Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Nice Guy Finishes First

Jim Magnuson

The years bridging the Sixties and the Seventies, which were turbulent ones on many American college campuses, were for me full of fun, adventure, and expansive experience in my role as the young master of an undergraduate residential college in my university.  Several of the students I came to know well then have become life-long friends.  But no friend of that Golden Age came to mean more to me and my family than did the writer James Magnuson, who spent part of that period in Princeton on a writing fellowship and for a time was the official “Playwright in Residence” of Wilson College.  Jim and, later, his wonderful wife Hester, then later still two splendid Magnuson offspring, have been enriching our lives for many years.  Friends so close have naturally popped up from time to time in my blog essays, but the gravity of the moment demands that I write one in which Magnuson is the subject.

For we just returned from a weekend on the campus of the University of Texas in Austin where we participated in the festivities marking Jim’s retirement from the University, where he has been the Director of the James A. Michener Center for Writers for more than two decades.  Literary fashions are fickle, and reputations fleeting.  Nonetheless almost everybody will recognize the name of James Michener (1907-1997), an extraordinarily prolific, popular, and (in the present context by no means least relevantly) financially successful writer of the post-War years.  Without him my generation would have been bereft of hearing Ezio Pinza and Mary Martin singing “Some Enchanted Evening,” but the country is even more deeply in his debt.  Mr. Michener donated many millions for several important cultural and educational endeavors.  One of these, the James A. Michener Center for Writers, has allowed the University of Texas to develop and maintain one of the nation’s premier programs for the Master of Fine Arts in Writing.

James A. Michener (1907-1997)

Money can enable a promising academic program, but it cannot achieve its success.  Success also requires vision and the rather mysterious quality of “leadership,” a thing not always boisterous or self-asserting.  Writing of the art of the great sculptor Pygmalion, Ovid dropped a wonderful line: ars adeo latet arte sua, “with his art he conceals his art.”  I deduce that Jim’s palpably effective leadership of the Michener Center has often been of the self-concealing sort.

We attended two major evening events.  At the first, an informal outdoor barbecue dinner held in the warm twilight of a Texas spring evening, a series of old students and colleagues spoke movingly about what Jim’s professional example, his generosity of spirit, his unfailing good humor, and his personal and professional wisdom had meant to a whole generation of aspiring young poets and fiction writers.  We heard more of the same at a second dinner, closer to the lines of the state banquet, where the guest list appeared to bend more in the direction of faculty colleagues and old personal and professional friends from many venues, distinguished deans, institutional trustees, benefactors and well-wishers from the amazingly rich cultural scene that is contemporary Austin.  In the testimonial remarks there was wide stylistic diversity but an underlying and unifying harmony.  An intruding alien who knew nothing about universities, writing, or writers might have mistaken the event for the culminating episode of a reality show called World’s Nicest Man.

Of course since it marked the retirement of the Director of a Writing Center, there was certain eavesdropped chatter in the room of books forthcoming, prizes runnered-up, movie contracts likely, publisher’s advances advanced, who loses and who wins, who’s in, who’s out.  Even in the purest of academies professional schools value professional success, of which there has been much on display at the Michener Center during the Magnuson years.  But it is only in Alice’s Wonderland that all must have prizes.  I was impressed by my brief conversations with several students unlikely to achieve authorial fame but conscious of the independent values of the study and practice of writing itself.   They cherished Magnuson for his wise and good-humored guidance, advice, encouragement and perhaps above all his example of perseverance in the hard, inglorious, sometimes tedious loyalty to the craft of writing.  As my author, Chaucer, puts it: The lyf so short, the craft so longe to lerne 

In his own lovely after-dinner remarks, Jim quoted a (to me) rather mysterious obiter dictum of Henry James about serious writers: "We work in the dark--we do what we can--we give what we have.  Our doubt is our passion, and our passion is our task.  The rest is the madness of art."  It was not the first time I have known him to invoke this gnomic gem.  Should you wish to sample Jim's own substantial body of work as a novelist over half a century, you could do worse than begin with something fairly recent, Famous Writers I Have Known (Norton, 2014).  To encourage you in this direction, I direct you to a brief radio review of the book on NPR.  In Famous Writers you will find Henry James again, and in a somewhat startling context.  At the satirical level, the book shares something of the genius of Randall Jarrell's classic academic novel Pictures from an Institution, but since it is set in a (wholly imaginary) Writing Program in Texas we learn a lot about the (probably actual) ambience in which its author labored for so many years.  It was our honor to be present at the honoring of so fine a friend, so fine a man.