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The Complete Court of Memory by James…
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The Complete Court of Memory

by James McConkey

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A month or two ago I'd never heard of James McConkey, and this is a guy who's been around for over ninety years and has been writing for more than fifty. But recently I ran across an excerpt from his COURT OF MEMORY in an anthology called MODERN AMERICAN MEMOIRS. It was called "Hector, Dick and I," and told of his time as a grad student at the University of Iowa not long after the Second World War. It was such a delightful piece of writing that I wanted more McConkey, so I researched him a bit and found he'd written a dozen or more books. Some were scholarly in nature, on Forster and Chekhov (he taught English at Cornell for over 35 years), there was some fiction, including a novel, THE TREE HOUSE CONFESSIONS, and, most interesting of all, there were a few volumes of memoirs.

So I settled on this book, THE COMPLETE COURT OF MEMORY, which gathers his first three memoirs, along with some other autobiographical essays which make a fourth volume, all under one cover. It's a fat book, a heavy one, which seems appropriate, since McConkey tackles some pretty weighty matters in his writing. Mostly he ponders the mysteries of life itself.

In his nineties now, and retired from teaching for over twenty years, in many ways McConkey's life has been a fairly ordinary one. Born in the twenties, a child of the Great Depression and its hard times, McConkey attended Cleveland College on a work-study scholarship, married, and served in the infantry during WWII, where he was seriously injured in a jeep rollover in Normandy. He returned from the war to attend graduate schools in Ohio and Iowa, taught for several years in Kentucky, then at Cornell from 1956 until his retirement.

Perhaps the dominant theme in McConkey's four volumes of memoirs is his parents' divorce when he was eleven or twelve years old. Clayton McConkey, almost a dozen years younger than his wife, was something of a blue-sky dreamer of a salesman (Willie Loman comes to mind). He changed jobs and moved often, searching always for his "bracket." McConkey tells us that by the time he graduated from high school he had attended fifteen different schools in several states. His father's second marriage failed after a few years and the elder McConkey even spent some time in prison for writing bad checks, but upon his release he remarried his first wife and they remained together until his death from cancer. But during those four years that his parents were divorced, James and his mother went through some very difficult times, living with relatives and moving around, trying to make ends meet. His mother worked as a maid. Her older son Jack got a scholarship to General Motors Institute in Flint. James went to live with his father and second wife in Chicago for several months, then back to live with an aunt and uncle, finally ending up at Cleveland College, where he earned an accelerated pre-war degree and met his wife. These poverty-stricken peripatetic early years obviously left a permanent mark on McConkey, because it seems to me that he has spent the rest of his life trying to prove his own worth as a reliable husband and father (he has three sons). He even admits that he adamantly refused any opportunities to move on from Cornell for better paying positions, mostly because he wanted his own family to have a firm sense of permanence and stability, of 'home' - all of which were so lacking in his own early life.

McConkey didn't stay put completely, however. He traveled extensively, on sabbaticals to Italy and France, during which time he saw much of Europe, and he writes most eloquently of his time in the Greek islands, Paris and other places.

I found much to relate to in McConkey's memories, particularly in his close relationship with his aged mother, who lived with him for the last dozen years or so of her life (she lived to be a hundred). She told him she no longer believed in heaven, and I remembered how my own mother, also in her nineties, admitted she no longer believed a lot of the force-fed teachings of the Christian church. Indeed, McConkey at one point recalls something "from an otherwise forgotten book" - "Memory is what we now have in place of religion."

I was also touched by McConkey's musings on how our attitudes change toward animals as we get older, "with the inevitable ebbing of the once insatiable wanting that sometimes makes an unholy ... trinity of soul, sex and possessions." He remembers a dog he had as a boy and reflects on the many pets and animals he's had since then, and how many of them are an attempt to recapture that first important boy-dog bond that can perhaps never be replicated. Reading this caused me to think about how important my own dogs have been in my life, especially those that have shared our home since retirement. We lavish our love on these animals, unashamedly and fully. McConkey's "My Life with the Other Animals" is a fascinating look at this concept.

I really enjoyed reading this book, except for one thing. McConkey tends to repeat himself, reiterating many of the same anecdotes, about his parents, his children, etc. His long-time home in upstate New York, for example, is never just an old farmhouse. It's always his "1831 classic Greek revival farmhouse." After the first dozen or so times he describes it this way, I was tired of hearing it. I GOT it, Jim. It's a very OLD house. But then, these stories, anecdotes and descriptions were written at different times, often decades apart, so I should probably forgive him these redundancies. Bottom line: this is a fascinating, often thought-provoking look at a very long life. In some ways it's very ordinary, but McConkey has a way of reflecting on it all that makes it seem very Extraordinary.

If you enjoy autobiography, then this is a must read. Highly recommended. ( )
  TimBazzett | Jan 28, 2015 |
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