Winter 2011

Pursuit of the Pneuma

Author
James Alan McPherson
Abstract

Inspired by a former colleague's written remembrance of his tenure at the University of Iowa, McPherson looks back on the University's historic receptiveness to non-white students and his own experience serving on the faculty of the Writers' Workshop. He reflects on the attitudes and mores that create a sense of community before settling on the concept of the pneuma, Greek for “the vital spirit of life itself.” He contrasts the racially polarized South, where he grew up, began his writing career, and had his daughter, with Iowa City, where he and his daughter have formed lasting relationships with McPherson's students and colleagues from a variety of ethnic and social backgrounds. A willingness to learn from cultural difference has guided McPherson as a teacher and a father, and it offers hope for the evolution of a more integrated American society.

JAMES ALAN MCPHERSON, a Fellow of the American Academy since 1995, is Permanent Faculty at the University of Iowa Writers' Workshop. He is the author of the short story collections Hue and Cry (1969) and Elbow Room (1977), which was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in Fiction in 1978. His other publications include the memoir Crabcakes (1998) and A Region Not Home: Reflections from Exile (2000), a collection of essays and reviews. His many national literary awards include a Guggenheim Fellowship, a Mac-Arthur Prize Fellows Award, and several Pushcart Prizes.

When the invitation from Gerald Early to contribute to this issue of Dædalus arrived in late February last year, I was commencing a ritual of milelong walks and conversations with Phil Jones, an old friend and colleague at the University of Iowa. I had been trying to control the physical symptoms of diabetes, and Phil was kind enough to suggest that we walk for a mile or so every two days at a nearby mall. Phil had only recently been fired from his position as vice president for student services and dean of students at the University of Iowa. The public reason for his dismissal was that university officials were not satisfied with his handling of an incident involving several black student athletes and a white student. A white male official had also been fired for the very same alleged “neglect.” Phil had served the University for forty years, but he was let go without a hearing. In return, Phil sued the University for what he believes was his unjust dismissal. Then he began to write a book about his experiences at Iowa, beginning in the early 1960s, when he first arrived as a student, and tracing his career there until the time of his dismissal as a vice president.

Phil asked me to read drafts of each section of the work-in-progress so that we could discuss them while we walked. His vivid recollections prompted me to recall my own encounters with institutional powers, not at Iowa but elsewhere. What struck me about Phil’s writing was not his anger, which was not at all visible, but the affec- . . .

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