TWENTY-FIVE years ago, when I arrived in Charlottesville, there was one novelist on the University of Virginia faculty, only one in all of Albemarle County as far as I knew -- George Garrett. But then he resigned in a dispute with the English Department chairman who wanted him to set aside his creative work -- Garrett had already published two novels, three collections of stories and three volumes of verse -- and finish his doctoral dissertation.
This incident, like so many before and since, serves as an example of the ambivalent and sometimes prickly relationship between writers and the University of Virginia. Although Charlottesville has literary pretensions that hark all the way back to Thomas Jefferson, the town's best known poets and novelists have historically been those who bolted at the earliest opportunity. Edgar Allan Poe was a student here, as every tourist is told, but he left after a very short stay. Paul Bowles, an admirer of Poe's work, enrolled at U.Va., but soon departed for the wilder shores and sheltering sky of Morocco. Karl Shapiro withdrew -- "recoiled" may be a better description -- from the university and produced an acid-dipped poem about its anti-Semitism. Julien Green, surely this century's most illustrious literary Cavalier, has often written about Charlottesville, but from Paris and in French. The lone American member of the Academie Francaise, Green was invited to donate his papers to the university library, but declined. According to university scholars, the record holder among writers for brevity of stay and abruptness of departure was John Malcolm Brinnin, who registered, attended one class and dropped out the same day.
In contrast, William Faulkner came to Charlottesville as writer-in-residence and wanted to stay on at the university. Yet even as a newly anointed Nobel Laureate he received no better than a mixed welcome. Because he had a daughter and grandchildren in the town and enjoyed riding with the horsy set in the County, he was willing to accept a risibly low salary of $1,600 a semester. (In those days, Faulkner could command more in a week as a screenwriter.) Still, there were those in the English Department who objected to making him a permanent member of the faculty. While some egotistical souls felt he got too much attention, others, especially at the administrative level, feared Faulkner's outspokenness about integration. The university president rejected the idea of naming him an honorary, non-paid lecturer and discouraged an arrangment whereby Faulkner was granted work space in the library. A few years later, in 1962, Faulkner was appointed Balch Lecturer in American Literature and gave three talks for a total of $250, a fee which the university president had knocked down from $300.
With this past as prologue, it was remarkable for me to return to Charlottesville this year and discover that the town is chock-a-block with writers. Nobody seems to know why or when things changed, but now the population appears to be divided into those who have a book deal and those who are angling for one, those who have seen Sam Shepard and those who are still scouring bars and restaurants for a glimpse of the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright, screenwriter, actor and Albemarle County resident.
More remarkable to me was the fact that George Garrett is back on the English faculty after a 17-year exile, sitting in the Henry Hoyns Chair. (His new novel, Entered From the Sun, will be out this September.) Garrett replaced Peter Taylor, who retired from teaching, but continues writing. In 1986 Taylor's novel, A Summons to Memphis, won the Pulitzer Prize and the Ritz-Paris Hemingway Prize, and he and his wife, poet Eleanor Ross Taylor, still live part of the year in Charlottesville.
Unlike the old days, when the University grudgingly offered no more than a section or two of creative writing, there's now an extensive schedule of undergraduate courses and an MFA program for grad students. John Casey, this year's National Book Award winner for Spartina, covers the fiction classes along with Garrett, Sheila McMillen, a short story writer, and Sydney Blair, who has just had her first novel, Buffalo, accepted. Gregory Orr, American Book Award winner Charles Wright (his new collection, The World of the Ten Thousand Things, comes out in September), Pulitzer Prize winner Rita Dove and Deborah Nystrom handle poetry. Jonathan Coleman, author of At Mother's Request and Exit the Rainmaker teaches nonfiction writing. Meanwhile, Douglas Day swings back and forth between scholarship and fiction. He won the National Book Award for his biography of Malcolm Lowry, then published a novel, Journey of the Wolf, which received a special citation from the American Academy of Arts and Letters.
THE CREATIVE writing program brings in visiting authors on a regular basis -- Pat Conroy, John Ashbery, Mark Helprin, Jamaica Kincaid and Mark Strand came this year -- and there are frequent publication parties at local bookstores. Radio Station WTJU broadcasts interviews with writers and last year, on June 16, Bloomsday, it devoted 33 hours of air time to a reading of James Joyce's Ulysses.
While it may be safe to assume that faculty writers are in Charlottesville for an obvious reason -- they have jobs -- it's more difficult to say why Mary Lee Settle, Michael Ryan, Ann Beattie, Rita Mae Brown, and Steven Soderbergh have chosen to settle in Albemarle County. Recently, Beattie, author of Picturing Will among other novels and short story collections, got into Dutch when she explained to a local paper why she lives here instead of France. "If I spoke the language, I'd be in Paris. When people speak about all the wonders of Charolettesville I really don't think so, not compared to other places. I moved here for the people, and to stay on the East Coast, and to get out of New York City and be in a smaller place. But I'm rather taken aback by the number of people moving here and how fine they find it." To the question, "So what do you do for fun when you're in town?" Beattie replied, "Leave."
This incited a letter to the editor, with detailed directions to roads leading out of town. Charlottesville, the letter-writer seemed to say, love it or leave it.
Some, like Steven Soderbergh, clearly love it. He lived here as a boy and when he began wondering where to raise a family, he decided to return. "I really think it is the most beautiful part of the country. Period. It's got everything I like." At age 26, an Academy Award nominee for the original screenplay of "Sex, Lies and Videotape" (which has just been published in book form), Soderbergh is, as he says, here "for the long haul."
Mary Lee Settle, a National Book Award winning novelist, is more moderate in her commitment to the town. Like Beattie, she travels a lot. At the moment, she's finishing a book about Turkey, Turkish Reflections: A Search for a Place, and is well launched on her memoirs. "The best thing about Charlottesville," she says, "is everything is seven minutes from everything else. We all have our reasons for being here. The only thing we have in common is good prose."
After setting up a PEN South chapter in Charlottesville, Settle helped establish a literary award in which writers were judged by their peers. Because the university had let lapse the annual Faulkner Prize that used to go to the best first novel, Settle decided to name the new award the PEN/Faulkner Prize. But after three years, she transferred the prize and the PEN chapter to Washington because of what she describes as the English Department's "aggressive neutrality toward writers."
STILL, they keep coming -- literary folks as different as 86-year-old bestseller Phyllis Whitney and Alexandra Ripley, author of the forthcoming sequel to Gone With the Wind; mystery writer Douglas Hornig and novelist Kathleen Ford; Emily Couric, who's doing a book about divorce; and Elizabeth Wilson, who's writing about grief and mourning. Many people say the area is beautiful, but few argue that it's stimulating, and nobody claims to have come here to live in a community of writers. When asked about other authors, most respond, "I've never met him," or "I haven't spoken to her in years." For such a small town, it's quite stand-offish, and for all its country mouse airs, its citizens have adopted the city mouse habit of saying, "We must get together," when they mean, "Drop dead."
Faulkner had the place pegged the day he arrived. When asked why he had moved to Charlottesville, he said, "I like Virginia, and I like Virginians. Because Virginians are all snobs, and I like snobs. A snob has to spend so much time being a snob that he has little left to meddle with you."
Paris was yesterday. The notion of vibrant cafe' life, of writers finishing a few pages of prose or a line of lapidary poetry, then debating aesthetics with artists and musicians, seems as quaint as a horse-drawn carriage. Charlottesville is today, as up-to-date as an issue of Women's Wear Daily, and on its leafy, suburban lanes authors are greeted with an indifference that allows them the luxury of uninterrupted work.
Michael Mewshaw is the author of seven novels and four books of nonfiction, including a recent collection of essays, "Playing Away."