“Appreciating Our Literary Giants”

by J. Peder Zane

Novelist Lee Smith became a writer at a fair and tender age because she didn’t want her favorite books to end.

Facing the saddest moment in literature–the last page of a beloved tale–Smith would take out her pen and continue the adventures of Heidi, the Bobbsey Twins and so many others.

Through all those journeys and feats of derring-do, she recalled, the characters were accompanied “by their new best friend, Lee Smith.”

She shared that story with an audience nearly 100 strong Oct. 19 during induction ceremonies for the North Carolina Literary Hall of Fame.

Under a Carolina-blue sky filled with birdsong that accompanied the music of their words, Smith, poet James Applewhite and historian William S. Powell were honored for their literary achievements at the Weymouth Center in Southern Pines.

During his brief remarks, Applewhite—a Duke University professor who has published 12 books of poems, as well as scholarly studies—said writing has helped him plumb the “cosmic mysteries” of life, death, eternity and the natural world since his childhood in the tobacco farming community of Stantonsburg.

Green speaks of home

He described this lifelong quest in the closing lines of “Invisible Fence,” which poet Jaki Shelton Green read at the ceremony:

The years really take us to ourselves, medium
we walk in around the lake, in which we come
to love, smelling the houses at suppertime,
the aroma of baking ours. A neighbor who lost his
wife brought apples home to us — brought the mountains
he visited, in their August fragrantness.
I glimpse the whole perspective that I lack
but seek, and ask that hours, circling back,
remember their beginnings, for pure love’s sake.

In introducing Powell, Jerry Cashion, chairman of the N.C. Historical Commission, cast the UNC-Chapel Hill historian’s scholarship as an act of public service.

Through seminal works including The North Carolina Gazetteer (1968), Dictionary of North Carolina Biography (1979), North Carolina Through Four Centuries (1989) and Encyclopedia of North Carolina (2006), Powell has helped fellow Tar Heels identify and understand the faces and forces of the past that shaped our native soil.

Like the other inductees, Powell paid tribute to family members, colleagues and distinguished writers who had influenced him.

It started with ‘Drums’

The 89-year-old recalled how his interest in history was kindled in childhood by James Boyd’s classic novel about North Carolina and the American Revolution, Drums (1927).

This memory was especially evocative because Weymouth was the longtime home of James and Katharine Boyd. Through their bottomless generosity, unquenchable curiosity and well-stocked bar, they made it a gathering place for leading writers of their day, including F. Scott Fitzgerald, Sherwood Anderson and William Faulkner.

The N.C. Literary Hall of Fame is housed in James Body’s former study, whose floors he would pace while dictating his thoughts to the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright, Paul Green.

On the walls of that book-lined room, portraits of Applewhite, Powell and Smith will join those of the 42 previous inductees, including Green, Thomas Wolfe, O. Henry, Charles W. Chestnutt, George Moses Horton, Randall Jarrell, Guy Owen, Doris Betts and Fred Chappell.

They are more than just names or pictures on the wall, because the Literary Hall of Fame is not a lifeless shrine but a bridge in time, connecting North Carolina’s past, present and future.

If literature, as Lee Smith once suggested, brings news of the spirit, that spirit is a palpable presence at Weymouth. If you bend your ear just right while strolling across Weymouth’s pine-soaked grounds, you might swear that the wind rustling across the treetops carries snatches of the brilliant conversations those luminaries once shared.

Invited to offer a few remarks at Sunday’s ceremony, I asked a basic question: What is the purpose of a hall of fame? To answer those questions I thought about how Weymouth differs from that famous hall in Cooperstown, N.Y.

Young baseball fans can hear about Buck Leonard’s towering home runs and Catfish Hunter’s legendary control on the mound; They can memorize every statistic from those brilliant careers. But fans can never truly know what it was like to see those splendid Tar Heel ballplayers in their primes.

The Baseball Hall of Fame is like a message from the past to the present that says: Trust us, we saw them, they were the very best.

Our writers, by contrast, are ageless—their books, that is, if not their bodies.

One hundred years from now readers will still be able to see Applewhite, Powell and Smith at the top of their games. A flick of a book cover—or the power switch on some high-tech device—will transport them into the immortal worlds the writers created.

Tomorrow’s readers will not need us to tell them what they can see and feel for themselves. They will know that greatness firsthand. The power of the writer’s work ensures its posterity. That time-stopping process would occur even if there were no Hall of Fame at Weymouth.

This fact suggested two surprising conclusions. First, even as the Hall provides a link between the past and the future, it is grounded in the present. Second, though it is built around great writers, it is truly a celebration of readers.

Given their due

The induction ceremony allowed today’s readers to thank cherished writers for the insight, wisdom and, above all, the pleasure that they have given us.

In this is embodied one of the best aspects of the reading experience—its warm and generous heart.

To read a book is to surrender yourself to another person. It is to recognize the value of what others have to say, to stand in awe of their dedication, skill and imagination.

We do this each time we open their works—becoming a reader is the greatest honor anyone can give a writer. But especially when it comes to those whose works have given us so much, this hardly seems enough.

So we gathered that Sunday at Weymouth to express our gratitude to Applewhite, Powell and Smith, to acknowledge not only what they have accomplished in their own lives but how their efforts have enriched our lives.

And as their works have become part of the golden chain that links writers and reader, erasing the boundaries of time, in saluting them we paid tribute to all the shining literary lights who came before them and all who will carry their flame in the years ahead.

[Reprinted with Permission from the Raleigh News-Observer, 10/27/2008]