Athens, Ga. – When it comes to guidebooks, the selection of volumes that are fast, easy and shallow is vast. Serious “city books”-those with fine prose, rich narrative and an in-depth attention to history-are rare. A professor and co-head of the department of comparative literature at the University of Georgia has published one of the latter, and for it he has just been named Georgia Author of the Year.
James H.S. McGregor was named winner in the Creative Non-Fiction Specialty Book Category at the 44th Georgia Author of the Year awards ceremony held at Kennesaw State University on June 7 for his book Washington from the Ground Up (Harvard University Press, 2007).
The book may seem unusual for McGregor, who is an internationally recognized scholar of the European Middle Ages and who has published several books on Boccaccio and Rome and drawn praise for his work from such well-known scholars as Bernard Knox and the late Robert Fagles.
Writing about Washington was a natural progression, though, after McGregor wrote books on Rome and Venice that were also published by Harvard, in 2005 and 2006 respectively.
“The books I want to write are the kinds I want to read,” said McGregor, “with a clean, well-written narrative, a strong attention to history and an ongoing dialog between history and objects.”
While books on Rome and Venice seem obvious for a scholar of the Middle Ages in Europe, how did he leap from there to Washington, D.C.? The journey, it turns out, wasn’t nearly as strange as it might seem on first glance. First of all, as Harvard notes in its catalog copy for McGregor’s book, “Inspired by Greek and Roman models, city planners and designers scoured the Western world-from Hadrian’s Pantheon to Palladio’s Vicenza to the French Royal Academy-for an architectural language to capture the elusive principles of liberty, equality and union. Washington from the Ground Up tells the story of a nation whose Enlightenment ideals were tested in the fires of rebellion, removal, and resistance.”
There was a more personal reason why McGregor picked Washington, though: he grew up in its shadow in the small town of Wheaton, Md.
“In 1932, my father was in the War Department for a meeting when the government was driving the so-called Bonus Army out of Washington,” McGregor said. This “army” was in fact about 17,000 World War I veterans seeking compensation from the government during the Depression. At the same time, his grandfather was running for the U.S. Senate in Maryland on a minority party ticket. So McGregor’s history with the city stretches back many years.
Indeed, in November 1963, he stood on Pennsylvania Avenue and watched as the coffin of the assassinated President John F. Kennedy was carried toward Arlington National Cemetery for burial.
Harvard further describes McGregor’s book this way: “It is also a tale of two cities: official Washington, whose stately neoclassical buildings expressed the government’s power and global reach; and D.C., whose minority communities, especially African Americans, lived in the shadows of poverty. Moving chronologically and geographically throughout the District, McGregor reads this complex history from monuments and museums, libraries and churches, squares and neighborhoods that can still be seen today. His lucid narrative, accompanied by detailed maps and copious illustrations, doubles as a visitor’s guide to this uniquely American city.”
Critics have already lavished praise, with Booklist calling it a “solid, thoroughly researched book” and The Chicago Tribune saying, “This guide brings to life the architecture of the capital, placing each piece in a historical perspective that is national in scope. The writing, crisp and direct, is enlivened with anecdotes about our rulers and their often unruly subjects who made history in these same buildings.”
McGregor’s book won more than 13 other nominees in his category, including volumes published by such nationally respected publishing houses as Thomas Nelson, the American Academy of Pediatrics and the University of Georgia Press.
McGregor earned his Ph.D. in comparative literature from Princeton University in 1975, and his earliest publications were on Chaucer and Ovid. The bulk of his work, including two books and several articles, focuses on Boccaccio’s minor works. In 2000, he published a guide to teaching Boccaccio’s Decameron in the MLA Approaches to Teaching series. In the last decade he has worked actively as a translator of Italian texts from the Renaissance.
McGregor scholarship drew high praise from Fagles, who died in March 2008 and whose translations of The Iliad, The Odyssey and The Aeneid made him an internationally best-selling author.
“Jim was a cherished student, and now, even at this distance, a cherished colleague, too,” said Fagles in 2004. “A person handsomely languaged, deeply researched, and bold, eloquent in his writings, and very rangy too, at home in the literature of antiquity as in the modern period, while he musters his greatest strength, of course, in his major area, the European Middle Ages.”
The Georgia Author of the Year Awards are presented by the Georgia Writers Association, an organization that works across the state to encourage and strengthen the proficiencies of writers in both the creative and the business aspects of the writing life.
The GWA is supported in part by the Georgia Council for the Arts (GCA) through the appropriations of the Georgia General Assembly. The GCA also receives support from its partner agency, the National Endowment for the Arts. The GWA is in part supported by and located at the College of Humanities on the campus of KSU. Some events are in cooperation with Kennesaw Mountain Writing Project and the Master of Arts in Professional Writing at KSU.