I was born in rural Ohio near the Indiana border. My ancestry has been traced back to the French Huguenots (hence my surname, which is an oath name), but I come mostly from a long lineage of Scotch-Irish Presbyterians who were too mean to give up.
I was brought up in a Calvinist family. And we had to read the Bible from cover to cover and memorize a great deal of it. I think that taught me the English language, the King James version. We were made to read Shakespeare cover to cover also.
My great-grandmother (whom I knew as a child) was said to have been one-eighth Ojibway Indian, and when I was difficult to manage my mother would say my Indian blood was showing itself.
Most of my people were farmers, craftsmen, and small businessmen. My mother traced her ancestry back to before the Revolution, and she was a member of the DAR, but she seldom attended their functions. My father had many financial problems in the 1920’s, and I was brought up in a troubled atmosphere. My parents were divorced when I was still a youngster, and I lived now with my mother, now with my father, and sometimes with my grandmother. Because my parents were divorced and we were very poor I was looked down upon in Findlay (Ohio). At least this is how I felt. Living in a rooming house very near Main Street with my father absent was very humiliating for me.
When my grandmother (Purdy) died, I lived on in her house with my father, who was deeply hurt by mother divorcing him, and consoled himself by reading everything he could find on the Civil War.
My family was real to me. I’m from a small Ohio town. And then everything since then has been unreal.
I wrote a lot of stories when I was very young. I used to publish this little magazine. It had my stories in it. The Niocene. They are all lost now. I imagine. I was eleven or twelve. I got out five or six issues! I guess those were my first published stories. I printed them on a duplicator, an old one. It used jelly. It was very messy. I’d run off ten and give them to my family and friends. I sold some too!
I left home at an early age and went to Chicago. It was the first big city I had ever known, and I was unprepared for its overwhelming confusion. It provided me with enough subject matter for the rest of my life.
I was drafted into the army, and after my service, honorably discharged. I was on KP most of the time. They didn’t know what to do with me. I just wasn’t supposed to be a soldier. It nearly finished me. But I’m glad I was in it.
I traveled to Mexico, Cuba, and in 1937 I lived for six months in Madrid. I fell in love with Spain, and Cervantes’s story Riconete and Cortadillo concerning two youthful runaways in Seville made a deep impression on me. I saw myself only too clearly as the runaways.
I did interpreting for a while. I learned Spanish in the army. And then I got a job in Cuba. The government got me that job. I taught school in Havana for a year. It was a school for Cubans and Americans and I taught literature more or less. After I left Cuba I came back to Wisconsin and taught for several years at Lawrence College. [1946-1956]
I had been writing stories from the age of eight or nine, but I did not intend that what I put down on yellow-ruled paper should be for anyone’s eyes but my own. My mother, when she happened on these outpourings, was bemused that a child had composed them. My teachers in the lower grades were also puzzled at the kind of compositions I submitted. The stories bothered them. It was not until high school that I met a teacher who thought I was doing something creditable. The only advice she gave me was to keep writing. She said, rather worriedly, I would be a writer.
In my twenties, I began sending out my completed stories to magazines. Some of these stories I had begun in high school, notably A Good Woman. My stories were always returned with angry, peevish, indignant rejections from the New York slick magazines, and they earned, if possible, even more hostile comments from the little magazines. All editors were insistent that I would never be a published writer.
Time and time again they said that I wrote in a peculiar manner. It was too vivid, I presume, and similar to the Jewish author Gertrude Stein, it was ripe with slang. She influenced me in this way.
The language my books is written in would later be called a true classical American by writers as diverse as Langston Hughes, Marianne Moore, Paul Bowles, and William Carlos Williams.
I really prefer not to give a biography since my biography is in my work, and I do not wish to communicate with anyone but individuals, for whom my work was written in the first place. I began writing completely in the dark