One wet day in late November 1981 Wimbledon Common was London at its grayest: dary skies, miles of black branches dripping rain, no time for tennis. I'd stopped over with English friends en route home from Africa and gone for a long walk to try to decide what to do next.
Jet lag, wet leaves, uncertainty. Sadat had just been murdered, with sadly little Egyptian grief. Africa was still losing its food-population race, something I'd been wrong about in my last book. Everywhere, just when new agricultural science promised so much, successive oil shocks had brought the world economy to a low ebb. My host, Brian Beedham, The Economist's foreign editor, had just flown in from Poland; it was grim there too. The night before IRA terrorists had bombed the nearby home of Britain's attorney general.
At 50, I was an aging free-lance reporter who wrote about Third World villages and was finding it harder to make a go of it.
When I'd started out in a village reporting experiment in 1969, a year of village stays, interpreter's wages, hotels, air fare, the works, cost about $6,000. Now it took $20,000 to do the same thing. I'd done 21 such village stories. Some had worked, others not. I'd been reporting the Third World for nearly a quarter century, in the '60s for the Washington Star and in the '70s mostly for The Economist and Christian Science Monitor.
That rainy day in London, I kept thinking about something Sadat had said in a 1976 interview in Alexandria. We'd discussed a book I was writing on Egyptian village life and Sadat recalled how, as a boy, he'd cut fodder, harvested wheat and tended cattle. He asked where I'd grown up and when I said North Dakota, Sadat exclaimed, "Marvelous! You didn't tell me. You're pulling my leg. Do you know the whole state has only 700,000 people but they produce 8 million tons of wheat? You should have stayed home and been a farmer."
Sadat's words, lightly meant, somehow struck home. My father, in later life a country doctor, had been a North Dakota farmer for about a decade just as the shift from horses to tractors began. I'd studied the transition from subsistence agriculture to commercial farming among some villagers in great detail, but I knew next to nothing about my own father's experience. He'd died when I was young and I'd left North Dakota in 1948 and never gone back.
After slogging it out for some hours, I'd made my decision by the time I returned to the Beedhams' house: I'd take a big risk, pull out half my savings and spend a year doing "an American village" story. One would have to go back to the mid-19th century to get the technological change and probably end around 1940 when World War II decisively ended the old rural way of life.
To my surprise, Barbara Beedham came running from the house when I opened the gate. I was to phone a brother in McLean right away. He told me the news: I'd received a $244,000 MacArthur Foundation Prize Fellowship, to be paid over the next five years, no strings attached.
Remember that scene in The Threepenny Opera? Mack the Knife is about to be hung from the scaffold. Suddenly from the back of the theater rushes Queen Victoria's messenger. It being Her Majesty's Jubilee, Mack is pardoned, given a castle and lifetime income and elevated to the peerage. Brecht of course doesn't leave it like that. As the curtain closes on this rescue, we are reminded, "But in real life the messenger seldom arrives..."
Brecht's lyrics sang in my head last January as the Cadillac limousine sped me from O'Hare through snowy Chicago to what resembled a suburban baronial estate: the MacArthur Prize Fellows were gathering for the weekend.
The most fun had been the first reaction, feeling rich and carefree. As I'd left for Heathrow, I'd told the Beedhams, "And then he lived happily ever after." But as the weeks passed, a busy time for me, lecturing at universities from Harvard to Hawaii, I'd discovered there was one great big invisible string attached to a MacArthur Prize; it was something you had to live up to.
I'll probably never know what difference the prize meant professionally because while I'd been in Africa, Villages, a flawed and too-condensed sort of book published the previous spring, had unexpectedly caught on in a modest way. Suddenly there were book offers, requests for articles or lectures and enough mail from readers to make me dread seeing the postman. The old cliche, that it is better to travel hopefully than to arrive, has a certain truth to it; in our mass media, direct-dial society, the more you gain in recognition, the more you lose in time.
In Chicago, I was intensely curious to see what the other 40 (now 60) prize recipients were like. The weekend, as one of the wives later described it, was like "a 48-hour cocktail party." Intense talk. Ideas were the electricity of the air. C. P. Snow had it right when he said that the single most important quality for success is tenacity. No run-off-to-Bali slackers in this distinguished lot.
The MacArthurs were interesting; everybody seemed to have a King Midas touch. Roderick MacArthur, the driving force of this great new American experiment to generously fund individual creativity, was a self-made millionaire, as were two of his uncles. His father, John D. MacArthur, ran the biggest American privately held insurance company at the time of his death in 1978. The foundation he set up with his wife, Catherine, has $935 million in assets ($14 million has gone to the prizes), which ranks it about third in the U.S. The MacArthurs have made their mark in other ways: Roderick was once a UPI reporter in Paris, his uncle Charles wrote "Front Page" and married Helen Hayes, and their son, James, is famous the world over as the costar of TV's "Hawaii Five-O."
Early on, headline writers dubbed the MacArthur Prizes "the genius awards." The foundation understandably shies away from this; its guidelines specify "exceptional talent, originality, self-direction and promise for the future." But when Roderick MacArthur talks about finding "mavericks," or people working in their basements to pursue a discovery against all odds (and they'll have to be found; one can't apply), I rather hope the instinctive, spontaneous perception that most characterizes genius is what he means.
It could be adventurous if some bona fide geniuses get caught in the net. Carlyle's famous definition of genius as a "transcendent capacity for taking trouble" has to be matched up with Samuel Butler's comment that genius "might be more fitly described as a supreme capacity for getting its possessors into trouble of all kinds."
So you've got the money, what do you do with it? The MacArthur Foundation's expressed intention is to relieve a recipient from financial pressures for five years. In my case, since I was a tenured Harvard professor, it made more sense to invest the entire amount and gain a modest lifetime income from the interest. It meant being poor for a couple more years but freedom forever to do the work I want. I travel light.
More problematical has been $15,000 each year the foundation awards to a university or other non-profit institution where a MacArthur fellow chooses to work. In 1981 I requested the sum be divided among the state historical societies of North Dakota, Iowa and Wisconsin. Three researchers, besides myself, spent the past summer investigating 1840-1940 changes in some small farming or Mississippi River towns where, at various times, my family lived. It came to a lot of information.
By summer's end, as an avalanche of research started pouring in (everybody else had been busy too), I began to feel like the sorcerer's apprentice in "Fantasia," about to be swept into a whirlpool of manila envelopes.
But I'd discovered you can go home again. The summer was mostly spent in Fessenden, N.D., a small (pop: 687) town way out in the middle of the prairie (and 59 miles, so a sign said, from the geographical center of North America).
We Americans, except in New England, never had villages. The uprooted European villagers who mostly settled America's post-frontier rural society found themselves in scattered, individual farms surrounding small towns like Fessenden, usually dominated, as Fessenden was, by a Yankee commercial and professional class. My family were Yankees, split down the middle between Puritan saints and fun-loving sinners, a contradiction America itself has never resolved.
Our last night in Fessenden, I spoke about my Third World village work at the local museum (grinning down from a 1920s community band photograph, cornet and clarinet in hand, were my brother and sister). Almost everybody we'd interviewed all summer, some in their 60s, but many in their 80s and 90s, crowded into the room, the surviving friends and neighbors of my family. Toward and end of my talk, I started quoting things from the old newspapers: a certain summer baseball game, an Amos 'n' Andy broadcast, a rally of Model T Fords, and how one arthritic old gentleman in the second row had once stopped the minstrel show with "Bye Bye Blackbird."
Looking at their faces I knew with happy certainty what I'd struggled toward that rainy day in Wimbledon, that all the endless travel, the Washington years, what I'd learned in the villages, even the MacArthur Prize itself, had been a kind of preparation, a schooling, for this time and place, these people, this destination: home. There was a story to tell.
Make my bed and light the light.
I'll arrive late tonight.
Blackbird, bye bye.