Although I didn’t yet know of his dying, I was thinking of James McPherson in the hours afterward, as I listened to President Obama’s speech at the Democratic National Convention. I wanted very much for him to explain how these two lodestars of our current political life, Obama and Trump, could exist in the same galaxy. Years ago, at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, I had witnessed Jim’s unerring ability to find the pulse of the weakest story. Similarly, during the reigns of Reagan and Bush the First, he had listened intently to the whispering of a far right wing not easily heard in the din of that era’s culture war. I knew I had neither Jim’s wisdom nor imagination, and the night of the convention I could only sense that he again, in a way that most of us could not, would understand the spiritual impoverishment that drove this most incredible of political narratives.
I had to content myself with remembering the rumble of his laughter, the way it could start from the tips of his splayed feet and rise up to his fraying straw cap. I thought, too, of the hesitations in the murmur of his hushed voice, the result perhaps of a stutter long mastered, or the refusal to speak anything other than the truth—his truth perhaps, but a truth that many of his students learned to rely on. Read More