Saturday, October 22, 2011

Richmond as a Literary Capital

Virginia by Bobby McKenna

"My subject, to repeat, is Richmond as a literary capital.

Capital it was.  What other city had, during the same span of years, three such writers [James Branch Cabell, Ellen Glasgow, and Douglas Southall Freeman] living in it and writing about it?  Here you thought that you were living in an ordinary city, a place to live and die in like other cities, and all the while there was a lady living on Main Street, and a man living out in Monument Avenue, and another living our near Byrd Park and, later, out in the West End, writing books which unknown hundreds of thousands of people in other cities, who were totally unaware of most of the things that you considered most important about your life, were reading and talking about, and, as it were, making part of their lives.

You thought of Richmond as a place in which you grew up, and went to church and school and to meetings and parties, and were married, and did your shopping and earned your living, a place in no special way romantic and glamorous and exciting.  And meanwhile all three of these writers were engaged in a conspiracy to write about this city as a very different place -- a place in which amusing people were continually discovering what the very essence of human experience was, in which dukes and warriors and pawnbrokers were forever confronting the full irony of being mortal, in which renowned military chieftains in field gray uniforms were repeatedly gathering to plan heroic deeds of martial valor.

You went about your affairs and encountered ordinary people, businessmen and clubwomen and politicians and school teachers and partygoers and relatives and husbands and wives, and if anyone had asked you, you might have said that obviously these were the sort of people who made up the citizenry of Richmond, Virginia.  And all the time those three writers were depicting Richmond as a place in which fond gentlemen such as General Archibald and comically foolish old roues such as Judge Gamaliel Bland Honeywell lived, and radiant beauties such as the lovely Etarre and comical philosophers of the boudoir such as Jurgen, and chivalrous knights named Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson and A. P. Hill -- and you never met any Richmond citizens like them.  Were you missing something about Richmond?  Were there people in Richmond you had not met, people so much more witty and beautiful and foolish and attractive and selfless and heroic than any of your acquaintances, and that only those three writers ever saw?

You did not think so.  So there must have been something counterfeit, or at the very least somewhat exaggerated, about the way that these three writers looked at your fellow citizens.  And the question you might have asked, but did not, was that of why on earth they would have felt compelled to do that sort of thing?  What was wrong with the ordinary lives that these three people lived -- writers you saw at parties and meetings and heard over the radio and knew, perhaps fairly intimately as you thought -- that made them leave the parties and the meetings and the radio station and go home to their studies and write stories of such improbable people?  Was not saturation in "real life" good enough for them, as it apparently was for everyone else?

The answer that I think they would have had to make, if you asked them, the answer that any writer would secretly have to make, is No.  For whatever the various reasons may be that cause men to write books, there is one thing true of all men and women who ever seriously set pen to paper, and that is, that they feel impelled to explain, to create, to give order to their existence, to tell the truth, in words where it would be permanent and lasting.  And this is why we read their books, too.  Tell me, we say to each author when we open his book, what is life really like?  What does it mean to be human?  What is Heroism, what is Love, what is Compassion, what is Honor, what is Nobility?  For in our daily life we hear about these things, and we believe in them, yet in our daily life everything seems so chancey and compromised.  But in a good novel or story or biography everything is organized and given order, so that we can see such things more clearly, free of all the confusion of the everyday life that usually manages to impede our greater understanding.  This is what writers try to do for us.  And if they are very great writers, such as Ellen Glasgow and James Branch Cabell and Douglas Southall Freeman, they are sometimes able actually to tell us."

--  Louis D. Rubin, Jr., Richmond as a Literary Capital, an address given before Friends of the Richmond Public Library in the library at First and Franklin Streets in Richmond, Virginina, on April 10, 1962

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