It was a privilege -- no, let's go all the way and call it what it really was, an honor--to be one of 600 people seated in the Flag Hall of the National Museum of American History last Tuesday night. The privilege lay not in the setting, which would be magnificent if it weren't for the tacky mural that covers the Fort McHenry Stars and Stripes, but in the occasion: A celebration of the lives and works of three great American writers of the past by three great American writers of the present.
The speakers were Walker Percy, Eudora Welty and C. Vann Woodward. At the risk of sounding like a schoolboy with a crush, I'll confess it: If only Peter Taylor had also been there, the four living American writers whose work I most treasure and respect would have been assembled in one room. But settling for three out of four was no sacrifice. When the invitation came in the mail, it took me all of three seconds to accept, even though doing so violated two of the rules I live by: I agreed to attend what promised to be (but wasn't) a stuffed-shirt Washington dinner party beforehand, and I agreed to put on a black tie for it--indeed, if you must know the truth, I bought a formal outfit especially for the evening.
The expense was not merely necessary but obligatory. Though Walker Percy was there to celebrate Herman Melville, Eudora Welty to celebrate Nathaniel Hawthorne and Vann Woodward to celebrate Francis Parkman, I was there to celebrate Walker Percy, Eudora Welty and Vann Woodward. These are people who, in an age wherein writing has become almost as much a glitter business as television or the movies, have eschewed the temptations of publicity and have stayed with the difficult, lonely task of doing serious work. In an age of trashy sensation, such effort is seldom if ever honored; but it is the only effort that genuinely matters.
These writers have reached the stage in life at which honors are, if deserved, mandatory. All three, though appearing to be in good health, are getting along in years: Percy will be 67 this week (Happy Birthday!), Welty is 73, Woodward is 72. Both Welty and Woodward have been publishing books for more than four decades; Percy, the relative newcomer in the group, brought out his first novel nearly a quarter century ago. Though each of them has won at least one of this country's major literary awards, none can be considered a legitimate candidate for the Nobel in literature, since none has gone in for sweeping, heroic visions of the sort favored by the Nobel Committee; yet I would argue that these three, along with Peter Taylor, are the most eminent American writers of their generation.
All three are, of course, Southerners, though Woodward has not been a full-time resident of the region for many years. For all of them, the South has been the principal subject of their writing. Percy's is the "new" South, a place in which kudzu cracks through the concrete and climbs the walls of the fast-food franchises. Welty's is an older South that at times becomes a mythical or fabulous (in the dictionary sense of "famed in fable") South, one where even the smallest of characters is larger than life. And Woodward's is the South not of fiction but of fact, if there can be said to be such a thing as "fact" in history, and he is the historian who led all others in exposing and abandoning the terrible, degrading illusions that earlier generations of historians had fabricated.
It was Woodward, more than anyone else, who forced historians of the South--and thus, ultimately, the South itself--to confront what he called, in the title of his finest book, "The Burden of Southern History." In book after book and article after article, he has exposed those cold truths about slavery and racial repression that, until a couple of decades ago, the white South managed through an elaborate sequence of moral and historical contortions to ignore. Every historian who now writes about the South, and it sometimes seems there are a million of them, is deeply and irrevocably in his debt; in fact, so many prominent or rising young historians are his prote'ge's that there is nothing fanciful in calling him the father of Southern history.
Percy and Welty, like the other great Southern writers, have taken on the same issues of race and history that concern Woodward, though each has done so very much in his own way. Percy is in the deepest sense of the word a comic writer, and his method has been to make fun of the pretensions, evasions and distortions by which white Southerners both "old" and "new" have attempted to rewrite their history and justify their moral shortcomings. Welty, by contrast, has written some of her most passionate stories--some of which can even be said to be anguished--about the conditions of black life in the South (see, for example, "Powerhouse"); it is revealing that the only time she violated her self-imposed rule against writing "political" fiction was in the 1960s, when the torment of Mississippi resulted in two stories about the civil-rights movement.
But there is little that I can say about the moral authority of these writers or the brilliance of their prose or the breadth of their accomplishment that has not already been said by others. Rather, what I should like to mention is the thought that crossed my mind as, one by one, these three writers came to the podium in the Flag Hall. Not merely have these people rejected the lure of celebrity, I realized, but they have chosen as well to stay at a safe remove from the poisonously hermetic world of the literary set. Walker Percy lives in the small Louisiana delta town of Covington; Welty lives, as she has all her life, in Jackson, the capital of Mississippi; Woodward lives outside New Haven in the unpretentious suburb of Hamden.
From time to time all three of them come to New York, or Washington, or other places where writers of lesser talents and achievements can be found in abundance. But such visits are relatively rare, because the business of these writers is to write, not to be seen at Elaine's or to be interviewed by Gene Shalit. Such devotion to the true work of the artist is so rare in this country as to be the cause for praise, gratitude and celebration when it appears. That is why I was there last Tuesday, and I am sure that is why many others were as well.