On May 12, 2015, Georgia State University announced that Dr. Pearl Amelia McHaney has been named the new Kenneth M. England Professor of Southern American Literature, a prestigious title formerly given to only one other GSU professor, her husband, Dr. Thomas L. McHaney. Both the McHaneys agree they could never have predicted the parallels in their lives and careers that led to this double honor.
Long before they ever met, the McHaneys made similar youthful decisions to study Southern American literature in college, later to independently focus on the works of a single author. At Hope College in Holland, Michigan, Pearl chose literary giant Eudora Welty after reading three of her short stories for a course assignment. Encouraged by a professor and mentor at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill, Tom developed his passion for William Faulkner. Eventually, Pearl and Tom themselves became professors in the English department at Georgia State University, where they met, continued their studies, fell in love, married, published a distinguished array of articles and books in their respective areas of expertise, and became the Southeast’s preeminent team of Southern American literature scholars, most notably on the works and lives of Welty and Faulkner. They have traveled the world together, sharing their acquired knowledge with good cheer and generosity. To call them venerable professors is to grossly understate the influence and scope of their teaching careers.
In addition to her newest honor, Pearl is currently the Associate Dean for Fine Arts at GSU and the Director of GSU’s Center for Collaborative and International Arts. Her most recent book-length study, A Tyrannous Eye: Eudora Welty’s Nonfiction and Photography, came out in 2014, when she received the Phoenix Award for outstanding achievement in Welty Studies from the Eudora Welty Society. She is the editor of Eudora Welty as Photographer, which won the Eudora Welty Prize; Occasions: Selected Writings by Eudora Welty; Eudora Welty: Contemporary Reviews; A Writer’s Eye; Collected Reviews by Eudora Welty; and the Eudora Welty Review, an annual peer-reviewed journal. She has also lectured and published on work by William Faulkner, Barry Hannah, David Mamet, Sindewe Magona, Alice Munroe, Natasha Trethewey, and Tennessee Williams.
All of this is to say nothing of the annual Eudora Welty birthday bash Pearl throws in her home every April 13 for colleagues, students, and Welty enthusiasts, complete with literary readings and games she invents related to all things Welty. In one memorable scavenger hunt, players were given a list of Welty quotes for which they had to find the corresponding titles by asking other guests. No Welty party at the McHaneys’ house is without pimento cheese sandwiches, made by Tom, and on occasion, Aunt Mashula’s coconut cake from Welty’s Delta Wedding.
Professor Emeritus Tom has earned respect and awe from his students across his forty-year teaching career at GSU. He was the founding director of the creative writing program in the Department of English, and his name turns up in almost any literary discussion involving GSU, where he served for many years as the Director of Graduate Studies. He has published six book-length works and dozens of as-yet uncollected essays on William Faulkner. Along with Noel Polk, Joseph Blotner, and Michael Millgate, he was an editor of the G.K. Hall 25-volume facsimile edition of William Faulkner’s manuscripts. On the more creative side, Tom has published over twenty short stories in American literary magazines and seen four of his plays produced by Atlanta theater companies. He also started the badminton club through GSU’s Season for Self evening program and played competitively in the club for many years.
In retirement, aside from being a sought-after lecturer, Tom has developed a showcase garden in his multi-tiered backyard that includes a lighted petanque court he built and maintains himself. Together, the McHaneys host regular Sunday night petanque potlucks with neighbors, family and friends.
Lucky enough to be neighbors, my family and I look forward to the inclusive McHaney gatherings. Since we know them socially, not professionally, I’ve wondered what it’s like to be a husband and wife team at the same university. Assuming others were curious too, I asked some people in my circle of friends what they would like to know about the dynamic McHaney duo.
Did they want more in-depth information about the works and lives of Welty and Faulkner? No. Did they want to know the most rewarding aspects of studying one author so deeply, relative to the way most of us read? No. Did they want to know the most accessible works of Welty and Faulkner, that they might begin to read more deeply, too? No. They wanted to know what a married couple of Southern literature experts talk about in bed. The answer, directly from the lips of Dr. Pearl A. McHaney, with Dr. Thomas L. McHaney laughing heartily in the background, is “Nothing. We don’t talk in bed. We sleep.”
But I actually did want to know more about their lifework, so I posed a few questions.
What should those new to Welty and Faulkner read first?
Tom: I’ll go with the novel Faulkner thought most people would like, The Unvanquished, which is seven related stories set in the Civil War, told from the viewpoint of a boy with a black companion, in the vein of Huckleberry Finn.
Pearl: Welty’s short novel, The Optimist’s Daughter, winner of the Pulitzer Prize, because it’s humorous and serious at the same time, and beautifully written.
What are their more difficult titles, and what are your favorites?
Tom: Vladimir Nabokov said, ‘No great novels can be read. They can only be re-read.’ This is true about The Sound and the Fury, which is generally considered one of Faulkner’s most difficult. My favorite is the 1942 novel, Go Down, Moses, because it is incredibly rich in family story, told from different points of view brought together in dramatic fashion.
Pearl: A cycle of interrelated short stories titled The Golden Apples is probably Welty’s most difficult, but it is also her masterpiece. My personal favorite is a little short story, “Livvie,” because it is direct, honest, and all about human relationships. I find something new with every re-reading.
Has studying one author so thoroughly affected how you read other things, and what do you choose for your leisure reading?
Pearl: I’ve had to train myself to read recreationally, without a pencil in hand, without stopping to think or comment along the way. I find that everything relates to Welty in one way or another. At the beach I try to read a book a day. I like to read poetry or anything by Natasha Trethewey, and short stories by Alice Munroe, because she was an admirer of Welty.
Tom: I’m still most interested in Faulkner and love to re-read his work. I compulsively read the New York Times all the way through every day. I also enjoy topics of Southern history because they all relate to Faulkner. I’m currently reading through all the volumes of The Encyclopedia of Southern Culture. Each one is a treatise on a different aspect of the culture, such as religion, food, manners, music, language, etc.
What is the single most significant characteristic that typifies Faulkner’s and Welty’s works that would be helpful for readers to know?
Tom: Faulkner’s use of the language is extraordinary. You will never get to know Faulkner by reading Faulkner. You can get to know him overall, but not the way he writes, because every novel of his is completely different.
Pearl: For Welty it would be her conviction that feelings are central to human relationships. And one thing Welty and Faulkner have in common is that they never repeat themselves. Every one of their stories is unique.
As for Pearl and Tom’s favorite quotes from their authors, well, what a fine way to end.
“Mutual understanding in the world being nearly always, as now, at low ebb, it is comforting to remember that it is through art that one country can nearly always speak reliably to another, if the other can hear at all. Art, though, is never the voice of a country; it is an even more precious thing, the voice of the individual, doing its best to speak, not comfort of any sort, indeed, but truth. And the art that speaks it most unmistakably, most directly, most variously, most fully, is fiction; in particular, the novel.”
“The past is never dead. It isn’t even past.”
If you had to choose a single author to read and study for a lifetime, who would that author be and why?