The University of Nebraska–Lincoln Libraries has acquired a new collection of materials by versatile artist Weldon Kees (1914–1955) for its Archives and Special Collections.
The purchase of the collection was made possible through a gift to the University of Nebraska Foundation by the Herbert T. Weston Jr. and Marian S. Weston Foundation. At the request of the donor, the commitment amount will remain confidential. The gift was made as part of Only in Nebraska: A Campaign for Our University’s Future, a historic effort to engage at least 150,000 benefactors to give $3 billion to support University of Nebraska students, faculty, academic and clinical programs, and research to address the needs of the state.
The new collection — Weldon Kees, Papers — contains 12 diaries, manuscripts, audio tapes of Kees’ radio show, photographs and letters that were in the possession of Michael Grieg, a friend and collaborator. The materials span Kees’ creative work, as well as personal items. A finding aid to the collection has been created for use by researchers.
The acquisition represents a significant addition to the materials and collections on Kees already held by both Archives and Special Collections and the Jane Pope Geske Heritage Room of Nebraska Authors at the Lincoln City Libraries.
“This acquisition helps Lincoln, Nebraska, become a central destination for the study of Kees, a figure whose fascinating life and work is worthy of more attention,” said Melanie Griffin, chair of Archives and Special Collections.
Born in Beatrice, Nebraska, Kees graduated from the University of Nebraska in 1935 and became a prolific artist. After graduation, he worked for the Federal Writers’ Project in Lincoln and went on to develop many creative outlets, including poetry, painting, music, photography, radio broadcasting, playwriting and filmmaking. Kees lived in New York, where he painted abstract art, and San Francisco, where he redirected his creativity into music and broadcasting. On July 18, 1955, his car was found abandoned by the Golden Gate Bridge, and it is presumed that he died by suicide.
According to Matt Cohen, professor of English at Nebraska and president of the board of the Herbert T. Weston Jr. and Marian S. Weston Foundation, the acquisition is extraordinary in its depth and diversity, with literary manuscripts, audio recordings, radio scripts, correspondence and personal notes.
“As the president of a charitable foundation and also as a humanities scholar, I am both impressed and heartened by the UNL Libraries’ commitment to acquiring materials of this kind,” Cohen said. “At this moment in history, the value of our creative literary heritage is inestimable. And we live in a time when estimation seems to be ruling the day. I’m very excited that there was not only the opportunity, but also an eagerness on the part of the institution, to acquire this collection.”
Cohen described Kees as a “restless aesthetic figure” whose work was always seeking, exploring and trying to get in touch with the explorer in ourselves.
“His significance has to do with Kees’ origins in Nebraska and his place in the pantheon of figures, writers and artists from Nebraska who’ve influenced their fields, and it shows the colossal creativity that emerges from this place,” Cohen said.
When the University Libraries was approached by a dealer, Cohen thought it was a great opportunity and offered support from his family’s foundation. The Herbert T. Weston Jr. and Marian S. Weston Foundation is focused on supporting the environment, improving the lives of animals and advancing education, with an emphasis on southeast Nebraska. Cohen found it a nice convergence to support this purchase, as Weldon Kees was born in Beatrice, is a significant Nebraska literary figure and was a close friend of his grandmother, the namesake of the foundation.
“My grandmother used to sit on the porch with ‘Weldie,’ as she used to call him, and talk for hours at a time,” Cohen said. “She enjoyed his work. We donated her collection of his materials to the Archives and Special Collections a few years ago and are happy to be able to be in the position to assist with the acquisition, and the intake and cataloguing, of this new collection.”
Archives and Special Collections stewards manuscripts, university records and rare book collections. Its reading room is open by appointment only from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Friday. To learn more and schedule a visit, click here.