Man Of Mystery

January 16, 1994|By Tim Warren

For 17 years Dr. John Irwin has run the Writing Seminars at Johns Hopkins University. To many of his colleagues and students, however, he remains an elusive figure

In a chair in his comfortable, well-appointed office at Johns Hopkins University, John Irwin sits and looks at his visitor. A stately grandfather clock, all dark, polished wood and glass, gongs out the hour of the day.

A smile creeps over his face as he's told of the results of a week's worth of interviews with his present and former colleagues, students and friends. There were times, he is told, when it was hard to imagine people were talking about the same man.

One source said: Irwin's the smartest man I've ever known, a near-genius. His impact is felt not just on campus, but on the contemporary American writing world as well.

Then another: He's a pretentious lightweight running a lightweight department.

He's warm and friendly.

He's cold and aloof, and can be vindictive when he wants.

He's the perfect person to direct the Writing Seminars.

He's incompetent and the Seminars does well despite his


So the question is posed: Which of the above describes him?

"All of them," John Irwin says mock-seriously, and he begins to laugh.

"Prepare, then, to enter the maze, and at the first fork in the path, bear to the left."

John Irwin writes these words in the preface to "The Mystery to a Solution: Poe, Borges and the Analytic Detective Story." Just published by Johns Hopkins University Press, it's his third book of literary criticism, and it centers on two of his favorite authors, Edgar Allan Poe and Jorge Luis Borges. Perhaps, though, he could have meant these words for himself.

Even after spending two decades teaching at Hopkins, after writing books of literary criticism and poetry and running the second-oldest university writing department in the country, John Irwin, 53, remains, as a colleague describes him, "a very elusive figure."

Oh, people there know of him, all right. He's been the director of the prestigious Writing Seminars for the past 17 years, and has hired to teach in the department such nationally known writers as Robert Stone, Mark Strand and Stephen Dixon.

The program has grown tremendously from the time he took over, from "around 10" students in the department in 1977 to 28 graduate students and 98 undergraduates registered for the 1993-'94 term. Founded in 1947, the Seminars used to offer courses only in fiction and poetry. Now one can study science-writing or the media or film as well.

The graduate program is considered one of the best in the country, along with those at the University of Iowa, Columbia University and Stanford University. It's also fiercely competitive. As one current teacher in the department says, "This is not a warm and fuzzy place. The students really have to have some talent, and some idea of what they want to do as a writer."

The best-selling writer Louise Erdrich went through the Writing Seminars, and other recent "names" include Donald Barthelme and Mary Robison. At least a few times a year, a book comes out by a graduate of the Seminars. This month, major publishers are putting out first novels by recent graduate students Brooke Stevens and John Gregory Brown.

In addition to getting his own work published, Dr. Irwin, as editor of the Johns Hopkins University Press' Poetry and Fiction Series, has helped publish dozens of other writers.

"John is a force not only at Hopkins but also a literary force in the world," says Max Apple, the writer-in-residence at Rice University who became a friend of Dr. Irwin's in the late 1960s. Mr. Apple was a graduate student at Rice; Dr. Irwin had just gotten his doctorate there. It was Dr. Irwin who, as editor of the Georgia Review from 1974-'77, first published portions of what became Mr. Apple's underground classic "The Orangeing of America."

When Dr. Irwin came to Hopkins to run the Seminars in 1977, after having edited the Georgia Review, novelist John Barth was the department's star. A graduate of the Seminars, Mr. Barth was one of the country's leading authors, having won the National Book Award for fiction for "Chimera" in 1973.

When Mr. Barth chose semi-retirement in 1991 (he's considered a professor emeritus and will teach this semester), Dr. Irwin hired another high-profile author, Mr. Stone, who had won a National Book Award as well, for "Dog Soldiers" in 1974. A few months ago he signed on Mr. Strand as a professor of poetry. The 1990-'91 American poet laureate is one of the most respected poets in the country.

Because of the stature of Mr. Barth and Mr. Stone, it is often assumed that they were the heads of the Writing Seminars, for "name" authors usually run university writing departments. But at Hopkins the department chairman assiduously stays in the background.

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