Sunday, October 3, 2021

Flashback 1990: The grant's tomb—MacArthur money `ruins lives'

"The Voyage of Life: Childhood," by Thomas Cole (Smithsonian Institution)

     The MacArthur Foundation Fellowships were given out last week—they'd rather not call them "genius grants" though everybody does. This year was unusual because, among the unfamiliar poets and filmmakers was somebody I actually had talked to, Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, the Princeton professor whose insights lent my 2020 COVID Easter article what spine and acuity it displayed. 
     But that was merely foreshadowing. Now it turns out that the MacArthur Foundation is a possible benefactor for the Sun-Times. Which is very cool. Not just because they're Chicago-based, and support vital institutions (do the syllogism: A: The MacArthur Foundation supports worthy organizations; B: The MacArthur Foundation supports the Sun-Times and C: The Sun-Times, ergo, is an worthy organization).
     They also had a reaction that I've admired for decades, trotting out when speaking to public relations groups. I was the charities, foundations and private social services reporter for a couple years. After the first year, celebrating the genius grant winners as they were led blinking into the light, batik artists and interpretive dancers and such, I had this thought: "I bet those awards ruin people's lives" and set out to find them. After I had corralled a number, I approached MacArthur for their reaction. Nine organizations out of 10 would have curled into a defensive ball if a reporter shared that thesis. The MacArthur Foundation didn't. I don't want to ski ahead of my tips, but just the prospect of having them in our corner is thrilling.

     Andrew McGuire, an injury prevention expert who got a five-year MacArthur Foundation Fellowship in July, 1985, said having the $40,000 yearly payments stop this year was "like going off heroin."
     James McPherson, an acclaimed fiction writer, never published another story after he won a MacArthur grant in June, 1981. "It pretty much ruined his life," said a colleague.
     Despite hoopla surrounding the annual no-strings-attached "genius" grants, which can be worth as much as $375,000, the award can be risky for the ego. Artists, activists, writers or scientists who find themselves abruptly handed a huge bundle of cash and sudden fame sometimes show negative effects.
     "There are a number of reasons people might feel it ruined their lives," said William Cronon, an associate professor of history at Yale University, who won a MacArthur worth $164,000 in July, 1985. "Prestige is an issue. Many MacArthur fellows resent the press description of it as a `genius' grant."
     MacArthur fellows such as Cronon are usually quick to point out that, even considering the negatives, receiving a MacArthur fellowship is a positive experience ("besides the teasing," McGuire adds).
     Still, the Chicago-based MacArthur Foundation is sensitive to the possibility of the awards having undesirable side effects.
     "There is some sort of curse: `May you be given everything you ask for,' " said Ken Hope, director of the MacArthur Fellowship program. He said that the sudden freedom to pursue long-delayed goals afforded by the MacArthur grant can sometimes be daunting.
     "There's a sense in which the gauntlet has been thrown down," he said, adding that the blaze of publicity accompanying the prize can cause problems.
     "Suddenly they become well-known," said Hope. "People get unwarranted calls from investment advisers, used car salesmen, proposals of marriage."
    Hope said that, from the beginning, the MacArthur Foundation has worried about how fellows will cope with the aftermath of the award.
     "There is a word `iatrogenesis' " said Hope. "It means `the harm caused by the doctor.' We have been aware of that word, and we try to be even more careful in the selection process."
     The most common problem expressed by MacArthur fellows is that the grant does not, in reality, give them extra time to pursue their dreams.
     "When I first got the fellowship, I assumed that it would would free me up from having to do my regular job—teaching—so I could do my writing," Cronon said. "But Yale has very strict rules about how much leave time a person can take. I received no leave time at all on the MacArthur. So, in one direct sense, it gave me nothing but extra money in the bank account."
     "Ours was a small department and I didn't feel I could leave," said J. Richard Steffy, about to retire as professor of nautical archeology at Texas A&M University.
     However, he said that if not for the $288,000 grant, "perhaps I wouldn't have retired this soon."
     Even though Cronon's free time did not increase, he said he was still expected to be more productive by his friends and co-workers.
     "There is this sense that colleagues have if you have a MacArthur felowship that you've been doing nothing but working on your projects for five years, so why haven't you produced more books?" he said. "That's a negative side."
     McPherson, now a teacher at the Writer's Workshop at the University of Iowa, is off the scale as a unique worst-case scenario. He called the $192,000 grant "an extra dose of misery" and blamed the award for causing him to lose custody of his daughter.
     "I was going through a divorce when I got the award, and I was trying to get joint custody of (my daughter) Rachel," he said. "But the publicity surrounding the award caused all kinds of people to come out with extreme jealousy. The judge gave my ex-wife extraordinary alimony based on the award. I think I would have gotten my joint custody if I hadn't been chosen at that moment. . . . I have to fly every month to see her. That was what the award did to me."
     Far more common is the experience of composer Ralph Shapey, who called the $288,000 MacArthur fellowship he received in 1982 "definitely a good thing."
     Shapey said that the grant had almost no effect on his working life—perhaps the grant allowed him to buy an expensive musical score he otherwise would have passed up—and he ended up socking away the money in a bank.
     "You can write just as good music on a full stomach or a hungry stomach," he said. "I create because I have to create. It's something that I have to do, and something like money is not going to stop me."
            —Originally published in the Sun-Times, Sept. 23, 1990

1 comment:

  1. After being quite impressed while viewing the 4 paintings of "The Voyage of Life" series at the Smithsonian decades ago, I was prompted to purchase 4 smaller prints, which I framed and displayed. Is that interesting? No. Does it warrant mentioning here? Again, no, alas. ; )

    This column reminds me once again that I need to get around to reading William Cronon's "Nature's Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West" at some point. (Published 6 years *after* he was awarded the MacArthur Fellowship, for those scoring at home...)


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