Two new literary awards, created to honor conservative thinkers with prizes of $15,000 each, were announced last night at Meridian House.
The awards, established by the Ingersoll Foundation and the Rockford Institute of Rockford, Ill., will be given annually in an attempt to rectify "a certain imbalance in this culture" and counter the "selective ostracism" of conservative writers, according to Leopold Tyrmand, secretary of the prize committee. Liberal domination of social and artistic values, he said last night, "deeply and mercilessly pervades modern American culture." And out "in America's heartland," he said, "we feel troubled" by such opinions "as they are decreed in New York, Stockholm and Boston. So we have decided to do something about our anxieties."
That "something" is the founding of the T.S. Eliot Award for Creative Writing and the Richard M. Weaver Award for Scholarly Letters. The latter is named for the late English professor and author of "Ideas Have Consequences"--one of many seminal works that the prize organizers feel have been deliberately ignored. A jury, still to be named, will choose each winner on the basis of a single book or a body of work available in English. This year's awards will be announced in Chicago in December.
The Ingersoll Foundation is the charitable wing of the Ingersoll Milling Machine Co. of Rockford, a city of 140,000 near the Wisconsin border. The foundation's stated policy is to underwrite projects that controvert "welfare-state" mentality, "promote the principles of self-reliance and self-discipline" and encourage "the work ethic," marital fidelity, lawfulness, parental responsibility, patriotism and "the Judeo-Christian ideals summarized in the Ten Commandments," among other goals. The Rockford Institute, an outgrowth of private Rockford College, is a conservative research center that publishes Chronicles of Culture, an intellectually provocative monthly review of the arts edited by Tyrmand; a pro-business newsletter called Persuasion At Work for corporate public-affairs officers and executives; and periodic essays called The Rockford Papers. One recent series, examining the writings of Norman Mailer, Marilyn French, William Styron, Mary Gordon, Gore Vidal, Kurt Vonnegut and E.L. Doctorow, is titled "The Monumental Literature of Dwarfs."
The president of both the foundation and the institute is John Howard, who warned last night that the prevailing cultural temperament has caused citizens to feel "a diminishing sense of personal responsibility for the well-being of the group" and an emphasis on rights instead of obligations. He is a former president of Rockford College, where he banned marijuana, outlawed coed dormitories and led a movement against federal aid to higher education, arguing that research priorities conflicted with humane priorities.
At a press conference before the announcement, he inveighed against cultural relativism, which he said has produced "two generations of cultural orphans" ignorant of Western heritage and contributed to the high rate of teen-age suicide. "The human psyche cannot withstand a vacuum," he said. "If all life styles are equal, then life has no meaning."
A similar situation prevails in literature, Tyrmand said at the press conference. Works that argue for the maintenance of traditional values "cannot aspire to get any of the major cultural awards in this country," And "a totalitarian vector" of American liberalism has suppressed the reputation of such conservative thinkers as Leo Strauss ("Liberalism Ancient and Modern") and Russell Kirk ("The Conservative Mind").
But, said Tyrmand--a Polish immigrant who regards the 18th and 19th centuries as "the apogee of Western civilization"--"the main cultural malaise, if not the disease itself, is located in fiction today." Hence "we are now seeing the intense building-up in every medium of a novel apparently Mailer's "Ancient Evenings" which is in every way a piece of trash." However, he said, "we do not adopt any antagonistic attitude. We are in the business of justice.