The Passing of the Perfect Reader

Let us pause for a moment of silence for beloved professor, friend, columnist, and book reviewer Larry McGehee. Larry passed last month, and his regular column Southern Seen (often printed in these pages) has now also settled into the literary and social history he so loved.

But fear not. Southern Seen can now be found forever among the archival mist and digital postings of the Wofford website (http://woffordcollege.org/southernseen/) and, thank goodness, 200 of them have been selected in SOUTHERN SEEN (2005), a book from the University of Tennessee Press. As poet W.H. Auden said of William Butler Yeats on his death, Larry “has become his admirers.”

With Larry there were plenty of admirers. For 20 years his Southern Seen columns were read by hundreds of thousands each week in over a hundred small-town Southern newspapers. He was not a mercenary writer. He sent the columns and book reviews out into the world for free each week. He cultivated what is Southern and gave it away. He loved to read and report for his loyal readers on what he loved. My friends and editors at the University of Georgia Press say that Larry McGehee was their favorite book reviewer of all time. He reviewed UGA books fast and often. They never begrudged sending out free copies for him. They knew he would have an opinion and tell his readers about it.

I’ll bet there are many Southern writers out there like me, people who will miss Larry’s review of their books the next time one is published. I was lucky. Each time a book of mine came out I would wait to see as what sort of literary character Larry would cast me. In ’94 when my book of poems AGAINST INFORMATION came out I was a “young poet,” and Larry helped spread the story quickly that I had published a poem “that would have done the Luddite and Agrarian movements proud.” It was as a Luddite (one who is opposed to technology) he tagged me, and from that literary moment on in Larry’s book review lexicon I became “John Lane Quixote,” tilting at the world’s windmills.

Several years later in a review of my essays WAIST DEEP IN BLACK WATER I was “a middle-aged Huck Finn;” in 2004 when CHATTOOGA came out, I was a “a new Lane, now half a century old, a sobered Centaur;” and by the time CIRCLING HOME came out in early 2007 I’d become “longtime Wofford writer-professor, now graying and middle-aged, the Gulliver of nature travels.” Luddite John Quixote, Huck Finn, Centaur, Gulliver–That’s a long way in literary history in just 14 years!

But Larry was always spot-on with his metaphors, and he enjoyed creating them so much. His columns were not only smart. They were fun to read. And they were honest. Like it or not, as a writer I had aged and matured under his watchful reviewer’s eye, and he would tell me about it. Larry had cared enough about writing to pass judgment on my literary output. He had watched as I matured and changed through a literary career. It doesn’t get any better than that for a writer.

It’s said that literary publishing is like clapping in an empty room. For hundreds of writers, reviewer Larry McGehee was always there clapping along. He loved books, and he loved those of us who wrote them. He will be deeply missed.

Rest in peace, Larry. You were the perfect reader, and I always appreciated your reviews. It meant so much to know that someone was watching, reading, judging my work over time. I’ve yet to figure out exactly what it means to be a middle-aged Gulliver, but I’m working on it.

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