Engle, Paul Hamilton

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Engle, Paul Hamilton

(b. 12 October 1908 in Cedar Rapids, Iowa; d. 22 March 1991 in Chicago, Illinois), writer and educator who garnered prizes and prestige for his poetry and who brought acclaim to the creative writing program at the University of Iowa during his tenure as director there.

Engle was one of four children of Hamilton Allen Engle, a farmer, and Evelyn Reinheimer, a homemaker. Although Paul helped his father, because of limited resources he also worked at a drugstore, delivered newspapers, and took odd jobs. He paid his own way through Coe College in Cedar Rapids, graduating magna cum laude in 1931.

Engle entered the English graduate program at the University of Iowa in 1931. He completed his master of arts degree in 1932 with the submission of his thesis, “One Slim Feather,” a collection of poems, which according to Engle may have been the first creative writing ever accepted for the completion of an advanced degree in the United States. It was published in the Yale Series of Younger Poets as Worn Earth (1932).

In 1932 Engle received a fellowship to Columbia University. The next year he not only won the Chicago World’s Fair Prize for Poetry sponsored by Poetry magazine for his poem “America Remembers,” but he also was selected to be a Rhodes scholar at Oxford University in England.

At Merton College in Oxford, Engle studied under the poet Edmund Blunden and completed two volumes of poetry. With American Song (1934), he was proclaimed “a new voice in American poetry” in the New York Times Book Review. However, Break the Heart’s Anger (1936) garnered less appreciation from critics who believed that Engle had lost some of his earlier focus. Oxford awarded Engle a B.A. degree in 1936. On 3 July 1936 in the registry at Oxford, Engle married his hometown girlfriend Mary Nomine Nissen. They would eventually have two daughters.

Engle and his wife returned to Iowa, where in 1937 he began to teach poetry at the University of Iowa. In 1939 he published a book of poems, Corn, and again exhibited his Whitmanesque approach to poetry with critically approved style. That same year he received an M.A. degree from Oxford. In 1941 he completed West of Midnight, which won the Friends of American Writers Award, and published a novel, Always the Land, which dealt with farmers, like his father, in the horse business.

In 1942 Engle became the acting director of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and in 1943 he assumed the permanent directorship, a position he held until 1965. As head of the workshop, Engle had to administrate and promote as well as teach and write. He undertook raising funds from foundations and businesses as well as competing for university funds. The workshop needed money for faculty, classrooms, and scholarships for developing writers. Engle succeeded in his efforts and gained a national reputation for helping young writers. He recruited Donald Justice, Wallace Stegner, W. D. Snodgrass, Flannery O’Connor, William Stafford, all of whom would become highly regarded authors, as well as many others as students. He brought prestigious professional writers to the workshop as faculty. In all, he made the University of Iowa a widely known literary center.

Engle also experienced professional success from 1943 to 1965. He authored six books of poetry, a children’s book, two reminiscences, and one work of fiction; he also edited nine anthologies and a highly regarded textbook, On Creative Writing (1964). He wrote the lyrics for an opera, Golden Child (1960), which was performed on television. Later the story was published as a novel of the same title (1962). He won Guggenheim scholarships for poetry (1953, 1957, and 1959) and was a Ford Foundation fellow (1952).

In 1965 Engle stepped down as director of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. In 1967, with the Chinese novelist Hualing Nieh, Engle oversaw the creation of the University of Iowa’s International Writing Program, which brought together established writers from around the world to experience cross-cultural exchange of literary endeavors. His marriage to Mary ended in divorce in 1970, and on 14 May 1971 he married Hualing Nieh; she brought with her two children from her first marriage. Together they garnered funds and promoted the International Workshop; the success of the program led the diplomat Averell Harriman to nominate them for the Nobel Peace Prize in 1976. That same year Engle turned full directorship of the workshop over to his wife but remained a consultant to and a fundraiser for the program.

From 1965 to 1976 Engle continued to write. He put together another book of poems and with Hualing Nieh translated the poems of Mao Tse-tung. He also published a work of nonpoetry, Women in the American Revolution (1976).

In the 1980s Engle published a collection of poems written during a trip to China and helped edit an anthology derived from the International Workshop. He also spent time on reminiscences of his life. (A Lucky American Childhood was published posthumously in 1996.) Both Engle and his wife fully rived from the International Workshop in 1987, and in 1990 the American Academy and Institute of Arts presented Engle with its award for distinguished service. In 1991 Poland awarded Engle its government’s Order of Merit. On his way to accept the honor, Engle died of a heart attack in Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport. He was buried in a private ceremony, with a public memorial service at the University of Iowa.

Paul Engle was one of the leading literary figures in the United States. While public popularity of his poetry peaked in the 1940s, he produced numerous works of criticism, academic, and creative writing during his career. However, his greatest impact on the world of letters was his leadership of the creative writing programs at the University of Iowa, where he possibly nurtured more poets than anyone ever and facilitated the artistic development of a multitude of other aspiring writers.

The Special Collections Department, University of Iowa Libraries, is still processing Engle’s copious personal papers. His childhood memoirs were published posthumously as A Lucky American Childhood (1996). Books that discuss Engle and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop are Stephen Wilbers, The Iowa Writers’ Workshop: Origins, Emergence, and Growth (1980), and Robert Dana, ed., A Community of Writers: Paul Engle and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop (1999). An extensive biographical sketch of Engle is in Joseph Wilson, Dictionary of Literary Biography, vol. 48 (1978): 159-166. Also helpful are Current Biography 1942: 248-250, and Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, vol. 82 (1981):114–116. An obituary is in the Des Meines Register (24 Mar. 1991).

Thomas Burnell Colbert