James Alan McPherson's "Grant Hall"
Iowa City has been on my mind lately because I’ll be going there soon for its annual Iowa Summer Writing Festival. It’s a very cool town—a hilly cultural oasis surrounded by rich Iowa farmland, where the sidewalks of the downtown are inscribed with quotes from famous writers and the local independent bookstore, Prairie Lights, is considered a sacred institution.
I spent a couple of years there when I was at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where I had the good fortune to study with James Alan McPherson, a wonderful fiction writer and essayist, and one of the most well-read people on the planet. James McPherson, who is African-American, grew up in segregated Savannah, Georgia, and spent much of his childhood tucked away in the local Carnegie Library, reading everything on the shelves. He eventually went on to graduate from Harvard law school, funding his education by working as a janitor there, but he decided he’d rather write than become a lawyer. After studying at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, James published his short story collection Elbow Room, for which he received the Pulitzer Prize in 1978. In 1981, he returned to Iowa City to teach and to set down roots.
I’d like to read to you a passage from his essay “Grant Hall,” which appears in his collection A Region Not Home: Reflections from Exile. This passage describes Iowa City with James’ characteristic erudition—he compares Iowa City to an Athenian polis.
Iowa City was intentionally planned to be a polis. Its model was Philadelphia, but also the style of Athens. According to one of the city’s historians, Laurence Lafore, Iowa City was planned as an exemplar of the decisive and pervasive influence of Greek and Roman ideals in American life, and in a way that would have been intelligible to people in the seventeenth century as the opposite of the word gothic. Doric, Ionian, and Corinthian columns are still visible in university buildings and in some of the older houses. The Athens inhabited by Socrates and Aristotle and Plato was a polis in which everyone knew everyone else. It was a village with a cosmopolitan sense. Iowa City is such a village. It is not the antidemocratic polis of Socrates, who believed that everyone was good as some one thing and should be restricted to that one labor. It is a polis in which the president of a bank can be a former athlete, where the Episcopal priest sees no conflict between sermons and sports announcing. It is a city in which bus drivers and garbage men and clerks and postal workers almost always have advanced degrees. People delight in living here. Neighbors will shovel the snow off your sidewalk simply because they shovel in a straight line. Iowa City began as an attempt to reproduce the civil perfection of Athens in the American wilderness. Its subscription to democratic principles encouraged the same cosmopolitan sense that was in Athens, especially with respect to tolerance. Churches of every denomination have always co-existed in Iowa City. The only African Methodist Episcopal church, Bethel A.M.E. Church at 411 S. Governor Street, was built in 1868. Many of the homes in Iowa City were once stations on the Underground Railway. Runaway slaves were hidden in coal cellars and attics of homes I have visited. Someone has said that civilization rests on two very fragile bases—high culture and good topsoil. Both are in Iowa City in abundance. But there is also a feeling of Greek civic virtue combined with Roman cosmopolitanism.
This was the thing I had returned to Iowa City to learn.