A regular contributor to this blog, Ross Howell, Jr. followed a career in academic fundraising, public relations, book publishing, and marketing after receiving his MFA at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. He’s now freelancing non-fiction and fiction, and teaching at Elon University. His stories have appeared in The Virginia Quarterly Review, The Sewanee Review, and the Gettysburg Review. His historical novel, Forsaken, will be published this summer. Ross lives in Greensboro, NC, with his wife, Mary Leigh, English cocker spaniel diva Pinot, and rescued pit bull Lab mix Sam. He felt compelled to write this after learning of the recent death of former Iowa Writers’ Workshop Director Jack Leggett.
During Elon University’s winter term, an intense three weeks when classes meet five days a week for three hours a day, I taught a course I ambitiously named, “Write an American Best Seller.” It’s my way of tricking students into reading American popular works in a narrow window, 1850-1855. Scholars sometimes call this period the American Renaissance, when works like The Scarlet Letter, Moby-Dick, Walden, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and Leaves of Grass sprang forth on American soil. It was also the time of lady novelists like Maria S. Cummins, Mrs. E.D.E.N. Southworth, Susan Warner, and others, scolded by Nathaniel Hawthorne as “a damned mob of scribbling women.” They amassed fortunes selling works such as The Lamplighter, The Abandoned Wife, and The Wide, Wide World, to an adoring public.
In class we study these books, the classic and not-so-classic, searching for common narrative elements that must have led to their becoming best sellers.
As you’d expect, we look closely at protagonists. For popular appeal, protagonists must be likeable. They must be competent, good at what they do. Often they are passionate, or passionately dispassionate. And they must be flawed.
Which brings me to Jack Leggett. He’d smile at that. Who doesn’t remember the stumbling, humorous perambulations that were his introductory comments for whomever the distinguished author it was reading that night at the Workshop’s invitation? Those intros, delivered after a pre-reading welcoming dinner, where often more booze than food was served, and after, the coup de grȃce, the post-reading party at Jack’s big white house atop the hill in Iowa City, when speech and vision grew steadily more slurry and blurry, well into the wee hours?
Gay Talese described Jack Leggett as “a courteous and tweedy figure with an elite education, an understated wit,” and he was all those things, and more. Above all, he was the most passionate advocate for the craft of writing I ever met. I know it must have stung him when some dismissed his novels for their relative lack of popular and critical acclaim, when some described his literary biographies as pedestrian, when some questioned his leadership of the Workshop itself. Through it all, his love for writing and for writers abided.
My last year in Iowa, I spoke with him about my plans to leave academia, to leave writing, to go back to Virginia to find a real job. He listened, his blue eyes fixed on my face as I spoke, an elbow propped on his desk, a finger pressed to his cheek.
When I finished, he sat up straight and leaned toward me.
“But you’re a writer,” he said. There was fervor and reverence in his voice, not for me, I understood, but for the word. Writer. When he saw I wasn’t changing my mind, he nodded his disappointment, and hurt.
Yes, even his most vocal supporters would acknowledge his limitations. But he was an avid spokesman for his craft, took joy in helping writers, and did, in his own witty and bumbling way, his best.
Likeable. Competent. Passionate. Flawed. Jack Leggett was a good protagonist.