Students and faculty at the University of Cincinnati were streaming into the Elliston Poetry Room that winter afternoon, eager to hear the most respected member of UC’s English department, Austin Wright, interview his literary comrade-in-arms, Saul Bellow. Just five years after winning the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1976, Bellow had agreed to make the appearance because he was both Wright’s friend and an admirer of his work. At the speakers’ table with Bellow and Wright was Jim Cummins, curator of the Elliston Poetry collection, who was chatting with Bellow when Wright suddenly got up from his chair and disappeared from the room. The start time arrived, then passed, with an expectant standing-room-only crowd of 80. But there was still no sign of Wright.
“He left me there to be the interviewer,” Cummins says with a chuckle. “I’m a poet, not a fiction writer. Fortunately, I had read many of Bellow’s books, so I didn’t totally humiliate myself.”
Cummins offered the anecdote from 1981 only as an extreme example of Wright’s legendary unwillingness to take the spotlight. Thirty-five years later, friends and colleagues can only wonder how Wright, who died in 2003, would have handled his fame now that the fourth of his seven novels, Tony and Susan, has been released as a stylish noir film by director Tom Ford. Retitled Nocturnal Animals, the movie opened in selected theaters Nov. 14 and stars Amy Adams and Jake Gyllenhaal.
Cummins thinks Wright would have reacted to his splash in Hollywood the same way he handled the success of Tony and Susan when it was optioned the first time in 1993 by Universal Studios. “He was thrilled but he also thought it was kind of comical because he felt it was not his best work,” Cummins says. Neither did most of his colleagues, some of whom dubbed the gritty novel “Deliverance for academics.” The book, first put out by Baskerville Publishers, was touted by critics but flew under the radar. Still, it had enough of a following that Atlantic Books re-released it as a paperback in the U.K. in 2010—which is how it came to Ford’s attention.
The paths of glory may all lead to the same yawning grave, but for Wright, the glory—that vexing life-long tease—was never the sole measure of his life, neither in his eyes nor those who knew and loved him best. Much like his pioneering fiction, he was a complex man of many layers: shy but compassionate in his dealings with others, traditional but daring in his research and writing, and sober in his attitude toward life’s challenges, but always with an ironic gleam in his eye. Tony and Susan may not have been his best work, but it will likely be the novel that at last gives him the wider attention he deserved.
Like the novel, the movie tells a story within a story in which Susan, the ex-wife of a frustrated writer she abandoned 20 years ago for a more successful man, is surprised when he sends her a manuscript of his graphic revenge thriller, titled Nocturnal Animals. Susan struggles to decipher the book’s intent even as she is both riveted and terrified by the tale about a hapless math professor’s quest to bring to justice a brutal trio of men who kidnapped, raped, and killed his wife and teenage daughter. Susan frets: Is this her ex-husband’s not-so-subtle way of exacting his own revenge on her for having deserted him? Or does he truly want and respect her opinion?
Jim Hall, retired head of UC’s English department, said Wright cared more about the framing of the book—the complex interface between fiction writer and audience—than he did about the interior pulp story. “He insisted that if they did make a film of it, they couldn’t just pull out the kidnapping,” Hall says, “they had to do the whole thing.”
In 2013, Ford, who hadn’t made a film since 2009’s A Single Man, optioned the movie a second time from its publisher, Baskerville, for an undisclosed sum—of which Wright’s estate received $270,000, according to his family. Ford, in turn, was able to sell the distribution rights of the finished film to Focus Features for a cool $20 million—the highest price paid for any film at this year’s Cannes Film Festival.
Ford included the frame, but made many changes in translating the book to film, including shifting the setting from Ohio to Texas and upgrading Susan’s lifestyle from that of Midwestern middle class housewife to a near-parody of a chic Los Angeles arts maven. (By late October, the movie had registered an 80 percent positive rating on Rotten Tomatoes.)
During his 32-year career at UC, Wright first established his reputation as a literary critic and theorist, and more resoundingly, as a demanding teacher of modern literature who could inspire but also intimidate his students. It was only later in his career that he turned to writing his own fiction, impressing other academics and critics, but not a broader audience, with his innovations in chronology, narrative, and framing. His first novel, Camden’s Eyes, attracted the attention of Bellow and famed poet and literary critic Richard Howard when it was published in 1969. Two novels later, in 1985, Wright received the prestigious Whiting Award as one of the nation’s 10 most promising writers. Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, the longtime book reviewer for The New York Times, raved about Wright’s work over the years. “Mr. Wright is an innovative novelist,” Lehmann-Haupt noted, “trying to do something new and useful with the old problems of narrative voice and point of view.”
His classroom performance, too, garnered accolades, including UC’s “Dolly” Cohen Award for Excellence in Teaching in 1967. “He was unquestionably the best teacher I ever had, and the most influential,” says Jonathan Valin, the author of a series of highly-regarded Cincinnati-based detective novels. “It was absolutely electrifying to be in his classroom.”
Wright relied on the Socratic method, dissecting novels by means of a rigorous dialogue among teacher and students still widely used at the University of Chicago where he trained. It was a technique that he honed to a personal art. Barbara Eckstein, now a professor of English at the University of Iowa, said one of the first courses she took at UC was Wright’s class in critical literary theory. The Socratic method “suited his character because he didn’t like to talk,” she recalls. “He would answer a student’s question with a question, a statement with a question, anything with a question—substantive questions that made you think. He wouldn’t indulge us by explaining everything. He made us find our own way to understanding.”
Wright’s shyness was offset by a natural warmth and a twinkle in his eye “that always made you wonder what was going on inside that head,” says Jon Hughes, retired head of UC’s journalism program. He knew how to deploy his dry wit too, as when he told his colleagues after they had finished guarding the campus entrance during a junior faculty strike that “it was, indeed, our finest hour.”
“He was terribly nice to everyone, and it didn’t hurt, of course, that he was a very handsome man,” says Pam Robinson. Robinson and her husband, Jim, who worked in the English department, hosted Wright during the interviews that led him to join the university in 1961. Long-time friend and colleague Nancy Harvey remembers Wright “constantly watching and listening and observing. And as he did, you wondered if this was going to show up somewhere in one of his novels.”
When Wright wasn’t taking life in, he was striving to get it down in words. Legendary for his powers of concentration, he wrote at home with his office door open to interruption from his three daughters and wife Sally. And when the English department acquired its first computer, he would often write in the office, undisturbed as people came and went. Valin, like others, saw Wright as a nurturing soul. “When I was an undergraduate in the ’60s, I went through an unhappy phase” and nearly dropped out of school, Valin says. “He was very nice to me and helped me get back on track,” and later into the graduate program at the University of Chicago. Mark Lehman, a retired freshman composition instructor and author of the novelette Mocky’s Revinge, remembers that Wright took the time to type a four-page, single-spaced critique of his dissertation draft.
Wright’s background can best be described as intellectual blueblood, with roots that trace back to the Mayflower and a lineage that includes poets, scholars, theologians, a college president, and a United States senator. Born in Hastings-on-Hudson, New York, he was named after his uncle, Austin Tappan Wright, who wrote Islandia, a Utopian novel that still enjoys a cult following. He studied geology at Harvard and after graduation in 1943 served in the Army as an air traffic controller in China, playing piano in its official jazz band. When he got out of the Army, he went to the University of Chicago to earn a master’s degree in English and eventually his Ph.D. in 1959.
An intellectual but far from a snob, Wright was a fan of both opera and baseball, theater and movies. He frequently attended Reds games and Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra concerts, and held season tickets to Playhouse in the Park. Imbued with a gentleman’s humility, he never put himself first, even in a personal crisis. After decades of smoking four packs of cigarettes a day, Wright suffered a heart attack at age 41 while shaving one morning in his Clifton home. Katharine Wright, his oldest daughter, said he quit cold turkey. But what she remembers most about the incident is her father apologizing profusely “for freaking all of us out,” she says.
Katharine recalls her father making “lists of everything, starting in childhood. When we traveled, he always kept this little notebook. At first it made sense, keeping track of gas consumption and meals along the way. But then we started noticing that he’d write down things like ‘Sally had a roast beef sandwich and a Coke.’” With the passing of her mother in September, Katharine is now the executor of her father’s literary papers and is busy sifting through heaps of journals, notebooks, letters, manuscripts, and computer files. She keeps a blog devoted to his work at austinmwright.blogspot.com
Wright seldom spoke up at faculty meetings, but when he did, people listened, says Nancy Harvey. He carefully avoided department politics. “There were times when I wish he would have come down on one side or the other, but 99 percent of the time he maintained a balanced viewpoint,” she adds.
The one time he did push his point of view at UC, in favor of creating a writing certificate program at the university in the early 1970s, it made all the difference, recalls Hughes. “He was extremely respected in the department, and it wasn’t just because of his academic training,” he says. “It was his demeanor, his teaching skills, and his talent.”
More than anything, Wright was fascinated with the intricacies of plot, narrative, and point of view; in Camden’s Eyes, he interwove variations on all three with the sublimity of a Bach fugue. A merry-go-round of dual marital infidelity, the novel plumbs the mind of William Camden, a history professor, as he tries to reconcile with his estranged wife. Each scene is played and replayed from multiple angles to expose the lies Camden hides from the world, his wife, and himself. The entire novel is suffused with Wright’s droll sense of humor, as when the minister who is caught en flagrante with Camden’s wife in their bedroom says, “You still have a solid marriage, perhaps not an exclusive one.”
Wright’s ability to see all points of view, both in fiction and in real life, added to the challenges of growing up in the Wright household. “If I thought my mother was being mean to me, and I’d be pouting or crying, he would say, ‘Well, your mother is going through this and that or the other thing,’” his daughter Katharine says. “He would take things apart for me psychologically. It was good in that he taught all of us to really try to understand another person’s thought process. On the other hand, it always made us find excuses for other people, sometimes to our own detriment.”
Katharine said her father could be depressed at times about his career, especially when his hopes, built up by critical acclaim, were dashed when sales fizzled. “He always took the worst news in stride,” she said. That is, until the death of his second daughter, Joanna, from breast cancer in 2000. “I remember him saying when Joanna was dying that he had lived a very good and lucky life, and this was the first really terrible thing that had ever happened.”
In 1993, at age 70, Wright fell victim to UC’s now-defunct mandatory retirement rule. He was still writing fiction until months before his death 10 years later, completing an autobiographical novel called A Writer’s Story, which he thought would be his best. Katharine has found parts of the novel, but has been desperately searching through his papers and computer files to find the completed manuscript. “I feel so guilty,” she says. “I know there’s a lot about what makes a writer write—what made him write.”
In the years before his death in 2003, Wright had undergone chemotherapy for multiple myeloma. Shortly before he died, he began to show signs of delirium, which was diagnosed as Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, though that did not later show up in his autopsy. At one point, in the little apartment at Maple Knoll Village he shared with his wife, “Dad told her, ‘I know this isn’t true, but behind you, I see a whole lot of insects running along the wall,’” Katharine says. Often she would find him tapping his fingers on a tabletop to music that only he could hear. Increasingly, he withdrew into his own labyrinth of thought.
The last words he spoke to Katharine were eerily akin to the mindset of many of his novels. “I asked him, ‘Dad, Dad! Do you know me?’ And all of a sudden, he said with great meaning and drama, ‘You…are…invented,’” she recalls. “I couldn’t tell whether it was a full stop or whether he was going to say more. But it felt kind of right to me, the whole idea that we define reality for ourselves.”
That reality lives on, not only among those Wright loved and taught, but in the rich complexity of the work he left behind.