Wagoner, David Russell


Born: 1926

Ohio connection: Birth

A native of Massillon, David Russell Wagoner was born in 1926. At the age of seven, his family relocated to Whiting, a city outside Gary, Indiana. Enlisting at age eighteen in the United States Navy, he served from 1944 to 1946. Educated at Pennsylvania State University, he received his B.A. in 1947, followed two years later by an M.A. in creative writing from Indiana University. After an initial year spent teaching at DePauw University (Greencastle, Indiana), Wagoner joined the faculty of Penn State in 1950. Four years later, he began his affiliation with the University of Washington, and steadily rose within the English Department from the position of an assistant, to an associate, and finally, to a professor within twelve years. An environmental poet, novelist, and lecturer, Wagoner has attributed to the natural and manmade landscape an ability to shape and mold both the moral and social characters of the people it surrounds. Whether through a poem, novel or lecture, Wagoner has stressed that mankind should live in harmony with his organic and inorganic partners. Outraged at deforestation, pollution, and the unrestrained slaughter of the wilderness and its creatures, Wagoner, in such works as Dry Sun, Dry Wind (1953) initially characterized the befouled urban landscape as atrophied and impotent. Divided into two parts, the twenty-two short, lyrical poems that begin the work reflect a hostile environment from which people have grown estranged. After having settled in the lush, untainted greenness of the Pacific Northwest, Wagoner’s outlook and style soon underwent an immediate and appreciable difference. Among the first works that bore the hallmark of this new perspective was the quintessential Nesting Ground, a volume of poetry released in 1963. In one of its poems, “Standing Halfway Home,” the speaker pauses during a salutary amble through the forest, noticing that a nearby neighbor, wishing to isolate himself from the environment, become imprisoned within formidable fences and gates. In Who Shall be the Sun, Wagoner retold a number of the traditional myths, lore, and narratives of the Plateau and Northwest coast Indian nations. In his novels, Wagoner often featured innocents who became fodder for the vile machinations of unsavory mountebanks. In The Man in the Middle and Money, Money, Money, hapless simpletons become the unwitting tools of criminals and ultimately suffer the legal ramifications. In his novels, even the children are prone to suffer. Matured beyond their years, the innocent juvenile protagonists of The Escape Artist and Where is My Wondering Boy Tonight? are persecuted by criminals, corrupt public officials, and even by their own sadistic parents. In a slightly different vein, Wagoner’s novel, The Hanging Gardenfeatured a ruthless killer who mercilessly stalked the renter of a holiday cottage. In the poetry and novels of David Russell Wagoner, a reverence for nature is articulated through a style that is celebratory, compassionate, and often reflective.

Guggenheim fellowship in fiction, 1956; Ford Foundation fellowship in drama, 1964; Morton Dauwen Zabel Prize in poetry, 1967; National Institute of Arts and Letters award, 1967; National Council on the Arts award, 1969; awarded second prize, Emily Clark Balch Poetry Contest, Virginia Quarterly Review, 1974; Blumenthal Prize, Poetry magazine, 1974; Fels Prize for poetry and Fels Prize for editing, Coordinating Council of Literary Magazines, both 1975; National Book Award in poetry nominations, 1975 and 1977; Tietjens Prize, Poetry magazine, 1977; elected chancellor, Academy of American Poets, 1978; American Book Award in poetry nomination, 1980; Sherwood Anderson Award in Fiction, 1980; Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize, 1986; Ohioana Book Award for Walt Whitman Bathing, 1997.