetry Book, Short Nonfiction, Children’s Literature, Book-length Nonfiction, Book-length Fiction, Outdoor, and Poetry—and the historical record merely shows Mel’s win for Run, Rainy, Run as CWW’s 1967 Book-length Nonfiction recipient and Derleth’s Collected Poems the 1967 Poetry recipient.

Prolific Wisconsin author August Derleth was a life-long friend of Allied Authors. A proponent of Wisconsin regional writing and fan of genre-writing, Derleth maintained ties with numerous Allied Authors members. A business man and editor, he promoted and sporadically published their work.

John D. Haefele submitted this article (© 2012 all rights reserved)

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2 responses to “Dubious Derleth

  • Thomas P. Ramirez

    Well done, John.

    Being as decrepit as I am I cannot remember if revisions have been done after reading at AA meeting.

    I think that I suggested you move the Derleth blowup forward in the piece.

    It would seem that you have done t his. And the reader IS drawn in more quickly.

    Derleth had a valid point. But this was no way to press it.

    Write on, man!

    TOM

  • John D Haefele

    Thanks Tom!

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