Rest in peace, David Rhodes (1946–2022)

Milkweed Staff — 12/20/2022

Dear readers,

David Rhodes came into our lives in 2005. A young editor on our staff, Ben Barnhart, had been reading John Gardner’s On Moral Fiction early that year and come across praise for David’s first three novels, all published to considerable acclaim in the seventies. It was John Gardner who first identified David as a “brilliant visionary,” and in the mysterious way letters work, his praise led Ben to read these novels, to find an acknowledgement in one of them of David’s agent, Lois Wallace, and then to reach out to David directly, and to learn that he had written several subsequent novels, but simply lost interest in publishing. David shared one of these manuscripts with Ben, and before long we were working with him to develop and publish Driftless, and to republish his first three novels: The Last Fair Deal Going Down, The Easter House, and Rock Island Line.

Titled after the region of southwestern Wisconsin in which the novel is set, Driftless represents characters who are as unglaciated as the place they live in. Often outwardly ordinary and almost invariably off the beaten path, David’s characters are radiant and deep, eccentric and soulful, driven by desires that are as mysterious as they are commanding. Driftless became a national sensation when it was published in 2008, and it was thrilling to be part of an American master novelist’s return to a robust readership.

A sequel of sorts to Driftless, Jewelweed, followed in 2014. Rich with his distinctive sense of empathy and wonder, David’s fifth novel expanded his capacious vision, in which the seemingly mundane becomes magical, even mythical. And then not long after Jewelweed had been published, David approached me with a concept and a plan to develop the novel that would become Painting Beyond Walls, his sixth novel, which we published this fall. Set in the near future and engaging in unpretentious yet sophisticated ways with contemporary genetics, philosophy, and history, Painting Beyond Walls is perhaps David’s most ambitious novel. It explores what makes us human, what could make us better, and how and why it is important for us to come together in community.

Perhaps not surprisingly in light of his artistic vision, David Rhodes was a beautiful human being. He was voraciously curious yet refreshingly humble, wonderfully funny, keenly perceptive, and, perhaps above all, deeply caring. David’s was an essentially generous spirit, and one invariably left an exchange with him feeling enriched, if not always understanding why.

All of us here at Milkweed Editions are saddened by his passing, and profoundly grateful to have crossed paths with him. The six novels he wrote are among his greatest gifts, and we can think of no better form of reciprocity than engaging with his work.

Rest in peace, David Rhodes.

Daniel Slager
Publisher & CEO


David Allen Rhodes, 75 years old, died November 10, 2022, in Iowa City, Iowa, following complications from surgery for cancer. He met the end as he lived with grace, generosity, and humor.

Born in Des Moines, Iowa, he lived in an old farmhouse in the Driftless area of Wisconsin most of his adult life. He had recently moved to Madison, Wisconsin where all his immediate family currently reside.

He was kind and open, with a lively mind and quick wit. He delighted in thought-provoking discussions on any subject imaginable with anyone who was willing. He read widely. Books, philosophy, nature, wildlife, bees, and dogs gave him great joy. When you engaged with him you felt free from anonymity, rooted in community.

David attended Beloit College, received a BA from Marlboro College, and an MFA from Iowa Writers Workshop. He wrote literary fiction. His first novel was published in 1971, while still a student, quickly followed by two others, each well received. After a motorcycle accident in 1977 it was thirty years before Milkweed Editions published his novel Driftless, in 2008. His sixth novel Painting Beyond Walls was published in September 2022 to a warm and enthusiastic reception. He worked consummately at writing. A perfectionist, he rewrote constantly.

He won many awards for his books, including the Milkweed National Fiction Prize (2008); the UW-Whitewater Chancellor’s Regional Literary Award (2009); the Guggenheim Fellowship for Creative Arts (2010); and the Wisconsin Notable Author Award (2018). His books were widely read and critically reviewed. Driftless was named a Best Book of the Year by Christian Science Monitor and California Literary Review and called “the best work of fiction to come out of the Midwest in many years” by Alan Cheuse at the Chicago Tribune. His fifth novel Jewelweed was a runner-up for the All Iowa Reads program in 2015.

The thirty years between publishing David was doing more than sitting. He wrote two manuscripts. An active community member, he had a long abiding membership and many leadership roles in Valton Friends Church and the wider Quaker community. He volunteered in the local hospital; he was founding member and passionate board member of Family Farm Defenders, especially in working against Recombinant Bovine Growth Hormone, and Dump the National Dairy Board. He was also an active board member of the local historical society, and Santa Teresa (Guatemala) Sister City Project, Richland Center. His talents for stewarding 501(c)3 applications were frequently utilized.

David actively worked to bring people together, heal divisions and, through dialogue, helped clarify ideas. He wrote hundreds of Letters to the Editor. He played guitar in Valley Tones, a gospel group for more than a decade. He was the emcee at innumerable local events, and typically he wrote and read long hyperbolic dedications for those events.

As a young man he struggled against injustice in the world; he was frightened by the ignorance causing it. He had a motorcycle accident in 1977, which left him paralyzed from the chest down. He spent most of two years in the hospital and had many physical complications for the next forty-five years. Though it took him awhile, he generally found an emotional place where compassion and openness were stronger than fear.

He is survived by his wife, Edna (Kiemele), daughters Alexandra Stanton (Rhodes) and Emily Rhodes (Zach Schaefer), three grandchildren—Sebastian, Noah and James—his first wife, Lucy Rhodes (Jordan), brothers Steve and Nelson, as well as many friends. Those who preceded him in death include granddaughter Eva and his parents Luther and Ruth.

There will be a memorial service in mid-May 2023 at the Friends Church in the village of Valton, Wisconsin, the general setting of his last three books.