Davidson Remembers Literary Giant Joel Conarroe '56

an older white man talking to another man

Joel Conarroe '56 with 2018 Conarroe Lecturer George Saunders

Joel O. Conarroe ’56, accomplished arts administrator, celebrated author, proud Davidson alumnus and 20-year leader of the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation, died last week. 

two older white men walk in front of a library while talking to each other

Joel Conarroe '56 with 2009 Conarroe Lecturer Russell Banks

The headline of his obituary in The New York Times reads, “Hub of the New York Literary Wheel.” 

Outside of close relationships with writers like Philip Roth and Robert Caro, Conarroe served on the faculty of the University of Pennsylvania for nearly two decades, including eight years as a professor in the English department, later serving as the department chair. He spent two years in the 1980s as the dean of Penn’s School of Arts & Sciences. He also held the position of executive director of the Modern Language Association, the nation’s leading scholarly organization for language and literature, and as president of the P.E.N. American Center, the writers’ organization. He chaired the National Book Award fiction jury and the Pulitzer Prize fiction jury.

Conarroe was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship in American literature in 1977, was a Trustee of the Guggenheim Foundation from 1985 to 2016 and was appointed Trustee Emeritus on his retirement from the foundation’s board.

Conarroe’s grand-niece and a fellow Wildcat, Heather Conarroe Durham ’11, shared about his life and love for Davidson. She wrote:

He had a way of capturing the magic of all that Davidson represents — dinners at the tables of former college presidents, and intellectual discussions that captured his heart. The community and the love of learning he encountered on this campus was so formative to his being that each trip he made from New York City to Davidson felt to him like coming home. He joked jovially that he didn’t quite know how that they let him into Davidson as an applicant long ago, but in this playful sentiment there was a deep gratitude for the ways in which Davidson shaped him as a young adult, and laid the foundation for the rest of his career. The sense of belonging Joel felt amidst the Davidson community, coupled with an opportunity to be sharpened and challenged academically, unlocked what would become a lifelong passion for literature and the arts, and a career that empowered and supported many young writers in their own creative endeavors.

In my own personal interactions with Joel, I knew I could always count on a big hug, followed by an enthusiastic, “Alenda Lux Ubi Orta Libertas!” Let Learning Be Cherished Where Liberty Has Arisen. What a privilege it is to be among those who are invited to let learning be cherished. As we remember Joel and his legacy, may we cherish every opportunity to be sharpened, inspired, and connected to one another, remembering him as someone who encouraged so many of us toward these ends.

While a student at Davidson, Conarroe majored in English and was a member of The Davidsonian staff and the men’s tennis team, class president and a member of Phi Beta Kappa, Sigma Upsilon creative writing honor society and Omicron Delta Kappa honorary service organization. He went on to earn a master’s in English from Cornell University and a doctorate in English from New York University. He has written and edited books and essays about American poetry and fiction, including his hallmark work, “Six American Poets.”

Conarroe remained deeply connected to alma mater as an alum, serving as an annual fund class agent and supporting various fundraising initiatives. In 2017, the college honored him with a Distinguished Alumni Award, citing his many contributions to education and the literary arts.

At Davidson’s sesquicentennial in 1987, Conarroe delivered a speech, “In Praise of What Endures.” 

“I for one largely credit whatever I have achieved during my first semi-centennial to the love of learning, the passion for service,” he said, “and the sense of community that were instilled in me during four life-changing years on this beautiful campus.”

four older people walk together on a college campus smiling and talking

Conarroe walks on campus with Conarroe Lecturer Ed Hirsch

The Joel O. Conarroe Lecture Series was established at Davidson by the late Alex Porter ’60, a successful hedge-fund manager, quintessential scholar-athlete, voracious reader and lifelong learner, in honor of Conarroe, with whom he’d become acquainted during a chance meeting in New York. They quickly realized that they had many things in common, including Davidson. The series, inaugurated in 2003, has welcomed to campus notable authors including Michael Cunningham, Salman Rushdie, Michael Ondaatje, Annie Proulx, Michael Chabon, Russell Banks, Margaret Atwood, W.S. Merwin, Edward Hirsch, Don DeLillo, Robert Caro, George Saunders, Jennifer Egan, Karen Russell, and Poet Laureate of the United States Charles Wright ’57. 

a wall covered with signed posters

Conarroe's "Wall of Fame" in his Greenwich Village apartment

Conarroe delighted in inviting these literary luminaries to campus, introducing them with remarks that could rival those of the speaker, and showing them his beloved Davidson. The hall of his Greenwich Village apartment was decorated with a signed poster from each lecture.