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Leaving a Legacy of (Literary) Citizenship: Dr. John Lowe Retires

By Brianna Phillips

John LoweAfter eleven years teaching in the English department, Dr. John Lowe is retiring from the University of Georgia in May 2023. When the English department began seeking applicants for a position in Southern Literature in 2012, Dr. Lowe didn’t initially send in an application. Instead, the English department sought him for the position. At the time, he was teaching at Louisiana State University, where his work focused on African American literature and multi-ethnic Southern Literature. He candidly admits that he loved teaching at LSU and “Louisiana culture,” and he “really didn’t think [he’d] take the job” even after UGA requested his application and ultimately offered him the position. Still hesitant, he was invited for a campus visit and was immediately impressed with the university and its support for faculty research. Although his decision to accept the position was partially influenced by how close his mother lived to campus, what really won him over was the “magnificent” Main Library. His love for football also influenced his decision, and he is proud to have witnessed two championship wins during his time at UGA, confessing that “[he] loves the Dawgs and the traditions of the game.”

Originally from Atlanta, Dr. Lowe received his B.A. in English from Vanderbilt, but he had no intentions of becoming an English professor. Instead, he went to law school at Emory University, but he was only able to complete one year of the program before being drafted into the Army. After serving in the Army, he worked as a financial analyst at Donne and Bradstreet in Atlanta, but he quickly became “restless” there. His wife persuaded him to attend graduate school under the GI bill, and he attended Georgia State “because [he] couldn’t afford Emory” at the time. He was then accepted into Columbia University, where he earned his PhD in Comparative Literature. Initially, his dissertation focused on “Faulkner, Melville, and the Bible,” but when traveling to Spain with his wife, “all [his] Melville books were stolen with [their] luggage.” Because he needed to finish his dissertation to begin his post at St. Mary’s College in Notre Dame, he “dropped Melville, and [St. Mary’s] never knew that.” He taught at St. Mary’s for four years before receiving a Mellon appointment at Harvard in African American Studies. He decided to re-enter the job market now that his recommendation letters were all written on Harvard stationary. Out of over fourteen interviews, he accepted a position at LSU, and “[he] never thought [he’d] leave” until UGA “came calling.” While he “knew there was a job” in Southern Literature open at UGA, he “wasn’t interested,” but that quickly changed. He has now been teaching Southern Literature at the University of Georgia since 2012. Although he was initially “torn” between LSU and UGA, he says, “[Coming to UGA] was a good decision, and I’ve been happy here. I love the students…[and the] opportunities here to develop new courses…and so much support for my travels.”

Within those eleven years, Dr. Lowe has earned an esteemed reputation in Southern Literature and African American Studies. Although he is known for his work in Southern Literature, he has cast his net much more widely, working in multi-ethnic Southern literature that includes African American, Native American, Italian American, Asian American, and Caribbean literature. As he remarked, when it comes to Southern literature, “you name it,” and he’s done it. He sets apart a few defining moments within his career. At LSU, he directed their summer program in Italy for six years, and even now, his office is decorated with photographs of the classes he took to Italy. He received a Fulbright in Munich and was one of the founders of African American Studies at LSU. He is “proudest” of the conference he organized for MELUS (Multi-Ethnic Literature of the United States) in 2015 at UGA. He remembers “lovely” receptions, brilliant keynote speakers, and Christina Garcia speaking to a “full house” at the UGA chapel. He recalls how the event “pulled people from the [English] department together” and “introduced them to a lot of people [he] cared about in MELUS.”

His “real love in literature,” though, remains African American literature, and his fondest moments of his career involve teaching courses on the Harlem Renaissance, Black Writers in the South, and Black Women Writers. That love was one of his deciding factors for accepting a position at UGA: “One of the reasons I came here is that my real love in literature is African American literature, and when I first came here, we had a really great representation in the department.” While he has published numerous titles, Dr. Lowe pinpoints Calypso Magnolia: The Crosscurrents of Caribbean and Southern Literature as the “big book” of his career, and the most personally significant writing project is the biography of Ernest J. Gaines that he has been writing for ten years. His newest book, Black Hibiscus: African Americans and the Florida Imaginary, will be published soon, and he is currently editing a book on Colson Whitehead.


Lowe's Books











With numerous book projects still in the works, Dr. Lowe “is still busy” as his retirement approaches, and he plans to keep it that way. Realizing that he is “really an office person” and “can’t work at home,” his first goal in retirement is “try to develop the ability to work at home,” but his main priority is to “keep doing [his] books and…going to conferences.” His retirement will not be all work, however. He wants to start working out with his wife through Silver Sneakers, play racquet ball with a longtime friend from Louisiana, and play the piano more “seriously.” He is a “serious cook” and plans on hosting more dinner parties while learning Spanish through LACSI (Latin American Caribbean Studies Institute). He is travelling to France in September for a Southern Literature conference. Out of his retirement plans, he is “most looking forward to finishing [the] biography [of Ernest Gaines]”: “It’s really a burden for me…It’s the first one, and he asked me to write it. I have a solemn promise to him. He died in 2019…I’m writing it for him. I’m not writing it for me. I want his reputation to be larger than it is now and have more people reading him.”

As Dr. Lowe prepares for retirement, he looks back on his career while looking forward to the legacies that he wants to leave. He hopes that his teaching has left students not only with the “skills to better understand the value of literature,” but also the skills “to make them better citizens.” He believes that “literature often gives you guideposts for life,” which helps students become better (literary) citizens in the world through what they read. He is “proud of [his] legacy with graduate students,” having directed twenty-nine dissertations throughout his career. For him, his biggest legacy lies in his work with African American Ph.D. students at LSU. He keeps pictures of those students in his office, noting that “they’ve all gone on to be great teachers and administrators all over the country.” He sees those students as “carrying on the work [he’s] done. They’re kind of like [his] children in a way.” He also points to publications on Zora Neale Hurston and Ernest Gaines as a “big legacy because [they]…weren’t appreciated at one time.” Dr. Lowe, too, leaves behind a legacy of “lifelong friendship” with the faculty who have worked closely beside him in the English Department. He is confident that his relationship with those friendships “will continue.” He and his wife have no intentions of leaving Athens anytime soon. Rather, he reassures us, “We’ll be here.”


Brianna Phillips is an English Ph.D. student and FYW Instructor in the English department at UGA.

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