A Tribute to Paul A. MacKenzie by Barbara F. Buedel

April 16, 2004 — Phi Kappa Phi

A nineteenth-century German opera, the Danish/Norwegian winner of the Nobel Prize in literature in 1928, and a contemporary Chilean novelist. The common link is Paul A. MacKenzie, for it was Paul who enriched my understanding of each of them.

It was 1990, and I was teaching an experimental course on the short story in Spanish and Latin American literature; to be honest, a number of the stories I read about a week before the students. The assignment for the next day was entitled "La muerte de Isolda" by Uruguayan writer Horacio Quiroga. Known as the father of the modern short story in Latin American, I had, of course, studied Quiroga in graduate school but was unfamiliar with this particular work. The piece opens against the background of a theatrical performance of Tristán and Isolde. What play is that? I wondered. I glimpsed a clue when the narrator referred to Wagner, and then I understood that the play, in fact, was an opera. Now imagine my situation. I had to lead my students in a discussion of Quiroga's story the next day, and in less than an hour and a half I had to pick up my daughter from nursery school. The Web as we know it today had not been born. Fortunately for me, Paul was across the hall. When I asked him what he knew of Wagner's Tristán and Isolde, he smiled gently and invited me to sit down. After narrating the entire opera to me, he then asked me to give him a plot summary of Quiroga's story. Our subsequent conversation formed the essence of my lesson plan for the next day! I will be forever grateful that it was Paul who truly introduced me to the world of opera.

About six years ago I came across a wonderful quotation about truth and fiction that I wanted to include in an article. According to the writer, fiction can be a vehicle of truth through "knowledge, imagination, intuition and conscientious work." The author's name, Sigrid Undset, suggested northern Europe to me so naturally I headed for Paul's office. When I hesitantly asked him if he knew anything about the writer, Paul, grinning broadly, leaped from his chair to retrieve a huge volume from his bookshelves. He then proceeded to tell me that Undset had won the Nobel Prize in literature in 1928 for her powerful description of life in Scandinavia during the Middle Ages. I included the relevant quotation in my article. And whenever I pause to think about the humanist tradition that holds that one of the aims of literature is to convey, teach or embody universal truths about human nature, I think of Sigrid Undset's words and Paul MacKenzie's generous nature.

Paul was an avid reader. He devoured books. In the early 1990s he mentioned one day that he had recently discovered a Chilean novelist named Isabel Allende whose works had been recently translated into English. Asking me what I knew about her, I confessed "very little" and, somewhat defensively, reminded him that my specialty was Spanish literature, not Latin American. Paul, however, continued to read her books and told me about each one. I have developed a new topics course in Latin American literature for next spring, and I believe that Paul will be with me in that classroom as we discuss Magic Realism in the works of Gabriel García Márquez and Isabel Allende.

These are just three examples of the breadth of Paul MacKenzie's scholarship. A genuine scholar, I know that Paul shared his wisdom with his students. His personal modesty, however, may have obscured the depth of his erudition to those colleagues who didn't talk to him about such things. But fortunately for me, he was across the hall with his door wide open for thirteen years. Thank you, Paul, for your generosity and for sharing your love of learning with me.