Oct 26 2008

Country roads to halls of fame

I got lost trying  on my way to visit the North Carolina Literary Hall of Fame.  I got lost because I am of that uncertain generation that no longer thinks of keeping road maps in the car, but neither have I quite yet justified to myself spending $300 on a GPS navigation system for a minivan that was over ten years old and starting to show signs of rust.  What I had was a printout from Google maps, and Google, it turns out, is not the most reliable source for information about rural routes and old country roads.

So I drove along a series of two-lane highways, lined with alternate patches of bright white cotton fields and the faded green-gold of soybeans, and criss-crossed by rusting railroad tracks.  I stopped at old gas stations with signs like “Racing fuel sold here!” to ask directions, feeling out of place in my black high heels and tastefully arty outfit, while scruffy guys who were blowing off church argued with each other about the best route I should take to get to the Weymouth Center for the Arts in Southern Pines, North Carolina.  I was directed, with confidence and contradictory instructions, to a nature preserve that allowed hunting.

Google said it would be a three hour trip and it was, since all the time I saved by going eighty on the interstate was spent fruitlessly wandering around roads with battered signs that said “old highway 1” or getting stuck behind an old truck that was stuck behind an even older guy driving farm equipment from one field to the next at the top speed of your average John Deere threshing machine, maybe five miles per hour.  The guy was falling asleep at the wheel, too, and we watched in fascinated dread as his massive machine drifted further and further to the right, tilting perilously as he came closer to the roadside ditch while all of us behind him leaned on our horns in a vain attempt to wake him up. What woke him, eventually, was the listing tilt of his seat, thank god. And through it all I was cataloging and memorizing and thinking “I’ve got to write this down.”

This expedition into the wilds of piedmont, North Carolina was on behalf of the North Carolina Literary Hall of Fame (LHOF), which was having its bi-annual induction ceremony that afternoon. Because I serve on the board of the organization that runs LHOF—not to be pronounced like “laugh”—I had promised to come. I had promised the same thing in the past, mind you, but always found an excuse not to attend.    Alas, on this particular Sunday no convenient excuses were available. It was a beautiful, warm October day. I didn’t have any other pressing engagements I couldn’t put off. The car, for a wonder, had nothing wrong with it. Even more miraculously, it had a nearly full tank of gas. So I had sighed, bowed to fate, and put on my semi-fancy duds to attend one of the more high-toned events in this area’s literary community.

Eventually the soybeans gave way to horse farms, and more by chance than design I found myself on the right road (although at the wrong end of it).  I finally pulled up into a beautiful historic and well-cared for estate with narrow graveled drives, white-washed, arched walkways.  I was just in time. About a 150 folding chairs had been set out on the covered patio and most of them were already filled, but I was happy to sneak into a  seat at the back.  Just because I hadn’t wanted to come, didn’t mean I wasn’t happy to see these writers honored.

Of course, what I really wanted was to see them read.

Selected PoemsThis year’s inductees were the poet James Applewhite, the historian William S. Powell, and the novelist Lee Smith.  After living in this state for seventeen years (working as a bookseller for most of that time) I am usually familiar with the writers who are chosen to be added to the Literary Hall of Fame. The last few times, I’d even go so far to say that I have very fond personal relationships with—if not the authors, at least their books.  When I first moved to North Carolina, it was William Powell’s North Carolina Gazetteer and his North Carolina Through Four Centuries (a massive tome) that I picked up to tell me about the place I had moved to. (Some people buy guidebooks, I buy books about the histories of place-names).  I discovered Applewhite because someone had put a poem of his next to a vintage photograph at an exhibition I had gone to see.  And Lee Smith’s Oral History was the first novel I read for the first book club I ever joined.

As I found a seat a man stepped up to the inadequate microphone.  “The North Carolina Literary Hall of Fame,” said the master of ceremonies solemnly, “is our state’s Stonehenge.”  The audience tittered. One thing you can count on about attending an event that honors writers—the people in the audience know bad writing when they hear it.  The poor MC, a newspaper book critic, seemed to realize belatedly how over the top the statement was, and muttered that it wasn’t his fault newspapers were firing all their editors. That received a louder laugh, and for the rest of the presentation we got to hear various impromptu “Stonehenge” references at ever possible opportunity.

North Carolina GazetteerThe absurdity of the comparison was patently obvious: there was nothing about the fragile historic home we had all come to, (over a hundred years old and with small placards on the furniture that pleaded with visitors to not set anything down on this original piece of…’), or about its pretty gardens and walkways that evoked the ancient and eternal feeling of Stonehenge.  But still, I could see why he wanted to say it. A Hall of Fame should reach for eternity—it’s mission is to make sure its subjects are never, ever forgotten.  In the house behind us where we were seated, on the second floor, was a study that had been used by the original owner, James Boyd.  It was a place of great comfort and companionship for many writers, from the British playwright James Galsworthy to Thomas Wolfe, F. Scott Fitzgerald, William Faulkner and Sherwood Anderson.  It is this study that is now the official site North Carolina’s Literary Hall of Fame, its walls lined with photographs of the state’s great authors, it’s glass-fronted bookshelves filled with copies of their books.  It is not an “eternal” place, as Stonehenge is, but it is a place that is frozen in time, and that is an attempt, at least, at the eternal.

Oral HistoryOf course, one might say that the real monument to these authors isn’t on the study wall. It is on the bookshelves of schools and libraries and bookstores and homes across the state. Stonehenge stands mute and mysterious, but the words of Lee Smith, James Applewhite and William Powell speak to anyone who can find a copy of their books. As long as they can be read, they live.

That is true. But the books aren’t the whole story.  What Weymouth preserves is something more ephemeral;  the sense of community evoked by the history of James Boyd’s study. They say writing is a solitary act but that isn’t true in North Carolina.  Storytelling is a way of life here—as natural as breathing.  People tell stories to each other, they can’t hardly help it.  It is how they communicate with each other.  The novelist Jill McCorkle read an excerpt from one of Lee Smith’s books as part of the program because she had been a student of Smith’s.  Lee Smith in her turn, had as a young writer insinuated herself into the class of the novelist Doris Betts, who was in the audience beaming at her unorthodox student and whose portrait is also on the wall of Boyd’s study. Betts herself was a reporter in the same town and for the same paper as William Powell. The threads and connections were everywhere. There was probably not a person in the audience who was not enmeshed; who was not, somehow, a slightly better storyteller because of the writers we were honoring that afternoon.  And I include myself, because why else would I, who had always been a just a reader, find myself thinking as I wandered around lost on a country highway not “where the hell am I” or “god damn it, I’m going to be late” but  “I’ve got to write this down.”

 

Books mentioned in this column:

North Carolina Gazetteer by William S. Powell (University of North Carolina Press, 1976)
North Carolina Through Four Centuries by William S. Powell (University of North Carolina Press, 1989)
Oral History by Lee Smith, (Ballantine Books, 1984)