Acclaimed writer James McConkey, the Goldwin Smith Professor of English Literature Emeritus and mentor to young writers at Cornell for nearly four decades, died Oct. 24, 2019 at his home in Enfield. He was 98.
Known for his meditative nonfiction narratives based on personal experience, McConkey created profound imagery sparked by memory, making intuitive connections as he wrote. His essays often were about himself or his family.
“Memory is a fiction, but it’s a fiction that’s true to us,” McConkey said in 2004.
He joined the Department of English in the College of Arts and Sciences in 1956 as an assistant professor, and retired in 1992. He taught modern literature and prose, creative writing courses in poetry and fiction, and modern British and American fiction; and was an adviser at Epoch magazine.
He was faculty adviser to Thomas Pynchon ’59, author of “Gravity’s Rainbow.” Other students of McConkey’s included “The King’s Speech” screenwriter David Seidler ’59; fiction writers Joanna Russ ‘57, Richard Fariña ’59 and Lorrie Moore, M.F.A. ’82; and memoirist and fiction writer A. Manette Ansay ’91. Many of the writers he mentored earned M.F.A. degrees in the Creative Writing Program, including Julie Schumacher (1986), Paul Cody (1987), Melissa Bank (1988), Stewart O’Nan (1992), Junot Diaz and Susan Choi (1995), and Nina Revoyr (1997).
The program honored McConkey’s life and work in September 2016 with a 95th birthday celebration and reading, “James McConkey: Courting Memory.”
Born in Lakewood, Ohio in 1921, McConkey attended Cleveland College and served as a U.S. Army infantryman during World War II. Injured during the war, he was discharged in November 1945 and earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Western Reserve University (later Case Western Reserve) in 1946 and a Ph.D. from the University of Iowa in 1950. Before coming to Cornell, he taught at Morehead State College in Kentucky, where he founded and directed the Morehead Writers Workshop.
He began publishing fiction in the mid-1950s and experimented with autobiographical fiction into the mid-1960s, until “he decided to give up creating characters and write about his own experiences,” colleague Robert Morgan said at a 2009 “Cornell Writers on Cornell Writers” event.
He avoided the term “memoirist” and preferred to call his work “life writing” – a style that was uniquely his, Morgan noted.
“A theme that runs throughout McConkey’s work is the search for human connection, for brotherhood. He finds the extraordinary in the ordinary,” Morgan said in 2009. “[He] is so clearly a modern secular writer. In another life, Jim would likely have been a theologian. Jim McConkey is a poet without verse and a churchman without creed.”
McConkey helped found the Cornell Council for the Arts in 1965, and initiated the popular Mind and Memory course and a related lecture series in 1996, exploring creativity across various disciplines. A former student established a summer fellowship in creative writing in McConkey’s name in 2008. His collected papers (1948-90) are housed in Cornell University Library’s Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections.
He wrote or edited 15 books, many of which have been republished and kept in print. His early works include a critical study, “The Novels of E.M. Forster” (1958); “The Structure of Prose: An Introduction to Writing” (1963); a short story collection, “Night Stand” (Cornell University Press, 1965); “Crossroads: An Autobiographical Novel” (1968); and “Journey to Sakhalin” (1971), written in the aftermath of racial conflict at Cornell in the late 1960s.
“To a Distant Island” (1984) retraced Anton Chekhov’s 6,500-mile journey across Russia in 1890; and “Court of Memory” (1983) included “Crossroads” and a series of essays that first appeared in The New Yorker and other magazines.
His many professional honors include the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters award in literature, a Guggenheim fellowship, and a National Endowment for the Arts essay award.
McConkey’s other books include: “The Tree House Confessions” (1980), “Rowan’s Progress” (1992), “Stories from My Life With the Other Animals” (1993) and “The Telescope in the Parlor: Essays on Life and Literature” (2004). He also edited the anthology “The Anatomy of Memory” (2001).
Survivors include two sons and two grandchildren. His wife of 68 years, Gladys, a former research chemist and editor at Cornell, died in 2013.
The Department of English is planning a memorial service to be announced at a later date.
This story originally appeared in the Cornell Chronicle.