For Washington, it was a rare literary evening.
First there was Walker Percy--novelist, chronicler of modern despair, the author who got us to wondering, "Why does man feel so sad in the 20th century?"--lecturing on Melville, who, because he spent his last 20 years as an unappreciated customs inspector in New York, had reason to feel sad in the 19th.
"What did it feel like to write 'Moby Dick'?" said Percy in his lecture. The answer: Melville felt "the freedom and happiness of the artist," lucking out, hitting the "mother lode" on a book so perfectly realized that "everything works."
Then historian C. Vann Woodward, author of "The Strange Career of Jim Crow" and "The Burden of Southern History," spoke on historian Francis Parkman. Finally, novelist and short story writer Eudora Welty took on Hawthorne.
Three southerners on three northerners; three modern writers on three of the last century. The invitation-only audience of 600, who in tuxedos and fancy dresses filled the Flag Hall of the National Museum of American History on the Mall, seemed to love it.
There was even a guy from The New Yorker scrambling around afterward to see if he could get verbatim transcripts. (Not instantly.)
The crowd was low on Washington bigwigs, high on what museum director Roger Kennedy called "a whole bunch of kids here from classes around the area whose teachers wrote for invitations . We did turn away a whole bunch of folks whose lives wouldn't be touched as much."
"I sent a thesis to you a year ago," said Montgomery College instructor Brian McLaren to Percy at a reception after the trio of 15-minute lectures, the latest in a series sponsored by Doubleday and Co. Inc. Percy chatted amiably with McLaren, who said his thesis identified the writer as a "religious writer incognito."
"He was very kind and generous in his correspondence," McLaren said.
Percy's new book, "Lost in the Cosmos: The Last Self-Help Book," is already in some bookstores. He said he didn't know what he would do next: "I'm gonna make up a story."
A woman from the Voice of America came up and began praising Percy. It turned out he listened to her programs in the wee hours because "I don't sleep." Asked why he didn't sleep, he said he didn't know.
A band played tunes like "Old Black Joe" and "Clementine" during the reception.
In another corner, Welty was receiving praise from a woman who said, "I just want to tell you how many hours of pleasure your writing has given me."
Welty said it was hard to say much about Hawthorne in 15 minutes. "I almost couldn't get started. You can't do it in 15 minutes. That's the reason I couldn't get down to specifics."
Woodward, in his lecture, quoted Parkman, author of a series of books called "England and France in North America," as saying he was "haunted with wilderness images day and night." Parkman's work, and that of Melville and Hawthorne, is being reprinted in crisp new volumes in the nonprofit Library of America series.
"I'm a Walker Percy groupie," said National Endowment for the Humanities Chairman William J. Bennett. "We got his autograph."
Bennett's wife, Elayne, said she sat next to Percy at a dinner before the lectures and Percy had "talked about his favorite books as a child--'Tom Swift,' 'Huckleberry Finn.' He thought Tom Sawyer was a phony--the great manipulator. He thought Huck was the true guy."