Professor M. J. Fitzgerald Retires

The fiction writer directed the MFA program in Creative Writing
Professor M J Fitzgerald

Congratulations and best wishes to Associate Professor M. J. Fitzgerald, who retires this spring after 29 years of service to the Creative Writing Program and the Department of English. The author of the novels The Placing of Kings (Mainstream, United Kingdom) and Concertina (Random House) and the short story collection Rope Dancer (Random House), Fitzgerald also published translations of three Italian novels with Knopf. She is currently working on a translation of The Divine Comedy with commentary entitled Reading Dante in the Midwest, as well as a biographical memoir about her father, the translator Robert Fitzgerald. The professor received the University’s substantial Grant-in-Aid of Research three times, most recently for 2018-19; she also was awarded multiple McKnight Summer Fellowships.

Fitzgerald served twice as Director of the Creative Writing Program. While director, she played a significant role in the development of the English department's award-winning undergraduate literary arts magazine The Tower. Production of the magazine, called The Wayfarer through the early 2000s, had transitioned from a student-led operation to the project of an English class, yet there was confusion about the class' aims, budget, and relationship to volunteers. "It was stumbling rather badly," Professor Fitzgerald remembers. "I asked Chair Michael Hancher if we could suspend the class for a year while I put the various elements together that would ensure its prospering." The changes Fitzgerald brought about in structure, budget, and instruction led in 2005 to the solid re-establishment of the magazine (as The Ivory Tower, reaching back to the venerated mid-20th century UMN literary magazine and to editors such as Robert Pirsig, Lewis Hyde, and Patricia Hampl) and the two-semester course, which has become a beloved and essential part of the English major experience. "It seems it is now flourishing," says Fitzgerald of the magazine now called The Tower, "and that is my secret delight."

"I love watching undergraduates
who are not necessarily English
majors discover the pleasure of
reading." — M. J. Fitzgerald

You started as a professor in English and Creative Writing at the University in 1992. What will you miss about teaching?

I love watching undergraduates who are not necessarily English majors discover the pleasure of reading. Classes like "Introduction to the Short Story"and "Modern Fiction" introduce students to a different kind of fiction from the genre writing they are more familiar with. There is nothing like the pleasure of someone "getting" a story that up to that moment had seemed difficult and opaque, and to see how, once the understanding has been opened by one story, they find it easier and easier to appreciate a multiplicity of fiction. I’ll miss those moments of discovery, the way the young faces light up.  

Since the mid-1990s, our MFA in Creative Writing Program has become one of the most popular and highly rated in the nation. What factors do you credit for its success?

I think the most important element in the success of the Creative Writing Program has been the fact that the program, the Department of English, and the University have collaborated to offer students three years of fully funded study. The freedom from financial constraints that allows students to engage in creative thinking and writing pays dividends down the years, well beyond the MFA.

What characterizes the next stage for you? Are there non-writing interests you look forward to exploring?

I have been blessed to have found harbor and shelter in an academic institution even though I am a fundamentally un-academic person, but I can’t say that my life will change much in retirement. I will move east, closer to my sister, and I will continue with fiction and nonfiction projects already underway. No bucket list with bungee-jumping or skydiving for me. Not even exploration of the Amazon forest, although I will surely join some organization that is working to protect it and to minimize the threat of climate change. And I can see myself fighting to split up the other Amazon, that has drawn us all like moths to the illusory light of apparent savings.

What is the most intriguing/enjoyable book you've read this year?

Every year I am more amazed by Jane Gardam. I read Crusoe’s Daughter when it first came out in the early 1980s, and I thought it was an astonishingly good book. I have just finished re-reading it, and I think it is even more astonishingly good than I remembered it. During the lockdown I read Henry James’ The Wings of the Dove, and bowed yet again on every page to the master of intricacy and indirection. This year I will read The Golden Bowl. I’m in the middle of binge-reading Thomas Bernhard, in whose soliloquizing fictions I recognize so much of what drives the impulse to write narratives beyond the familiar tropes of plot and character.

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