James H S McGregor

The Countryside and Historic Cities

When I was ten I borrowed my Dad’s Smith-Corona portable typewriter and started a novel about pirates.  I didn’t get very far.  A few years later the Smith-Corona went to college and grad school with me.  Its completion rate increased, but the texts it was called on to turn out—term papers in sociology, political science, Russian history and the like—were less exciting if more meaningful than my first attempt.   After working my way through a number of undergraduate majors, I stumbled into Comparative Literature and the typing grew more focused, more earnest and more fun. 

Comparative Literature turned into a career.  The Smith Corona morphed into a series of ever cheaper, ever smaller and more efficient computers.  I wrote professional articles and books on Giovanni Boccaccio and other figures in medieval Italian literary history.  Near the end of my academic career, I started writing books about cities.  It turned out that all those term papers on social science and history had been waiting for a chance to get into conversation with the art and literature I had been teaching.    The first book, called Rome from the Ground Up, described a city where I had spent two important, eye opening years.  That book was under contract with a small press in lower Manhattan when the World Trade Center was hit.  The editor there believed that the market for books about foreign cities had collapsed with the second tower and decided not to publish.

 I sold Rome to Yale University Press about a year later.  When my editor at Yale left, enthusiasm for publishing the book went with him. Fortunately I’d gotten a good reading of the book from an expert Yale had consulted, and with that in hand, I approached the literature editor at Harvard UP.  He was persuaded, and I was offered a contract.  On the strength of the contract, I was able to sign on with a wonderful literary agent.  Four books later, HUP and I parted ways.  Yale, under dynamic new leadership, is the publisher of my latest book, which is a new direction for me but also a complement to my city books.  Four of those books--Paris, Rome, Venice and Athens--focus on places in the Mediterranean or deeply engaged with it.  The new book, Back to the Garden, looks at that part of the world and the societies it has influenced from the countryside rather than the city.  It traces the history of regional reliance on and understanding of the natural environment.

For the past year I’ve been plotting a follow up book on American environmental issues.  The problems that preoccupy me are the absence of any reference in the US Constitution to the environment or nature and the development of our environmental thinking from a base in forest management instead of farming.  Both of these seemingly insignificant and unrelated facts have had enormous impacts on American environmental thinking and policy.  

Now retired from academics, I live in Cambridge with my wife (here we are biking in Norway in incessant rain!).  And though it pains me to admit it, I still don't have anything important to say about pirates.