SCHENECTADY - The blue collar met the ivory tower Thursday, when noted author and Gloversville native Richard Russo gave a keynote address at Union College.
Speaking at the college's Founders Day Convocation, a celebration of its 217th anniversary, Russo read from one of his recent novels as well as a forthcoming memoir, which will be the Pulitzer Prize winner's first non-fiction book about his life before and after he famously left his hard-knock hometown. The book, due to be released this fall, is titled "Elsewhere."
College President Stephen C. Ainlay introduced Russo by declaring himself a big fan of the author's work.
Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Richard Russo, center, speaks Thursday during the Founders Day Convocation at Union College in Schenectady. Behind him are U.S. Rep Paul Tonko, D-Amsterdam, left, and college President Stephen C. Ainlay. Russo has written a memoir that discusses his
upbringing in Gloversville. It will be published this fall.
Photo courtesy of Union College
"Richard Russo is a great American author," Ainlay said. "His works have helped me better understand life and life's sometimes difficult transitions. He has helped me better understand nobility in the face of failure and humor in the face of life's absurdities."
Russo wore blue jeans under his formal academic regalia, metaphorically revealing the working-class roots that have fostered his success as a writer and college writing professor.
"One of the great paradoxes ... of my life as a writer is that, on one hand, I very seldom return to Gloversville, my hometown, whereas figuratively speaking I seldom leave it," Russo told the audience. "Some of you here at Union College have been assigned one of my more recent novels, 'Bridge of Sighs' ... where Gloversville leaks out of every page."
He said he identifies with both of that novel's major characters, one of whom leaves his hometown for a life as a cosmopolitan artist. The other never leaves, running convenience stores in Thomaston, a fictional town that could easily be Gloversville or Johnstown.
Russo read passages from the novel and his new memoir, sharing the harsh realities of life in a depressed mill town with an audience mostly made up of highly educated people at a private college where tuition, room and board and fees cost $54,273 per year - near the price of some homes in Gloversville.
Though "Bridge of Sighs" is a work of fiction and "Elsewhere" is non-fiction, both of these Russo narratives contain truths familiar to any longtime resident of the Glove Cities. His readings touched on the environmental costs and the grueling work associated with the leather industry - the creek changing colors "depending on that day's dye batch" and the medical and mental dangers for those exposed to the chemicals, machinery and drudgery of mill work.
After his public lecture, Russo spoke privately with faculty and students at the college, going into greater depth about the process of writing his memoir, which he began after his mother's death in 2007. Her funeral in Johnstown was the last occasion the writer had to visit Fulton County.
In "High and Dry," an essay published in 2010 that he expanded into the new book-length memoir, Russo says his mother encouraged him to leave blue-collar Gloversville to pursue a life of the mind.
"I couldn't have written this book while my mother was still alive," he said. "Not because it wasn't true, but because some parts of it might have hurt her."
He said fellow writer Andre Dubus III advised him to avoid trying to "settle scores" in a memoir and to honor "his family's truth" as well as his own truth.
Russo worried that writing an autobiography might "cap the well," somehow bringing an end to the inspiration he's drawn from his upstate New York origins, but that hasn't been the case. He's already working on a new novel, a sequel to "Nobody's Fool."
"I'll never be done with Johnstown and Gloversville," he said.
Assistant City Editor Bill Ackerbauer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org