Web Essays

Remembering James McConkey

Diane Ackerman, Brad Edmondson, and Robert Wilson celebrate a real writer’s writer

By Our Contributors | October 29, 2019
Cornell University
Cornell University

Diane Ackerman:

I was supremely lucky when I went to Cornell as a graduate student, because Jim McConkey, who died last week at the age of 98, was my advisor. And I still remember sitting in his office at Goldwin Smith Hall on my first day. Jim was wearing: a cornflower-blue shirt with an open collar. Not button-down. There was nothing buttoned down about him. I already knew from his books that he patrolled the skies through a telescope of his own devising, haunted the world of Russian fiction, mucked out cow stalls, had sampled the heart of prewar America, was someone who could be “moved at a touch between serenity and desolation,” someone who’d been to war and understood the reality of not just physical, but moral injury.

In his books, wonder is the heaviest element on the periodic table of the heart. Even a tiny fleck of it stops time. I loved all the poignant tripwires of memory in his books, and also the fine mesh of faintly remembered encounters, mishaps, moments of pride or embarrassment that leave indelible traces in one’s life.

I also remember what I was wearing at that interview: a lavender blouse with ruffled cuffs. The blouse had a tiny burn hole from smoking, a habit I was trying to quit. An ash must have seared the nylon fibers, and the burnt edge of that blemish felt like a scab. I did quit, but to this day, I’d know how to flick ashes from a cigarette thanks to the body wisdom of “procedural memory,” and I have a Kodachrome recollection of meeting Jim thanks to the untidily bulging album of “autobiographical memory”—a distinction I would later learn to appreciate in Jim’s uniquely eye-opening and altogether wonderful Mind and Memory class.

Unlike some professors who taught “all that must be learned,” Jim tried to discover how a student learns best. It was just what I needed to flourish, because traditional schooling had never worked well for me. For instance, as an undergraduate, I’d flunked Basic Logic.

A classic syllogism goes: “Johnny has a bat. All bats are blue. What color is Johnny’s bat?” I panicked when that question appeared on an exam, and I reasoned like this: “Well, if all bats are blue, and Johnny has a shred of individuality, he’d want his bat to look different. Blue is traditionally the color of sadness, the Virgin Mary, the sky—maybe he’d prefer a color that better reflects his mood or goals. I’ve noticed that shadows really aren’t black, they’re blue. Would he want a bat the color of shadow? Blue is a color easily affected by changing light. Do the blue bats appear lifeless at dawn, but jewel-like at high noon? Are all the bats the same size? Are they crafted of different woods, whose grain might absorb the paint more deeply? What sort of blue is it, anyway—pearly, sapphire, luminescent?”

I was altogether too strange to pass Logic. But, in time, Jim helped me realize that a free-associative, serpentine style of thought might be useful and have a power of its own. I’m sure I wasn’t the only student whose eyes he opened to the merits of cultivated idiosyncrasy.

I went to Cornell as a poet with a miscellaneous muse. But I hadn’t the foggiest idea how to write prose. I’d put one craggy sentence at the top of a page, one craggy sentence at the bottom, and I had absolutely no idea how to rappel between them.

When, early on, I took a Comp Lit class that Jim taught, he wisely suggested that instead of writing essays, I write dramatic monologues spoken by characters in the books we were reading. I worked like the dickens on those poems and no doubt learned more about character, plot, and style than I would have if left to my own naïve devices.

So, I’m indebted to Jim, for that lesson among so many others, of “How will this person learn best?” I’ve found it invaluable in my own teaching career, and also in a completely different arena, three decades later, in tailoring the standard aphasia workbooks to help my late husband, Paul West, regain language after a stroke.

Something else I treasure about Jim is that, in an era when literary criticism was becoming more like an act of remote viewing, he encouraged exquisitely close readings, championed style, and showed how books can shape one’s bedrock identity and choices. He simply wasn’t strait-jacketed by literary vogues or labels. I’ve always admired him for being an -ist among the -isms.

So, Jim began as my advisor, taught me creative writing and literature, then became a member of my MFA and PhD committees. Then I took his Mind and Memory class, which warmed the cockles of my interdisciplinary heart, then I team-taught the course with him, then we were office spouses, then I inherited the Mind and Memory course from him for a couple of years, and since then I’ve been honored to embrace him as a friend.

In all those different phases and stages of life, I’ve felt privileged to know someone so keenly nourished by literature, gifted with creative insight, full of curiosity about the world, sincerely caring, candid about having a social and environmental conscience, uxorious, wickedly smart but immoderately humble, down-to-earth, and to use a very old-fashioned word and concept, “decent.” Jim was someone in whose hands the planet would be safe. And there are precious few people you can say that about. Not a saint by far, but maybe one of the 36 just men.

According to ancient theology, these few alone, through their good hearts and good deeds, keep the too-wicked world from being destroyed. There needs to be at least 36 in each generation. If there are, for their sake God spares all of humanity. The legend tells that they are ordinary people, not flawless or magical, and that most of them remain completely unrecognized—even by themselves—throughout their lives. It’s simply that they choose to perpetuate goodness, sometimes even in the midst of inferno.

In so many ways, my life was made abundantly richer by Jim’s kindness, his books, his example, and his friendship.

Diane Ackerman is the author of two dozen works of poetry and nonfiction, including New York Times best sellers The Zookeeper’s Wife, A Natural History of the Senses, and The Human Age, and Pulitzer Prize finalist, One Hundred Names for Love.

He told a great story, on the page and in the classroom

Brad Edmondson:

I was 21. I wanted to be a writer, and someone told me that Jim McConkey was good at it, so I took his creative writing class in 1980. I expected that he would pour his wisdom into me as if I were an empty vessel, as all my other instructors at Cornell had done. Instead, he told stories that veered from funny to sad to profound and then back to funny again. He held my attention with vivid images, and I kept listening because I wondered where the story was going. When he was done, the scenes he described stayed with me. Jim’s stories helped me understand my emotions—he would take his audiences on tours of love, abandonment, despair, and hope, all brightly illuminated, in 10 minutes or less—and they were invaluable to me because at that age, emotions can be baffling, cruel masters.

Although he had a casual style, I always felt that I had witnessed a performance, and I wanted to figure out how he did it. I tried to emulate Jim’s style by cultivating memories and viewing them from different angles, turning them over and over until something clicked and I believed that I had something worth saying. He was a whole lot better at this than I was, but he was also unfailingly generous. He gave me the confidence to try.

After I got a newspaper job in Ithaca, I would run into Jim at the grocery store or at meetings. He always had the time to chat, and his stories had the same elliptical structure, but as I aged, they had a different effect. After I experienced real loss, or the complications of marital and paternal love, what I felt was more like recognition, as if we were fellow travelers.

Jim’s stories have been with me for four decades now. He retired in 1992 but kept writing until his wife died in 2013. He and Gladys were a team for 68 years. She was an accomplished editor, but he claimed, incredibly, that “they never had a reason to quarrel.” He told me that after she died he could no longer make the intuitive leaps his stories depended on. The last thing he published was a dedication to her in the foreword to The Complete Court of Memory. In it he describes her funeral and how, as she is being lowered into the ground, he realized that the body, “encased in its white shroud, was shaped like a carrot.” He loved to use humor when his readers least expected it.

A year ago I took Jim a spinach lasagna and invited another guest, a young poet who seemed awed by him, as I had been 38 years earlier. Matt Kilbane represented his fourth generation of students, and Jim rose to the challenge. We sat with a neighbor, Michael DeMunn, who was Jim’s companion and caregiver during his last years. We lingered at the table while Jim talked about hosting Eudora Welty at Cornell; the eccentricities of Flannery O’Connor, whom he had known at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop (“she kept peacocks, you know”; and how he had been bowled over by Robert Lowell’s reading of Shakespeare’s 73rd sonnet. It was dark and cold outside when Jim recited for us the couplet Lowell had recited for him:

Upon those boughs which shake against the cold,
Bare ruin’d choirs, where late the sweet birds sang.

He and Gladys loved that sonnet, he said, because it compares life to a fire that is consumed by the source that nourishes it. They loved it so much that he put it at the end of Court of Memory. Life is precious because it is finite, he said.

This thou perceiv’st, which makes thy love more strong,
To love that well which thou must leave ere long.

I remember silence at the table as Jim’s words, and Shakespeare’s, sunk in. Damn if he hadn’t done it again.

Brad Edmondson is a writer and business consultant in Ithaca, New York. He was the founding vice president of ePodunk.com and editor-in-chief of American Demographics magazine.

A magnum opus of the ordinary

Robert Wilson:

James McConkey was a novelist (The Tree House Confessions, 1979, among others), a biographer and memoirist (To a Distant Island, 1984), and a critic (books about E. M. Forster and Anton Chekhov), but his magnum opus, Court of Memory (1983 and 2013), was a work that is difficult to characterize. When the first section of it was published in 1968 under the title Crossroads, it was mischaracterized by his publisher, McConkey would later write, as an “autobiographical novel.” Autobiographical it certainly was, but a novel it was not. It was a collection of what McConkey simply called stories, or narratives, or sometimes essays, that began in the present moment of their writing and explored some aspect of his past.

The pieces in Crossroads had to do with his wife and three growing sons, but also with the family he was born into. The work grew as McConkey aged, and by 2013 became The Complete Court of Memory, which included the contents of two more books and a number of previously uncollected stories published in magazines. Because they were made up of the real materials of McConkey’s life, or at least his memories of them, but were crafted so beautifully in the mode of the traditional realistic short story, I thought of them as nonfiction short stories. A number of these from the 1960s, ’70s, and ’80s appeared in The New Yorker, and I’m proud to say that most of the later ones, which McConkey called “personal narratives,” were published in The American Scholar.

The Complete Court of Memory is remarkably complete, the record of a single, fairly quiet life (he was a college professor as well as a writer), begun in the shadow of nuclear war out of a need “to acknowledge my love for my family and the sacredness I felt in everything about me.” That word about, importantly, is meant in the British sense of “around,” for this work is anything but an exercise in navel-gazing. The transcendence that McConkey discovers in the ordinary—beginning with a “wretched little night stand” that he had made for his mother in shop class when his family was Depression-poor—and the craftsmanship of the writing, his artistry being his continuing tribute to the meaning of his memories, have made this, for a long time, one of my favorite books. (At one point I even tried to write stories in imitation of McConkey’s.)

I was lucky enough to meet Jim a couple of times, the latter one in his Greek-revival farmhouse in the country near Ithaca, New York, the house beside a crossroads that in his books had become for me an almost mythical place. Sometimes when you love a book too much, it is hard not to be disappointed by its all-too-human author. But that was dramatically not the case with Jim. He was a boyish 70 or so when I first met him and still puckish at just past 90 when I saw him again. Even in his years since that visit, as he struggled with the loss of his beloved wife and one son, my wife and I discovered in telephone conversations with him that he retained his wonderful attentiveness to the world about him.

Robert Wilson is the editor of the Scholar.

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