The Nursery of Literature
February 22, 2007
St. Louis, Missouri
Boon's Lick residents showed an eagerness for literary greatness when they included among their Fourth of July toasts in 1817: "The Territory of Missouri -- may it become the Nursery of Literature."
-- The WPA's Missouri: A Guide to the "Show Me" State
It's not so much that Missouri is the "Show Me" State as that the other 49 are, by comparison, "I'll Show You" states. There's a refreshing unpretentiousness about this place and its Big Read of Fahrenheit 451, a confident reluctance to put on the dog -- even in the putative birthplace of the hot dog. I started this paragraph desperate as usual for a lede and happy to tease out any thesis that might get me partway down the page, but the more I think about it, it may actually be true. Consider my day yesterday:
10 am. Ruddy and grinning in a blue pullover, KWMU public radio host Don Marsh welcomes me, Wash. U. English prof Richard Ruland, and his department chair, ace Big Read co-organizer David Lawton, into his studio for an hour's discussion of Fahrenheit 451 with his listeners. An hour later we've plumbed Bradbury without deifying him, and Marsh throws it back to news with practiced ease.
12 pm. Back at the Wash. U. campus, a dozen Big Read partners and I tuck into lunch and a conversation that's equal parts candid griping and heartfelt engagement with the program. Teacher Victoria Thomas speaks movingly about bringing free copies of the novel into a class under lockdown, where 33 kids have to share just 14 grab-bag anthologies that never leave the room. Apparently the students kept asking, "So we can really take these home?"
2 pm. Several students and I get to meet the dapper novelist Christopher Buckley, in town for a lecture, and still dazzled 48 hours later from a meeting in LA with his first literary hero: Ray Bradbury. He quotes Kurt Vonnegut remembering that when he used to place a story in the old Saturday Evening Post, within two days it seemed like everybody in the country had read it. Like being on 60 Minutes, Letterman and Leno all at once, Buckley says. Also says I should look at Peter DeVries for the Big Read, maybe Slouching Towards Kalamazoo or Without a Stitch in Time, and that Exley's A Fan's Notes is "gemiferous." Maybe I'll curl up with it at the airport when -- uh-oh, when I miss my flight in two hours! Cripes, gotta run, more down the Big Road...