Speaking the Mind and Spirit of a People

His is a world of stories and ideas, characters and plots that spill forth like froth from a good beer. The listener, whether a student, literary buff, or visitor to his office, faces the happy dilemma of drinking it all in. For John McCluskey Jr., chairman of Indiana University's Department of Afro-American Studies and adjunct professor of English, the froth of good writing is akin to truth serum in revealing one's depth and breadth of moral vision and understanding of the human condition. McCluskey, an engaging person who entertains as he provokes thought, easily qualifies as a Renaissance man in connecting the past and present, one discipline with another.

While literary history and criticism color a lion's share of the courses McCluskey teaches in Afro-American Studies, he also shepherds probings of Afro-American fiction, nonfiction, folkore, history, music, theater, and other art forms. Because black America is an integral part of the American experience, he is in a pivotal position to project his own voice and comment upon past and present voices and forces peopling the American landscape.

By merit of his own writing, McCluskey is an occasional lecturer in IU's Creative Writing Program and serves on M.F.A. committees. Invariably, he sounds a clarion call for being true to one's characters and telling a good story. "Be open to your characters," he says. "Be generous with them . . . close to them; be consistent." Often a commanding voice resounds in McCluskey's short stories and novels, but he admits that sometimes two voices merge. He often takes a "selective omniscient" stance as a writer, he says. His is an eclectic world where mind and body, spirit and psyche explore, examine, conjure, imagine, and invite participation.

In all his endeavors, McCluskey tends to inculcate an overriding concern: be true to yourself, whether you're an African American, southern white, big-city liberal, or an average bloke. "Listen to the voices," he says, evoking response from anyone who listens. "Listen to the region from which you come; refine the idiom; look closely to the world around you." McCluskey's voice is didactic, but also inspirational. "Don't talk down to your characters or show contempt."

Asked how he teaches students to write, he has a quick answer: "You really can't." Amazingly forthright—some say refeshingly so—McCluskey continues, "You can teach them discipline, to sharpen their eyes, refine their voice, tune their senses." He says you can teach them what not to do: "easy" satire or sarcasm, writing in a given form that has served them in the past but doesn't work in the present.

One hears in McCluskey an overwhelming fondness and appreciation for the American experience, despite its growing pains, and for English literature in general. Names such as Dickens, Twain, Joyce, Faulkner, Fitzgerald, Williams, and Albee surface in his speech, as do Welty, Baldwin, Ellison, Wright, Morrison, and Marquez. After any exchange with McCluskey, one comes away with greater respect for great literature and the mind and spirit of a people.

Besides numerous short stories, essays, and commentaries, such as his foreword to The Collected Stories of Rudolph Fisher, which he edited, McCluskey is the author of Look What They Done to My Song, a humorous depiction of jazz music in Boston in the 1960s, and Mr. America's Last Season Blues, an existential journey of a retired athlete working as a bartender in the Midwest. He is currently working on two other novels, Chicago Jubilee Rag, probing the last year of Frederick Douglass's life, and The River People, a sojourn into magical realism, after the Marquez manner, describing people in pursuit of a compatible place.

In an age of CD-ROMs, the Internet, and televised courtrooms, McCluskey remains optimistic about the future of creative writing. "I think the writing will get done," he says. "We should trust the areas where language can take us."

--Bob Baird