Faculty Highlights: Ken McClane

W.E.B. DuBois Professor of Literature

College of Arts and Sciences

Photo of Faculty Highlights: Ken McClane

Faculty Highlights: Ken McClane

If you've ever seen Ken McClane in front of an audience, you wouldn't believe the man gets stage fright -- a real case of the nerves.

"I don't particularly like being a public person, even though I do relish public speaking," says McClane, the W.E.B. Dubois Professor of Literature at Cornell and a 2003 Stephen H. Weiss Presidential Fellow. "I get scared before any class."

But rather than being paralyzed by anxiety, McClane unleashes its latent energy to excellent effect -- for himself and his listeners. That makes him a tough act to follow in the classroom or at a public reading.

During a visit to campus last semester, author Lorrie Moore, MFA '82, lamented having to teach a writing class populated by students who had just come from one of McClane's classes.

"They would come in all excited and then slowly grow bored and then their eyes would glaze over," Moore said. "He was such an inspiring teacher."

In the pacing and pulse of McClane's speech are the syncopations, stutter-steps and grandiloquence of '60s-era Harlem street patter -- albeit with an Ivy League rhetorical polish.

That's no surprise. McClane came of age in Harlem -- 147th Street, in fact. His father was a doctor whose 145th Street office was the former home of legendary Congressman Adam Clayton Powell Jr.; his mother was a licensed pharmacist who later turned her attentions to painting and writing. Her avocation influenced McClane's own love of African-American art, evident by the works hanging in his Goldwin Smith Hall office.

"When I say goodbye to all this," says McClane, gesturing to the books on his shelf, "I'd love to open an art gallery."

The elder McClanes were familiar figures in a growing black middle class of Harlem in the 1940s and '50s, accustomed to entertaining leading artists and celebrities of that time in their home.

Status was no buffer from life's agonies. A sister was born mentally retarded; McClane's brother, an accomplished musician, died from alcoholism before reaching 30. Of the latter, McClane has written poignantly in an essay titled "A Death in the Family."

A gifted scholar, McClane was enrolled as only the second black student in Collegiate, America's oldest preparatory school, just a year after Collegiate had admitted its first black student, Edward Boyd. Following his graduation, McClane started an academic run at Cornell that, with the exception of a teaching stint at Colby College and visiting professorships, hasn't really stopped since 1969. He received his B.A., M.A. and M.F.A. from Cornell. He has taught here since 1976, received a Clark Teaching Award in 1983 and become a full professor in 1989.

McClane is completing a new book of 15 essays that reveal more about his family and background, particularly his relationship to his parents. Until recently, he has shied away from a full accounting of his childhood, which was a strange brew of middle class privilege held in check by racism and urban strife and rattled by the heady commotions of the civil rights movement.

"I was privy to all kinds of weird and wonderful stories," says McClane. "I am perhaps not the greatest vessel for this, but I am the only vessel. If I don't tell these stories, they don't exist."

In February he read a piece about his mother at an event for the Saltonstall Foundation, a local arts group. He serves on the Saltonstall Foundation board as well as the Tompkins County Library Foundation board, and he is a member of the board of trustees at Adelphi University, among other services. While McClane has made a name for himself as an essayist (for instance, he received the 2002 Distinguished Prose Award from the Antioch Review), he is first and foremost a poet, with eight books of verse to his name.

Currently he is serving as the chair of undergraduate studies in English, which requires one-to-one contact with dozens of students, a situation he enjoys.

Students exposed to McClane's mix of emotion and sense, feeling and word, do not forget him. In letters, former students recall that what they remember best, McClane says, "is the fact that I took life seriously, that I was passionate about something. That was the example that stayed with them."

Kimari Johnson, M.F.A. '97, concurred.

"He gets excited for people," said Johnson. "I wrote a poem the other day and was wondering what Ken would say about it. He can get inside a poem and pull things out of it that a lot of people would never see. He's an excellent reader -- of people and of poems."

That's in part because such things really do make a difference to McClane.

"That's probably the best thing I can say or do -- instill a sense that 'it' matters -- words -- matter. Right? You matter. Love matters. That believing in the possibility of my students matters. I say, let's celebrate these things."

McClane pauses to let the mood breathe a bit.

"It's seems that's all I do. And it doesn't take genius. I didn't need a degree for that."

Maybe not. But McClane rode his own passion for words to a place where degrees do matter. His stage fright is perhaps just a reminder that it all counts.