Going Ungently Into the Night

Robert McGowan's long journey of personal discovery.

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Groupings, Railroad Ties (2010) Photographic series - photographs by Robert McGowan


McGowan was born in 1947 in Nashville, but grew up in a farming area near Collierville. He describes his as an “idyllic” childhood characterized by many hours alone roaming the countryside. His father and mother were teachers — he biology at then Memphis State University and she in an elementary school.

Young Robert read philosophy on his own while still at Collierville High School, and was something of a musical prodigy. He made all-state band on the trumpet and all-state orchestra on the violin. While still in high school he played violin with the Memphis State String Orchestra and in the Memphis Concert Orchestra. Many expected a musical career. Not Rob. “I felt my talent in music was basically technical, not creative, so I didn’t feel driven to stay with it. Plus, being a musician is a very social occupation — not for me at all.”

More than halfway toward an undergraduate philosophy degree at Memphis State, McGowan joined the Army under a program that allowed enlistees to choose their assignments, likely avoiding the infantry and Vietnam combat. He became a clerk, but a clerk in the Ninth Infantry Division. While he wasn’t in combat, his base was near enough that it took frequent mortar and rocket fire. Recovery from the emotional toll of Vietnam took time, but he finished his undergraduate degree, got his MFA at the Cranbrook Academy of Art in Michigan, and returned to Memphis to work.

When the initial art work didn’t go to his satisfaction, he earned a library science degree and took a job at the Memphis Public Library, where he founded the Turner Clark Gallery (showcasing local art) before leaving to take up art again full time.

McGowan’s chief desire today is to make sure his work will survive him. He seems comfortable with where he has been these last years. “It took me several years truly to recover from the South Main nightmare — the trauma of it and, I think, the loss of contact with self — before I entered again into my own head,” he says via e-mail. “That’s when the writing began. Way less messy than making art, believe me.”

“Great in that way . . . but the larger thing is I’ve never felt more where I should be than in writing. I’ve always felt totally at ease doing it.” Plus, he adds, the traumas of Vietnam and South Main and art have provided him with no end of material.

As for “NO MORE ART,” he writes, “I’ve felt it takes the energy away from writing. But, still, I cannot stop doing it. I’ve tried . . . It’s a compulsion.

“My great worry now is that I’ll croak before I see the majority of my writing in print and before I can do more of it. I have a novel in progress, but because of my condition, the horrible zonked-itude-osity-ism-ness that characterizes my life now, I simply cannot do any writing at present. It takes far more energy and concentration than I have . . .”

In conjunction with the publication of the Vietnam stories, he told an interviewer that he has “rather little emotion about dying,” apart from the grief it would cause his wife and loved ones, but “I do want the rest of my work to see the light of day . . . I am my work, and I want my work to live.” 

Michael Clark was an award-winning reporter for The Commercial Appeal in the 1970s and 1980s who left journalism to raise his children. His work also has appeared in The New York Times and The Christian Century.

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