Monday, April 25, 2011

THE BIG MAC: The MacArthur Awards

When Nature has work to be done, she creates a genius to do it
          Ralph Waldo Emerson.
The first and perhaps most important thing to say about the MacArthur fellowships, which some have called a "mini-Nobel," is that not every one who receives this yearly recognition is a genius. Administrators at the Foundation will be quick to tell you that, and rightly so.
Starting in the 1980s, and long before I received my MacArthur in 1998, the Foundation sent me the nominating statements for other writers and asked me to evaluate their work, partly because I worked in the same field as those nominees, and partly because with Being and Race: Black Writing Since 1970 I established some credentials as a literary critic. I gave them reports on several writers, black and white, and nominated one recipient, a man who is distinguished for his work with at-risk black youth and ex-convicts.
The money given to MacArthur fellows is, of course, a blessing. But no one gets rich from it, nor is it the intention of the Foundation to make anyone rich---only to provide them with the freedom to continue their work. What's nice is that fellows don't have to continue the same work that brought them the award. They can pursue any new path dictated by their intellects and imagination. It's likely many do exactly that because MacArthur fellows, as a group, don't follow the herd or fashionable trends. Rather, they tend to be people who innovate---often for many years in obscurity---and strike out in new directions.
So, as I said, the money was fine, but far more interesting to me---and something almost everyone ignores during the excitement when the awards are announced---is the specific, unique reason why someone receives this award. If anyone cares to know, the answer is on each individual fellow's citation. Mine reads, "Charles Johnson is a novelist, short story writer, essayist, cartoonist, and screenwriter. His works address fundamental philosophical questions and transcend the boundaries of class, ethnicity, and culture that separate us."
 More rewarding than the five years of financial support was (for me) the recognition of the essence of my oeuvre up to the year 1998. When they called to tell me I'd received a MacArthur (they prefer the Call to other ways of first communicating with you), I was informed that it took their judges a full year to read all my work.   
In regard to how I feel about receiving a fellowship often called the "genius grant," I have to say that I'm not bothered by that at all. All (false) modesty aside, I've been called a genius all my life. First, and quite predictably by my mother (who was clearly biased). Then by Howard Long, founder of the Journalism School at Southern Illinois University, who  in 1977 when he presented me with something called a Delta Award sponsored by Friends of Morris Library ("For significant contribution to intellectual commerce of our time") said that, "I've only known two geniuses in my life and both of them were cartoonists." And, lastly, by John Gardner in one of his newspaper interviews in (I think) the early 1980s.
To my eye, genius is much more commonly distributed among members of our species than we sometimes think. It takes many forms, but perhaps all of them have one thing in common that philosopher William James identified when he said, "The essence of genius is knowing what to overlook." And I would add that Thomas Edison famously said that "Genius is one-percent inspiration, ninety-nine percent perspiration." 
I believe I can testify to the "perspiration" part of that statement.

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