Highlights of a Life
It seems to me that for a writer, teaching is a privilege, not a burden… for as teachers we are committed to working with language, which organizes the world for everyone and is essential for defining our humanity,” —Jack Matthews
While giving a keynote address Jack Matthews once remarked “Great fiction is a celebration of the simple mystery of how one thing leads to another.” His belief in this literary theory has served Matthews well. Throughout his career as a writer, Matthews has been praised for the skillful clarity, and the straightforward but inventive language he uses to construct stories.
In a profile of Matthews in the Dictionary of Literary Biography, Bin Ramke wrote that the author’s “search for the telling emblem, apparent in all his work, implies a concern with presenting the most concise, and thus the most intense, version of a story. Others have found appeal in the unique way Matthews’ work is shaped by Middle America. An essayist for Contemporary Novelists wrote, “In his six novels (and in many of his remarkable short stories) the reader can sense the wide-open spaces of the Midwest, the often-closed minds of its inhabitants, the limitless possibilities of success and failure, the comic and the tragic in ironic balance.”
Early in his career Matthews established himself as a published writer of short stories. His essays have appeared in numerous literary journals, as well as mainstream magazines such as the New Republic and the National Review. His short stories have been published as collections, such as in Bitter Knowledge (winner of the 1965 Ohioana Book award), Crazy Women (1985) and Dubious Persuasions (1981). In his 1978 collection, Tales of the Ohio Land, Matthews collaborated with his daughter, Barbara, who illustrated her father’s short stories about early Ohio settlers and Indians.
Matthews’ first novel, Hanger Stout, Awake!, was released in 1967. The 152-page novel portrays the comic struggles of the story’s beloved hero, a young filling station mechanic. Widespread acclaim for Hanger Stout put Matthews on the map of contemporary fiction. The novel was praised by such literary figures as William Stafford, an award-winning poet who called Hanger Stout one of the “most neglected books of the 20th century.”
Matthews continued to write prolifically, even while teaching at Ohio University, where he’s been a member of the English Department faculty since 1964. Six more novels were published, ending with Schopenhauer’s Will (2002), released by a Prague publisher in a Czech translation. Based on the biography on the famous 19th century philosopher, the book isn’t yet available in English. “One editor rejected it, saying it was too experimental and cerebral–odd reasons for rejecting a book about a philosopher,” noted Matthews.
An avid collector and seller of old and rare books, Matthews has developed a following among bibliophiles. He has written several books on the art of book collecting, including Booking Pleasures (2000) and Collecting Rare Books for Pleasure and Profit (1977). Matthews’ work on this subject has won popularity and acclaim for being informative, while capturing the spirit of book collecting.
Now 80 years old, Matthews has taken to writing plays. Several one-act dramas have been produced “very much off-off Broadway,” quips Matthews. “I think of actors as being among those for whom I most intimately and instinctively write,” said Matthews. “They will, in all their various and individual ways, give voice to words which I have first heard in silence.”
With this change of venue he has changed his pen name to Matt Hughes, no doubt an alias resulting from the playful separation of the name Matthews. Also under that name he has published five very short stories with the literary quarterly, AGNI. Among them is a comical tale of a young businessman whose illness quickly ages him 50 years; the story is online at https://www.bu.edu/agni/fiction/online/2005/hughesprogeria.html .
Matthews and his wife of 58 years, Barbara, have three grown children. John Harold III, and Barbara Ellen, and Cynthia Ann.