Pomona College has hired author Jonathan Lethem to become the second occupant of the Roy Edward Disney ‘51 Chair in Creative Writing. Lethem, an author of novels, essays, and short stories, is best known for his novels Motherless Brooklyn and The Fortress of Solitude, a New York Times best-seller.
The position had remained unfilled since Professor David Foster Wallace’s death at age 46 in 2008. The previous chair was called “the best mind of his generation” by notable film-critic A.O. Scott of The New York Times. He was, by most accounts, a beloved teacher who left a long shadow over the position. His 1996 work, Infinite Jest, was named one of the 100 best English-language novels since 1923 by Time.
Lethem is a well-decorated author in his own right. He is the recipient of the National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction, the Salon Book Award, and the MacArthur “Genius” grant. Newsweek included Lethem in its “Century Club,” a list of 100 people to watch in the twenty-first century. The New York Times called his most recent novel, Chronic City (2009), one the ten best books of the year. Lethem’s fiction is notable for skirting the edges of various genres, including mystery, sci-fi, and western, while maintaining a literary bent. He has contributed to The New Yorker, Harpers, and Rolling Stone, among others.
The hire comes at the end of an intensive search process that involved more than 75 applicants. The other finalists considered for the position were Chris Abani, a Nigerian poet and author who now teaches at UC Riverside, and Edie Meidav, a professor at Bard College. An initial candidate, Junot Diaz, author of the Pulitzer Prize winning novel The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, withdrew his application for personal reasons. Lethem has the highest name recognition of the finalists, but he has less teaching experience than either Meidav or Abani. He also lacks an Master of Fine Arts.
Pomona was able to pry Lethem away from Brooklyn, New York, his home for most of the past decade and the setting for much of his recent fiction. Lethem and his family will move to Claremont either over the summer or during the fall of this year, and will begin teaching for the Spring 2011 term.