ITHACA, N.Y. -- James McConkey, Cornell University's Goldwin Smith Professor of English Literature emeritus, didn't think he had another book in him. But when Paul Dry, owner of an independent publishing house in Philadelphia, suggested to McConkey that perhaps he'd already written his next book, it was a wake-up call of sorts. The result is The Telescope in the Parlor: Essays on Life and Literature (Paul Dry Books Inc., 2004), a compilation of previously uncollected writings and McConkey's first new book since The Anatomy of Memory, an anthology he edited in 1996.
Telescope covers a range of topics, including McConkey's abiding interest in the works of Anton Chekov, E.M. Forster and the late Cornell poet A.R. Ammons, a friend and colleague. In addition to vivid recollections of romance, family life and the world of words, McConkey writes poignantly of poet Anne Silsbee, also a friend, whose works were just gaining recognition at the time of her death. The title is literal and, as with his celebrated Court of Memory works, metaphorical: There is a telescope in the parlor at McConkey's home. There's also McConkey and his telescopic mind.
Three of the book's essays appeared in Phi Beta Kappa Society's literary journal, American Scholar , including "Happy Trails to All," an essay McConkey composed in 2001, thinking it might be his last bit of writing. Anne Fadiman, then-editor of American Scholar , thought otherwise. She published "Happy Trails" and two subsequent McConkey essays: "On Being Human" and this collection's title piece, "The Telescope in the Parlor."
McConkey, 83, is a beloved figure in the Cornell community. With the exception of the Mind and Memory lectures -- a highly popular series he initiated in 1996 exploring the use of creativity across the disciplines -- he hasn't taught in more than decade. Yet his legacy as a kind and generous creative writing teacher remains undiminished. During a recent visit to Cornell, alumna Lorrie Moore praised McConkey for "bringing to the discussion of writing not only an appreciation of the private mystery of each individual piece of fiction ... but ... a great sense of his own sharing in our endeavor, that we were all working with great difficulty and loneliness at the same thing."
Readers who discover McConkey's work tend to remain lifelong fans.
Dry said he started reading McConkey long before he ever thought of starting a publishing company. In 2000 Dry reissued To A Distant Island , McConkey's re-creation of Chekhov's 6,500-mile journey to Sakhalin, the Siberian penal colony. That effort led to a regular correspondence and a visit from Dry to McConkey's oft referred to "Greek-revival farmhouse" outside of Ithaca. During their meeting, Dry suggested that McConkey assemble a book of his uncollected essays. It was a case of history repeating itself. In 1993 David Godine, Boston-based publisher and longtime McConkey fan, reissued Court of Memory and simultaneously published Stories From My Life With the Other Animals .
"When you find writing you love, it is nice to know you're not alone. There are people who love Jim's writing and want to keep bringing it back," said Dry. "Listening to his writing, you can hear Jim listening to others; he imparts his sense of how to listen to a writer ... [and] he looks closely at the world around him -- with care for what he's seen, and for those who listen he describes what has come into his ken."
In describing his "ken," McConkey eschews the term "memoirist." The tradition of his own work, he says, goes back to St. Augustine's Confessions and McConkey calls it "life writing."
"Memory is a fiction, but it's a fiction that's true to us," he says. "It's a kind of writing in which the writer is trying to understand the self -- the psyche. The only tool is the psyche, and it requires an apprehension of something of value beyond the self. If I didn't think my writing were representative, I don't think I could have written. And I certainly don't think it would get published."
Noel Perrin, the late author and Dartmouth professor, said that McConkey's writing defies categorization.
"The genre in which McConkey does his best writing has no name. He invented it," Perrin once wrote in a review for USA Today . "What McConkey does is to create meaning out of ordinary life ... he'll create what is not exactly a story but a pattern in time."
Fadiman writes that McConkey "uses his own memory as a tool -- a telescope with a view of the entire universe. I can't think of another writer who uses that tool with as much precision, delicacy and love."
One of the essays from Telescope, "Idyll," is in the January-February 2005 issue of the Cornell Alumni Magazine, which subscribers will receive around the first of the new year. "I'm a big fan of McConkey's work and was really pleased we could have this in the magazine," said Jim Roberts, editor and publisher.