Had I but world enough and time, I’d leave Baltimore in a couple of weeks and trek to Fayetteville, Arkansas where a little store called Nightbird Books will host “A Celebration of Jim Whitehead: Readings from his Works.”
Jim died in 2003. A fierce, loving man, he was a fine poet and novelist, an offensive lineman, a co-founder of the graduate creative writing program at the University of Arkansas and one of my mentors there. Also, he was a dear friend, and I love him still. This celebration, scheduled for Sept. 9 from 7-9 p.m., marks the release of a book honoring him. For, From, About James T. Whitehead: Poems, Stories, Photographs, and Recollections, is edited by Michael Burns, another former student of Jim’s (there are thousands of us), and is the second book with Jim’s name to be published posthumously. The other, also put together with editing by Michael Burns, is called The Panther: Posthumous Poems. Whitehead was fascinated by the possibility that a Roman Centurion known as Panterawas the historical father of the historical Jesus, a possibility that has also been studied by the scholar James Tabor, who wrote an introduction for the book.
Jim pushed for work that was both local and universal, and what he saw that combined the two was grace. "All right," he said in an interview a few decades past,
“we do fall apart and then we feel terrible guilt because we fall apart, from time to time. Our bodies and our souls are broken. But we mend, we mend. And I think one of the terrible things about so much contemporary literature is that it’s in this wretched, Freudian bag, with its negative view. It has no place for grace–this is not religious grace in any sense of traditional metaphysics or Christianity, but there is grace in the world. We all know there is grace. And yet, people have tried to convince us that there isn’t.”
Jim made it his life’s work to show readers and students where grace resides. My gratitude continues.
Nightbird Books is at 205 W. Dickson, in Fayetteville.