The Big Read Blog (Archive)

T.S. Eliot was a rock star

February 13, 2007
Melbourne, Arkansas

"In a culture that now seems long ago and far, far away, T.S. Eliot was a rock star. The poet made the cover of Time magazine in 1950, and several years later 14,000 people turned out in Minnesota to listen to him talk about "The Frontiers of Criticism."
-- Michiko Kakutani, reprinted in the Arkansas Democrat Gazette

Although we didn't quite get 14,000 people in Melbourne and Ash Flat, Arkansas, yesterday, who we got was cherce. North Central Arkansas isn't as big as Minneapolis, after all, and I'm not exactly T.S. Eliot. (Though I will be visiting his native St. Louis next week). Just now I'm in midair en route to El Paso, looking back on an idyllic day and a half spent in and around Melbourne, thanks to the hospitality of Big Read sponsor Ozarka College. Several of these towns in the foothills of the Ozarks are making (or re-making) the acquaintance of Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath for the Big Read, just as the residents of Oregon's Wallowa Valley were doing a couple of weeks back when I ducked in on them for 36 hours or so.

The parallels and divergences between these two Steinbeck reads are intriguing. For Oregon's Steinbeck observance, the Fishtrap literary center plans, among other things, a Hard Luck Dinner, with ticket buyers not knowing ahead of time whether they'll get steak, hardtack, or go hungry. Meantime, in Izard County, Arkansas, $3.50 at the Big Eat on Feb. 28 buys everybody beans, cornbread and fried spuds; a '30s fashion show, for which Ozarka's tireless organizer Joan Stirling pulled her mother's old dress patterns out of retirement; a slideshow of WPA projects in North Central Arkansas; a performance from the stage adaptation of The Grapes of Wrath; public discussion with Ozarka's English faculty; and finally a reading of Recollections of the Dust Bowl and Depression Days. That's a book they're compiling of memories from local old-timers, itself reminiscent of Oregon's traveling photo show derived from student-conducted interviews with senior citizens. Each area's approach reflects its own personality: Wallowa's slightly more political, Ozarka's perhaps more nostalgic, but united across the miles by their evangelical love for Steinbeck's work.

After a couple of maybe-not-too-boring stemwinders yesterday from me with 150 or so students, faculty, and townspeople, Joan gamely drove me the couple of hours back to Little Rock, where we had thoroughly congenial drinks and dinner with Charles Portis, the great Arkansas author of, among others, the novels Norwood and True Grit. Mr. Portis prizes his privacy, so I'll confine my public account of our evening to his remark when told about the other part of my job, helping award grants to emerging and established American writers: "I don't know about giving writers money. It only encourages them."

More down the Big Road...