Kenneth A. McClane
Walls: Essays, 1985–1990, Kenneth McClane’s first book of autobiographical essays (originally published in 1991), is closely related to his second collection, Color, published by the University of Notre Dame Press in 2009. Walls is a powerful and deeply moving meditation on relationships. It begins with an essay on the death of McClane’s brother, Paul, which “changed everything. Time, my work, everything found a new calculus.”
His brother’s life and death are present in some way in all the essays that follow “A Death in the Family,” as McClane tells us about giving a poetry reading in a maximum-security prison; his experience of being one of the first two African American students to attend America’s oldest private school; teaching creative writing; his sister, Adrienne; a divestment protest at Cornell; and his encounters with James Baldwin.
McClane has written a new preface to this paperback edition of Walls, in which he reminds us that we are inevitably interconnected: we are each other’s witness.
“ Walls reminds us of the differences that set us apart, dividing our world into good kids and troublemakers, winners and losers, the beautiful and the damned. The anodyne for exile in these essays is McClane’s common but by no means commonplace lexicon, at once evocative and spare, that leads us to painful but honest connection and the luminous possibility of empathy.” — William L. Andrews, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
“Kenneth McClane’s Walls is a collection of exquisitely crafted autobiographical essays that rivals the most profound nonfictional writings of James Baldwin in its skillful investigation of the hidden recesses of the always-throbbing black American soul. Indeed, Walls is a beautifully calibrated exploration of the challenges faced by a courageously self-aware—and refreshingly self-revealing—black intellectual whose journey to and in the American mainstream is both menacing and exhilarating.” — Michael Awkward, University of Michigan
“In this absorbing collection of essays originally published in 1991, Cornell literature professor McClane muses deeply on issues of identity, race, family, and academia. . . . Walls is a heady volume; McClane is foremost a poet, and his essays carry the reverberant weight of poetry, demanding a careful read. Moreover, he peppers his prose with esoteric references to James Baldwin, Chekhov, Kafka, and others, lending these essays an academic air. He claims that the loss of his brother to alcoholism pervades each tale, yet the pieces on his mentally-disabled sister or his difficult time at Collegiate carry equal emotional weight.” — PW Annex Reviews
“The author of six collections of poems, McClane (Cornell) ventures into new literary territory with his first collection of essays, Walls. Although McClane’s introduction confesses to considerable trepidation about writing in this genre, readers will be richly rewarded by the quality of his prose. The cornerstone of this collection is McClane’s first essay, a poignant and powerful meditation on the death of his alcoholic brother. The elegiac tone he establishes here shapes the mood of the entire collection. From this vantage point, McClane writes eloquently about the experience of being both African American and middle-class in contemporary America. Whether he is exploring the sensations of giving a poetry reading to inmates at Auburn, or describing a Unity Day fiasco in Connecticut, or recounting the terrible condition of his brain-damaged sister, McClane writes with elegance, insight, and passion. In his explorations of the dilemmas of race and class against the backdrop of the American academy, McClane’s essays break new ground in the tradition of African American personal narratives. Highly recommended for all collections.” — Choice