The power of the written word was center stage yesterday as four writers--Russell Baker, Maya Angelou, George F. Will and Richard Rodriguez--spoke of it as entertainment, as catharsis, as an educational force, and then spoke of the people who helped them find their literary voices.
The four authors addressed more than 1,000 persons at The Washington Post Book and Author Luncheon at the Sheraton Washington moderated by Post Managing Editor Howard Simons.
Baker, who writes the Observer column in The New York Times, was awarded his second Pulitzer Monday for his autobiographical book, "Growing Up." Yesterday, he spoke of his mother.
After her collapse at age 80, Baker said, "I suddenly realized this was a human being I had spent a great part of my life with . . . I knew absolutely nothing about that woman, and what was worse, I could never find out now.
"It got me thinking about my own children. One of these days, they're going to want to know who I was. All they'll remember was me sitting around telling them how good they had it. I wanted to leave a record for them."
In an elaborate tale, Baker told of how he acquired his impression of Republicans from his Uncle Charlie, "the house Republican and house intellectual," who slept all day, waking only to read "The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin: The Story of a Go-Getter."
Since then, said Baker, "I always thought of Republicans as people who gave you a lecture on the evils of not working, while they sent you out to pound doors with heavy loads over your shoulders while they lay down and read books."
Will, introduced by Simons as "a conservative with a kindly face," offered "his recipe for remaking the United States." Paraphrasing the title of his latest book, "Statecraft as Soulcraft," Will said, "Statecraft is invariably soulcraft. We make our institutions, but our institutions invariably make us."
Will also mentioned a new political creature, the "libertarian conservative," which he deemed "almost as much a contradiction in terms as a promiscuous celibate."
Rodriguez, a newcomer to public speaking, spoke slowly and movingly about the motivation behind his autobiography, "Hunger of Memory: The Education of Richard Rodriguez." The son of working-class immigrants from Mexico, he talked about his assimilation into the larger "gringo" society.
"There are some things that are so deeply personal you can only say them in a book . . . only write them for you, a stranger. I cannot say them to my mother, I cannot say them to my father," said Rodriguez, recounting his conflicting emotions of embarrassment and love for his parents.
Angelou, a poet, author and director, displayed her verbal razzle-dazzle in a honeyed, deeply theatrical voice.
"Poetry is used by teachers and educators to punish children," said Angelou, whose latest book is "Shaker, Why Don't You Sing?" She expressed concern that poetry by black Americans doesn't receive the attention it deserves. "So they don't think they like poetry. They say 'If you don't finish that assignment, you're going to have to memorize "The Raven.'
In her youth, Angelou said she was "a volunteer mute" who didn't speak for five years. "I memorized poetry and called it up in my mind to entertain myself."
Angelou said a beloved teacher helped her find her unique voice. "She told me I would never love poetry until I spoke it . . . unless I felt poetry over my own tongue, my own lips, I would never love it. I had a voice."