As Eudora Welty, draped in a cream-colored knitted shawl almost bigger than the author, ambled onto the stage of the Folger Shakespeare Theatre, the 220 writers and readers stood up and applauded till the rafters almost fell. The Mississippi author smiled a small, shy appreciation and said, "Never happened to me before. I'm used to being last on the program because my name begins with a W."
Welty, appropriately, was the first of 16 writers at the PEN/Faulkner Gala last night to talk about "a sense of place," an hour-long literary journey to the hills and valleys and oceans and ponds of the contemporary writers' minds.
She spoke of the way that one's own place conspires with the writer. And she talked about Ireland coming back and back again to James Joyce "until he got it all down."
Another Mississippi writer, Ellen Douglas, said, "My neighborhood -- what it meant to me writing -- got dislocated (or I got dislocated) the day I saw the first pictures of Earth from space -- saw Earth as a neighborhood -- the only place we have. Nothing before had shown us how small it is, how suspended in darkness, how fragile and lit up by the sun like a soap bubble -- but floating in the void." She ended with a call "to do what fiction says it must not do: to sound the tocsin, call us all to arms against the destruction of the world."
For Paule Marshall, the place "was a four-story narrow-bodied turn-of-the-century brownstone in Brooklyn." She remembers "the nerve center" as being "the basement kitchen." When she went back years later, she could still smell her mother's lemon oil furniture polish, and hear the voices of her Caribbean mother and friends, " 'Talk yuh talk, girl,' they would exhort each other. 'In this white man world you got to take your mouth and make a gun.' I like to think that these women -- dead for many years now -- are still alive and well in my work."
"My Texas doesn't exist anymore," said Larry L. King. "But the writer who shuts out the myths and legends of a place stands the risk of making it into New Jersey."
Norman Mailer said it's difficult "to come up with a sense of place, be it as large as your birthplace or as small as a thought." But he added that it can be done with "the writer's gift that comes from on high or below."
Washington's Marita Golden said, "My people were brought here as a grand theft. I came of age in Washington and grew up everywhere else. And I returned to write about the Washington no one else has."
Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy, surveying the writers at the cocktail party before the readings and the dinner, said a group had come to the Supreme Court earlier and "we wanted to talk about literature, and they wanted to talk about law."
Talk they did. Robert Stone, chairman of PEN for eight years, said that he thinks it's "harder for writers starting out now than it was in the late 1960s when I first published."
Author Geoffrey Wolff added, "Today there are just as many readers. I thought for a while the publishing conglomerates would only publish the same four or five books they think people would read. But that hasn't happened. I thought the discount book chains would gobble up the small bookstores. But there never have been so many independent bookstores."
Footnotes to the evening: Justice Kennedy talking to Shelby Foote. The novelist and Civil War expert ("The War Against the States," he called it) said he grew his fine mid-19th-century beard "when I began to write about people who lived then." After last week's acclaimed public television miniseries, Foote says he's looking forward to getting back to writing novels. Kitty Kelley carried on an earnest conversation with Norman Mailer. Master of ceremonies Roger Mudd, with his wife, E.J., and daughter, Maria, shepherded their house guest, Eudora Welty. Mudd said as he came in to the party that Welty was lagging behind. "She's still revising her speech," he said.
Kate Lehrer, co-chairman of the event with Elizabeth Stevens, Roger Stevens and Barbara Pryor, said the money raised by the Ford Motor Co.-sponsored gala goes for its annual spring awards for fiction, readings at the Folger and efforts in the schools to encourage reading.