Reflecting on Ironies

Over the Easter weekend, we drove by James Alan McPherson Park. A lot of people were having a great time. Because it was crowded, we went to Terry Trueblood Recreation Area, planning to return another day.

We just got our copy of McPherson’s Pulitzer Prize winning fiction anthology, Elbow Room. We’ve ordered his other collection of short fiction, Hue and Cry and it’s been shipped.

McPherson was impressed with the neighboring culture of Iowa City. He’s described as being kind and neighborly himself.

He was self-effacing, which probably seemed ironic to some people, given he was the first African American to win the Pulitzer Prize for fiction for Elbow Room. He was on faculty at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop for many years, won the inaugural Paul Engle award from the Iowa UNESCO City of Literature, graduated from Harvard Law School, recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship, a MacArthur Fellowship, and was inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

I’m struck by a few ironies. Our paths never crossed but that’s probably not surprising given our different professional trajectories. I graduated from medical school at Iowa and just retired last year from the University of Iowa Hospitals & Clinics (UIHC) Dept of Psychiatry where I was a Consultation-Liaison Psychiatrist.

However, McPherson in his essay, [Pursuit of the Pneuma, McPherson, J. (2011). Pursuit of the “Pneuma”. Daedalus, 140(1), 183-188]. described being treated by Iowa City psychiatrist, Dr. Dorothy “Jean” Arnold. And, ironically, Dr. Arnold was white (both she McPherson came from the racially polarized South) and originally graduated from the University of Alabama Medical School. She was also the first female psychiatrist to open a private practice in the state of Iowa in 1957. She taught at the University of Iowa Hospital, but I could not find her mentioned in the history of the UIHC Psychiatry Dept, although Dr. Peg Nopoulos, the first woman chair of the department, has her own chapter [Psychiatry at Iowa: The Shaping of a Discipline: A History of Service, Science, and Education, written by James Bass.]

I’m mentioned in Bass’s history, which is sort of ironic. The book is actually about scientists in the field of psychiatry, and I was anything but. I was a clinician. For comparison, if you ever watch the Weather Channel, I’m not a meteorologist. I’m more like the guys on Highway Thru Hell or Heavy Rescue 401, although I’m not practical in that sense. I am African American though, and it was a good idea for Bass to mention me, since I think I’m the only Black psychiatrist to have ever been hired by the department.

McPherson was impressed with the generous and receptive nature of Iowans, which he ascribed to a quality captured by the word “Pneuma,” a Greek word meaning “the vital spirit of life itself.”

There’s another irony in connection with one of my most influential teachers at Huston-Tillotson College, in Austin, Texas, one of the historically black colleges and universities (HBCU) in America. McPherson attended the HBCU at Morris Brown College in Atlanta, Georgia. Dr. Jenny Lind Porter-Scott, who recently died, was a white Professor of English at H-TC, writer and translator of poetry, teacher to thousands, and popular with students of all races, yet there is no tangible, permanent remembrance of her by Texans. To be sure, she is listed in the Texas Women’s Hall of Fame and in 1964, she was appointed Poet Laureate of Texas by Governor John Connally. Her house was demolished in 2016. In 2016, an architect sent me an email message describing a plan to build a mini-library of her published work in the neighborhood, and a house similar in style to the one demolished on the lot. Whenever I check on Google Maps, the lot remains empty and overgrown with weeds. 

James Alan McPherson taught and formed close bonds with many students who came from different countries, ethnic, and racial backgrounds. Enjoy the park named for him in the “the vital spirit of life itself.”

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