The Good Doctors McHaney or A Pair of Southern Literature Scholars

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.

The McHaneys on deck overlooking their backyard,

The McHaneys on deck overlooking their backyard.

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.

Pearl in her home office. Note framed photo on desk of Pearl and Eudora laughing together.

Pearl in her home office. Note framed photo on desk of Pearl and Eudora laughing together. (Click to enlarge.)

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.

Tom in his tiny office off the garage. Everything in this room has to do with Faulkner.

Tom in his tiny office off the garage. Everything in this room has to do with Faulkner.

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.

Tom on his petanque court.

Tom on his petanque court.

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.”

 ~Eudora Welty

“The past is never dead. It isn’t even past.”

~William Faulkner     

Welty presents the National Institute of Arts and Letters’ Gold Medal for Fiction to William Faulkner in 1960, an award she received in 1972. (eudorawelty.org)

“Welty presents the National Institute of Arts and Letters’ Gold Medal for Fiction to William Faulkner in 1960, an award she received in 1972.” (eudorawelty.org)

If you had to choose a single author to read and study for a lifetime, who would that author be and why?

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19 thoughts on “The Good Doctors McHaney or A Pair of Southern Literature Scholars

  1. That’s a good question. It would have to be someone whose work was extensive enough and which rewarded multiple readings. I guess I’d have to go with Faulkner even though Jane Austen is my favorite writer.

    Now if you had asked whom I would have studied academically, that would be a harder question because, there, a more obscure or modern author would have fewer papers written about him/ her. Perhaps I would choose Vikram Seth, whose body of work is uniformly top notch and like Faulkner, never repeats himself.

    • Pretty heady answer, Christina. I’ve been thinking about who I would choose. I think it would have to be Annie Dillard (modern), and Virgina Woolf (classic) because they are (were) both prolific and thought provoking. I could read Annie Dillard all day and forget I’m even reading.

      • p.s. Annie Dillard is responsible for my starting my own nature blog at backyardspectator.blogspot.com, which has changed the way I view the world—after reading Chapter 2, “On Seeing,” from Pilgrim at Tinker Creek.

  2. I love the humanity of this article Deb – that it uncovers the professional and the personal in such a rich way. What a wonderful tribute to Pearl and Tom. It will send me to Faulkner whom I have (embarrassed here) never read.

    I’m not answering the question about a single author because I simply couldn’t nominate one person…but I will ponder on it…

    • Many thanks, Jane. I’m sure you recognized, this is the same pearl of a friend who joined us in our bluebird nestwatch several years ago, and with whom you had a cyberspace exchange in appreciation of a quote from Geoffrey Chaucer. I can’t say I’ve read any Faulkner for pleasure, either, only for college English assignments. Maybe we should try The Unvanquished. Speaking of pondering, how about Welty’s Ponder Heart? 🙂

  3. Tough question. Maybe Dostoevsky because his characters are so multidimensional and psychologically fascinating and his philosophical/theological themes interest me so much. When I worked as a psychotherapist I always thought I had learned more from Dostoevsky than in my course work…Having said that, I realize how long it has been since I read one of his novels – must remedy that!

    • I think the only way I could read Dostoevsky would be to take a class in one of his works. What’s one you’ve learned from?

    • You chose a hard one, Stephanie. Remembrance of Things Past?
      I’ve never read any Proust, but somehow that title comes to mind as his most famous.

      • I guess if you’re only going to write one novel, it better be a few thousand pages:) He wrote an earlier novel… that I’ve never read. But I was a bit obsessed with him in undergrad, and would definitely like to reread him.

  4. I had to look him up after your mention, Stephanie, of only one novel—and learned that all his other titles are sub-parts of the same novel, published in seven installments across a period of years. A novel approach :-). I also learned that his earlier novel was published posthumously—that he never finished it, but used parts of it in “Remembrance.” I wonder if he would have approved of publishing his discarded draft. I wouldn’t be too happy if my early drafts got hung out. Good argument for not keeping them once worked into a finished piece!

  5. So enjoyed your post, Deb! Would have responded sooner but was
    out of town. Such a warm and delightful interview with these amazing
    professors–I was at Georgia State when Kenneth England (of the
    titled honor they have both received) was Dean of Students,
    so it’s been awhile! Cannot come up with just one author I would
    follow…so many wonderful choices!

    • Thx, Susan. You crossed paths with Kenneth England! Way cool.
      Oh—come on—can you at least narrow your choices down to three? I love discovering others’ stable of authors. To get to know some one better, discover what they read! 🙂 Or what they wish they’d read but haven’t…

  6. I’ve always appreciated the fact that both Tom and Pearl have invested themselves so deeply in the study of the literature and ethos of the South. (Who better for such a trust than Welty and Faulkner?)

    So much of American society tends not to recognize, appreciate, or even understand regional culture and the role that “sense of place” has played in our history and the making of who we are today…. As a great Georgia author said (paraphrased) ….” Georgia is not your country — but it is an entry-way to it “…. Pearl and Tom are explorers of new (and old) worlds in the right time and place.

  7. Great comment,RCB. Intriguing indeed to think of GA as entry to U.S. True in the sense that knowledge of any sub-piece informs our understanding of the larger whole. Perhaps that’s the concept at play with Pearl and Tom’s assertion that everything they read relates to Welty and Faulkner.

  8. Yes. It’s rather amazing to me that even in my limited reading of southern authors, including Welty and Faulkner, that I could find some insight and resonance in the work of an author of another century like Ivan Turgenev…

    • Meaning your knowledge of Turgenev informs your understanding of Welty/Faulkner? Or the other way around? Maybe both—that is—if great writers write about universal truths of the human condition, then they must relate to each other 🙂

  9. I think both … The work of Turgenev and other great Russian writers of that period were very much rooted in their time and place; and yet — like Welty and Faulkner (and Wolfe, Porter, O’Connor,
    McCullers, Price, Percy, Williams, Agee, to name a few of the southerners) — their work transcended, had impacts beyond their time and place….

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