19 January 2007

M.J. Workman Says.....

I would like you all to welcome our fiction writer and critic M.J. Workman. In today's post, he introduces himself and tells us about his past and his interests. Expect many more interesting contributions from M.J. Workman. If you have comments, leave them in the comments section, or email Workman at mjworkman39@yahoo.com

Who is this M. J. Workman, and what does he want?” The question boomeranged in the nearly empty greasy spoon posing as a restaurant. I was a fresh-faced professor, new to the Pennsylvania liberal arts college where I would teach for the next 37 years. I had just walked up to the coffee table and had been introduced to several academic looking types—each smoking a pipe, wearing a tie and a tweed jacket, the uniform (in those days) of the professoriate. After I sat down, ordered my coffee from a take-no-prisoners waitress who’d seen about all life at the bottom had to offer—I heard again the voice of brass that, thank God, tinkled with humorous grace, “I demand to know, who is this Workman, and what does he want?”

Everyone at the table burst into laughter. The question had been asked in a voice of mock irony from one of the college’s most beloved and cultured teachers who, I’d learn, knew as much about opera, classical music, English literature and gardening as he did about his academic “field,” Greek and Latin. He stood up, extended a welcoming hand and said he wanted to know, in twenty-five words or less, what I did, what I hoped to teach those “ungrateful wretches,” meaning our students. (Yes, college professors talk like that; if they (we) didn’t, we’d blow our brains out, believe me.)

His question was—and is—a fair one: who am I and what do I want from writing this literary column? I am, as Hamlin Garland (now an unread American novelist of the late nineteenth century) wrote “a son of the middle border,” a child of the Midwest, with deep roots in the working class, thanks to my parents, and thanks to “the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God,” as Thomas Jefferson wrote. Up until the time I graduated from high school I had been a jerk and a jock. But in my freshman year in college I caught the fever of education—real book learnin’ and thinkin’ and talkin’. I wanted to be a psychologist and cure crazy people since there were a few nutty ones barely hanging onto my family tree. I had already resolved not to be like them.

History, good old-fashioned Western Civ. (now given the boot by the field marshals of Political Correctness) won my heart. Psychology was shoved aside for the time being while I put on the full armor of History. In time, I earned a doctorate—my “union card”—that fitted me out just fine for a tweed coat, pipe, brief case, and tenure in a pretty fair college. While “professing” history I read Freud and William James and theologians such as Paul Tillich and Reinhold Niebuhr. They and social philosophers like John Dewey and Walter Lippmann fascinated me. In time, I learned to love novels and, much later, poetry. I dug around in dusty old books and microfilmed newspapers and wrote several serious biographies of important literary figures and even had the temerity to write a memoir about coming of age in America’s heartland in the 1950s.

Now retired and removed to a much warmer, sunnier clime, I loaf around a lot, but devour fiction, read and reread well-written memoirs and biographies. And I’m a sucker for reading the published letters of good writers—more on all this in later columns. Old habits died hard: I still mark up the books I read and note words that are unknown to me. But now it’s time for confession. I no longer worship Clio, goddess of history. Goodbye History. Been there, done that. More confession: I write a bit of poetry when the mood strikes me. Will I be brave enough in the future to share some of my poetry with you? Don’t know. Maybe.

So, now you know M.J. Workman and what he wants. I am consumed by a greedy, expanding desire to learn (I’m “into” the writings of C.G Jung at the moment and hang with some fellow Jungians here in my town.). Though retired from my academic pulpit, I still yearn to twist and shout exhorting others to listen up to what I have been learning. Be warned: this column will be my soapbox, my pulpit, and my lectern. I’ll hold forth loudly until my throat gives out.

No comments: