English professor Shena McAuliffe honored with Pushcart Prize

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Shena McAuliffe, assistant professor of English, has received the Pushcart Prize for her essay about the wife of cult leader Jim Jones. The essay, titled "Marceline Wanted a Bigger Adventure," is one of 16 essays in her new collection, Glass, Light, Electricity.

As a student and teacher, McAuliffe has moved a lot. At each town, she walks, seeking out interesting people and places. “I follow my curiosity with my feet,” she said.

Prof. Shena McAuliffe

Prof. Shena McAuliffe

Richmond, Indiana, is a Rust Belt town pushed up against the eastern border with Ohio. Richmond has its share of boarded windows and poverty. But it is also layered with stories, and it is home to Earlham College, where McAuliffe was a visiting professor of creative writing.

Few outside of Richmond know the town is the final resting place of the woman who stood by her preacher husband and followed him, along with two of her children, into a mass suicide at what was supposed to be a utopian settlement in the jungle of Guyana.

When McAuliffe learned the town was where cult leader Jim Jones began as a street preacher and where his future wife worked as a nurse, she set out to learn more about the Peoples Temple and Jonestown.

And, naturally, to walk to the grave of Marceline.

Her quest is captured in an essay, “Marceline Wanted a Bigger Adventure,” which won the prestigious Pushcart Prize and is republished in the 2020 Pushcart Prize Anthology. It is part of a recently published 16-essay collection, Glass, Light, Electricity that essentially traces the writer’s journey across a decade of moves from the northwest to the northeast. The title essay, a treatise on the lure of neon lights, was listed as notable in Best American Essays 2020.

McAuliffe is interested in people like Jones, whose idealism and progressive ideas are derailed by their own limitations or blind spots. She also is interested in people like Marceline, whose stories are overshadowed by larger figures and not part of the public record.

She began the project with a question for Marceline: “How could you love him, marry him, stay with him and allow this to happen to your children, your friends and yourself?”

What she learned from Marceline is perhaps a lesson for all: we need to recognize when we have followed a person or a cause too far. “As we pursue ideas or want to change the world, it’s important not to get too swept up,” she said. “And yet I don’t want to warn people away from pursuing meaningful and important things. Many of the people at Jonestown started with the idea that they were creating a utopian society, but then it went so wrong. That puzzle is part of what drew me to write the essay.”

Walking, at once therapeutic and meditative, is also important to McAuliffe’s creative process. In another essay in Glass, Light, Electricity titled “The Distance Between is an Unbroken Line,” McAuliffe chronicles a walk she took from her home to the campus of the University of Utah, where she earned her Ph.D. She creates a map of her walk by trailing a line of turquoise yarn to which she attached notes about points of interest, encounters with other people, and her thoughts along the way. The essay documents the walk, which she also calls a performance.

At Union, a class McAuliffe teaches on the literature of walking investigates the relationships between walking, thinking, reading and writing. The course begins with “old walkers” like Thoreau and Wordsworth, but focuses equally on contemporary writers who consider walking while Black, walking while blind, or walking in a war zone. Students also write about their own weekly walks.

For McAuliffe, starting a walk brings excitement. “I don’t know what I’ll encounter on this walk, what I’ll see, who I will talk to or what I will find in myself in this experience. I guess I’ll go find out.”