The force that makes literature flourish -- and civilization work

March 30, 1997|By MICHAEL PAKENHAM

I was going to scribble about the Southern voice in American writing, or about genre, or about something Southern and

bookish, and I will, another day. But, having gone to

Charlottesville, Va., for three days in pursuit of that idea, what came crashing upon me was the importance of centripetal force.

Centripetal, as every school child knows, means drawing toward the center. Its precise opposite is centrifugal force, which is what keeps the moon from falling into your soup and makes spinning pizza dough expansive. Centrifugal force is more commonly observable than the centripetal kind. It is the cause of burgeoning waistlines, proliferation of grunge in Seattle and suburban sprawl - one of the known tendencies of which is to turn the human brain into oatmeal.

Almost everything that nourishes the mind and spirit - and civilization - grows out of centripetal human activity.

Oh, sure, people can take fully fledged talents into the wilderness and make literature or art or even wisdom there. And, sure, certain very small concentrations of fertile minds have become richly provident. But, by and large, what changes history for the better grows out of major and intimate intermingling.

Charlottesville is a tiny city, or a moderate town. It just held its third annual "Virginia Festival of the Book." That began with a sweetly brief ceremony, including a trumpet fanfare that was locally composed. The mayor and the county executive read proclamations.

Literature's role

There followed, over four days, 204 events, 140 speakers, panelists or readers. All focused on books and the work of writers, on the importance of literacy, on the role of prose and poetry - and the making of both - in the lives of people.

There was enough earnest seriousness to go around. Charlottesville is seat of a university and is quaint and proud of being so and prosperous. But a four-wheel-drive machine parked just outside the main library had two bumper stickers: "My cat didn't make the honor roll." And: "Practice random acts of silliness." Three reasonably attentive days led to me conclude that those anthemic statements are as locally characteristic as the worthiness.

Charlottesville prides itself as the most "avid book reading" city in America, an ingratiating conceit drawn from a 1996 survey by the respected Standard Rate and Data Service. That analysis found 48 percent of households in the Charlottesville area contain somebody reading a book.

It's fair to note that other top contenders are Fairbanks, Alaska, at 44 percent, and Missoula, Mont., at 43.2, and a lot of other places where there well may be little else to do much of the year but read and hibernate. Large cities, including Baltimore, seem to be off the charts.

Charlottesville also preens itself on being way up near the national summit in the number of book shops per capita. This may be more a matter of gown than town, for it is site of the University of Virginia, one of Earth's most elegant and enchanting groves of academe. (An apparently harsh local felony statute prohibits use of the term "campus" - "grounds" is it. But, then, one is not allowed within the city limits to say "Thomas Jefferson," the proper name of the man who designed and largely founded the university; the sole permissible reference is "Mister Jefferson.")

All this and more makes the place a garden of soft, enduring ecstasies. Small wonder that the area boasts both a deep tradition and a bold present of literary productivity. Lots of writers. Many of them were on hand.

A panel called "The Southern Voice in Writing" - comprised of Sharyn McCrumb, John Gregory Brown and Mary E. Lyons -made a good deal of fuss about qualities that are uniquely, or specially, Southern. "The Yankees," Lyons said, "they don't like the way we talk, but they keep on coming here." She elaborated the familiar point that the South has very tough local argots and also a tradition of eloquence. They bounce off each other, both contributing to literary richness.

McCrumb made a strong case for the extent to which ancient cultural and language usages of Scotland, Ireland, Wales, England still hold firm roots in the South, especially in the mountains. "Everybody here has seen ghosts," she insisted, "except in big cities, which usually means the North."

Family, faith, grace

Brown, who grew up in New Orleans, said "Down there we talk like Brooklyn" but insists that makes them no less Southern, and that there are deep concerns with "family, faith and grace" - out of which grow more serious writing than from almost all other sources combined.

Spread out across the South as those regional characteristics may be, they flourish from interrelation, from centripetal force. There was a panel done by "The Apple Mountain Poets," a group, none academic, who spend every Wednesday doing mutual critiques and have been doing so for more years than anyone seems to have kept track of. One of them, Don Bieker, said: "It is what keeps me writing."

Several thousand others in town for the occasion seemed to be acting out the same sense of community, of interdependence of mind and spirit, of Southern solidarity. There was a powerful sense, in that, of the healthiness and promise of the city, the region, the state of literature.

This year, The Baltimore Book Festival will fill the Mount Vernon neighborhood on Sept. 27 and 28. One of the greatest, and most sadly neglected, urban spaces in the U.S. will be alive with literary things. Building on last year's launch, the festival should grow and prosper.

There are more bookish people in the Baltimore area than would fit in all of Charlottesville, and a deep Southern strain as well, with hard-edged Yankees thrown in. The entire region would do well to celebrate that centripetality - nourishing civilization.

Pub Date: 3/30/97

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