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Jack Matthews Biography

Jack Matthews comments:

Nationality: American. Born: John Harold Matthews in Columbus, Ohio, 1925. Education: Ohio State University, Columbus, 1945-49, 1952-54, B.A. in classics and English 1949, M.A. in English 1954. Military Service: Served in the United States Coast Guard, 1943-45. Career: Post office clerk, Columbus, 1950-59; associate professor, 1959-62, and professor of English, 1962-64, Urbana College, Ohio; associate professor, 1964-70, professor of English, 1971-77, and since 1978 Distinguished Professor, Ohio University, Athens. Distinguished Writer-in-Residence, Wichita State University, Kansas, 1970-71. Awards: Florence Roberts Head award, 1967; Quill award (Massachusetts Review, Amherst), 1967; Guggenheim grant, 1974; Ohio Arts Council award, 1989. Agent: Ann Elmo Agency, 60 East 42nd Street, New York, New York 10165.



Hanger Stout, Awake! New York, Harcourt Brace, 1967.

Beyond the Bridge. New York, Harcourt Brace, 1970.

The Tale of Asa Bean. New York, Harcourt Brace, 1971.

The Charisma Campaigns. New York, Harcourt Brace, 1972.

Pictures of the Journey Back. New York, Harcourt Brace, 1973.

Sassafras. Boston, Houghton Mifflin, 1983.

Short Stories

Bitter Knowledge. New York, Scribner, 1964.

Tales of the Ohio Land. Columbus, Ohio Historical Society, 1978.

Dubious Persuasions. Baltimore, Johns Hopkins University Press, 1981.

Crazy Women. Baltimore, Johns Hopkins University Press, 1985.

Ghostly Populations. Baltimore, Johns Hopkins University Press, 1987.

Dirty Tricks. Baltimore, Johns Hopkins University Press, 1990.

Storyhood as We Know It and Other Tales. Baltimore and London, Johns Hopkins University Press, 1993.


An Almanac for Twilight. Chapel Hill, University of North Carolina Press, 1966.

In a Theater of Buildings. Marshall, Minnesota, Ox Head Press, 1970.


Collecting Rare Books for Pleasure and Profit. New York, Putnam, 1977.

Booking in the Heartland. Baltimore, Johns Hopkins University Press, 1986.

Memoirs of a Bookman. Athens, Ohio University Press, 1990.

Booking Pleasures. Athens, Ohio University Press, 1996.

Reading Matter: Rhetorical Muses of a Rabid Bibliophile. New Castle, Delaware, Oak Knoll Press, 2000.

Editor, with Elaine Gottlieb Hemley, The Writer's Signature: Idea in Story and Essay. Chicago, Scott Foresman, 1972.

Editor, Archetypal Themes in the Modern Story (anthology). New York, St. Martin's Press, 1973

Editor, Rare Book Lore: Selections from the Letters of Ernest J. Wessen. Athens, Ohio University Press, 1992.


Manuscript Collections:

Ohioana Library, Ohio Departments Building, Columbus; Alden Library, Ohio University, Athens.

Critical Studies:

"That Appetite for Life So Ravenous" by Dave Smith, in Shenandoah (Lexington, Virginia), Summer 1974; "One Alternative to Black Humor: The Satire of Jack Matthews" by Stanley W. Lindberg, in Studies in Contemporary Satire (Cambridge Springs, Pennsylvania), vol. 1, no. 1, 1977; "Jack Matthews and the Shape of Human Feelings" by Elmer F. Suderman, in Critique (Atlanta), vol. 21, no. 1, 1979.

I think of every literary work as a place where three classes of people come together: the author, the reader, and the characters. The work is importantly, if not solely, definable in terms of these three classes and their relationships to one another and to the story (or poem) which is the arena of their convention. Thus, every story can be viewed as, in varying degrees, an occasion and ceremony of passionate learning.

All stories are philosophical probes, hypotheses, heuristic journeys, maps of powerful and conceivable realities, speculations, ceremonies of discovery. All these, every one. Some attempts to write a good story work beautifully; others prove sadly unworthy, false, flat, silly. Nevertheless, an author should have the courage and energy to experiment constantly and knowledgeably (i.e., remembering and adding to his craft), even in his awareness that he will often miss whatever mark is there, and knowing also that whatever can conceivably happen to him and come out of him will ultimately be found to have taken place within his signature.

Man's character is his fate, but he should never let this fact inhibit his real freedom of the real moment. I celebrate this truth in my stories, as well as in the act of writing them.

* * *

Many contemporary fiction writers—especially in America—are displaced persons: they don't really live in any particular location, they merely reside there. But Jack Matthews's mature imagination lives in the American heartland where it was shaped. In fact, Matthews is at his best when he is taking the pulse of Middle America (not merely a geographical area, of course, but a state of consciousness extending far beyond Matthews's native Ohio). In his six novels (and in many of his remarkable short stories) the reader can sense the wide-open spaces of the Midwest, the often-closed minds of its inhabitants, the limitless possibilities of success and failure, the comic and the tragic in ironic balance. Like Sinclair Lewis, Matthews captures the essence of Middle America. He does so, however, without the didacticism of Lewis and with more of the comic and a surer control of the dramatic.

Matthews's early novels are all rather short, though they are richly developed and populated with memorable characters—originals with much more than just literary validity, ranging from gas-station attendants and warehouse laborers to used-car salesmen and battered cowboys. Most of them are essentially innocents, viewed with unsentimental compassion as they try to cope with what they see of the confusion around them; but they carry their innocence in interestingly differing ways.

The most openly naive of his characters is "Hanger" Stout, the narrator of Matthews's first novel, who relates a poignant but truly funny account of how he was tricked into competing for the championship of a nonexistent sport ("free-hanging" by one's hands). Genuinely unaware of how much others are using him, and often unaware of the refreshing comedy in his tale, "Hanger" emerges from his experiences relatively untouched, still kind and trusting, a most convincing original.

Less convincing is the self-conscious narrator of Beyond the Bridge, a middle-aged man who narrowly escapes death when the Silver Bridge collapses, plunging a number of people into the Ohio River. Knowing that his family expects him to be crossing the bridge at that hour, he seizes this unique chance to shed all his responsibilities, to disappear and begin a new life elsewhere. Such a break with one's past is not that easy, Matthews demonstrates, and the novel offers some nicely detailed moments in the mind of the neurotic narrator. When compared to Matthews's other fiction, however, the action here seems excessively internalized, and the symbolism often too overt.

Matthews's ironic sense of humor surfaces as witty sexual satire in The Tale of Asa Bean, where the innocent is a former Ph.D. candidate in philosophy now working in an A & P grocery warehouse. Asa, burdened with an IQ of more than 170 and an over-active libido, is a compulsive verbalist with a tendency to drop recondite phrases (often in Latin) at inappropriate moments—a habit that regularly scares off the women he so desperately wants. "What ironic man can make love?" Asa agonizes, "And yet, how can man achieve truth, understanding, humor, manhood, without irony?" But Asa's hilarious misadventures end triumphantly—despite himself—in a brilliant demonstration of wit and verbal precision, a winning performance.

In The Charisma Campaigns Matthews takes a calculated risk in creating a character who is announced as possessing magnetic charisma—and, indeed, convincingly projects it on the page. A used-car dealer in a small Ohio town, Rex McCoy plays with a full deck of corny sales slogans and gimmicks, but like nearly all of Matthews's characters, he moves far beyond any stereotyped model. His cunning machinations and energetic naivety, his success in selling cars and his failures in other aspects of life, all blend into a fascinating portrait. It is easy to agree with Anthony Burgess, who proclaimed it "an American classic." This is a superb novel—Matthews's finest accomplishment to date.

In Pictures of the Journey Back, set in the early 1970s, Matthews portrays a trip from Kansas to Colorado by three disparate characters: a weathered ex-rodeo hand, a confused college girl estranged from her mother, and the girl's hippie lover, an aspiring filmmaker. The cowboy insists upon returning the girl to her dying mother because, he argues, it is "only right," and the boyfriend accompanies them to make a film of the total experience. Here is the vehicle for the unending dialectics of youth vs. age, freedom vs. tradition, appearance vs. reality, etc. More ambitious technically than his earlier work, Pictures employs a shifting point of view to examine a concern that occupies much of Matthews's fiction—a sense that something is slowly being lost: "the sacred ideals of one's family and culture," as Matthews sees it, "what the Romans termed Pietas. "

In his most recent (and longest) novel, Matthews sets the action in 1840 on the American frontier. The protagonist/narrator of Sassafras is Thad Burke, a young phrenologist who takes his show from village to village, lecturing and "reading" the heads of a wild assortment of soldiers, Indians, settlers, and whores. Thad's Candide-like journey is not without its moving and painful lessons, but Matthews infuses a marvelous comic energy into this picaresque novel, and the dominant tone is that of a boisterous tall tale. Like Huck Finn, Thad is a splendid innocent—despite his natural "sass" and the sophistication he thinks he has acquired.

All of Matthews's novels have distinct merit, inviting and convincingly sustaining subsequent readings, but it would be a serious mistake to measure his achievement solely by these longer works. During the past four decades, well over 200 of his stories have appeared in major American quarterlies and magazines (with a number of them reprinted in prize anthologies), and significantly, this is the genre that has been receiving most of his energies in recent years.

Of the six splendid collections of Matthews's stories that have been published, perhaps the best is the thematically integrated Tales of the Ohio Land, which is particularly rich in its blend of history and myth. Unfortunately, neither this nor his first collection, Bitter Knowledge, is easily available, but his last four volumes are all in print, thanks to Johns Hopkins University Press. These include Dubious Persuasions, Crazy Women ("dedicated to all those who will understand how negotiable and variously ironic the title is"), Ghostly Populations, and Dirty Tricks. Together they provide solid evidence of Matthews's range and versatility, his sure powers of observation, and his compassionate understanding of the human comedy.

Engaging wit and irony have been characteristic of Matthews's writing from the start, and both are strongly present in his latest gatherings of stories. His irony is increasingly darker, however, and his characters' obsession with memory and its distortions plays a more dominant role in this later work, much of which deals with death. For the most part, these are stories with deceptively simple and ordinary surfaces, but they are driven by powerful and ominous undercurrents, which often fuse the local and regional with the archetypal. Few can do it better. Without question, Matthews has established himself as one of America's finest storytellers.

—Stanley W. Lindberg

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