Ervin Krause

Radio essay: 

The question at the heart of Ervin Krause’s fiction is not, “Why do bad things happen to good people?” but rather, “Why do bad things happen to already flawed people?” Krause invites such a question in, for example, his story “The Quick and the Dead,” in which an adulterous couple is found entwined in a snow-covered car, frozen to death in the posture of their transgression. The bystanders want to frame the couple’s death as divine punishment, particularly since the dead woman had been notorious for sleeping around. Except, as the narrator points out, a couple of the bystanders had been involved with the woman as well. “‘We’re all pretty pure, aren’t we?’” the narrator asks sarcastically.

Krause’s stories employ flawed, sometimes downright despicable characters and grim, Gothic situations to provoke empathy that feels real rather than contrived. In “Spring Flood,” a farmer named Dahlman finds himself yoked to the care of an old man living in a shack nearby, who appears “stinking and muddled over like some grizzled river reptile.” Try as he might Dahlman can’t find it in himself to be as generous to Gerber as his father and grandfather, who extended their charity to the old man without resentment. When both end caught in the story’s eponymous flood, the reader doesn’t know whom to pity more.

Krause’s commitment to empathy and his comfort with moral ambiguity emerged directly from his life circumstances. Born in Arlington, Nebraska, in 1931, Ervin was one of five sons of a hardworking itinerant farming family of German/Russian descent. Tragedy struck the family when Ervin was fifteen: his father was paralyzed with a stroke. During the six years between the stroke and his father’s death Ervin read to and tended him.[1] Lines such as the following from the perspective of a boy in the story “The Right Hand” hint at the brutal nature of this experience: “He had seen suffering, he had witnessed agony and seen the dumb struggling eyes of animals in pain…There was something terrible in that effort at prolonging the life of something already wrongly there.”

Ervin proved himself a true polymath at Iowa State, majoring in physics and math. By 1956 he was pursuing a master’s degree in English at the University of Nebraska and by 1958 he had published his first story in that university’s literary journal, Prairie Schooner.  The story, “Daphne,” was selected by Karl Shapiro, a Pulitzer Prize winning poet and Nebraska professor who would go on to become Krause’s literary champion, publishing six Krause stories over a period of five years. But for a scandal that made national news and prompted Shapiro to resign the editorship of Prairie Schooner, there would have been a seventh.

When Krause wrote in 1963 asking if Shapiro would like to publish his story, “Anniversary,” there is some indication the writer knew his piece was potentially provocative. “There are some fairly stern passages in this story,” Krause wrote, “but they are not designed to titillate—in fact, just the opposite, if anything. I think only the nervous or the unfair would really be alarmed.” [2]

(Top) Ervin Krause's first home in Arlington; (middle) Loretta and Ervin Krause, Las Vegas, early 1960s; (bottom) Nebraska.Historic downtown Lincoln, Nebraska.

No doubt today’s readers would agree with Krause’s assessment of his story, which narrates a tawdry sexual encounter between a lonely English professor and a divorcee in her early thirties. Through backstory we learn that the professor, McDonald, had previously had a more extended liaison with the woman, Wanda, but broke it off upon getting his PhD. Now, two years later, he returns to Wanda’s bed while passing through Lincoln. McDonald begins the story a blasé misogynist, begging to have his self-esteem taken down a notch: “He liked the idea that she was a kind of mistress,” the narrator says of McDonald’s feelings about Wanda during the early part of their relationship. “He was proud, too, of the easiness and confidence he felt now that a woman was his.”

McDonald seems to want to recapture this sense of ownership during their one night stand, but finds that afterwards he feels even more lonely and disconnected than before. “There was no more than this,” McDonald reflects. “The energy of their listless bodies, their dull lust, their passionless pretensions could not make them whole.”

Far from a celebration of uncommitted sex, “Anniversary” shows how such relations fail to provide a coherent, meaningful romantic connection. Krause later called it “the most moral story I have ever written.”[3] But Dean Millitzer must have missed this moral, just as Krause and Shapiro underestimated the alarm threshold of the University of Nebraska administration. Neither writer nor editor, who accepted the story for Prairie Schooner’s Spring 1963 issue, could have anticipated the fallout.

No one knows for sure how a galley copy of the issue made it onto the desk of College of Arts and Sciences Dean Walter Millitzer; Millitzer certainly wasn’t responsible for checking issues before they went to press. That he was venturing out of his job description may explain Millitzer’s secrecy in pulling “Anniversary” from the galley copy without notifying Shapiro. When Shapiro discovered the reason behind the omission he resigned the journal’s editorship in fury. “Shapiro Quits Nebraska U.; Cites ‘Editorial Tampering’” reads the headline of a May 1963 New York Times article on the incident in which Millitzer denounces the story as “obscene and in poor taste.”[4]

Krause's 1963 letter to Chancellor Hardin concerning the censorship of his story, "Anniversary"

 

It’s not entirely clear what Millitzer found obscene—was it the allusion to a condom or a particular sex act, or the sexually liberated attitude of Wanda herself?—but we do know that this wasn’t the first time Prairie Schooner’s content had come under fire for supposed obscenity. In fact, not long before the “Anniversary” controversy then Chancellor Clifford Hardin had received a letter of complaint about a story in the journal’s Winter issue, by Beat writer Richard Fariña. “Our family has enjoyed this magazine, but I shall not feel I can share this issue with my teenage daughter,” wrote Pastor Warren C. Swartz of St. Mark’s Methodist Church. “There are other real things in life besides sewers.” This letter from a prominent local citizen was likely at the forefront of Millitzer’s spur of the moment decision to pull “Anniversary.”  
 

The conflict reflected competing views on the purpose of fiction. Writers and artists had long believed that “realism” meant representing the world as it is—even if that representation shows a university professor to be an unsavory character. People like Pastor Swartz, on the other hand, saw fiction as morally elevated from daily life, its purpose to edify and uplift. Ervin Krause’s story became a crossfire casualty in this age-old debate about the function of art.

Obituary for Ervin Krause

Ervin Krause did achieve success despite this. Not only was he published in reputable literary magazines, his stories were twice selected for the prestigious O. Henry Prize anthology. But shortly after the Prairie Schooner controversy Krause was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s disease; he died seven years later at age 39 in the Hawaii home he shared with his beloved wife, Loretta.

Loretta tried but failed to place her husband’s manuscripts posthumously (editors can’t bank on the career of a dead writer, she was told bluntly), and her husband’s work entered unjust obscurity until a felicitous rediscovery by Nebraska novelist Timothy Schaffert. Schaffert edited an anthology of Krause’s stories published by the University of Nebraska Press: You Will Never See Any God.

“Had Krause lived to write longer, to write more, we would almost certainly have come to have a sense of the Krausian,” Schaffert writes in the collection’s introduction. Taken as a whole, the stories in the collection showcase a writer with a vision both dark and unfailingly moral, a writer deeply committed to the unsentimental humanity of the heartland citizens he knew so well.

 

                   


References


[1] Timothy Schaffert, ed., You Will Never See Any God: Stories, by Ervin Krause, (Lincoln: Bison Books, 2014): Introduction. All other citations of Krause stories are taken from this edition of his work unless otherwise noted.

[2] Letter from Ervin Krause to Karl Shapiro, 1963, Prairie Schooner (Slote folder 1973), English Department Records, Archives & Special Collections, University of Nebraska-Lincoln Libraries.

[3] Letter from Krause to Shapiro, 1963, Box 2: Prairie Schooner (Shapiro folder 1963), English Department Records, Archives & Special Collections, University of Nebraska-Lincoln Libraries.

[4] “Shapiro Quits Nebraska U; Cites ‘Editorial Tampering.’” New York Times 25 May 1963: 17. “[Shapiro] said that school officials had refused to let the magazine print a short story of ‘washed out love with a couple of bedroom scenes.’” Letter from Warren Swartz to Chancellor Hardin, January 10, 1963, Box 10: College of Arts & Sciences (Prairie Schooner/Karl Shapiro), 1963, Clifford M. Hardin, University Correspondence, Chancellor Records, Archives & Special Collections, University of Nebraska-Lincoln Libraries.