Celebrated writer and mentor Prof. James McConkey, english, who had been a professor at Cornell for nearly four decades, died on Oct. 24. He was 98 years old.
McConkey was known for his nonfiction essays, which were heavily rooted in his own personal experiences. In addition to some of his works that appeared in The New Yorker, McConkey also wrote and edited 15 books, according to a University press release.
“We all came to love his presence, and subversiveness, his calmness and patience as much as his nonfiction,” Prof. Helena Viramontes, English, wrote in an email to The Sun.
Some of McConkey’s works include his 1968 novel “Crossroads: An Autobiographical Novel,” which is based on his experiences with his wife and three sons. McConkey also wrote “Journey to Sakhalin,” a 1971 novel that is based on the 1969 Willard Straight takeover.
During his time at Cornell, McConkey taught the popular “Mind and Memory” English course, according to the press release. He was also instrumental in establishing the Cornell Council for the Arts in 1965, an organization that still exists that promotes contemporary art on campus.
McConkey, who was known for inviting prominent authors to visit Cornell, also hosted the Chekhov festival in the late 1970s, which the creative writing program described as “one of the most memorable cultural events in Cornell history.” The festival featured distinguished authors like Eudora Welty, John Cheever, Denise Levertov and Walker Percy.
McConkey was the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship, a National Endowment for the Arts essay award and American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters award in literature.
Former students of McConkey remembered him for his prose, intellect and humility.
Diane Ackerman M.A. ’73 MFA ’76 Ph.D. ’78, one of McConkey’s graduate advisees, said that McConkey helped her learn how to go about writing prose.
“In all those different phases and stages of life, I’ve felt privileged to know someone so keenly nourished by literature, gifted with creative insight, full of curiosity about the world, sincerely caring, candid about having a social and environmental conscience, uxorious, wickedly smart but immoderately humble, down-to-earth, and to use a very old-fashioned word and concept, ‘decent,’” Ackerman wrote in The American Scholar, a magazine published by the Phi Beta Kappa Society,
Robert Wilson, the editor of The American Scholar, remarked that throughout his life, McConkey always had a lively persona.
“Sometimes when you love a book too much, it is hard not to be disappointed by its all-too-human author,” Wilson wrote. “But that was dramatically not the case with Jim. He was a boyish 70 or so when I first met him and still puckish at just past 90 when I saw him again.”
The English department plans to host a memorial for McConkey but has not announced a date.
McConkey is survived by his two sons and two grandchildren. His wife Gladys, a chemist at Cornell, passed away in 2013.