Southern literati gather to examine state of their art

To have been here late last month was to experience an irreplaceable moment in time and history. That may sound unlikely, but it is true. The Southern Literary Festival, held here April 18-20 at Nicholls State University, gathered some of the finest minds in literature to discuss the state of the Southern writer, and how he fits into the marketplace. Leading the list were no less than Robert Penn Warren and his wife, Eleanor Clark. They were joined by Andrew Lytle and the most eminent literary critics and editors of the South.

But the important part of this festival was the tremulous experience of hearing Mr. Penn Warren and Miss Clark read from their latest work to a packed auditorium amid cane fields and bayous. It was to experience the power, depth, and breadth heard in successive readings by Andrew Lytle, Ernest Gaines, and James Wilcox.

It was to be part of an audience that rose to its feet in love when Robert Penn Warren received a telegram on his 80th birthday from President Reagan, and to be with Mr. Warren as he rose, too, and applauded with us. It was to see that same audience, tear-streamed, jump to its feet after hearing Andrew Lytle read his own ``Jericho, Jericho, Jericho,'' singing, himself, the last lines. And it was to see three generations of the South perform, and upcoming ones asking questions.

As the festival progressed, and its readings and discussions concluded, something even more strong began to appear here. As one listened to the power, the rhythm, and the flow of Ernest Gaines's reading from his ``A Gathering of Old Men'' -- of the abuse, the hatred, yet the love and devotion among whites and blacks in rural Louisiana -- one heard the mourning. But one heard something else, too: the beauty beneath it all,and the power gained by the oppressed. One hears this in the Negro spirituals, in which something terrible is transformed into something beautiful and irrepressible.

Here, in these most erudite discussions, the historical subjugation of the Southern writer to the Northern editors and publishers after the Civil War, the struggle heard so vividly in Lytle's readings of the South just trying to survive, one began to discern a common thread: from a similar suffering, a singular quality.

And as one listened even closer, one began to hear some of the answers to the questions: Why has Southern literature been so special? Why has it been set apart in merit from other world literature? Why has it received the focus and attention it has in the last half-century?

The humanity here, the sense of the common man, the humility: the South has them, and lives them.

And nowhere else do I remember, in equally learned discussions, ever hearing the word God mentioned or the role of God discussed with such earnestness and commitment. Numerous readings pointed toward it, and comments made in several discussions addressed it head-on.

``No man creates,'' Lytle said. ``God creates. [Man gives] a special view of what was always there.'' And in his closing summary of the conference, Walter Sullivan of Vanderbilt University concluded that ``all else would be irrelevant unless we recover our humanity.''

``Tenderness divorced from its source,'' Sullivan concluded, had no future. It is heartening to hear these writers and critics, in the face of the prevalent skepticisms coupling intellectual endeavors, state their convictions.

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